The subversive farmer who is changing the world

While I’ll be the first to admit that I’m given to hyperbole at times, there’s a farmer out there in America who most people have probably never heard of, but who is single-handedly changing the world. His name is Joel Salatin – a self-described Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, lunatic farmer from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

If you haven’t heard of Salatin before, I implore you to look this guy up whether you give a squawk about farming or not. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

What could possibly be so special about a nutty farmer from Virginia? Salatin considers farming a ministry of healing the land, and is devoted to the vocation with a degree of evangelical zeal that knocks your socks off.

His unconventional and even subversive views on farming – views that he puts into practice every day at Polyface Farms – are completely upending our modern understanding of food production.  How’s that for hyperbole?

Salatin’s farming innovations start from a few simple insights that prove you don’t have to sacrifice the environment, the economy or human health to feed the world.

First, Salatin believes that food production requires primarily a biological approach, not a mechanical approach. That seems self-evident right? But our current industrial monoculture farming and industrial warehousing of protein (farm animals) is anything but biological. As Salatin explains, no civilization can be healthier than the life energy of the food it eats. If the food goes in lifeless – full of preservatives, antibiotics and chemicals we can’t pronounce – it has nothing left to give to create new flesh and bones.

Salatin’s innovative techniques focus on biomimicry, harnessing natural relationships between grass, herbivores, birds and insects to simulate “nature’s template”.  What this means in practice is that Salatin’s focus is on periodic disturbance of grasslands through steady movement of livestock to radically increase soil fertility, a process that mimics the natural grazing habits of herbivores in the wild (think bison on the American plains).

This relationship is harnessed by moving his cows every day into new sections of pasture (paddocks) and following that movement with mobile chicken pens. The cow manure fertilizes the pasture and the chickens follow pecking through the insect-rich manure, spreading out the manure even more and improving fertilization of the pasture.

The proof as they say is in the pudding. When his father purchased the farm years ago, it was largely barren rock and degraded soil thanks to years of monoculture farming. Today, he has created rich new topsoil that now completely covers the barren rocks.

And while the warehousing of cows today in feedlots requires intensive use of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals to keep cows healthy (and ironically has created pathogens that have become more and more dangerous to humans), Salatin’s cows are given no hormones, nutritional supplements or antibiotics and remain far healthier, going through at least 10 lactation cycles on average.

Second, Salatin understands that biomass is the key to yield. As Salatin explains, “it’s not until you come to the epiphany that soil is fundamentally a biological community, not a mechanical blob will you understand anything about soil fertility”. For Salatin, soil is “a living, breathing, vibrant community so populous that in one double handful of healthy soil more individual life exists than there are people on the face of the earth.”

One of the greatest tragedies of our modern understanding of food according to Salatin is that never before in human history has food waste been dumped in anaerobic landfills where it lies in state for centuries and is not allowed to naturally decompose through composting to add fertility back to the soil. All of the pesticides and industrial fertilizers we use today in our monoculture farming could be shelved permanently with a commitment to quit landfilling the incredibly rich biomass of decaying food waste and instead let it do its job – replenish topsoil through the natural process of decomposition.

Third, Salatin says that farming is about thinking smaller and more local. Today’s massive monoculture food system is only possible because of cheap energy. Salatin is a strong believer that the era of peak oil is here and that our days of cheap energy are numbered. Consequently, so too are the days when we will be able to cost-efficiently get away with shipping produce thousands of miles from say its production in California to our tables in New York.

The solution? To go forward, we have to go backward. Back to the smaller local farms, family vegetable gardens, and locally grown food that have sustained human populations since the beginning of our time on earth.

Ideas such as his are highly subversive to industrial food conglomerates like Monsanto and Cargill who dismissively claim that such thinking is naïve – that we will never be able to feed the world’s population by thinking locally. But Salatin demonstrates otherwise.

Specifically, he tells the story of an urban farm in St. Louis – a twelfth of an acre farmed by several twenty-somethings dedicated to intensive biomass recycling and organic farming. The farm sits on reclaimed land occupied by a former rundown condominium that had become a haven for crack addicts.

The city demolished the condominium and the young urban farmers moved in. The soil was so degraded that when the urban farmers dug a posthole to hold a trellis, the hole went through garbage — discarded electrical wires, old blue jeans and teacups.  Today, this tiny farm produces all of the produce to feed twenty people year-round.

