Joel Salatin: Life Lessons from a Farmer
by Bruce Boyers
Joel Salatin—farmer, author, featured speaker, and the subject of several documentaries—has spent his life learning from nature how a food system is supposed to function, and putting it into practice at his Polyface Farm. Then, raising his eyes up from his tractor, he has wondered how average citizens, having no connection to the sources of their food and possessing no food security whatsoever, could possibly think they could go on this way.
“While doing a lot of public speaking events, it has struck me just how abnormal our twenty-first-century civilization is,” Joel told Organic Connections. “What’s really frustrating is that I meet so many people who, when you start talking about some of these issues—whether it’s the lack of nutrition in foods, the pathogenicity of food, the pollution stimulation of factory farming, animal abuse in factory farming, peak oil, energy use, the carbon cycle, soil depletion or water depletion—have this kind of glazed look come over them. It’s almost as if the average person really thinks that we’re going to be the cleverest, smartest civilization in the world; in fact, so clever, so smart, that we’ll be the first one to actually figure out how to sever our relationship with an ecological umbilical. We’ll be able to sail off cavalierly into some Star Trek future without any visceral relationship to an ecological womb.”
Joel’s observations brought him to write his latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. In this book, Joel observes that a couple hundred years ago there was a garden and animals right outside the door of the average home. It has now come to the point where food is produced someplace else, in some mysterious fashion, and magically arrives, fully prepared, or nearly so, in front of the consumer.
“For people like me who think we are really attached to nature, we’d better figure out how to build a nest, live in it and regenerate it or we’re not going to be doing right by our own stewardship mandates,” Joel said. “What led me to write Folks, This Ain’t Normal was this profound disconnect and even almost seeming ambivalence toward a really basic response to an intuitive understanding that we’re heading for a precarious precipice. It’s so difficult that nobody wants to even think about it; so we’ll simply bury our heads in the celebrity Hollywood bellybutton-piercing culture and somehow it will all work out.”
Nature, Teach Me
It is true that Joel grew up in an environment many of us have never seen. “I guess I began realizing in high school how different I was from the rest of the world,” Joel recalled. “While everybody else was lazing around on Saturday mornings, I was up every Saturday, year round, at about four o’clock, to put my stuff together and get into the local curb market.1 So I wasn’t about staying up on Friday nights or whatever.
“That period was also the beginning of Mother Earth News and the hippy movement, and we had a steady stream of counter-culture hippy types coming through the house. Although we were a very conservative, religious family, and nobody else in our church, certainly, had entertained people like this, we found them to be our people; they were interested in the same kind of things we were, and we just shared a lot of camaraderie with them. So very early on I realized, ‘Whoo, boy, I’m cut from a different cloth than the average person here.’”
As Joel learned the many aspects of farming, he took a tip from the natural progressions that were happening right in front of him. “When you come to the farm in a spirit of humility and you say, ‘Nature, teach me,’ then you see things that others don’t see and you have to invent things that others don’t know are necessary,” he said.
“For instance, if you look at nature, you realize that animals don’t stay in the same place; they’re always moving. As soon as you adopt that as one of your patterned convictions, suddenly you’re not trying to figure out how to build a football-field-sized building to house animals. Instead you’re trying to figure out how to make shelter and housing temporary and/or portable. The manner in which you view the way it’s supposed to be drives the design innovation of what you’re developing.
“In another example, industrial agriculture is trying to teach us that depleted and infertile soil lacks chemicals, herbicides and pesticides. Instead, we can look at that and ask about how soil is built throughout history. It has always been built with perennials, herbivores, and periodic rest and disturbance cycles. How do we stimulate this landscape in respect and honor to this carbon, real-time solar, biomass accumulation-decomposition cycle?”
No Animal-less Ecology
It is evident from watching Joel on film, and reading his books, that he has perceived and utilizes animals as part of this cycle. “From pole to pole, at the tropics and every place in between, there is no animal-less ecology,” Joel explained. “One of the signature roles of animals in nature is that they’re the only way, except for humans and machinery, to defy gravity in fertility placement. Fertility—nutrients and biomass—tends to move downhill. That’s why you have fertile valleys and infertile mountaintops and slopes. Animals—especially herbivores—typically eat in the valleys, then climb up to the ridges to sleep and defecate because that’s where they can look out and see if they have predators coming up to attack them. That cycle then carries the valley nutrients back up on top of the hill so that it can restart the sequence.
“Herbivores also prune the biomass to restart it to its fast growth cycle. If you don’t prune the grass, it will just simply turn brown and oxidize in the atmosphere, and you won’t have any carbon sequestration or anything. So the role of the herbivore is to prune the plants for more verdant and stimulated growth and for more efficient conversion of solar energy into decomposable biomass. I call it the biomass accumulation restart button.”
In observing Joel at work on his farm, you see him employ the livestock he is raising exactly for these purposes. It is because of his implementation of nature and her cycles that his profit per acre is several times that of his industrial farming neighbors.
Local Food Tsunami
Part of Joel’s mission is the teaching of real, sustainable farming—and the need for it has never been more vital. “One of the big opportunities we’re facing right now is what I like to call the ‘local food tsunami,’” Joel said. “I assume that fossil fuel is going to become more expensive, because that is historically normal. The way to bet is that our food system will not become more and more concentrated, because that is extremely abnormal. Our food system becoming less concentrated, becoming disseminated out on the landscape better—that is historical normalcy, and also the way ecology works. Ecology does not transport plant or animal carbon long distances.
