What is “Grass Farming”?
An interview with one of the nation’s pre-eminent experts on the subject
Joel Salatin loves his work. He loves getting up at the crack of dawn and taking his chickens for a walk. He loves the succulence of tender, grass-raised beef. He loves observing his pigs, which snort with glee while sifting through piles of manure. And he loves the philosophy of his business, which is that a truly sustainable farm should also support a local food system. He loves it so much, in fact, that he refuses to ship any of his products. Aside from a few deliveries made to local restaurants, if people want ’em, they can come get ’em. And that’s basically how Joel Salatin became famous.
A few years ago a journalist named Michael Pollan got wind of Salatin. Pollan was working on a book that has since come out titled The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explores our nation’s different food systems. Pollan wanted to try a steak of grass-raised beef and had heard great things about Salatin’s farm, Polyface. So he called him and asked for a shipment. Salatin refused. The defiance stoked Pollan’s curiosity, and not long after he was on a plane headed to Polyface Farms. Salatin became one of the main and most memorable characters in Pollan’s New York Times-bestselling book, and his already well-revered status in the grass farming community has grown. Now Salatin splits his time at his farm with speaking engagements across the country, educating people on grass farming. (The practice is based on the tenet that the diet of all the animals on a farm should stem from grass—the cows eat grass, the chickens eat grass and peck through the manure of the cows, which came from grass, etc. A viable grass farm uses a sophisticated system of animal rotation and pays good mind to the quality of the grass it grows—Polyface boasts more than 20 healthy varieties of grass in one square foot of land.)
It was at one of these speaking engagements last November, at a conference hosted by Holistic Management International, that the Alibi had the opportunity to steal some of Salatin’s time. Here he tells us about what it really means to be a grass farmer.
Let’s start by talking about how your farm operates. Can you explain the system you use to rotate animals and the care you give to the grass?
“The problem with the environmental movement is it has demonized the cow as the instrument rather than demonizing the management style.”
We are a grass farm. And I think if you're willing to tackle big issues—our country, our agriculture—we do not honor grass. We honor corn and cotton and soybeans and rice [and] sugarcane. Those are the five subsidized commodities in this country. Grass is like the ugly step-farmer.
Grass is a perennial, and it doesn't have to plowed and planted and herbicided and mechanically harvested. We know that cows are actually the healthiest when they eat grass as opposed to eating corn, which acidulates their rumen and makes them have acid-tolerant E. coli. Then instead of dying in our highly acidic stomach, it's already acclimated, so it survives and kills us. So there are huge nutritional, food safety and ecological reasons to have the food system rotate around grass as opposed to an annual crop.
So we're looking at nature and saying, Well, how to herbivores run in nature? Well, they group, they mob up for predator protection, and they mow. They don't eat dead cows, they don't eat chicken manure, they don't eat grain. So what we're doing is looking at nature and cutting that pattern out like a template and laying it down on the commercial domestic production and saying, How can we most closely approximate this pattern? We use electric fence to manage those animals and then a daily move of the herd so that at any one time most of the grass is at rest, recuperating, and we're only impacting one tiny portion of it.
What that does is doubles and triples the amount of biomass that grows, and the more biomass we can grow the more carbon we sequester; and it is a fact that if we just increase soil organic matter on the pasture lands of the U.S. one percentage point—which could be done easily in less than 10 years—we could sequester all of that carbon that's been emitted since the beginning of the Industrial Age.
“The old Jeffersonian idea of the sophisticated, agrarian peasant is now gone. Who are the heroes of our society now?”
What’s the order you use to rotate the animals?
It depends on what we're doing, but generally the cows come first and then the egg mobile follows the cows, just like birds follow herbivores in nature. You know, the egret on the rhino's nose, the birds that follow the wildebeests on the Serengeti, they're following the herbivores, eating the newly exposed grasshoppers and crickets post-grazing. In other words, nature is always in a scavenging business. It doesn't want waste, so there are all these wonderful symbiotic relationships to minimize waste, and one of them is birds following herbivores. So we follow the cows with the egg mobile, and the egg mobile (the chickens) then free range out to scratch the cow patties, eat out the fly larva, sanitize it, harvest the grasshoppers and crickets and turn them into eggs. And then we also use broilers when the grass gets too long because chickens can't masticate grass that's real long. They want young, tender sprouts, so we use the cows to graze the grass short. Everything we do on our farm is to stimulate the ingestion of green material, whether it's rabbits or pigs or chickens or cows or turkeys. Everything is managed and choreographed to stimulate the ingestion of green material, because that is the secret to protein health.
