Below is the transcript for Joel Salatin: How to Prepare for A Future Increasingly Defined By Localized Food & Energy:
Chris Martenson: Welcome to another PeakProsperity.com podcast. I am, of course, Chris Martenson, and today we are speaking with Joel Salatin, one of the most visible and influential leaders in the organic food and sustainable farming movement. His family owns and manages Polyface Farms, which has been featured prominently in such modern food movement masterworks as The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and the documentary Food, Inc. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an incredible eye opener; it was for me. Joel’s unconventional but highly innovative farming practices are inspiring millions to increase their nutritional and community resiliency by seeking out local sources of chemical-free food raised using natural process-based farming practices.
Joel, I’m a huge fan of your work and the practices you advocate. I apply a number of them in the management of my own small homestead in rural Mass. It’s a real honor to be speaking with you.
Joel Salatin: Thank you; it’s an honor to be with you, Chris.
Chris Martenson: Well, thanks. Could you please give our listeners a short background on what you see as your mission, what its key tenets are, and why what you are doing is so important?
Joel Salatin: Sure. Well, our mission statement is to develop environmentally, emotionally, and economically enhanced food prototypes and duplicate their production throughout the world. So its all about these food production prototypes that not only are economically and environmentally beneficial but also have a social – we say ‘emotional’ just so we can have three E’s – but it’s a triple-bottom-line deal. And wonderfully, if you get creative enough, you don’t have to sacrifice the ecology in order to have a profitable business and you don’t have to sacrifice profit in order to have an ecological business. So the principles are relatively few; you know it all backs up to biomimicry, for sure.
In other words, what we want to do is take natural templates and draw a circle around them like a pattern, cut them out, and put them on our commercial farming landscape and duplicate those natural patterns. So what are those natural patterns?
Well, the things that have been regenerated and built soil for centuries are not tillage and annuals, which of course are both things that our culture worships. Rather, they are perennials, trees and forages and herbivores and periodic disturbance, whether by fire, mob grazing, or other disturbances that are created by predator-type things. And then rest periods. Rest periods for recuperation and to metabolize the disturbance factor.
So as soon as you start doing those kinds of things, that means you are going to move the animals, they are not going to stay in one place, it's going to be primarily perennially based, so we are always looking at how can we harvest acorns from the trees into pork, for example. It’s going to be perennial grasses, not annual grasses or grains. And its going to be portable infrastructure, not permanent or non-portable infrastructure, which means all of the facilities, the shelters, the control things like fences and things like that are all going to be light-weight, gentle-footprinted, portable-type things. The fertility is not going to depend on things brought in from across the world, but they are going to depend on recycling solar-created biomass onsite; that’s the carbon cycle. Sun makes the plants, the plants grow, the plants either get eaten or decay, and the decay feeds the soil life, which makes more plants grow, and that carbon cycle moves in a cyclical pattern onsite, not from offsite. So there is always a heavy component of animals, perennials, disturbance, rest, portability, and real-time carbon cycling.
Chris Martenson: And so this, you’ve been doing this for a while, and so you have measurable results that the soil is being built and that you can do this profitably. I assume at this point we can say it’s a success? You can farm this way and it works?
Joel Salatin: [laughs] Oh, unquestionably. Our family came here in 1961, which is 50 years ago. Bought the most run-down, gullied, depleted, mined-out farm in the whole area. In fact, we measured the deepest gully was 16’ deep. And we had so little soil we couldn’t even hold up electric fence stakes. Dad poured concrete in old used car tires and then pushed a half-inch pipe, one straight up and down and one on a little bit of an angle, and my brother, who was a little bit older than I, we’d sit on the platform on the tractor and heave these things off as Dad drove slowly down the field. He’d come along and put electric fence stakes in them because we didn’t have enough soil to hold up electric fence stakes, and it doesn’t take much soil to hold up electric fence stakes. That’s how we started, and we could barely handle ten cows. Today we usually handle 100 cows. All of those bare-rock places have several inches of soil over them, and the gullies, we filled a lot of the gullies in with silt that we dug out of bottoms to build ponds, so we have ponds built and the gullies filled in and arguably the most productive farm in the whole area.
Chris Martenson: And so if this is possible, how many people are following it, and of the people who aren’t adhering to these sorts of practices, what’s going on there? Why aren’t they?