“If we are to keep these things decentralized, if we are to spread out this food production as opposed to concentrating it, we’re going to need a more historically normal number of farmers. Talk about abnormal—we’re the first civilization in the world that has twice as many people incarcerated in prisons as we have growing our food! So if you’re in a horse race, the way to bet is on the horse that has the track record. All I’m trying to suggest in this book is that this is a historical abnormality; it’s a very untried racehorse that we’re betting on. I’m just wanting to help people who are attempting to get their heads wrapped around the extent of our abnormality to realize, wow, this is not sustainable and it’s not going to continue like this.”
Feed the Omnivores
Not all of us are going to be farmers. For this reason Joel, in his book—relating back to how life is lived on his farm—gives various suggestions (in a list at the end of several chapters) for anyone wishing to assume more control of his or her food system. These include ideas such as canning and preserving, taking a family vacation to a farm, planting a vegetable garden, buying a couple of chickens, composting, and many more.
Given that we have come so far from our food roots, is Joel inferring that we should ultimately go back and live like we did two hundred years ago? Far from it. “So many people—especially the industrial foodists—think I’m some sort of a throwback and that I want to return to hoop skirts and wringer washers,” Joel laughed. “Nothing could be further from the truth. The thing that I’m suggesting is to take the glue—the substance of things that were normal until this last century—and grasp it with one hand, while we march into the future with the other hand fully embracing the appropriate technology that overcomes, frankly, a lot of the problems that the previous generations have encountered.
“An example of how we can incorporate the past to deal with today’s problems is in the use of omnivores. Historically, omnivores—chickens and pigs—were essentially homestead food recyclers. They were the things that took the blemished fruit, spoiled milk, or whey left over from cheesemaking and converted that into a very nutrient-dense package of eggs, poultry or pork. Today, depending on who you read, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of everything that goes in landfills in the US is actually decomposable—and 30 percent of it is actually edible!
“That’s a profound break with historical normalcy, where all that stuff was food for the omnivores. These days we’re throwing all of it in the landfill—using diesel fuel to get it there—and compensating with chemically grown grains for that incredible waste of edible product.
“People who talk about how bad the battery-cage egg production and egg factories are need to understand that if every kitchen in America had enough chickens attached to it—whether a home kitchen or institutional kitchen or restaurant kitchen—to actually eat all the food waste coming out of that kitchen, we wouldn’t even need commercial egg commerce in the entire country. All the eggs would be produced on site. We wouldn’t need the landfill, we wouldn’t need the diesel fuel to haul it anywhere, and it would all be an imbedded integrated system.”
No Place like Home
“Another illustration, of course, is refocusing our attention on the home itself,” Joel continued. “The household has moved from the focal point of life, where real life and real memories happen, to simply a kind of pit stop for activities all outside the home. Normalcy is not to be running off at every little thing—maybe not have so many soccer leagues and maybe not have so many other activities—but actually to come home and get to know each other and make the home the focus of where the real memories and the real activities occur.
“In that vein we can make the home a focal point, for example, of food preservation. The kids can learn their fractions by measuring quarter cups and half cups and things like that. There’s a visceral understanding of this cerebral principle of fractions. That’s how people learned academic things for centuries. They did it in the context of what they needed to know, and on a practical participatory basis. It’s only been in very recent years that we’ve gone to this incredible abstraction where we know more and more but we have no reason for needing to know it or how to apply it, or any sensible context or reason for its application. I’m not suggesting that we be stupid or that we not know things, but I am suggesting that there is a context in which we can learn things and know things, and that home is one of those better places.”
Really Only Us
In the final analysis, Joel points out that we all brought society and our food system to this point—and it will take each and every one of us to bring it back again.
“I wish—I wish—I could snap my fingers, and the average person wouldn’t have to do anything and everything would just turn out fine,” Joel concluded. “But the fact is that we are where we are because of trillions of moment-by-moment decisions made by millions of people over the last several decades. We could have endorsed the scientific aerobic composting program of Sir Albert Howard2 in the 1940s, when it was introduced to the world, and said, ‘A pox on chemical fertilization—we’re going to do the biological approach!’ But we did not. We could have told whoever was the first one that invented TV dinners, ‘A pox on you!’ But we did not.
“We’ve participated in where we are, and we’re going to have to participate in where we need to go. So this whole idea of rediscovering and reconnecting to our ecological umbilical through domestic culinary arts is part and parcel of the whole system. It’s not just up to farmers; it’s not just up to food distributors; it’s not just up to processors. We’ve already tried that. We tried giving up our historical responsibilities in domestic culinary arts, to Velveeta Cheese and Kraft and Procter & Gamble and Quaker Oats, and look where we are. We’ve got Twinkies and Cocoa Puffs and Mountain Dew and squeezable cheese. The truth is that there isn’t any them, they and those people—there is really only us. And us has to get busy and start participating in this.”
Learn more about Joel and Polyface Farms at www.polyfacefarms.com.
1. curb market: precursor to today’s farmers’ market.
2. Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947): English botanist and organic farming pioneer; a principal figure in the early organic movement. He is considered by many in the English-speaking world as the father of modern organic agriculture.