Your farm seems like its own kind of ecosystem in that you're not buying a lot to bring into it; you're using what you already have to sustain all those animals. Is that right?
Well, the one main thing we buy is local grain for the omnivores—the pigs and the chickens. We don't buy any grain for the cows. But again, in a big picture standpoint, I think it's important to understand that 70 percent of all of the grain grown in the U.S. goes through cows. Only 30 percent is poultry, pigs and people. So think what it would do to our agriculture if 70 percent of the crop land were returned to perennial prairie poly-cultures under intensive grazing management. You could write a paper on that.
“I remember in high school when I told the guidance counselor I was going to be a farmer, she would have epileptic seizures over a wasted brain.”
There's a quote on your website where you say, "Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health." Can you explain that?
That's one of my favorites. We live in a culture in which the view of pigs or tomatoes or whatever is essentially a mechanistic view—that essentially a pig, let's just use that as an example, is simply an inanimate, protoplasmic structure that is free to be manipulated however the human mind is clever enough to conceive to manipulate it. The USDA mantra is grow it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper. And so when we view life from that perspective it disrespects the inherent physiological distinctiveness and phenotype of that creature. And a culture that views its animals from that same assaultive, manipulative worldview will view its citizens from the same manipulative worldview and other cultures from the same. It's no wonder that a culture that views its life as simply something to be manipulated will begin to have a foreign policy that's manipulative. And so if we're going to create a respectful, honoring culture, it starts with the least of these then creates a moral and ethical framework on which to construct a correct attitude toward the greatest of things. That's where it starts.
I’ve read that your beef tastes amazingly different from beef that’s conventionally raised. Why is that?
“ If we just increase soil organic matter on the pasture lands of the U.S. one percentage point, we could sequester all of that carbon that's been emitted since the beginning of the Industrial Age.”
Well, I'm not a chef, but generally it's a much richer, [more] memorable taste. Our food system has become very bland. Goodness, if you go to get prime rib it's just bland. It's soft, but it's just bland, whereas our meat actually has a taste to it. Our eggs—they're not pale, they're vibrant orange because of the carotene. In fact, the October issue of Mother Earth News has a great big article, we're one of them, of 14 pasture-based farms in the U.S. where they did an empirical nutrition test in a lab in Oregon compared to the USDA egg label. And pastured eggs are just … we're not talking about 10 percent differences, we're talking about 1,000 percent differences in nutrition.
The thing is, you are what you eat, and so the taste comes through the product. To be able to eat tenderloin from a pig that has gamboled is completely different from a pig that has been in a 2-foot by 2-foot confinement with 50 other pigs in a crate all its life. Never saw a sunrise, never saw a blade of green grass, never could walk more than a foot without bumping into another pig.
We learn a lot from our chefs, and one of the things they tell us about our pork, for example, is that it's much denser. Muscle tone. It's denser, so that a cubic foot of our pork will displace less water than a cubic foot of factory pork. Our eggs, [bakers can use the] same recipe, but the pastry doesn't dry out as fast and so it doubles their window of marketability from 36 hours to 72 hours. Well, that's everything for a pastry shop. I mean, that's the difference between throwing stuff away and never throwing anything away. We have one restaurant that does a lot of wedding cake catering and they sell wedding cakes by the vertical inch. And using the same recipe, same ingredients, with our eggs compared to conventional eggs they get an additional 20 percent elevation because of structure. They whip up fluffier, they hold better. These things all translate into a taste and texture superiority that is not only sensually detectable but laboratory empirically detectable.
You’re an advocate of eating locally. When you’re away from your farm, what do you eat? What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I didn't eat breakfast.
“A culture that views its animals from that same assaultive, manipulative worldview will view its citizens from the same manipulative worldview.”
Did you eat lunch?
What did you have for lunch?