Joel Salatin: Well, our neighbors think we are bioterrorists. Because only a bioterrorist would run chickens out in the field where they can commiserate with red wing blackbirds and indigo buntings and take our diseases to the science-based types of chicken houses and threaten the planet’s food supply with disease. So not only are people not clamoring to do this, but we are being demonized by the mainstream agriculture community, and it’s pretty serious, including the food police, who don’t like small scale backyard processing or kitchens or anything like that, they want everything to go through a multi-million dollar facility with chlorine and fumigants and a lot of toxic sanitizers to sterilize everything.
There are major, major differences of opinion about what ‘proper food’ is. There is a big difference between sanitation and sterilization. You and I don’t have sterile insides; our insides have three trillion beings to take this food and make it flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, and we better be thinking about what that community wants. And that community is far from sterile. It’s a very active bacterial, biological community. And so we live in strange days when Coca Cola, Twinkies, and Coco Puffs are considered safe, but raw milk, compost-grown tomatoes, and Aunt Matilda’s pickles are considered hazardous substances.
Chris Martenson: There’s a lot to be fighting here. What does the fight center around; is it just as simple as profits at this point in time, or is it frankly just easier to farm with the other practices? Where do you draw the line on that?
Joel Salatin: Well, we can start with the philosophical difference that we think that food is fundamentally biological and most of the culture thinks that food is primarily mechanical. And that’s why we can pull DNA structure and genes from a pig and put some in a pepper plant and some in a salmon and have a brand new life form; that’s a parts-oriented thing, like pieces of an engine. But some of us believe that life is fundamentally biological not mechanical, the difference being that biological systems can heal, they have resiliency, and they have a reason to be, a reason to exist that demands respect, I call it the “pigness of the pig” and the “cowness of the cow.”
And when you disrespect that — for example, when the USDA took farmers like me to free dinners for 30 years to teach us the new science-based feeding of cattle with dead cows, we did not do it because we didn’t like the USDA or because we were Luddites or not progressive or hated science; we didn’t do it because there was no pattern or template in nature in which herbivores eat carrion. And so, 30 years later, there is this big collective “Oops, maybe we shouldn’t oughta done that.”
You know, as this mechanical approach toward life has caught up to us with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. And in fact, that’s exactly what has created, you know the E.coli, salmonella, all these things are modern mutations and toxic proliferations that have become mainstream with a mechanical view towards life. We’ve even got research now going to try to isolate the porcine stress gene so we can take that stress gene out of the pig and abuse him a little more aggressively, but at least he won’t be stressed about it. A culture that views its life with that kind of conquistador, mechanical, disrespectful, manipulative mentality will soon view its citizens the same way and other cultures the same way.
Chris Martenson: So what’s the end of that story if man, woman, humans set themselves apart from nature? And we do that, when you gaze across the agricultural landscape, what kind of damage are you seeing being done? Is it a one-way cul-de-sac that ends in famine at some point, or what is it that you see in these practices that ultimately leads you to very, very strongly eschew them?
Joel Salatin: Yes, well, what we are seeing is exactly what we are seeing right now. We are seeing childhood leukemia, we are seeing gluten intolerance. I mean, how many people did you know 30 years ago that were intolerant to gluten in wheat?
Chris Martenson: None.
Joel Salatin: And part of that’s because we streamlined the harvesting so fast industrially that the wheat never gets shocked and never gets any mold in it to break down some of these enzymes that are real hard for our bodies to break down. And so you are seeing Type II diabetes, you are seeing obesity, and we are just seeing a proliferation of these chronic-type things that are a result of bushels of material that is not nutrient-dense or is not nutritionally-based, and it certainly isn’t food that we have been used to eating.
Our bodies, that three trillion member community in our insides, is not meant to receive substances that you can’t pronounce or you can’t make in your kitchen. Or that were grown with artificials. Sir Albert Howard said in 1943 in his foundational work in agricultural testament that when we use artificial manure (that’s what he called chemical fertilizers) artificial manures for the soil, then they grow artificial plants, which then make artificial animals, which then make artificial humans, which require artificials in order to keep us alive. And if that isn’t a commentary on where we are today with the drug trade and the pharmaceutical industry, I don’t know what is. In the last 35 years, our culture has exchanged an 18% per capita expenditure on food and 9% on health care to 18% on health care and 9% on food. And I would suggest that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to think there might be a connection between the inversion of those two numbers.
