Last week, I attended an event in which sustainable farmer Joel Salatin gave two talks about farming, each followed by a Q and A. He was introduced by author, Michael Pollan, who also moderated the discussion period. Joel describes himself as a Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer. Somehow, as a graduate student at Berkeley, I haven’t run into too many people who would fall into that category. So I was especially intrigued to hear what Joel had to say.
“Holy Cows & Hog Heaven”
Those of you who have read The Omnivore’s Dilemma know Joel Salatin as the hero of the story. His Virginia farm, Polyface Farms, is the archetypal biodynamic integrated farm. It is the polar opposite of an industrial factory farm. The animals are well-treated not just because they are living creatures worthy of respect but also (and perhaps more so) because they make the farm work. The cows, pigs, chickens, etc. all perform valuable functions that allow the farm to become a closed loop. The inputs required in one part of the farm are actually outputs from another. The animals’ natural behaviors are utilized for farm functions, such as rooting pigs aerating compost to make fertilizer (hence the name, pigaerators) or hungry cows mowing tall grasses to allow for new growth. In contrast, an industrial cattle farm has to truck in feed from elsewhere and somehow dispose of animal waste, which is too contaminated to be sold as fertilizer. Because these CAFOs don’t actually grow anything, they can’t generate their own feed and couldn’t use the fertilizer even if it weren’t toxic. On an industrial pig operation, the natural behaviors of the pigs are seen as bad habits that have to modified by, say, chopping off their tails.
Michael Pollan introduced Joel by telling his tale of their meeting and about the time he spent working at Polyface Farm. Pollan was initially surprised to learn that Salatin considers himself a grass farmer despite raising a variety of animals. Grass, it turns out, is the keystone species that allows the farm to run. Because the grass is fed by the sun, as Pollan pointed out, the grass-fed, biodynamic system really is a free lunch. In an especially insightful moment, Pollan closed by saying, “People always say, ‘oh that Joel Salatin, The Omnivore’s Dilemma really made him’. But actually, Joel Salatin made The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
Pollan is right, of course. Polyface farm was the spark of hope at the end of a sad, sad story. And so, with that feeling of hope suddenly buzzing around the room, Joel began.
“The Shear Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer”
If you were to look up “colorful” in the dictionary, as it pertains to personality, there would likely be a picture of Joel Salatin. Despite his suit and tie, once he launched into his first talk – a narrated slide show of Polyface Farm – the audience couldn’t stop laughing. His boisterousness and hilarious analogies made a lecture about farming anything but dry. When talking about his chickens, he showed a picture of them happily waddling around outside pecking at grubs. He also described his homemade mildly electrified portable pens that allow the chickens to move around outside while also being protected. Many times, he pointed out innovations that have allowed the farm to become more productive on small tracts of land without diminishing the welfare of the animals. From Joel’s perspective, farming in America suffers not from a lack of talent or ability but from “a constipation of imagination”.
In addition to his innovations, Salatin also described some of the trials and tribulations of his style of farming. At one point, he showed pictures of baby turkeys, called poults, that he raises on the farm. Apparently, from birth, poults devote their energy to coming up with ever more creative ways of getting themselves killed. Through trial and error, Joel learned that you have to mix poults and chicks, in a 5 chick to 1 poult ratio, in order for there to be enough chicks to police the poults. To show them what is water and what is sawdust, and to dissuade the poults from trying to eat bugs on the other side of the electrified fence. Apparently, turkeys are not born with much common sense.
There is no way I could really do this part of the event justice. Without the slides and Joel’s colorful commentary, you just won’t get the full experience. However, on the Polyface Farm website, there are several videos of Joel’s son, Daniel, describing the farm’s practices. Polyface is a third generation farm, and the whole family is involved. In fact, Joel says it’s a goal of his farming methodology to make farms a safe and enjoyable place for children. Joel Salatin has written many books on sustainable farming, available on the Polyface website. In fact, the headings in this post are all titles of Joel's books.
You can also find many videos on YouTube (search for Joel Salatin or Polyface Farms) including this TEDx talk from a couple of years ago. Joel is a little less polished in this video, but you get a sense of his personality, commitment, and ultimate motivation.
