Joel Salatin: We Are the Solution, as Well as the Problem
A call for “ecological participation”
July 29, 2012
by Adam Taggart
There is nothing inherently environmentally damaging about human participation. Yes, I admit it and repent in sackcloth and ashes for all of the human devastation that has been caused throughout history. It has been caused long before the USDA, long before America, long before a lot of things.
It does not have to be so. In fact, we are not only the most efficient at destroying it; we are also the most efficient at healing it.
So states Joel Salatin, one of the most visible and influential leaders in the organic food and sustainable farming movement. Joel returns as a guest to discuss “ecological participation” – methods by which humans can create a much more resilient landscape than current mass agricultural practices allow for.
Among other topics covered in this podcast, Joel and Chris focus the current drought gripping much of the US (and other countries). How unusual is it in its severity? What’s causing it? What can be done to reduce our vulnerability in the future?
Joel’s basic point is that there is a wide set of solutions that are possible to implement today, at scale, that can have an enormously restorative impact on our ecology without sacrificing crop production yields. Some of these involve returning to practices common in past generations before modern factory farming, others arise from new innovative thinking and technologies.
The only obstacle to implementing these solutions is our own intransigence. Our politics and economy are deeply wed to the heavily depleting and input-dependent practices of modern mega-farms. So there are big interests concerned with protecting the status quo, even though it is simply not sustainable in the long term.
Which is why Joel is a big believer in action at the individual level. The more households and local communities begin implementing these sustainable solutions, more momentum will build to change perception and thinking at the state and national level. Plus, our local foodsheds and watersheds will be better off from these efforts – so why not get started now?
Anybody who knows me knows that I am a big believer in ecological participation. I am not a big believer in environmentalism by abandonment. That is, unfortunately, the mantra of the radical environmental fringe which believes that the best environmental policy is one of human abandonment.
So I look in the mirror and say, “Well, why do I have this big brain and these opposing thumbs? What am I here for?”
What I am here for is to participate in the environment as an active player to massage this ecological womb into more forgiveness. How do you build a forgiving landscape, a forgiving system?
First, it is important to realize that perennials are far more forgiving than annuals. Perennials live year to year and do not have to be planted. You do not need the moisture to grow the seed. They are much more resilient from year-to-year than annuals.
Of course, U.S. Farm Policy is all about annuals and not perennials. Perennials can be anything from nut trees to vineyards — obviously my big deal, is perennial grasses, the perennial prairies.
Those are far more resilient under stress than are corn, soybeans, small grains, and annuals. Even, for that matter, vegetables.
So, the first thing is to return to a perennially based system rather than an annual-based system. The U.S. even subsidizes annuals in production, which creates an inordinate pricing structure and masks many of the weaknesses, over time, of the annual type production.
So, what that means is that the cattle need to be taken out of feed lots. They need to be put on perennial prairie polycultures. But we are not talking about two-hundred-years-ago infrastructure. We are talking about using computer microchip electric fencing, polyethylene black plastic pipe watering systems. We can actually mimic the kind of production that was here six hundred years ago even better than it was then.
In fact, there were more pounds of red meat in what is now the U.S. five hundred years ago than there are today even with all the annuals and all the petroleum fertilizers because the perennials were so voluminous and so resilient. Number one.
Number two is hydration. See, one of our problems in our culture is that we were colonized. Native Americans would say taken over. The fact is that our culture is based in European culture and when you look at Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland, places like that, their water — when you talk about water there, it is all about drainage.
They have to drain it, drain it, drain it. Here the problem is not drainage; it is hydration. How do you hydrate the landscape? This is true. Sure, there are a few places where drainage is an issue. But for the most part, certainly in the lion’s share of the continent, hydration is the bigger issue. So how do you hydrate this?
And I would suggest that the number-one way is to build farm ponds. Not Army Corps of Engineer dams, and not Tennessee Valley Authority dams or whatever; what I am talking about are millions and millions and millions of farm ponds.