Chris Martenson: Well, I mean certainly anybody who has seen the obesity maps that I think the NIH has put out, they are really quite impressive stretching from the ’50s to current and just watching the obesity epidemic spread across — clearly that has to be due to something, we might think food. One of the areas I’ve been focused on for a while, because I’m very focused on the energy sphere and wondering how energy feeds into everything, and, of course, it feeds into our food system enormously, and one area is in nutrient cycling. So if we have our typical NPK — nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium — you know those things are mined somewhere, or manufactured and trucked and put in a field, and then something is grown and harvested and put on a plate, and then it gets flushed out to sea, never to be seen again in usable quantities. So, this whole idea of nutrient cycling – but those are just the big ones – there are micronutrients, as well, that are incredibly important. How does your approach incorporate and deal with the nutrient cycling?
Joel Salatin: Well, that’s a great question. Well, what stimulates the nutrient cycling is the onsite biomass regeneration cycle. Not the least of which, of course, is the earthworm community. You know, it’s amazing that earthworms can eat a pound of stuff in their front end and send it through their alimentary canal, bring it out their back end, the same pound of stuff, and its like three times the calcium, seven times the nitrogen, eleven times the potassium, fourteen times the phosphorous, plus an elevating of all the whole trace elements, boron, cobalt, copper, molybdenum — all those things are increased. And what’s amazing is that nobody knows how that’s done. It’s actually not concentrated, it’s actually acted on by some sort of activity in the earthworm.
Some bacteria for example, are free living, they are not on rhizomes like legume roots like alfalfa and clover, they are free-living bacteria that will bring up to 100 lbs. of nitrogen per acre per year out of the atmosphere and put it in the soil, but they only really become active at 4% organic matter, and most of our soils are not anywhere close to 4% organic matter anymore. They used to be, back when the buffalo were here and perennial grasses, but they are not now.
I think it’s fascinating that we actually produced more nutrient density in what is now the U.S. 600 years ago than we actually do today, even with all of our petroleum and everything, So the whole secret of the nutrient cycling is to tap into the green material to capture more solar energy, put it into green material that can de-compose and go into the soil, and the best way to do that is with an herbivore — lamb, goat, cow — some sort of herbivore, that is what I call the biomass accumulation re-start button, to prune that forage off and re-start the fast biomass accumulation cycle. If you don’t have that, what you just have is, the bio-mass just goes into senescence, and in senescence simply vaporizes the CO2 off into the atmosphere and it doesn’t do anything any good. So it’s the animal that recycles, that starts that whole fast metabolism cycle to metabolize the solar energy into biomass through photosynthetic activity.
Chris Martenson: I think you are talking about something really radical here, [which] is that our own health is linked to and part and parcel of the health of the world in which we live. I mean it's crazy talk right there, don’t you think?
Joel Salatin: [laughs] Yes. But that is the only way to only have a regenerative, sustainable system. Our culture is a kind of product of the Greco, Roman, Western, linear, reductionist, compartmentalized, fragmented system that ties parts-oriented thinking, in which nothing relates to anything else. And so we study things by tearing them apart and not seeing how they fit into a whole. And of course, life isn’t like that.
And you can’t extract your living from the hydrology cycle, from the energy cycle, from the biomass generation cycle, ultimately – what I always tell people is to realize, it’s a profound thought – that everything that we see is completely and utterly dependant on an unseen world of beings in the soil that never make it to the page of a business plan or a bank statement. Nobody asks about this trillion, multiply trillions and trillions of organisms that live in the soil, and yet everyone of us is utterly and completely dependent on that world. And yet we don’t even put it in the business plan as an important part of what we are doing. We don’t think about it in the shower in the morning when we are getting ready to go to work. “Let’s see, how are my activities today going to impact this soil web, this miraculous, mystical, awesome, unseen world that runs all the plants, all the animals, all the water cycle, all the nutrient cycling? What are my activities today going to do to that?” We don’t even think about that in the shower in the morning.
Chris Martenson: Right, we’ve got the U.N. projecting through their population studies – they have a branch that has projected that by 2050 we are going to have to basically double food output across the globe. You know, obviously our oceans are pretty well tapped out, and it turns out that a lot of the gains, the productivity gains that we experienced in the so-called “green revolution” — yes, there were some neat variety tinkering in genetics and stuff in there, but mostly that was irrigation and the application of the artificial fertilizers and all of that. In your mind, can the type of farming practices that you are talking about, can those be the gateway that will allow us to actually increase our food production to levels that are being talked about or is even that just silly talk at this point in time – we are going to have to fine some other way to adjust here?
