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Calvin January Series: Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm

January 18, 2012

Pigs express their pigness at Polyface Farm

Author and fulltime alternative farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Joel Salatin began his talk with an analogy that likened our relationship to food to a relationship with a dance partner. In eras past, our relationship with this dinner dance partner was much more intimate. People spent a majority of their time dancing with their food—planting it, tending it, harvesting it, preserving it, cooking it and eating it at the table with friends and family.

Now we spend very little time with our dinner dance partner. Most of us don’t even sit down to a meal—instead we graze. “We have pulled away from this dinner dance partner. Others have stepped in very gladly to fill in this relationship deviation: Kraft, Monsanto, Taco Bell … the list goes on and on,” Salatin said. “As we have deviated from this historical intimacy, other entities  with dubious agendas have stepped in, corporations which take a fundamentally mechanical view towards food. Food is a biological thing, not a mechanical thing.”

Salatin said that we need to make our kitchens the heart of our homes again. He encouraged audience members to learn to can and cook from scratch–and to be compassionate with themselves. After all, a baby learning to walk falls down a lot at first. “Well, have you heard if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing right? We don’t do anything right at first … If it’s worth doing it’s worth doing poorly first.”

Salatin challenged Tuesday’s January Series audience to think small—microscopically small. He pointed out that two handfuls of fertile soil have more live organisms than there are people living on the earth. He noted that modern science sees agriculture as a mechanical endeavor rather than a relationship with life. Its disregard for the organisms living in soil has grown into a disregard for farm animals, as evidenced in CAFOs, and, ultimately, a disregard for human beings, as borne out by violence in our culture that especially impacts people perceived as “the other,” e.g. immigrants.

“The notion of life as a mechanical thing has led us to some really strange paradigms. Like soil is inert. Look in an electromicroscope. (You’ll see)  all kinds of microorganisms living . . . a community of amazing beings  . . . Everything that we are and we see is dependent on that invisible world.”

Instead of following the lead of the living, natural world, modern agriculture is looking for “Star Trek fantasy” answers to the increasingly complex problems that science-based agriculture has created. Salatin made reference to the US-Duh (USDA), as it continues to support corporations like Monsanto which are endangering all life on the planet in the name of profits.

“There are reasons why things are the way they are,” Salatin said. “When we view life as an inanimate structure, the culture takes that same kind of tyrannical view towards its own citizens and other cultures . . . we have gotten so mechanistic that we have left an ethical moral parameter.”

A working model

Joel Salatin at home on the free rangeSalatin’s Polyface Farm successfully flies in the face of modern agricultural science and its destructive “best” practices. One example, over the winter, cows contently amble into a shed to feed—and poop. As the manure piles up, corn is mixed into it and the feed bins are raised. As spring arrives, the pigs are allowed into the shed. As they happily root for corn, they aerate the manure, “fluffing it up” and aerating it, creating a fertile compost for the fields.

Salatin asked, “How do we create a habitat for the pig that allows the talents and gifts that God gave that creature? Put a moral ethic around it. Then we can innovate within the protective confines of humility. In CAFOs, there is no place for the expression of the gifts and talents of the pigs. They get bored, cannibalize each other. We are a culture that cannibalizes as a direct result of a food system that cannibalizes.”

At Polyface Farm, the free range chickens follow the cows, like birds follow herbivores in the wild. The cows here are herbivores. Cows at CAFOs are fed meat, often diseased meat. These types of practices not only subjugate livestock animals to lives of pain and misery, they also breed new diseases, for example, mad cow disease.

Salatin noted that if scientists wanted to create disease, cancer and sickness, the best way to do it would be to establish farms that specialized in only one species so pathogens wouldn’t have to adapt to variety. Then, crowd them up real tight so it’s easy for the pathogens to get from one animal to another. Next they would put the animals in a building with no fresh air or sunshine, as both can slow the growth of pathogens. The scientists would make sure the animals get no exercise, as that might boost their immune systems. They would further suppress the animals’ immune systems by injecting them with antibiotics and hormones. Last of all, they would feed the animals junk. This “experiment” describes today’s CAFO, describes modern, science based agriculture and describes our food system.

“We want a farm that builds soil, builds immune systems, builds nutrient density. Ultimately, as a farmer, I am in the land redemption business . . . (We need to) step in as loving land stewards, caretakers, as an expression of God’s grace, abundance and redemptive capacity. .. God is beautiful and we are supposed to extend his beauty into creation. I’ll bet he’s interested in the pigness of a pig. (We should) all commit ourselves to embracing our dinner dance partner and building a world that’s better than the one we inherited.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2012 4:44 pm

    How many pigs were consulted in writing this story? How many chickens? How many cows?

    I know it sounds silly to most people, but I think it’s a relevant question. I would like to hear what they say about living a life of confinement for food. Unlike Salatin and other “humane” meat farmers, I can’t claim to speak for animals, but I have a hunch that a life of confinement and execution for human ends at a free range farm is essentially one of “pain and misery.”

    What you are talking about here is basically swapping one set of chains – those of factory farms – for another. Perhaps it’s akin to the difference between a maximum security prison and a halfway house? Either way your life is subjected to the domination of another over you and it is characterized by oppression.

    For the animals, life is still going to be hell. They will be confined (in bigger, oh-so-humane conditions) for human needs. They are domesticated, which goes against their nature and their essential wildness. Pigs were only domesticated (i.e. ripped from their natural environment and forced to serve human ends) several thousand years ago, before that they existed on their own. I’d argue that is the essence of their “pigness.”

  2. stelle permalink
    January 26, 2012 1:55 pm

    Thank you for sharing your analysis of this report.

  3. March 25, 2012 11:13 pm

    Really, George, animals are going to eaten one way or another. I appreciate your position, but people have been eating meat ever since people have been, well, people. For example, if deer hunters weren’t around the deer population would be more explosive in Michigan than it is now–totally out of balance. The reason the deer population is out of balance? Well not because there isn’t a lack of hunters, but because farmers have to the keep their land clear to feed all the vegetarians (among other people) in the world with soybeans and corn.

    Besides we are living in a world where a vegetarian diet depends on frequent tillage of the soil, which means a consistent dependency on foreign oil and the like . . . and if even we did give up animal agriculture what happens to the animals then? Is it humane just to release these creatures into the wild, when they have been bred genetically for domestication all these years? Doesn’t that simply leave them to starve?

    None of this sounds like the model of redemption which Salatin so eloquently talked about; which to me sounds a lot more reasonable. A dependency on annual agriculture means that soil nutrients are declining and people aren’t able (if they even were before) to get proper nutrition solely from plants. It also means that deer and other critters need to be hunted to keep them from spreading rampant and passing on diseases and parasites that kill them anyway. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. I have a lot of friends that are vegetarians and animal rights advocates, and I think it is a noble aim but very unpractical, and environmentally irresponsible.

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