Meet Joel Salatin, Ecologist and Farmer

Pollan M. 2007. Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York (NY): Penguin Publishing.  p. 185- 273.

I was introduced to a new idea today. The grass farmer. At first mention I thought the grass farmer meant that they were growing grass to sell as sod. I was confused. I thought, “Where are you taking us here Pollan?” However, I was sorely mistaken. Grass farming is much more than growing grass. It’s using the grass to grow chickens, pigs, cows and any other animal you want. It’s also using these animals to grow the grass as well. A true symbiosis.

I like the name grass farming. It puts the emphasis on the primary producers as the star of the ranch. Without the grass the farm wouldn’t succeed, and therefore, the cattle ranch wouldn’t either (or any other animal you were trying to raise for that matter). “Grass farmers grow animals-for meat, eggs, milk, and wool-but regard them part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat” (p. 188). When I first started reading this chapter, I got a little excited about this flip-flop view of grass farming and tried to explain the concept to my girlfriend. As I read on, I found this quote to be the most eloquent and succinct way to explain it.

Joel Salatin goes even further. He says, “To be even more accurate, we should call ourselves sun farmers” (p. 188). I like this name as well. It brings images to mind about grasses acting being solar panels. Joel even goes on to refer the grass blades as photovoltaic panels (p. 189). However, after reading this chapter, I think the most accurate definition is ecosystem farmer or even ecosystem manager. This is because the complexity of Joel’s farm is much more than growing grass to feed the animals. At Joel’s farm each animal has a specific role or niche. The grasses job is obviously to grow. But for the grass to grow it also requires the animals and timing. The philosophy is based on the treatise Grass Productivity. The author, André Voisin, found that by applying grazing cattle at the right time the productivity of the pasture increased enormously (p. 188). This is because grass growth is sigmoidal. After grass is grazed, its growth is slow quite slow. However, after it recovers from the trauma of grazing it goes through the “blaze of growth” until about day 14. At day 14 the grass begins to turn woody and is less edible for the cow. So by allowing the cows to eat the grass on day 14, maximum efficiency is achieved, (p. 189) or as Joel calls it, “the optimal grazing rhythm” (p. 191). Joel keeps this rhythm by containing his cattle in portable electric fences, which he moves daily. The cow helps the grass too. The cow spreads and fertilizes the seeds with their manure and their hooves create pockets where water will collect, allowing ideal conditions for seed germination (p. 193).

This system also has another key player, chickens. Joel uses takes the chickens to areas that have been grazed by the cattle 3 days previously. The chickens will feed on the insects that are following the manure as well as the insect larvae and parasites in the manure (p. 211). This provides free food for the chickens, keeps insects at the farm down and disinfects the manure as well. These type of systems Joel calls holons. Using these animals, plants and microbes together at densities below the standard, but growing multiple crops simultaneously allows you to increase the lands overall efficiency. The example Pollan shows is the turkey and grape holon. Joel uses the turkeys in his grape orchard but fills them both to 70 percent the regular standard. The turkeys eat bugs, mow the grass and fertilize the trees (p. 216). By raising these two crops on the same land at 70 percent, in essence you’re getting 140 % efficiency (p. 217).

Joel also uses a huge forest (about 450 acres) which he allows to grow on the north facing slope. By doing this her reduces evaporation in the fields, has an ideal habitat for his pigs and of course grows wood which he uses for fires and compost. It also helps control predators and insects. The forest offers a wide range of biodiversity, so the birds eat the insects and the predators eat other animals in the woods making them less inclined to venture into the pasture to prey on the cattle (p. 224). “By any conventional accounting, the forests here represented a waste of land that could be put to productive use. But if Joel were to cut down the trees to graze more cattle, as any conventional accounting would recommend, the system would no longer be quite as whole or healthy as it is” (p. 224-225).

What really impressed me about Joel is the amount of ecological knowledge he had. He understands that his farm is a part of nature, and is therefore subject to nature’s rules. He knows that every action he takes has a reaction that sometimes can’t be predicted. Just like ecosystems, taking out one piece of the farm can drastically alter the productivity. Joel (with the help of his father) has literally created, and is successfully managing, an ecosystem. The amount of knowledge it takes to do that is truly amazing. By embracing biodiversity and complexity, Joel has created a sustainable, organic that (from what Pollan describes) as an extraordinary product that he can sell to his community. It truly is admirable. A quote that I loved was “the food chain at work in this pasture could not be any shorter or simpler. Especially when I compared it to the food chain passing through the feedlot, with its transcontinental tentacles reaching all the way back to cornfields in Iowa, from there to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico and farter still, to the oil fields in the Persian Gulf that supplied much of the energy to grow the corn” (p. 195). By making a complex system he had made the food web on his farm shorter. By making industrial farming simpler, the effects became farther reaching and more complex. Joel Salatin has made complexity equal simple.

The big idea in this piece is that sustainable and organic farming is possible. However, doing so requires changing our current paradigms about agriculture. To do this we need to be managing systems and not simply growing crops. Unfortunately, the government will be unwilling to help this type of movement as works directly against industry (p. 221). In order to change this system we must take individual responsibility and become conscientious consumers. “An alternative food system is rising up on the margins… It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen” (p. 261).


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