Joel Salatin is no simple farmer. When he speaks, he at times takes on the air of a Southern preacher, philosopher, heretic, businessman, activist, or ecological engineer. Since Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the film Food, Inc. brought him to fame as the man who raises meat the right way, Salatin has become a sought-after speaker. But he still spends most of his time on his rural Virginia farm—with the chickens, baling hay, moving cows from one paddock to another. He is a self-described “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic” and has a penchant for perplexingly long catchphrases. It is perhaps Salatin’s unwillingness to compartmentalize that has made him such a compelling moral voice for the food movement. For Salatin, farming is inseparable from ethics, politics, faith, or ecology.
Salatin’s farm, Polyface or “the farm of many faces,” has been in his family for 50 years. At its heart is a practice called “holistic range management,” where cattle mimic the grazing patterns of wild herd animals. The strategy cuts feedlots out of the equation altogether and stores carbon deep in the roots and soil of Polyface’s lush perennial pasture.
There’s a missionary quality to Salatin’s farming. He speaks of his work as a ministry and as healing. He calls his animals “co-laborers” and “dance partners” and says he respects each animal’s distinctiveness. Who better to articulate an ethic of how, when, and whether we should raise and eat our fellow animals?
Madeline Ostrander: What do you think a sustainable diet should look like?
Joel Salatin: What would a sustainable diet look like? Oh, my!
Ostrander: Because it’s often talked about as a vegetarian diet.
Salatin: No, not at all. I think we need to go back to localized diets, and in North America, yes, we can really grow perennials, so there would be a lot of herbivore—lamb, beef—in a diet. And our fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content, would be grown close to home, preferably in our backyards. In 1945, 40 percent of all vegetables consumed in the United States were grown in backyards.
I think a local diet would have an indigenous flair. If you’re along the coast, you’d eat more seafood. If you’re inland, you would eat more herbivore and vegetables. If you’re in Florida, you would eat more citrus. Historically, it’s not about the relationship of meat to vegetables or whatever. It’s more about, what does this area grow well with a minimum of inputs?
Ostrander: Cows have gotten a bad rap lately for their contributions to environmental problems. What’s your response?
Salatin: Don’t blame the cow for the negatives of the industrial food system. All of the data that the anti-meat people use assumes an irrigated, concentrated animal feeding operation. Over 50 percent of the annuals that we grow in American agriculture are to feed cows. Cows aren’t supposed to eat corn. They’re supposed to mow forage. It’s completely inverted from nature’s paradigm. To use that inverted paradigm to demonize grazing, the most efficacious mechanism for planet restoration, is either consciously antagonistic to the truth or is ignorant of the kind of synergistic models that are out here.
Here’s the thing. There’s no system in nature that does not have an animal component as a recycling agent. Doesn’t exist. Fruits and vegetables do best if there is some animal component with them—chickens or a side shed with rabbits. Manure is magic.
Now, we could argue about how many animals we should be eating. I really don’t think Americans should be eating so much chicken. Because chicken requires grain; it’s an omnivore. Historically, herbivores—beef, lamb, goat—were every man’s meat because they could be raised on perennials. The kings ate poultry because they’re the only ones who had enough luxury of extra foodstuffs for birds.
Poultry used to fill a recycling niche. Today, if every single kitchen had enough chickens attached to it, there would not be egg commerce in America. All the eggs could be produced from kitchen scraps. What a wonderful thing that would be. There’s no excuse for an egg factory.
Beef cattle—there’s no excuse for a feedlot. We don’t need all those irrigated acres in Nebraska. See? And suddenly all of the data that the animal demonizers are using just crumbles like a house of cards.
Ostrander: Your website says that your farm respects and honors the animals you raise. What does it mean to respect an animal and then eat it?
Salatin: It is a profound spiritual truth that you cannot have life without death. When you chomp down on a carrot and masticate it in your mouth, that carrot is being sacrificed in order for you to have life. Everything on the planet is eating and being eaten. If you don’t believe it, just lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. That sacrifice is what feeds regeneration. In our very antiseptic culture today, people don’t have a visceral understanding of life and death.
Ostrander: What do you feel is your responsibility to the animals that you raise on Polyface Farm?
Salatin: Our first responsibility is to try to figure out what kind of a habitat allows them to fully express their physiological distinctiveness. The cow doesn’t eat corn; she doesn’t eat dead cows; she doesn’t eat cow manure, which is what is currently being fed to cows in the industrial food system. We feed cows grass, and that honors and respects the cow-ness of the cow.
Chickens—their beaks are not there for us to cut off, as industrial operations do. Their beaks are there for them to scratch and to hunt for insects. So we raise them out on pasture, in protected enclosures, in a free environment, so they can be birds.
We look at nature and say, “How do these animals live?” And we imitate that template.
We have the chickens follow the cows, the way birds follow herbivores—the egret on the rhino’s nose. The chickens sanitize behind the herbivores, scratch in the dung, eat out the parasites, spread the dung into the pasture, and eat the insects that the herbivores uncovered while grazing.
The pigs make compost from cow manure, which we mix with wood chips. They love to do it, and they don’t need their oil changed, they don’t need spare parts, and they’re fully allowed to express their pig-ness. Then animals become team players—partners in this great land-healing ministry.
This is all extremely symbiotic and creates a totally different relationship than when you’re simply trying to grow the fatter, bigger, cheaper animal.
But the animals also have an easier life than they would in nature. Nature is not very philanthropic. I mean, every day the gazelle wakes up and hopes she can outrun the lion, and every day the lion wakes up and hopes she can outrun a gazelle. We protect our animals from predators and weather. We give them good food and care for them, and in return, they are more prolific.
Ostrander: So honoring the pig-ness of the pig is about ecology as much as ethics.
Salatin: Honoring the pig-ness of the pig establishes a moral and ethical framework on which we build respect for the Mary-ness of Mary and the Tom-ness of Tom. It is how we respect and honor the least of these that creates an ethical framework on which we honor and respect the greatest of these.
A culture like ours—that views plants and animals as inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however cleverly we, in our hubris, can imagine—will soon view its citizens and other cultures in the same kind of disrespectful way.
Ostrander: You claim that the kind of agriculture that you do could feed the world. How would that work?
Salatin: Well, for example, take cows. If we do what I call mob-stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization, we could triple the number of herbivores and the amount of carbon we’re storing in the soil.
Ostrander: What was that long phrase?
Salatin: Mob-stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization. The idea is you’re mob-stocking: Herbivores in nature are always mobbed up for predator protection. Now we don’t have predators, so we use an electric fence to keep them mobbed up. So we’re not Luddites. We’re using high-tech.
We farm grass, and we harvest that grass with cows. But we don’t just turn the cows out into a field. We move them every day from paddock to paddock and only give them access to a single spot a couple days a year. We let the grass grow to what we call full physiological expression, the juvenile growth spurt. By doing that we’re actually collecting a lot more solar energy and metabolizing it into biomass than you would if the grass were kept short like a lawn.
The difference is, for example, Augusta County, where we are, averages 80 cow days per acre (a cow day is what one cow will eat in a day). On our farm we average 400 cow days per acre, and we’ve never bought a bag of chemical fertilizer and we’ve never planted a seed. We’ve taken the soils on our farm from 1.5 percent organic matter in the early 1960s to an average of 8 percent organic matter today. That cycle of herbivore, perennial, and predation builds up root biomass below the ground and sequesters carbon and organic matter. It’s the same process that built all the deep soils of the world—the Pampas in Argentina, outer Mongolia with yaks and sheep, the American plains with the buffalo.
Now, if you consider vegetables, we could do edible landscapes. There are 35 million acres of lawn in the United States. I tell people, we’ll know that we’re running out of food when the golf courses around Phoenix start growing food instead of petroleum-based grass to be irrigated with precious water. We’ll know that we’re short of food when we can’t run the Kentucky Derby anymore, because we need that land for farming. Go to Mexico. They don’t mow the interstates. Every farmer along the highway has a staked-out milk cow.
Ostrander: Can you describe how you slaughter animals at Polyface?
Salatin: Well, the chickens, for example, are taken from the field right into our open-air slaughter facility, and we don’t electrocute them like the industry does. We do a kind of a halal, or a kosher type of kill, which is just slitting the jugular, and they gradually just faint or fade away.
We have raised them. We have nurtured them and cared for them. It’s different from the compartmentalization of the industrial system, where we have people who have never seen the animal alive doing the slaughter.
And frankly, I believe it is psychologically inappropriate to slaughter animals every single day. Even in the Bible, the Levites drew straws; they ran shifts in the tabernacle where they did animal sacrifices.
Ostrander: Is there a different emotional experience that people have when they’re eating food raised on Polyface than if they’re eating a McDonald’s hamburger?
Salatin: We have a 24/7, open-door policy. Anyone is welcome to come at any time to see anything, anywhere without an appointment or a phone call. We encourage anyone to come and walk the fields, pet the animals, bring their children, gather the eggs out of the nest boxes—in other words, to build a relationship and create a memory that can follow them all the way to the dinner plate.
Our culture has systematically alienated people from the experience of dining. I can’t believe how many kids come here and watch a chicken lay an egg and then say, “Oh, is that where they come from?” The amount of culinary and ecological real-life ignorance in our culture is unbelievable.
So what we want to do at Polyface is provide a platform, so that anyone can come and partake of this marvelous theater that was all a part of normal life 150 years ago. We want to create a greater sense of all the mystery and appreciation for seasons and for the proper plant-animal-human relationships.
Some people even want to process some chickens with us. And that is a very powerful memory to take to the table with you. If the average person partook of the processing of an industrial chicken, for example, they probably wouldn’t eat chicken. But by coming here and seeing the respect that’s afforded to that animal all the way through, we can create a thankful, gracious, honoring experience when we come to eat.
Madeline Ostrander interviewed Joel Salatin for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Madeline is senior editor at YES!