We’ve appreciated for a long time that we are what we eat.
Slowly and surely, we’re starting to appreciate that our landscape reflects what we eat too.
Earlier this year I had the privilege to attend, and indeed participate on the expert panel for, the Transitions Film Festival in Adelaide. This festival involved the screening of many films with a strong sustainability message and one of these films, “Polyfaces”, literally blew my mind.
“Polyfaces” answered so many of the questions I get asked by you, my listeners, as well as questions I have myself, on how to make more sustainable choices when it comes to the food we put in our mouths.
Rather than me paraphrasing all the learnings from this documentary, I decided to go straight to the farmer to bring these answers to you. But not just any farmer, today I’m chatting with THE Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm.
Polyface Farm’s mission is to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.
Joel has been dubbed the “world’s most innovative farmer” by TIME Magazine. For almost six decades his farm in the Shenandoah Valley in Northern Virginia USA has used no chemicals and feeds over 6,000 families and many restaurants and food outlets within a 3 hour ‘foodshed’ of his farm.
His farm is in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture and I can’t tell you how excited I am to be chatting with Joel today.
In this Part 1 of 2 episode you’ll gain an understanding of what regenerative farming is, how animals have a vital role to play in healing marginal land, and why we should care about where our food comes from.
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There’s a lot to cover and this is a really important topic so let’s dive in!
Can You Tell Us About The Early Days Of Polyface Farm And The Condition The Land Was In When Your Parents Purchased The Property?
When we first came in 1961 we could walk the entire farm and never set foot on a piece of grass it was that thin. We could support about 10 cows and the hillsides were eroded so badly it was like corrugated roofing. The gullies on the north slopes were like that one another after another and its deepest gully was 16 feet (roughly 5 metres).
The woods and the forests had been grazed. Our oak forests are a lot denser and the trees are more opaque so we don’t have the grasses like you do growing up under the forests. So it was weeds and bare spaces. There were large areas a quarter of an acre in size even in the fields that were just solid rock and bare shale with nothing on them.
In fact, we had so little soil that dad would hand mix concrete and pour it in these old tyres and then he’d push a half inch pipe; one straight down and one on a little bit of a slant. He’d stack these concrete tyres stands up on the tractor platform and my brother and I would heave these over while my dad drove real slow down in the field. Then dad would stick electric fence stakes down into those half inch pipes in the concrete tyres and that’s how we built an electric fence.
People think that we’ve gotten where we are now because we just happened to get on some really fertile soil but that’s not the case. I’ve never been on a farm yet that didn’t have enough soil to hold up electric fence stakes.
Fortunately, today all those areas are covered up with 8-12 inches of soil. That’s not the 3 feet it had 500 years ago but it certainly is better than rock.
How Exactly Did Your Family Turn The Land Around?
In 1961 Dad hired consultants and all the advice was plant corn, build silos, graze the woods all that sort of thing. But he had an environmental ethic, he was trained as an economist and he saw the chemical agriculture approach as being kind of like a drug addiction where you could never get ahead of it.
What he finally reverted to was “well, we have to follow what seems to work as patterns in nature” and you know they’re not that complicated. I mean they’re beautiful and elegant but there’s not really that many of them.
For one thing there is no animal-less ecology in nature. There’s a tremendous function for animals in nature.
One is to move around fertility because if you didn’t have any animals all the fertility would drain to the valley and never get back up on the hill side. Animals and birds take fertile valley material and digest it, take it back up on the ridges. One of the reasons they like to go back up on the ridges is predation so they can look out and see what’s going on. They ruminate, digest and poop, birds nest and poop and whatever but the point is the fertility is moved around.
The second reason for animals is to prune the biomass. The biomass goes through a growth circle (i.e. it’s born, it lives, it dies) and so pruning it back restarts the rapid juvenile growth period in its life cycle.
