Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Joel Salatin

Unconventional farmer Joel Salatin arrived on Cal Poly’s campus to liberate students and local farmers. ”I’m your Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-Capitalist-Lunatic farmer,” he declared. This picture of me and Joel was taken at his Polyface Farm in 2008, when I led a group from the Society of Environmental Journalists on a tour.

The Spanos Theater was nearly full of students and locals, and some from outside San Luis Obispo County who came to hear his organic, ecology-restoration message. A third generation Virginia farmer, he turned his intelligence and knowledge to finding new solutions to problems conventional commercial agriculture had caused and couldn’t solve. In the process of increasing production while reducing fuel use and animal disease, he restored the soil on Polyface Farm and became a leader in the growing local agriculture movement. He wrote about his experiences in a series of books, most recently The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer and Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.

His lunacy is that of being a gadfly to the industrial food system. He rejects raising beef in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and confining chickens to battery cages or broiler houses. He and his farm were featured in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the documentary Food, Inc.

“On our farm, we think animals should do the work, even though that runs counter to the machismo of pig iron and diesel fuel,” he said. “If you come home from work and say, ‘Today I made the animals happy,’ you’re a sissy.

At Polyface, cattle are his ‘biomass accumulation restart button,’ grazing the pastures to invigorate the grasses. They move daily to the next ‘salad bar.’ Chickens, either egg layers or broilers, are moved onto the pastures after the cattle, to forage for bugs, worms and seeds, reducing infestations and weeds. Adding corn to the compost entices the pigs to ‘pigerate’ it, turning it over to add air needed for the biological systems to convert organic material into soil.

“Pigs wear a sign on their foreheads: Will Work for Corn,” he said.

He rejects the argument that sustainable farming can’t feed the world. “We grow circles around industrial farmers,” he said.

He encouraged the audience to take individual action to reform the industrial food system. Around 80 percent of the greenwaste in this country goes into landfills. Feeding it to chickens would reduce that and provide eggs in the bargain. Producing eggs near the kitchen would reduce the need for the egg industry. One city in Belgium offers its residents free chickens, to reduce landfill garbage.

“Withdraw funding from Monsanto by discovering your kitchen,” he said.

Cooking unprocessed food at home is the most subversive act an individual can do. Processed food ingredients such as potatoes coast less than processed versions, such as instant mashed potatoes. Start a cooking class. Talk to old people in retirement communities and nursing homes about the good food they remember.

“This movement is a tsunami,” he said. “Monsanto doesn’t know they are dead and gone.

Joel's humorous approach is welcome, but I differ with him on poultry issues. For meat birds, he raises 30,000 Freedom Ranger chickens, a commercial hybrid, rather than a traditional breed. He chooses them because they are faster growing than traditional breeds. They reach market size in 12 weeks, rather than the 6-7 weeks for Cornish/Rocks. Troy Griepentrog, when he was working at Mother Earth News, wrote about his experiences raising Freedom Rangers. He found their rapid growth more like Cornish/Rock crosses than any traditional breed, not surprising since their genetic stock comes from Hubbard, an industrial poultry company. Two of the birds grew so fast that they were not able to walk, one by the age of eight weeks. That bird was slaughtered at that time.

However, I'd like to see him take that next step and raise a traditional breed that would be truly sustainable, in the sense of also being able to reproduce its own flock. He understands this, as illustrated by the example he gave of his son's rabbit line breeding project. That took five years to reach success, but now the rabbits are healthy and breed true.

Salatin was brought to Empower Poly’s Earth Week events by the Real Food Collaborative, a student organization. “If a responsible adult had been involved, it never would have happened,” said adviser Neal MacDougall. Students circulated among the audience collecting donations. No university money supported the event.

“We want to start the conversation about a sustainable food system,” said Tessa Salzman, credited with organizing the event.

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