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.