In Australia what’s interesting is that the historic megafauna that was there are largely gone. There used to be nine foot high wombats and all sorts of things there to do this sort of work in Australia and they’ve been largely gone now for a long time. But this is the role of the animals. Rich, deep soils don’t come under trees and bushes they come under grazing animals.
And then the animals, they move around – they’re not in factory confinement houses or feedlots and if you’re going to let them move around then you have to be able to control them, because the neighbours don’t want your animals. They also need shelter and shade and they need water wherever they are.
The old migratory choreography, i.e. the way flocks of birds and animals moved throughout history, has been largely broken now with development and strip malls, freeways etc. So we have taken this large estate and shrunk it down into smaller private holdings.
We mimic this migratory choreography on our private holding by using an electric fence. This fence becomes our accelerator, brake and steering wheel on those animals rather than predators or fire etc.
Steering them around like this means they can’t always go to a creek for water but with technology such as pipes we are able to strategically provide them with water wherever they are. So we are able to mimic these things in nature within our private holding. These were some of the patterns and required us to have portable shade, shelter and infrastructure so now we have egg mobiles, chicken tractor shelters, cow shade mobiles, pig shade mobiles and fortunately technology has now caught up with us. We have this wonderful lightweight roofing through to nursery shade-cloth which we have on our ambulatory shade trees for the pigs who enjoy the rain but need shelter from the sun. So portability is all part of this.
Now back to fertility – before you would purchase petroleum-based fertiliser in a bag there was carbon-based. Nature doesn’t move carbon around very much so it was on site. Nature takes sunlight in situ and coverts it through photosynthetic activity into biomass vegetation, which is then eaten or decomposed and that is what feeds the micro-organic community in the soil.
We embarked on substantial composting and carbon systems. We bought a chipper and we were able to go to these dense woods that had diseased and crooked trees in them and convert that carbon into a bedding material or base for large scale composting. For example, when we fed hay to the cows in the winter or had to bring the chickens in because of the snow, we would put this carbonaceous base underneath them to collect the urine and manure. We would then compost that and put it back on the land, it became our fertility base. While other people were buying chemical fertiliser, we were buying labour and time to chip our own carbon on site and create this large cycle.
Next we built a lot of ponds and now gravity feed water through a 6-mile labyrinth of pipe around the farm. We have strategically located valves every 100 metres so we can access water everywhere and we can also irrigate. This is straight from P. A. Yeomans, the Australian guru who wrote ‘Water For Every Farm: A practical irrigation plan for every Australian property’. What we have today that Yeomans didn’t have is pipe so we don’t have to do any excavation and we can send it both up and down the hill.
We’re now using the New Zealand K-Line Irrigation System. We’re using that with this water so we can collect surface run-off, which is a touchy subject. The long-term view is that the more hydration we have on the landscape overall the more hydration we have. One of P. A. Yeomans rules was that every farm should aspire to eliminate surface run-off, so even in a dry country such as Australia, if that water could be kept higher on the landscape instead of draining out to the ocean, the whole landscape would benefit.
This hydration thing is a huge deal because water becomes a very limiting factor especially in a dry place. If you are able to hold those raindrops higher on the landscape, then you can use them multiple times. The idea that holding surface run-off (that then becomes a flood problem downstream) is depriving people downstream of water is simply not the case. In fact, the people downstream benefit more days of the year by having a slow release of water as opposed to fast release down in a drain.
How Does Your Farm Contrast To Others And Have Many Other Farmers Applied Your Methods To Their Own Land With Similar Results?
Yes, certainly thousands and they are finding exactly the same results. Much of what we have done is from many different disciplines such as permaculture and holistic management.
We move the cows every day to a separate paddock with the use of portable electric fencing. Instead of having the cattle spread out over the landscape, they’re mobbed up very tightly and moved every day. This means that most of the farm is at rest as it completely changes the interaction of the hoof on the land. It also changes what the animals will eat; they will eat weeds that they normally wouldn’t eat because when they are mobbed together they revert to a primal ingestion situation. This is the way mobs activate in nature and means they eat more aggressively and with more variety.