Joel Salatin: Oh, there is no question, absolutely no question, that these systems are far more productive. Just to give you an example. On our farm, in our county, one of the measures for pasture production is in cow days per acre. In other words a ‘cow day’ is what one cow will eat in a single day – that’s one cow day. And so in our county, the average cow days per acre is currently 80 cow days per acre. That’s what an acre of pasture does. On our farm, and I already told you at the top of the program what our farm looked like 50 years ago without a single chemical fertilizer and without planting a seed, we own no plow and no disc, and in 50 years, we have moved this farm to average 400 cow days per acre – that’s five times the county average. And so, the fact is, if Monsanto figured out a way to get 1% increase in yields in something, it would make the front page of the New York Times. I’m telling you ways to double and triple production without chemical fertilizer, without even planting anything, and it doesn’t make the obituary page.
So yes, these systems work. And the way they work is to go back to historically – well the way nature built soils in the first place; which was with primarily herbivores. So if you really want to eat on a low-energy system, quit eating chicken and quit eating so much pork and eat grass-finished beef, because grass-finished herbivore is the most nutrient-dense substance that doesn’t require any tillage. It fertilizes itself and doesn’t require any tillage. As soon as you take that herbivore and put it in a feedlot, on an irrigated grain-based system, then it all breaks down from an energy standpoint, and, of course, that’s where a lot of the studies that impugn livestock come from.
But throughout the world, the great prairies and the great soil building regions of the world, from the Serengeti in Africa to the plains of America with buffalo to the Australian continent 200 years ago that had 10 marsupial species to do the disturbance, all of those were built with herbivores, disturbances, and rest and perennials. Those are the four cornerstones of a system that works. The reason all civilizations throughout history have been built around the herbivore, lamb, goat, or cow is because the herbivore is the only domestic animal that can harvest non-tilled, non-planted material. Omnivores like chickens and pigs require some sort of a grain component, which then requires tillage. And until cheap energy and cheap machinery, tillage was extremely expensive. You know if you had to go out and walk all day with a sharp stick behind an ox or a yak or a mule, you couldn’t stir very much soil, you had to plant by throwing it out with your hand, then you had to hand weed and you had to hand scythe, shock it up, and bring it in to a hard floor where you could beat it to separate the grain from the husk, then you had to take a crude wooden pitchfork and fling it up in the air in a breeze to — I’m sorry, flailing was the first one; this is winnowing — to winnow out the chaff, and at the end of the day, you look on the ground, and “Oh, we’ve got some grain here, and now we are going to try and store it in something away from the mice and the rats for a year,” — before the time of sheet metal and mesh wire.
Historically, grain was extremely expensive and hard come by, which is why poultry was only eaten by kings, and poultry and pigs were only grown enough to salvage the waste stream from the homestead. The main thing was lamb, goat, and cow, which was the herbivore. That was the main thing — or deer or bison or whatever — but the point is, that those herbivorous creatures can do or are made to do very well without any tillage whatsoever. And tillage has only actually been doable on a large, grand scale just in the last century.
Chris Martenson: I’m glad you mentioned the energy portion of the cycle. At PeakProsperity.com we spend a lot of time on energy; we look at the food supply as being critically vulnerable to the impact of Peak Oil’s arrival. You know, after all, fossil fuel energy inputs vastly exceed the caloric output of most so-called modern farms. So our view is we cannot really increasingly use a limited resource forever. Our view is that most people alive today will experience a decline of oil firsthand, not meaning it runs out, but we have slightly less and less. And it’s a huge, huge implication behind that. And we also focus on helping people develop personal resiliency, starting with food: storing food, finding local suppliers, even growing at least a small percentage of their calories so they can be connected to the food supply more personally. What guidance are you offering to people, to our listeners, in terms of how they should be or might begin to think about interacting with their food supply?
Joel Salatin: Oh – such a great question. It’s a broad span. I would say number one, find your kitchen. I mean, a processed food is heavily packaged, packaging is extremely expensive; it’s essentially stored for a long time and it has a long distribution cycle. I mean, fifteen hundred miles per morsel is kind of the average. And so my first advice to anybody is to buy unprocessed, raw, and fix it in your kitchen. That will drop the energy footprint way, way, way down.
And as soon as we do that, then of course, the next step is to either grow some or buy it locally. There are thousands of high-quality, nutrient-dense, ecologically-encouraging farms that are selling — from farmer’s markets to community supported agriculture, to on-arm stands, to metropolitan buying clubs, to retail boutiques, whatever, but there are plenty of these kinds of things. Buying organic from a thousand miles away doesn’t get the job done. It’s just as energy intensive as anything else and so we want. That’s part of this whole local food awareness.