Yes, there’s lots of grim news in the world today. But innovators like Salatin are opening eyes and changing the world in monumentally significant ways. If you want a reason to be wildly optimistic, imagine a future of local abundance where individual citizens and local farms once again produce the food we eat. Salatin will convince you that such a scenario is possible… And it’s coming sooner than we think.


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8 Responses to "The subversive farmer who is changing the world"

  1. David Clayton says:

    Love Salatin! He’s got me all fired up about mobile infrastructure and chicken tractors. Good work Coley!

    “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
    -Aldo Leopold-

  2. Patrick says:

    I am proud to say we were able to get him to come and talk at the first Baltimore TEDx MidAtlantic talks. Dude is epic nice and cool to talk to.

    Here is a video of his talk.

  3. Jerry Cunningham says:

    I agree that Mr. Salatin is due much gratitude from family farmers.

    But before we annoint him Saint Joel – hear some more input.
    I own and operate a ninety acre organic farm in Texas.
    I am USDA Certified – and I do not intend to abandon this label to BigAg.

    Mr. Salatin claims of be “beyond organic.”
    He stands outside those of us who have circled the wagons against ChemAg.
    He values his “Independence” as an Ayn Rand Libertarian.

    He has a brilliant, innovative mind,
    kudos to him for drawing attention to multi-species family farms.
    There are thousands of us quiet, capable, farmers,
    who are willing to lower our selves to jumping through the “Regulators”
    said Regulators are shills for BigAg – ChemAg – SeedAg – Pharma-Ag.

    I am not, we are not going to hand them back the most powerful marketing tool
    that any of us normal, regular, unsung farmers has at out disposal – USDA CERTIFIED!

    I agree that the USDA, FDA, CDC all suck. But they still belong to me!
    I am a Jeffersonian Democrat, that is if you need a label –
    You might even be able to call me a populist or a progressive –
    call me a socialist and I will call you ignorant and or hyper-opinionated.

    And so, I personally and in concert with my fellow family farmer brothers and sisters, invite Saint Joel to shock the nation – and become USDA Certified.

    No change in farming methods – keep doing the same thing,
    just swallow a little bit of ego – and for once consider the commenweal.


    • RedRidingHood says:

      “…the USDA, FDA, CDC all suck. But they still belong to me!”
      I concur with the first part, but I must respectfully disagree with the second part as all of these agencies are infiltrated and run by henchmen of corporations whose only purpose is to turn a profit no matter how many lives they endanger. The only way to change our sick profit-driven system is to refuse to play the game; think and act outside the box. The fact you believe these labels “belong” to you or that you feel you need these labels only reflects the degree to which you are enslaved by the system. Who needs their meaningless labels? Once more and more people realize these labels are corrupted and meaningless, having such a label will become a liability.

      • Jerry Cunningham says:

        So you would just hand them over to the greedy corporatists? All parts of the government belong to We The People – they have just been stolen from us by greedy corporations and bought and paid for Congressmen and Supreme Court judges.

        Once upon a time – I am seventy-five years of age – these labels stood for something, and merited my trust.

        Now, I agree with you in part, they merit min and your derision.

        Let’s not abandon the USDA, FDA, CDC, and etc.let’s purge the greedy corporatists from their ranks.

        Corporations are people too?…my ass! Money has first ammendment rights? …my ass?

        Sir, we agree here – I am just not willing to give up a part of what I still hold to is My Government.

  4. molly cruz says:

    ref: “The Malinche Code” for a cheerful take on things. I tried to write about it here once but was cut off. We belong here , we’re doing the right thing, and will redeem ourselves.

  5. Courtney says:

    Love Joel Salatin! Great article and subject, Coley.

  6. L. Avery says:

      I am a descendent of farmers  We have never left the land although now it is necessary to have a job to support our farming habit. The trend that I have been watching all my life is the forced exodus of the population from the countryside into the cities. My own father was forced out of the dairy business by government regulations. Many others were forced off the land by big agribusiness tactics. My land is mostly used at this point to produce organic food for my extended family. Information from people like Salatin is inspiring and helpful to people like me. I too would like to see more locally grown organic food. it would not only be more healthy, it would eliminate the need for long distance shipping.

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