When they are tightly mobbed like this they also walk with more reckless abandon on the ground and aerate the ground better with their hooves as opposed to being picky where they step. This means whatever they don’t eat gets stomped into the ground surface and chipped up which results in a microbial community feeding frenzy in the soil. This carbon mulch also protects the soil from drying out under the sun.
All of these techniques I’m describing i.e. animal movement every day, hydration of the land, the carbon sequestration on the land, are essentially ancient patterns using very high-tech, modern infrastructure and tooling.
It’s a tragedy that as a civilisation we believe that farming and agricultural are bad for the land. The anomaly is that the historical track record proves true. But we now know a lot of these patterns and techniques that we can apply and reverse that instead. In the 1820’s Australia’s average organic matter was 20% and today it is 1%.
In 1961 our farm organic matter was 1% and today it’s over 8%. 50 years ago our 100-acre farm could only support 10-20 head of cattle. Today it supports 150 head of cattle. So we’ve seen literally a ten-fold increase in productive capacity. These patterns and templates work; we don’t need all the pesticides, chemicals and pillage.
In the past few years we have begun to use the system Pastor Cropping developed by Australian Colin Seis. It is essentially growing grain without pillage and combining it with animals so that several years of mob stocking with animals and perennials creates the fertility to grow an occasional crop. There are just a handful of farmers in the US who are beginning to use these techniques but with great effect. The animals are used to knock back the perennial and give us a window of planting opportunity for an annual. This annual then jumps ahead and we can get a crop off without killing the perennial. The animals are then used to build up the fertility between cycles.
There’s tremendous amounts of work being done right now with these kinds of systems to actually build soil and use animals in their historic role as pruners. Strategically we need to get them to prune the right plant at the right time in the right place for the right length. When we can combine this with our sophisticated water delivery systems, shelter systems and electric fence control systems it’s pretty amazing. That for me is way more exciting than trying to apply enough chemicals to land to grow a mono crop or feeding animals in factory confinement systems. To me all those systems are multi-degenerative as opposed to elegant multi-regenerative systems.
What Do You See Is The Main Challenge In Getting More Farms To Employ Regenerative Farming Practices?
There are numerous challenges and it’s a paradigm situation that has built up over time. The biggest hurdle is simply the fact that we’ve always done it this way. I’m a huge believer in young people coming into farming. Much of the most innovative things are being done by people who either don’t have a background in farming or have come within a hare’s breath of losing their farms and economics has forced them into a different approach. Most people don’t change what they’ve been doing until what they’ve been doing becomes untenable. The biggest hurdle when making these changes is the desire to do so on the part of the farming community.
I would suggest the second hurdle is that consumers need to appreciate that the food that they’re eating today is what’s creating the landscape of tomorrow. Your menu decisions are painting the landscape your grandchildren will inherit.
The challenge is of civilisation awareness and movement and the idea that where we are today is the physical manifestation of trillions of individual decisions that have been made by us and our ancestors over accumulated years. This will also be true for where we are in 20 or 30 years. I don’t know how to make it more specific or empowering or inspiring other than to beg people to realise that what you’re eating today is an economic and psychological vote for a landscape system. How we produce what we eat has far more significance on our ecology than anything else that we do. The cumulative effect of those little decisions you make does move our landscape forwards or backwards. If I could get that to be widely endorsed by people or make them feel personally empowered than I think change is very be doable and come quite swiftly.
We do have the ability to make changes. We can’t keep investing in a cheap food policy and expecting it to create integrity in our landscape. The reason we have gotten where we have is because of a cheap food policy. When we have an integrity food policy than that will ultimately create an integrity land policy. If we are truly committed to see air, soil, and water regenerated and moved forward than we’re going to have to invest in a system that grows our food and interacts with ecology in a way that do regenerate those foundations of life.
Click here to read Part 2 of this feature and to hear Joel’s response to the big question… is there a place for meat on the table when the world’s population reaches the predicted 10 billion people around the year 2050?