I had some stuff they had in here [at the conference]; they had a buffet. I didn't eat any pig and I didn't eat any chicken. I don't eat chicken. I'll go hungry before I eat chicken. Chicken is the worst. Beef is the least bad, partly because of the way it's slaughtered. Even industrial beef spends half its life on pasture.
So if you're out traveling and you don't have access to local farms, do you just stay away from eating the kinds of meats you disagree with morally?
I eat just enough to be polite. I went through a period when, if I was out for less than 48 hours, I just fasted. And I found it too discomforting. When I'm at home I work hard and I have a good appetite and it just really was tough. Then I realized, Well, you can't be a bad guest if somebody wants to take you out to dinner or whatever. So now what I do is I eat very, very little. Like at lunch today I ate half of what most people ate, just enough to keep the pains down. I'm hungry right now, but it's OK. It's okay to be hungry.
Now, I do bring things from home. The best is jerky. And then mixed nuts; they travel well. I could go for days on jerky and mixed nuts.
You said earlier that you won't eat chicken when you're away because it’s the worst. Why is it the worst?
Because it's the most unnaturally produced and filthfully processed. See, a beef, when it's killed, you pull the hide off. That's a relatively clean process. It's like a glove—you just pull the hide off. The chicken is doused in scald water, which is manure because of all the manure on the feathers and the chickens and all this. So it's a manure bath, scald water, that goes into the skin to loosen the feathers so it can be picked. Then it's run through a gauntlet of pickers that mash all that fecal into the skin, into the carcass. And then it's mechanically eviscerated, and a lot of times the intestines burst and all that manure goes right into the carcass. That's why most salmonella and food-borne pathogens are from poultry—because it's so filthfully processed.
“We have this saying, ‘I'll believe it when I see it.’ That's actually backwards. You'll see it when you believe it.”
Why do you think all farmers don't follow some of the same practices you do at your farm?
They're masochists. No, it's just different. We make more money. We have more fun. We don't work more hours; in fact, we work fewer hours and the work we do is more fun. I mean, I'd much rather roll up an electric fence and call the cows and roll it back than slave away all day on a tractor breathing dirt dust, plowing the cornfield or whatever.
And people are always afraid of something different. They're afraid to think differently, afraid to do differently, it's the whole paradigm. Your paradigm is so much a part of you that even if I laid out a bunch of data and could prove to you that this would make you more money or would make you a better quality of life, your paradigm is a filter to your brain. We have this saying, "I'll believe it when I see it." That's actually backwards. You'll see it when you believe it. What you believe is a future for what you will see. And that's why two people can look at the same set of numbers and have two totally different headlines. It's because you're looking at things through your preconceptions. And that's why farmers tend to not endorse things. And I think one other reason farmers tend to not be innovative today is because the average farmer is 60 years old and people become less and less innovative the older they get because innovation is very costly. It's very physically demanding, because when you innovate you fail lots of times. And because the older you get the harder it is to pick yourself up when you fall down. As you age, you necessarily become less aggressive at creativity. So as the [average] American farmer now approaches 60 years old, we're losing youthful, emotional and physical energy that's necessary for innovativeness.
Why is that average age increasing?
Because young people aren't coming into farming. The stereotype in our culture is that farmers are the dumbest, the redneck-tripping-over-the-transmission-in-the-back-yard, tobacco-spittin' farmer hillbilly. The old Jeffersonian idea of the sophisticated, agrarian peasant is now gone. Who are the heroes of our society now? Not farmers.
I remember in high school when I told the guidance counselor I was going to be a farmer, she would have epileptic seizures over a wasted brain. "Well, you're smart. Why in the world would you ever want to be a farmer?" ...If you got any brains you're supposed to go to town to become an attorney or an accountant or an engineer.
How much does it cost to transform an operation from conventional to grass-based?
Oh my. It's so different. The bigger the operation, the harder it is to change—because it's harder to turn around an aircraft carrier than a speedboat. So that's why when you look at the options, the farm options, most of them are the big operations that couldn't change. The little ones are more resilient. They don't have as much invested or mortgaged or imbedded, and they're a little more free to make modifications. The big ones are simply too strung out economically and emotionally to change. So they're just, they're just stuck.
You said earlier your farm is more cost effective. How does that work?
