It’s common for environmentalists to decry the impact of grazing animals on the land, but farmer Joel Salatin – a self-described “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic” – is used to the debate.
His response is that without animals, biodiversity would be lost – even on a farm.
“I relish those debates because it demonstrates the fact that the herbivore has been mismanaged,” he says.
Salatin, who is arguably the world’s most well-known farmer, has become an in-demand speaker and educator across the world.
From his home property in Virginia, where he farms beef, poultry, rabbits, pork and forestry products, Salatin has become an important voice in the global debate about sustainable food production.
He’s one of the international guests at this year’s Tasting Australia festival, beginning on Sunday, and he’s likely to shake a few entrenched perceptions about what is sustainable on a family farm.
Speaking to InDaily from his Virginia farm house, he pushes the importance of animals as part of what he calls “solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration”.
In simple terms, he feeds his animals on a grass “salad bar”, while they feed the farm with fertiliser and keep plants in good health through clever grazing practices.
He hasn’t bought a bag of chemical fertiliser in 50 years, has never planted a seed, and doesn’t own a plow or disk or silo – “we call those bankruptcy tubes”.
And yet, his farms are incredibly productive.
Salatin is plain-spoken, infectiously persuasive and has a lot to say. Let’s start with animals.
He’s been to Australia more than half a dozen times, and he’s worried about what’s happening to our farming land. On a recent trip, he spoke to a farmer who had just bought a large property, with records going back to 1880.
“It was fascinating that in 1920 this ranch was running some 80,000 cows,” he says. “Today it’s running 10,000 and doesn’t have enough grass. It’s not about rain – it’s because they were running cows on continuous grazing and over-grazing.
“That’s the kind of thing that has the environmentalists with their pants in a wad.”
By contrast, he runs his herds on a “bio-mimic” principle. In other words, he manages them in way which emulates the behaviour in the wild of herds of American bison, or African wildebeest, for example – “moving, mobbing, mowing”.
It’s not easy – on his farm they move 1000 head of cattle every day, keeping pastures in good shape. As he puts it, grasses have three phases – in “diapers” (young, tender), “teenaged” (vigorous and fast-growing), and “nursing home” (tall and slowing down). Without grazing, the grasses would enter the “nursing home” phase and photosynthesis would come to an end.
His management aims to keep perennial grasses as “teenagers”, growing vigorously and able to feed a herd of animals another day. The added benefit is that the healthy, perennial grass can sequester more carbon than the herd of cows can emit.
All of his animals move around the farm: the chickens in moving “eggmobiles” follow the herd of cattle, scratching through the dung and scattering nutrients, and producing eggs; pigs aerate compost and finish on acorns in forest glens.
As his website describes it: “It’s all a symbiotic, multi-speciated synergistic relationship-dense production model that yields far more per acre than industrial models. And it’s all aromatically and aesthetically romantic.” Beautifully put.
He says there isn’t an ecology in the world where animals are not crucial to biodiversity.
“They are the way nature moves fertility around,” he says, adding that without animals, fertility would always move from the high ground to the low ground. “A farm without animals is not a sustainable farm.”
The key, though, to a healthy farm is to use multiple and complementary species of animals and plants – unlike modern industrial agriculture which discourages multi-speciation on a farm.
In the US in particular, herbivores are fed mostly on grain rather than grass.
“Much of the grain produced in the world goes through herbivores – and they don’t need those grains, and shouldn’t eat them.
“You can get much more production on grass with proper perennial management… You can produce as much food and nutrition on an acre of perennials as you can with annuals.”
That’s a huge challenge in a country like Australia, where annual cropping is an established way of business and life. Some wheat for bread and other products is fine, but he argues the balance between annuals and perennials is out of whack. (Salatin isn’t totally critical of Australian agriculture. He notes that “pasture cropping” – a form of farming utilising perennial plants – was developed in Australia and has added to his farming principles, along with the Australian-developed concept of permaculture.)
Salatin argues that herbivores, despite their poor environmental reputation, are crucial to introducing more biomass to the soil – a problem that he has identified in Australia, and which is exacerbating drought conditions here.
“We know that Australia in 1820 averaged 20 per cent organic matter in the soil,” he says. “Today, it averages 1 per cent.”
This means that our soils are holding 2000 per cent less water than they did at settlement – a significant problem.
“When the question comes, ‘how do we build organic matter?’, the answer is we build it with herbivores and perennials.”
Lack of water, he argues, isn’t the limiting factor with Australian agriculture – it’s a symptom of a broader problem of depleted soils caused by over-grazing. If farming practices were changed, the country would change with them.
“What we would see is an Australia that looks like an oasis, rather than an Australia that looks like a desert,” he says.
It’s a provocative but compelling view.
It also says something about the change in Tasting Australia’s focus that Salatin is one of the key speakers, because at the end of the day, the whole enterprise is about sitting down to a meal.
“The little motto that we have created for our farm is ‘healing the planet, one bite at a time’.
“We have the distinct honour and privilege of being able to participate in a healing choreography every time we eat. It’s a great responsibility but it’s a wonderful privilege to be able to touch our ecological nest that profoundly.”
To find out where to hear Joel Salatin speak, go to the Tasting Australia website.
The guiding principles of Polyface Farm
TRANSPARENCY: Anyone is welcome to visit the farm anytime. No trade secrets, no locked doors, every corner is camera-accessible.
GRASS-BASED: Pastured livestock and poultry, moved frequently to new “salad bars”, offer landscape healing and nutritional superiority.
INDIVIDUALITY: Plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health.
COMMUNITY: We do not ship food. We should all seek food closer to home, in our foodshed, our own bio-region. This means enjoying seasonality and reacquainting ourselves with our home kitchens.
NATURE’S TEMPLATE: Mimicking natural patterns on a commercial domestic scale insures moral and ethical boundaries to human cleverness. Cows are herbivores, not omnivores; that is why we’ve never fed them dead cows like the United States Department of Agriculture encouraged (the alleged cause of mad cows).
EARTHWORMS: We’re really in the earthworm enhancement business. Stimulating soil biota is our first priority. Soil health creates healthy food.
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