If the amount of earth that was moved to today to till, to move soil and till it to grow annuals, we are focused instead on moving soil to build farm ponds to keep the raindrops as high on the landscape as possible for as long as possible; we would fundamentally alter the hydration, the base flow, the aquifers, the whole situation in the country.
The problem is that between burning out the organic matter — and that brings me to the third point — you go to Australia, even in an urban setting, every house has a couple fifteen-hundred-gallon cisterns under the gutter downspouts.
In Colorado, it is illegal to have a rain barrel. That is how nuts we are in this country. We have to really focus attention on keeping water as high on the landscape as possible for as long as possible.
The third thing is that with chemical fertilization and tillage we have taken the organic matter out of our soils. One pound of organic matter holds four pounds of water. So, when we burn out the organic matter with either tillage or with chemical fertilizer, which stings the soil life and makes it start to cannibalize the soil life to stay alive, when that happens, then the water-retentive capacity of the landscape fundamentally changes.
One of the reasons that the Mississippi floods so dramatically so frequently in recent decades is because the organic matter of all of the area feeding the Mississippi river is down by about four times.
In other words, it has gone from an average 6-7 percent organic matter down to, in some cases, 1 percent organic matter in the last seventy or eighty years. That actually creates a huge loss of water retention in the landscape.
Chris Martenson: So that is as if billions of sponges suddenly cried out and were silenced.
Joel Salatin: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. That is exactly the way because organic matter is like compost. It is real soft, resilient, and spongy.
And when you take that sponginess out, not only can the soil, when it does rain, it cannot absorb the water as fast. It also cannot hold as much so you are working against yourself in both directions.
Whereas, in the native prairie where the organic matter was very high and there was this tremendous carpet of thick vegetation on the soil surface, it protected the soil both from erosion and from organic matter burnout.
Of course, the root and the biomass are what fed the soil, which did not burn out the organic matter. In fact, it actually built the organic matter.
You take those three elements, the annuals and the lack of hydration and the chemical fertilization. You have three strikes and you are out.
A lot of people, even conservatives are looking at this and say, “This is why we need crop insurance.” Crop insurance to protect these farmers. Well, you know, I think that taxpayer subsidized crop insurance simply props up this continued assault against the ecological profit and loss statement.
If farmers had to actually bear the cost of assaulting nature, maybe they would begin looking at some of these other parts of the equation and change some of their practices.
It is a busy time for the local food movement. We need to be busy because there is a tremendous amount of pushback from the industry and the entrenched food system that is not happy losing market share to people like us and losing people to their dependency on Velveeta cheese and Coca-Cola.
And so that is why voting with your food dollar whether it is to find your farmer, grow your own garden, or go down to farmer’s market or to the roadside stand or whatever, any of these things.
The thing is, we need to just kick the supermarket addiction. Treat it like a bad habit and get in our kitchens. The number one thing you can do is get in your kitchen and cook from scratch. Because that takes the dollar away from all the food processors and all that distribution-food-processing network that is all devoted to taking the life out of food and making sure food will not perish or will not rot, extending the shelf life.
The longer the shelf life is on food, the less nutritious it is. So re-develop your larder. Enjoy culinary, domestic arts, and begin — one bite at a time — extricating yourself from the agenda of people that if you knew what they actually believe, it would curl your hair.
And the fact that we have given over to the government the safety of our food — I mean, we are talking about people who think it is much safer to feed your kids Twinkies, Cocoa Puffs, and Mountain Dew than raw milk, compost-grown tomatoes, and pastured poultry.
This is just unprecedented in the history of the world, and we are a culture of guinea pigs. Nobody has you by the throat. To make the changes that we described today do not take an act of Congress. They do not take a change in the legislature. They do not take a change in the tax law. What they take are individuals to make committed, participatory, convictional decisions and change the landscape of our culture.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Joel Salatin (47m:09s):
Chris Martenson: Welcome to Peak Prosperity. I am your host, Chris Martenson, and today we have the pleasure of 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 featured prominently in such modern food movement masterworks as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan and the documentary film Food, Inc. He is America’s resident farmer-philosopher.
We last spoke to Joel in 2011, and that podcast was very well received, widely listened to, and … read more