Thursday, June 20, 2013

Post Industrial Agriculture... Joel Salatin

                When I first ventured into organic farming, “farming” would not have been the correct label for my activity. At that time, I had intended to open a restaurant. In the time it takes to find investors and such, I decided to investigate… in the ground… exactly what growing organic produce would take. I really had no idea whatsoever. The example on how to grow vegetables was watching my parent’s garden activity when I was a child.
                That was over two decades before at the time. My father spread out the proper NPK formula for garden growth… (for those unfamiliar with NPK, that is the synthetic formula for fertilizer, something I would never, I reiterate NEVER use today)… and then the garden was tilled and seeded with all of the bland vegetables sworn by in the Burpee catalog… Oh! And before I leave that very aged memory… the scent of Sevin, that carcinogenic powder that was dusted on almost all of the crops that accosted my sense of smell like… something COMPLETELY non-natural…
                I mention all of that as an introduction on my own knowledge of farming. Farming itself was quite close in the vicinity. Just behind the border of our property, luckily protected by multi-flora rose bushes, otherwise known in our local vernacular as “sticker bushes”… (perhaps I’ll get back to THAT ill-judged situation in the future…) was corn. Corn always grew behind our property, but not all of the neighboring parcel was dedicated to corn. There were also fields of grass, which would eventually be turned into hay. I have to relay, that these are the memories of my early youth that I divulge. It never struck me as odd that the corn that surrounded my parent’s property was inedible. I was informed that it was feed corn, which meant the cows ate it. There were some cows here and there on the various farms, so the statement seemed plausible. But corn was everywhere. And I was not a farmer… at that point. Those cows must sure be hungry…
                The issue for this entry, however, is grass. Why grass? Well, it was while reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma that grass was presented in a very different light than any of my previous thoughts on the subject had ever considered. (By the way, if you have not read this amazing book, do yourself a favor and do so… as soon as possible. Most of our current farming issues are explained quite thoroughly… and it is extremely well written.)
                In part “II” of the book, “Grass” is the focus. It is in this section that Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm is introduced. Joel Salatin is a grass farmer who uses the grass he nourishes to feed his livestock, most specifically his cattle. This may not seem all that impressive at first sight, but it truly is. I will restate, Joel Salatin is a grass farmer…
                I will get back to the grass farmer bit, but in order to relay the point of this entry, that of “Post Industrial Agriculture”, the other side, the nefarious side, that of Industrial Agriculture will be addressed. There is an incredible amount of complexity involved in the situation, but I will attempt to sum it up as briefly as possible… historically.
                Before Industrial Agriculture, family farms ruled the agriculture front. For this entry, livestock rearing will be the focus. Farms averaged in size, depending on the region, for our point the Mid-Atlantic, Mid-Maryland region, from fifty to one hundred and fifty acres. A portion of the farm was used as pasture for cattle, (and for ease of description, I will keep to the cattle focus), a portion was used to grow the hay to feed those cattle through the winter, and most often a portion was used for grains and such for other uses, flour, etc. As technology evolved, more and more of the labor which was for many years provided for by horses or oxen began to be replaced by machinery. Humans invented machines to make the labor part of the issue easier. For example, why have a barn to hold horses, along with growing the food they need to eat, when a gasoline powered tractor could do the work at lightning speed, so to speak?
                The times were changing, and they changed quite quickly. As machinery took over the landscape of farming, it changed the practices of farming. The focus grew dimmer and dimmer on the health of the situation, and more and more on the ease and profitability of the farm. After all, why does anyone farm except to make a healthy profit?... Anyone?...Anyone? Ah, alas, farmers, that is, the original stewards of the earth began to fade from the horizon. Instead of the healthy giving back to the environment which was required to sustain a farm before the advent of human industrial technology, the age had steamrolled into the new realm of chemistry. Now, synthetic fertilizers were created, which were so much easier to apply to the fields than the manure farmers had spread in the past. That is but one example, and somewhere along the line a new development appeared…
                “Let’s finish the cattle on corn!” What a brilliant idea! Instead of allowing the cattle to grow accordingly with the natural diet of grass, corn was inserted into the equation. And it gets very nasty from there. I realize I may have lost some readers here, but this is the advent of Industrial Agriculture. To explain, the cow’s stomach has evolved in such a manner that it can digest grasses in a manner our human stomachs cannot. Humans can digest grains in a way that a cow’s stomach cannot. These are natural guidelines arranged by nature in a complex manner that for anyone bearing the ability to reason beyond the simplistic level of money making would comprehend quite easily. Such reason was not involved in Industrial Agriculture.
                Over the decades, through government intervention and subsidies, corn was decided to be the “manna” for all life on the planet. I may be exaggerating here, but for humans and cattle that is certainly the case. Through the government subsidies, corn was cheap, damned cheap! Let’s put corn in everything! Let’s force feed cattle on corn! It will fatten them up! Brilliant! Thus was the simplistic thought on the situation. This led to the CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) as described in Michael Pollan’s previously mentioned book in quite alarming detail! Essentially, cattle are born and raised on the grass pasture for which they are naturally adapted, then they are shipped to CAFOs where they are fed a diet of mostly grain, corn, which fattens them up before being sent to slaughter.
                The point is that with the industrial agriculture approach, health has been eradicated from the process. Cattle cannot live on grain. In fact, the cattle that are fattened up in the CAFOs are actually dying from the diet they consume. They are slaughtered at their peak, just before their bodies give out from malnutrition. And there is so much more involved with this than what I describe here. All of the e-coli nonsense, mad cow disease, that is simply not natural, and all result from Industrial Agriculture in the attempt to maximize profits.
                The other side of the situation is… HEALTH. Now I will go back to Joel Salatin and the other grass farmers mentioned in Michael Pollan’s book. Whereas Industrial Agriculture seeks profitability at the expense of anything natural, the next level of farming seeks health first.
                Before I proceed, profitability is very important for many of the farmer’s in the Post Industrial Agriculture mindset, only they have a different means to their end. My personal exhaustion over the never ending quest for money should be ignored at this point, because Post Industrial Agriculture is also based in the reality of capitalistic society.
                That said, I always envisioned a “return” to the way things used to be when it came to agriculture. Before our chemical infatuation, life was life, let’s return to that. Through investigation, learning in general, I have personally discovered that I was woefully naïve. What I have learned is that science CAN lead us to improving our situations in the agricultural realm, only it is not the science of chemicals! That science is naïve and simplistic. What we need is a much more complex understanding… and a much more complex approach to the reality that is agriculture.
                It was Omnivore’s Dilemma that first presented me with the notion of Post Industrial Agriculture. After describing how he orchestrates his pasture rotation for his cattle, Pollan asked, “So is this sort of low-tech pastoralism simply a throwback to preindustrial agriculture? Salatin adamantly begged to differ: ‘It might not look that way, but this is all information-age stuff we’re doing here. Polyface Farm is a postindustrial enterprise. You’ll see.’” (p.191 Omnivore’s Dilemma)
                And just what were these “new” farming practices? Salatin uses a pasture rotation where cattle stay on a pasture for one day, then are moved to a new pasture the next day, etc. Instead of having cattle stay in the same pasture day after day, moving the cattle to different pastures allows for the previous pasture to “heal”, to grow back naturally, that is. This style of pasture rotation mimics the natural style of the herd, which travels from place to place, and does not stay in one spot endlessly. The manure fertilizes the freshly eaten grass, which grows back… better than before! Joel Salatin has been able to show that by this type of pasture rotation, the pasture improves, and he can add more and more cattle to graze the same land.
                This is very different than industrial agriculture, which attempts to find a simple formula to take care of all the issues of farming. Such an approach is extremely simplistic and naïve… and INFERIOR! Pasture rotation is by no means the only “different” approach Salatin takes for his farming venture. His approach is to learn how nature acts, allow nature to act accordingly, but to steer it in such a manner to improve the farm. The point is that through industrial agriculture, humans have attempted to dictate to nature how it should act, which does not work… especially in the long run. The post industrial approach uses nature’s complexity to improve upon itself.
                We will learn more and more about the negative effects of industrial agriculture as time progresses. In the meantime, those of us on the ground, on the organic farm land, us stewards of the earth will continue to marvel at the wondrous ways of nature… and to steer her accordingly. There are more examples to come on post industrial agriculture. This entry reflects only a portion of the animal husbandry side. Once again, if you have not already, read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and you will learn quite a bit more about Joel Salatin and what he is up to at Polyface Farm, along with many other fascinating farming facts.

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