Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Farming greener grass gives greater returns

Brome Fair is a time for going big whether we’re talking about hot dogs, horsepower or wild rides. Yet, despite all the new, big distractions, this year it was the size of the cattle, an ever-present participant in the fair, that impressed me most. It’s not that the cattle were that much bigger this year, I just finally appreciated how big a cow is. And being big, of course, requires eating a lot and creating a lot of waste. The continuously bustling of wheelbarrows bringing hay in and cow paddies out reminded me of a farmer I’d read about in Virginia who shirked some old agricultural traditions in favour of some new ones which permitted him to greatly reduce the number of “wheelbarrows” of food coming into the farm and all but eliminate the number of “wheelbarrows” leaving the farm. His name is Joel Salatin.

Joel Salatin has taken the old saying, “in order to catch a fish, you have to think like a fish,” to a new extreme. He thinks like a cow, a chicken, a pig, a rabbits, a turkey but above all he thinks like grass which is why, despite the fact that Salatin produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 10,000 broilers, 100 head of cattle, 250 hogs, 800 turkeys, and 600 rabbits, he considers himself, above all, a grass farmer.

Salatin’s farm, elegantly depicted in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Ominvore’s Dilemma, is a jigsaw puzzle of landscape proportions where the centerpiece is the grass or the “salad bar” as Salatin himself likes to put it. Using an ingenious system comprised of some electric fencing hooked up to a car battery he creates a paddock, up to 5 acres in area, for his cattle. After one day of grazing he quickly ushers them onto the next paddock leaving behind cow paddies and a hoof mark rutted terrain. Two or three days later, and the timing is important, he brings in a vehicle he affectionately calls the Eggmobile. In that delay, grubs and fly larvae, favourite foods of chickens, have grown fat and juicy but have not yet hatched. The chickens then do three jobs in one, reducing the number of pests on the farm by eating the larvae, spreading the cow paddies over the paddock and leaving behind their own natural fertilizer which is rich in nitrogen, a limiting nutrient for the grass and the soil. The cows themselves increase the nitrogen in the soil as well by grazing the taller grass species leaving more light for shorter species like red clover which put nitrogen into the soil. Their hoof marks can also capture rain water creating a perfect microsite for the growth of grass. This makes the grass on Polyface Farms grow in blazes. In fact, while other farmers in his area are averaging 70 cow days per acre (one ‘cow day’ being the average amount of grass a cow will eat in one day), Polyface farms is averaging nearly 400 cow days per acre. This means Salatin’s 100 acre pastureland is equivalent to almost 600 acres of average land. That’s similar to getting nearly six farms for the price of one.

The interdependent nature of his farm means that nothing goes to waste. The output of one system is the input into another reducing his reliance on external inputs such as fossil fuels and corn and grain. The money he saves means that on every dollar of food he sells only eight cents goes to paying for inputs into the farm allowing him to earn over 250,000 US$ a year.

Granted he sells his product at a price above that of what you’d pay at the grocery store, something he’s been criticized for, but he believes this is the true cost of food.

“…with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap,” he explains to Pollan. “Frankly, any city person who doesn't think I deserve a white-collar salary as a farmer doesn't deserve my special food.”

No one can fault Salatin for being soft-spoken but he not only talks the talk of his self proclaimed “Christian libertarian environmental capitalist” politics, he walks the walk. Well, more like his animals walk the walk. Salatin’s philosophy is that the animals should do the work instead of tractors. Simple put, farmers should bring the animals to the food, not bring food from 1,000 miles away to the animals. After all, as Allan Nation, one of Salatin’s mentors, writes in The Stockman Grass Farmer, “all agriculture is at its heart capturing free solar energy…the most efficient was is for you to send and animal out to gather this free solar food.”

The cow-chicken symbiosis is only the beginning of the interrelationships on the farm and every time you think there can’t be another little wrinkle to the apparent perfection of Salatin’s master plan, there is.

Another example of Salatin’s ingenuity is the barn in which he keeps the cows in the winter. Rather than remove the manure, Salatin puts straw, wood chips and corn on top. As the winter wears on and the manure mixture builds up, the cows bedding lifts off the ground up to three feet by the end. The mixture creates anaerobic compost that gives off heat and keeps the cows warm. Once the cows are let out to pasture, the pigs are turned loose in the barn where they dig with feverish delight to find all the half-fermented corn buried within, aerating the compost in the process so it can be spread back on the pasture.

Salatin’s convictions stretch beyond the border of his farm. He refuses to ship his meat. If you want to sample his meat, you have to drive down to the Shenandoah Valley to get it. Fortunately for him, he’s built up a strong clientele who are willing to do just that and among them you’ll find a variety of people from local families to haute-cuisine chefs who claim that his eggs can make a dessert like no other. If you do decide to make the trip down, you can always take a peek around on the farm as well as he operates on a strict open door policy.

I must admit that though I consider myself a realist environmentalist, I find few, if any flaws in Salatin’s jigsaw puzzle of a farm where all the pieces fit unnervingly well together. Nevertheless, Salatin himself doesn’t claim to have all the answers as he admits that his farm cannot necessarily be carbon copied into a new location. In a 2000 interview in Smithsonian he suggests farmers should, “try a little ‘landscape painting’,” and that, “there’s plenty of room to experiment.” This, he believes, is how to reduce the number of “wheelbarrows” going in and the number of “wheelbarrows” going out.

If you wish to here Joel Salatin himself speak about his farm, go to:

Seen in the September 3, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

No comments: