High priest of pasture serves food for thought

Article by Hal Walter

Agriculture – March 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

AT A RECEPTION prior to Joel Salatin’s lecture at Colorado College in January, a bluegrass ensemble serenaded the self-described “grass farmer” with a tune praising him as the high priest of pasture.

And so it was fitting that Salatin’s speech on pasture-based farming and the local food movement followed in the college’s Shove Chapel, a church with stained-glassed windows and hardwood pews. There the nationally recognized farmer, author and local-food movement guru took to the pulpit like an evangelical preacher, speaking to his flock with a slight Southern accent.

“This venue kind of takes my breath away. I’m not sure I’ve ever spoken in a cathedral before … But I’ve got a pulpit, so this is good,” began Salatin, the author of five books on farming, including his latest, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.

For all those attending church that evening, the 50-year-old Salatin had a message of spirituality connected not only to a higher power, but also to the very food we eat.

“For a generation we have been divorcing ourselves from our dinner dance partner … and the soul is yearning for a dinner dance partner … for dinner with a face, for a plate with a story — and the integrity, romance, the intimacy that comes with it,” Salatin told the crowd of nearly 800, including some farmers and ranchers from up and down the Arkansas River Valley. The lecture was also attended by large numbers of Colorado Springs residents and CC students interested in the local food movement and holistic agriculture.

“Eating is one of the most intimate things that we do. When we are actually taking food into our bodies, it’s a pretty close relationship,” he said. But when you divorce that … when you say that food is just so many piles of inanimate structure of protoplasmic metabolism … you take in something that you know not. There’s no relationship. You know, it’s like a one-night stand, you know, like prostitution food … but that doesn’t satisfy the human spirit.

“And so we’re looking for a partner, and that partner comes with knowledge, and with a courtship and a romance that leads up to communion at the plate.”

In order to bridge this disconnect, Salatin’s Polyface Farm, located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, deals directly with customers in his region’s “foodshed.” His farm supplies “beyond organic” meat products to more than 1,000 families and 30 restaurants.

Salatin in recent months has risen to folk-hero status after being featured in Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, A Natural History of Four Meals. His family farm has been featured in Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Gourmet magazines.

According to Pollan’s book, Polyface Farm each season can produce an astonishing 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits and 35,000 dozen eggs.

WHAT’S ASTONISHING is that Salatin and his family do this all on just 100 acres of lush pasture grass on his 550-acre farm. The rest of the property is managed as a woodlot, complementing the farming operation and supplementing the family’s income with lumber and firewood sales.

Coaxing that much production out of so little land is possible, said Salatin, through a multi-species rotational grazing system that maximizes production of grass. In addition, the methods he employs serve to heal and cleanse the land, and eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones.

In the area of Virginia where he farms, Salatin said his grass pastures are five times more productive than those of his neighbors.

“All it is, is humbly coming to nature and realizing that template works best.”

As an example, Salatin showed how his winter feeding system for cattle becomes a compost pile, which in turn is churned up by his “pigaerators” before being spread over his fields.

THE HOGS AS WELL are then turned out to pasture where their diet consists of fresh pasture and locally grown grain. “We trust the pigs to choose whether or not they want some salad or they want some grain,” said Salatin.

During the productive months, Salatin’s grazing herds of cattle are concentrated using electric fences on smaller units of pasture and are moved to a fresh “salad bar” each day. Right behind them comes the cleanup crew — an “eggmobile” of chickens that eat the fly larvae from the manure, spread the manure and sanitize the pasture, all while turning out dozens and dozens of high-quality eggs.

Similarly, Salatin moves pigs, turkeys and rabbits through his pasture-based system, essentially turning solar energy into grass, and grass into meat. All it takes is a little old fashioned know-how coupled with some modern technology — like electric fencing.

“I’m not a luddite. I love polyethelene (electric) netting,” Salatin said. “The technology we use is to enhance the life of a chicken to express its chickenness.

“We are living in the most incredible age. For the first time we can produce commercial-scale pasture-based products more environmentally friendly and animal-friendly than you could years ago.”

Before his lecture, I had a brief opportunity to speak with Salatin. I explained that the West is an arid landscape, virtually non-productive in the wintertime, and that irrigated pasture was largely used in hay production during the summer months. Could his methods possibly be applied to Central Colorado with its largely arid geography and large expanses of variably productive rangeland? Salatin’s answer was that with some variations the management-intensive grazing techniques could be applied to virtually any landscape.

Throughout his speech, Salatin struck out at the industrial model of food production, with its cattle feedlots, and poultry and pork “factories.”

“God gave us our senses for a reason,” Salatin said. “Folks, we’ve created a stinking food system.”

When agriculture is done properly it is both aesthetically and aromatically pleasing, he said. “If not — it’s not good food.”

It’s clear that producing good, local food is really a spiritual calling for Salatin.

“Eating is a conscious act,” he said, noting that how we choose to treat the least of beasts is also how we tend to treat the greatest of beasts.

Taking his point further, he said a culture that is disrespectful to the animals it eats also will disrespect its own citizens, and even other cultures.

Now that’s some serious food for thought.

WHEN SALATIN is not taking such lofty messages to the public during one of his dozens of speaking engagements per year, the high priest of pasture is back at Polyface Farm, making sure each animal is doing what it is naturally designed to do.

“All this is a big dance and I’m just a choreographer, making sure all the animals are in the right place, at the right time, doing all the work.”

Given Salatin’s rising popularity and spiritual dedication to his ideals, one can only hope his farming methods become an agricultural act that dances right across the American landscape.

Joel Salatin’s lecture at Colorado College on Jan. 24 is available by podcast at www.coloradocollege.edu/podcast.

Writer Hal Walter occasionally escapes the snowdrifts surrounding his ranchito in the Wet Mountains to take in a winter lecture.