“Everything I Want to Do is Illegal”
After the first talk, Michael Pollan moderated a Q and A. The first question was, given that this method of farming is better for all involved, why aren’t there thousands of ecology-based farms. Salatin explained that his type of farming requires a lot of knowledge that, while teachable, is non-trivial to learn. We also need to make sustainable farming more economically viable – thereby making it easier to survive without incorporating industrial practices – by not subsidizing the competition. He pointed out that farming will have to change at some point, because the resources on which it relies are becoming quickly depleted. For example, he stated that the cost of diesel fuel could rise to $8 per gallon, and it would only affect his expenditures by 5%. In contrast, industrial farms that rely on fuel to power the mechanical devices required to maintain such expansive farms, use petroleum-based fertilizer and pesticide, and transport farm inputs and outputs are very strongly affected by changes in fuel price. Lastly, a lot of government regulations were written with large farms in mind. That means a lot of the things Joel Salatin does, or would like to do, are not strictly legal. In fact, Joel wrote a book on the subject entitled, “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal”, describing his difficulties maintaining a sustainable farm that is compliant with the law. Laws are evolving, but we all need to be aware and involved with the legislative process to protect farms like Polyface.
Additional questions focused on the ability of individuals to farm and the ability of sustainable farming to feed a growing population. According to Joel, a farm that includes cows and pigs would require tens of acres to maintain, but with only small animals like chickens and rabbits, virtually any amount of space could work. His innovations, which utilize vertical space, make these microfarms feasible. As for feeding the world, Salatin made the common argument of the sustainable food movement: hunger is not a production problem, but rather, a distribution problem. At many food lectures and discussions, I’ve heard the statistic that we actually produce enough calories to feed the entire world. And yet, we have almost a billion people going hungry. Hunger is a problem even in the developed world including in the Unites States. It turns out that people don’t starve to death because there isn’t enough food in the world; they die because they are too poor to buy food or cannot otherwise gain access to healthy food.
Food grown in the US through Green Revolution technologies (the method of chemical-intensive, industrial-scale farming), which creates vast quantities of calories in the form of corn, soy, and other grains, is mainly used as animal feed in CAFOs and for biodiesel fuel. The rest, being industrial grade, is not directly edible by people and is instead processed into food additives such as corn syrup and soy lecithin. The documentaries King Corn and Food Inc., which features Joel and Polyface Farm, go into the details of the industrial food system and how we can have a society with a surplus of cheap calories, hunger and malnutrition, and an obesity epidemic all at once.
Joel pointed out that, of the food that can be eaten directly – fruits and vegetables, for example - 50% of food spoils instead of being eaten. Within poor countries and communities, this is usually caused by a lack of infrastructure or stability in the distribution process. Rules we have made about consistency and safety also lead to a lot of food being thrown out within wealthy communities.
Joel also stressed that we need more people to become interested in farming as a hobby or a profession; we need to make this work a noble and respected effort again. If all the households in the US raised only enough backyard chickens to eat their own food scraps, the chickens would produce enough eggs to shut down the commercial egg industry. And think how much food wouldn’t end up petrified in landfills! In 1956, he stated, 50% of produce consumed in America came from backyard gardens. Whereas presently, there are twice as many people serving jail time as there are farming and 35 million acres of grassy lawns rather than food-generating farms and gardens. We could feed a lot more people if we prioritized growing edible food for direct human consumption, better utilized our land for food growth, and promoted gardening and farming as useful and important ventures for all people.
“You Can Farm”
Listening to Joel’s philosophy and experiences made me want to go out and start a farm. In reality, it’s not something everyone can do on the scale of Polyface Farm. And it’s a good thing that we have doctors and scientists and people working hard to innovate and create in areas other than farming. However, I do think we ought to have more respect for the people who feed us. Just like teachers, these are people who rarely get recognized, but without whom, our society would cease to function. In addition, we can all do a little, and together, make a huge change. Anyone with a bit of dirt can make something grow up out of it. And every little sprout is a sign of change, respect, and revolution.
In part 2, I recount Joel’s second talk: how faith has influences and guides his farming practice.