The not-quite-artisanal chicken

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan summarizes a column by Allan Nation in Stockman Grass Farmer on the subject of “artisanal economics” and discusses its relevance to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm.  Pollan writes,

“The biggest problem with alternative agriculture today,” Nation writes, “is that it seeks to incorporate bits and pieces of the industrial model and bits and pieces of the artisanal model. This will not work….In the middle of the road, you get the worst of both worlds.”

Nation’s column had helped Joel understand why his broiler business was more profitable than his beef or pork business. Since he could process the chickens himself, the product was artisanal from start to finish; his beef and pork, on the other hand, had to pass through an industrial processing plant, adding to his costs and shrinking his margins. (250)

A reader might be inclined to contrast Salatin’s entirely artisanal product with the chicken that Pollan bought at Whole Foods Market. Not only was that bird industrially raised and slaughtered, but the bird was a product of industrial breeding:

Rosie the organic chicken’s life is little different from that of her kosher and Asian cousins, all of whom are conventional Cornish Cross broilers processed according to state-of-the-art industrial practice….The Cornish Cross represents the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding. It is the most efficient converter of corn into breast meat ever designed, though this efficiency comes at a high physiological price: The birds grow so rapidly (reaching oven-roaster proportions in seven weeks) that their poor legs cannot keep pace, and frequently fail. (171)

There’s at least one thing wrong with drawing this contrast, though. As Salatin writes on page 34 of his book, Pastured Poultry Profit$, Polyface Farm’s broilers are the same Cornish Cross chickens which, in the context of Petaluma Poultry, were “the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding.” Salatin may be correct that the processing regulations cut into his beef and pork profit margins, but the idea that Salatin’s chickens are a purely artisanal product is nontheless something of a fantasy.


  1. […] the chickens, Pollan buys into Salatin’s argument that they are a purely artisanal product. He doesn’t mention that they are the same Cornish Cross hens that in the context of his Whole Foods meal represented […]

  2. David said

    The species may be the same but the conditions under which they are raised are entirely diferent. Their growth rates are almost certainly slower and their physiological development more balanced than a factory farmed bird. That is no fantasy.

    • Adam Merberg said

      The main point here is that insofar as Pollan is right about the breeding of the Cornish Cross in the industrial context, the same comments apply to Salatin’s chickens. If Salatin’s chickens are developing at a more balanced rate, then it isn’t fair of Pollan to attribute the woes of the Cornish Cross to breeding effects.

      In any case, Salatin’s book mentions that Polyface raises their broilers to 8 weeks, which seems not much longer than the seven weeks Pollan mentions.

    • Gary said

      This breed’s fast growth and top-heaviness is primarily the result of intensive breeding, not environment. Even on ideal conditions at our sanctuary, these chickens have problems caused by the way they’re bred. (The egg-laying hens have their own set of problems from being bred to lay far more eggs than their bodies are designed for.)

  3. treywedge said

    I agree, the life cycle isn’t much longer, and the breed is bred for market. If it were artisanal from start to finish it would be a heritage breed and a longer life cycle. Pesky economics cropping up when it’s time to pay the mortgage.

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