Healing the Land

Joel Salatin came to Salt Spring this week and packed the drive shed at Foxglove Farm. I found the whole event quite fascinating and energizing. The price was high ($195) and lots of people who would have liked to be there were not. Just going and coming I met a handful of people who would have liked to be there. On the ferry home I sketched out a summary of what he had to say that could keep 70 or 80 people away from their farms on a full sun day after weeks of cloud and drizzle.

Part of the interest Joel generates lies in his ability to flip from the the global to the specific, from the geology of the western prairies to the eating patterns of a rabbit. At times this means a simple questions can lead to a ten minute discourse, but equally often a complex question is answered with a telling, single incident. Moreover, most of what he says at 9 am has a bearing on what he says at 3.43 pm and vice versa.

Being a pattern seeker, I divide what he says on many subject into vision, strategy and tactics.

VISION

The vision is the simplest. He wants to heal the land and he wants others to help; industrialization has fouled our nest he believes and we need to clean things up. We can’t do this by creating beautiful wilderness parks in distant regions; we have to do it where we live and work and in terms of how we live our daily lives. Michael Pollen discovered Salatin because Joel refused to ship him some beef by Fed-ex so Pollen had to become part of the farm’s community. That simple act has direct roots in Joel’s vision, one key of which he terms: bio-mimicry, learning from nature, specifically from grazers and their grasses. Another key lies the use we make of our large brains and innovation skills: farmers need to built equity in and via our management skills and our ingenuity, not in large barns, larger tractors and oil-intensive distribution chains. Farmers need to be creative and adaptive stewards, not minor links in a chain of stock markets, banks and global corporations.

STRATEGY

Although it is Joel’s clever tactical level which kept the farmers in the audience from dozing off and which forms the proof of his theories on the farms of his many early adapters, these are not simple inventions or gimmicks: they arise out of the strategy which he articulated over the years to enact his vision and which he defines as: Mob, Move and Mow.

Mob, Move and Mow defines the pattern of nature by which herbivores, predators and grasses, with or without the help of humans, create large expanses of rich soil and rich grasslands before settlement, but a century of increasingly industrialized farming had turned  into a wasteland. Joel’s strategy, like his father’s before him, was to stop trying to grow grains through mining the stored richness  (impossible by then anyhow) but to restore the grasslands and thus the soil with herbivores as his “machinery.”  The gullied wreck of a farm which his father bought in 1961 is now not only productive and profitable, but a thing of beauty.

This strategy, however, back in 1961 and through the next few decades, was not what common wisdom recommended; quite the opposite: experts, banks, suppliers and regulators had another model of large (confinement) buildings, specialized machinery and monoculture. Joel’s optimism is infectious, but it is clear that he marches to his own drummer. Like Rilke, he has learned to love the question. Like Thoreau he knows how easy it is to become the tool of our tools. However, he has few romantic notions about the past; he can wax poetic about portable band saws or the latest ingenuity in electric chicken fencing. He believes that we should imitate the process by which heritage breeds were established rather than simply try to maintain the purity of the past.

He has invested in many ways: in a loan for a farm to buy a delivery truck so they could expand their business of making GMO-free feed and in training interns and helping to establish them on their own farm.

TACTICS

I think I will need to cover some of these in specific blogs–with lots of video. We asked him what he felt was his most important invention and he chose the vertical hay rack rather than the egg mobile, but if you Google them both you’ll see that the latter has had (so far) the enormous impact.

The egg-mobile and the layers and turkey equivalent are expressions of the strategy to reduce infrastructure and make what infrastructure you have portable: take the grazers to the grass not the grass to the big barn.

The vertical hay rack, however, is probably more indicative of how he moves from theory to practice. He is limited, of course, in how far he can move his herd. They can certainly not move further south by three or four hundred miles to find fresh graze for the winter so he needs to deal with winter shelter. He does this via a large, open barn whose walls are bales of feed hay and whose cement floor accumulates three months of manure and bedding in situ. To deal with the rising of the floor from December through March, he built hay racks on a pulley system so that the rack is slowly raised through the winter.

As the bedding pile rises, he sprinkles it with whole corn, layer by layer. Also, as the pile rises, it a) provides heat and b) increases its absorbancy so that the requirement for fresh bedding decreases.

Then, he releases the cattle to fresh pasture and has a large chunk of potential compost in a single place: but very compact and quite anaerobic. Are you still following this: if so, what does he do with this mass of manure and wood chips?

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