September 21, 2009 — Joel Salatin and his Polyface Farm, 550 acres of rolling hills less than 60 miles west of Charlottesville, have become icons of local food, alternative agricultural practices and sustainability, thanks in part to their prominent role in Michael Pollan's 2006 best-seller, "The Omnivore's Dilemma."
On Thursday afternoon, Salatin spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in the University of Virginia's Clark Hall about the myriad problems with conventional American agriculture, and how farming differently could cure a host of current social and environmental problems – while also making more money for small farmers.
Recently featured in the films "Fresh" and "Food, Inc.," and honored last week with a $100,000 Heinz Award for creating environmentally friendly farming techniques, Salatin farms by harnessing relationships between grass, herbivores, birds and insects, and adapting those long-evolved synergies, which he calls "nature's template," to a family farm.
In nature, he said, soil fertility is built up by a relationship of herbivores, perennials (grasses) and periodic disturbance. Think of wildebeest roaming the Serengeti in Africa, or bison on the American plains 1,000 years ago. Wildebeests and bison mob together in herds for protection from predation, always on the move and grazing as they go.
Grasses, by their nature, always maintain a balance of biomass above and below the soil, so when the grass is cut down by grazing, the grass responds by sloughing off an equivalent amount of its root structure, injecting that biomass into the soil, which both builds fertility and sequesters carbon in the soil. The process, he explained, is called the "grass pulse."
A herd of wildebeests or bison produces fertilizing manure, while the steady movement of the herd keeps it separated from the pathogens, parasites and insect larva in the manure. The insects growing in the manure and generally following the herd attract birds to feed on them. (Think of images of a pencil-legged bird balanced gracefully on the horn of a rhinoceros, or standing on the back of a water buffalo.)
Salatin harnesses these relationships between grass, herbivores, birds and insects by moving his cows daily into new sections of pasture, and following that movement with mobile chicken pens. The chickens naturally peck through the insect-rich manure, better spreading out the manure and improving its fertilization of the field.
In contrast, about 40 years ago the USDA (disparagingly pronounced "U-S-duh" by Salatin) began promoting feeding cows corn, grain and agricultural waste products that include chicken manure and the ground-up waste from slaughterhouses (including remains of cows). His farm didn't do that, Salatin said, because it violates nature's pattern of what cows eat.
The crowded and unhealthy conditions of factory farms cause such stress on cows that their immune systems must be propped up by antibiotics, vitamins and nutritional supplements. But the cows still collapse after just a couple of lactation cycles, often living less than five years, he noted, as the breeding of dairy cows exclusively for higher milk production has created cows that rob calcium from their own skeletons in order to produce more milk.
The intensive agricultural use of antibiotics has spurred pathogens to become more virulent and dangerous to humans (mad cow disease, for instance), he noted, giving America a "real pathogen problem," he said.
In contrast, Salatin's cows don't have such skewed genetics, and are not given hormones, antibiotics or nutritional supplements. They remain healthy, going through at least 10 lactation cycles, on average.
In his talk, sponsored by U.Va.'s Department of Environmental Sciences and Environmental Thought and Practice Program, Salatin took issue with those who portray cows as a contributor to global warming because of the methane they produce. The same amount of methane will be produced, no matter whether a given amount of herbage is mowed and decomposes on the ground, or rots in a swamp, or is digested by a cow, he said. While cows have led to a lot of ecological destruction, such as overgrazing land, "Don't blame the cow; blame the management of the cow," he said.
The cow can be a most efficacious healing instrument for America's farms. Thanks to his careful fostering of the "grass pulse," Salatin's Polyface Farm fields have increased their organic matter from 1.5 percent to 8 percent of soil content over the past 50 years, sequestering carbon in the process.
If every farm with cows in America adopted Polyface's practices of "mob-stalking, herbivorous, solar-conversion, lignified, carbon-sequestration fertilization," in less than 10 years, they could sequester away all the carbon released since the beginning of the Industrial Age, he said.
So why doesn't America do this? With the vim and defiance of a fire-and-brimstone country preacher, Salatin explained that conventional agriculture will be slow to change because it has become so emotionally and economically invested in capital-intensive (and petroleum-intensive) machines and infrastructure, and "monuments to man's stupidity" like towering grain silos ("bankruptcy tubes," he sneered) and mile-long Tyson chicken houses.
Salatin's own farm nets $150,000 per year, and his methods don't require a tradeoff of either doing better for the environment or better for the pocketbook, he said. In fact, his methods offer more viability for family farms and community-scale agriculture.
On top of that, Polyface practices make American farms and food more attractive, aesthetically and aromatically, from the field to the plate, drawing people to get to know their food, an appropriate connection to one's "dinner dance partner."