Now, can a locality feed itself? Absolutely, think about the amount of food, the kinds of food that can be grown within 100 miles of you. And just think about going down to the supermarket, walk through the isles and say, how much of this could be grown with 100 miles? And in northern climes if we take off citrus and coffee and tea and sugar, it can almost all be grown there. And so, its arguable, I think this is a fascinating thing, its really arguable right now, whether a culture which has incarcerated twice as many people in prisons as it has farmers growing its food – whether a culture is that disconnected from its ecological umbilical can even survive?
So, I think here again, we have to approach this from an integrated holistic standpoint. If the common temptation is for you and I to say, “Well you gotta do something, you gotta do something different, you need to do this and that and the other.” And we fail to realize that we are part of the issue. And none of the situation that we’ve gotten ourselves into is a result of any one person’s doing – it’s a collective accumulation of a new societal protocol, which I would suggest is very historically abnormal.
So first of all, find your kitchen, then source your food locally, and then grow some yourself. For example, to just show how disintegrated our thinking is, we’ve got now, for example, in New England, we’ve got confinement dairies who 20 years ago got environmental awards for taking taxpayer money to put in manure lagoons as a manure management program; now they are getting taxpayer-sponsored money to cover those lagoons with rubber bladders to capture the methane so they are getting little green environmental awards for being green and capturing methane so they can run all of the expensive fans and machinery and buildings and equipment that’s necessary in a confinement dairy operation. What we need to be doing is shutting down the confinement dairy operation, turning the herbivores back out on the perennials, like they were meant to be, letting them self-harvest, self-fertilize and shut down the entire concentrated animal-feeding operation with all of its attendant energy requirements.
Same thing goes, for example, for restaurants or let’s take a college that figures out “let’s take all of our kitchen scraps and send them up the road ten miles to the composing outfit,” and then the dining services coordinator gets a nice plaque and a little award for being green because now they are composing their kitchen scraps. What we need to be doing is building a little chicken house adjoining the back door of the kitchen so all the kitchen scraps can go right out into the chickens, the chickens then can eat that and produce eggs, now we don’t have to grow any grain, till the grain — chickens resume their historically normal cycle, which was the homestead salvage operation to take all the kitchen scraps and whey scraps and cheese scraps and all that and convert it into eggs. Now we don’t even have to have concentrated animal feeding operations for chickens anymore, and the Humane Society can rejoice that we don’t have any battery egg production. You don’t have to truck those eggs into the city, into the college, and eggs go right to the dining services and the kitchen scraps go out and it’s a beautiful, beautiful circle.
That is the kind of integration – you know we talk about windmills, and getting energy and stuff, my goodness — if we would take, if we would take on every southern exposure of every house and office building and school, whatever, if we would just take wire mesh or cattle panels and just tip up a frame and cover it with plastic to make a simple solarium 8’ out from the southern side of every building, we could virtually heat all the buildings without any energy and grow our mesculen mix and shut down all the trucks bringing California produce to New England over the wintertime.
If all the diesel fuel being put through refrigerated trucks to bring unseasonable produce to New England and Virginia – I’ll call it the northern tier – if all that diesel fuel was converted into plastic to make coop houses, season extensions, and solariums on the south side of buildings, we wouldn’t have to run any of those trucks, we wouldn’t have to build any of those roads, we wouldn’t have to use any of that energy to do that. And that becomes, see, that’s an integrated holistic approach, rather than some sort of “I’m going to continue to eat my California-introduced mesclun mix in February in New York City. Hang the system and let’s figure out how to make more cheap fuel.”
Chris Martenson: Just thinking about the issues before us and maybe trying to find clever ways around it, I’m personally shocked and sometimes dismayed at how far we still seem to need to go. For instance, in my local area, in Greenfield, Mass[achusetts], they are proposing a biomass plant. It sounds all green and everything right? But its going to require five or six hundred thousand tons of forest to be cut down, trucked to the central location. And they are building it with the intent that they need to do something with the waste heat, so there is all this piping that they are going to have to put in. Anybody who treats heat as a ‘waste stream’ at this point in time, I don’t think really deserves any green plaques, hasn’t really thought it through, and doesn’t understand much about what they are trying to solve.
Joel Salatin: Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. Now, to be sure, I am certainly a friend of biomass, and I’m not interested in cutting down all the forest, but it is a very, very renewable resource. In fact, in Austria, I’m told that virtually all of the urban homes are heated by wood pellets. So like here in the U.S., where we have the propane or fuel-oil truck that goes along and fuels people’s fuel oil tanks and propane tanks, there the same kind of truck goes along with a little auger in it and stops at your basement window and augers your