The industrial food system that feeds most of America has led to so many problems (soil depletion, pollution, drug-resistant pathogens, malnutrition, diabetes, animal cruelty, and on, and on) that organic farmers like Joel Salatin have made the philosophical, ethical choice to take two steps back and look at where we went wrong. And where we went wrong, basically, is in thinking that man is smarter than nature; that chemicals and genetic manipulation are the panacea to all our problems. It’s a false, dangerous, self-destructive arrogance that must be put to an end.
In this interview from the Portland Mercury, Joel Salatin explains his bedrock philosophy, and why looking at nature and the past will help pave the way for safer and healthier food production.
How did you come up with these farming practices? Was it just trial and error?
There’s always trial and error. But there were several bedrock principles that drove the ideas. As soon as you have a bedrock value then you have to figure out how to make it work. We didn’t want to use chemicals. If we’re not going to use chemicals then how are you going to fertilize? How are you going to deal with bugs? How do you deal with thistles and weeds? All of those questions force you into creativity mode rather than dropping back and punting with chemicals. Another foundation was that we were only going to use soil building principles and not soil depleting principles. We wanted to see more earthworms and deeper soil and not thinner soil and fewer earth worms. So you look at that and ask, “How do you do that?” How does nature do that? You start to realize that nature is based on perennials not annuals, and so very early on there was this grass based idea; this perennial grass base, where we would not be a farm that practiced tillage, but rather a farm that ran primarily on perennial forages. So we didn’t have a plow, or a disk, or any of those kinds of typical farming implements.
When I speak to folks I was tell them, “Get your philosophy squared away because your philosophy will drive your innovation and not the other way around.” You don’t start with a namby-pamby philosophy and then innovate and stumble into a wonderful philosophy.
Was all of this apparent form the outset?
You have to understand that as poor as the fertility was on the farm, it’s just like anything in healing. If you skin your finger, for example, the first couple days it doesn’t look like there’s anything going on, then there’s a biological speed-up in healing. The first part is pretty slow going. And that’s the way it was for us.
We didn’t see much progress for the first couple of years—for several years in fact. But we kept chopping thistles. We kept composting. We kept moving the cows around, and you know, really huge differences started happening about year 12 to 15. Once we started moving the cows everyday, and everything became refined—tweaked, more tightly controlled, tighter biomimicry—then that leverage created a synergistic explosion of healing. In just ten years we went from a farm that could scarcely support 20 cows to one that supported 100 cows with ease
Tell me more about biomimicry.
One of our bedrock values is that we’re trying to use nature as a template in a commercial domestic production model. Look, for example, at herbivores. They don’t eat fermented forage, like silage, they don’t eat grain, and they certainly don’t eat chicken manure, dead chickens or dead cows [all common food in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations].
So, if we’re going to raise herbivores, we’re going to not feed those kinds of things to them. We’re also going to look at herds of herbivores in nature and determine how they live, what they eat, and what they do.
What we noticed is they don’t spread out over a pasture; they’re mobbed up for predator protection. They move every day to a new spot, and new grass, and away from yesterdays toilet area. They mow. They’re not eating grain like in a feed lot. So when you start taking those principles, like a pattern or a template, and start laying them down on domestic production then that pushes us. How can we get them in a mob? We use electric fencing and we move them everyday to a new spot. All that this is is simply trying to duplicate what buffalo, wolves, fire, and Native Americans were doing for a millennia before Europeans came. That’s all it is. That model, that technique, is what built the fertile prairies that we’re still exploiting in the grain basket of America.
Why do you think this idea of biomimicry is not more widely espoused?
Hubris. I think it’s just our human arrogance and pride that we think we can outfox nature. We’ve gotta understand that in our western culture we are a product of fragmentation, compartmentalization, systemization, disconnectedness, and individualism. All of that essentially says there’s no moral or ethical parameter on what I can innovate. So we’ve innovated things that we cannot physically, spiritually, or emotionally metabolize. We’ve innovated chemicals that make three legged salamanders and unfertile frogs.
Some of us in our culture realize it’s probably not a good future for our children where the salamanders have three legs and the frogs are sterile. To most in our culture, they don’t realize it, or they don’t care because it doesn’t show up on a balance sheet, business plan, or tax statement. So the most important thing, intuitively, in our hearts, never makes an empirical impression in our business plans and management. It’s the ultimate segregation.
The obvious extension of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations is a new generation of antibiotics that are hopefully one step ahead of the pathogens genetic progression. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to bet that human cleverness will be able to do that indefinitely. Yet, that’s exactly what our culture is betting on: irradiation, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and all sorts of cleverness to stay one step ahead of the adaption of pathogens. I think more and more Americans are realizing that’s not a winnable bet.