Well, for one thing, let's think about the things we're not buying. We're not buying any chemicals, we're not buying any fertilizer, we're not buying any seed. Our petroleum bill per growth sales is so low that petroleum could double and we would still be fine. Now, think of the average farmer ... those are big expense items!
OK, so our farm runs on solar energy. We use some petroleum, but the amount of petroleum used for the production is miniscule. I mean, think about a cow out there grazing grass compared to tilling up a field, planting corn, applying chemical fertilizer, applying chemical herbicides and pesticides, and then mechanically combining that crop, trucking it to an elevator, drying [it] with petroleum, storing it and then trucking it to some place to feed it to the animal. There's no comparison.
How well does this farming model work in a climate like New Mexico’s?
Every single climate has a liability. Your liability is that you just don't grow as much volume, but there's also an asset. In the arid climate, you don't have leeching, so you don't tend to have a calcium deficiency. In our area, we have a significant calcium deficiency. You have a real sweet soil because of the highly mineralized soil that doesn't get leeched, out so your beef tends to be highly calcified, highly mineralized, which makes really succulent, tender beef.
There seems to be an antagonistic relationship between people who raise animals for consumption and environmentalists. But you seem to be both of those. Do you see that tension? How do you navigate it?
Oh, yeah. Well, you gotta understand that the mainline environmentalist agenda hates people and hates animals because they've seen what overgrazing has done; but the problem is not the animals, it's the management of the animals. Animals can either be a tool for healing or a tool for destruction.
I hate to say animals are tools because now I sound like a machinist myself, but you see what I'm saying: They can either be an instrument of healing or devastation. Goodness, in a family a child can be an asset or a liability depending on if they're wild or human.
So the problem with the environmental movement, the leadership of the environmental movement, is it has demonized the cow as the instrument rather than demonizing the management style. And so what happens is they have used their misperceptions to get the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to create grazing protocol that procludes animals as a healing instrument.
Are you working on any more books right now?
Well, I'm not actively working on [any]; I've got outlines for three. I've written six and one just came out three months ago, Everything I want to Do is Illegal. And so the next one, I think right now my working title is The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. And it will be essentially a very upbeat treatment of juxtaposing what we do compared to what other people do, and the sheer joy and ecstasy of doing it this way as opposed to the industrial approach. There's a bunch of titles in the works, so as I have time I'll keep trying to crank them out. When I write a book I just tune the world out and crank it out, so most of the books I've written I do in, like, three weeks.
I have one last question: If there was just one thing people could do tomorrow to be more sustainable, what would that be?
I think the one thing that could be done would be to emancipate food. Emancipate direct-marketed farmer-to-consumer food from government regulation. The only reason we don't have a more visible and prosperous local food economy is the food laws that were written to protect us from the industrial food system that are being applied to local food systems—embryonic food systems.
I'm going to put this in context really quickly so you see where I'm going with this. You know eBay? Just imagine if, in order to access eBay, to put something on eBay, you had to have a computer operator’s license, and you had to be zoned for business—so you had to have commercial parking access, you had to have a fire marshall-certified license in case your item got too hot, you had to have an electrician's certification that your wiring and your plug-ins were up to code, you had to have an OSHA license [so] that when you jumped up from your chair when a great bid came in you didn't get a splinter in your beheinie from a desk that was falling apart. You see where I'm going with this?
If this were required, how successful would eBay be? It wouldn't exist. That’s what we've got right now in the local food system and that's why I wrote the book Everything I Want to Do is Illegal—because the problem is that the regulatory climate, written for an industrial food system, cannot be scaled down to be capitalized in an embryonic business venture, whether it's making some cheese in your kitchen or some cornbread muffins you'll sell to the neighbors. All of these things have such a huge amount of required infrastructure wrapped around the very first pound of anything that the embryo, the prototype, has to be so big to capitalize the infrastructure costs that the embryo is too big to be born. And so what happens is the businesses never see the light of day because they can't be born.
And so the one thing we could do is to emancipate food from the enslavement of these industrial-sized regulatory infrastructure requirements so that a local food commerce could proliferate. And if it were freed up to proliferate, we would spin circles around Wal-Mart, around Little Debbie, you name it—Archer Daniels Midland—we would spin circles around them. That would be the one thing I would do.
To find out more about Joel Salatin, visit www.polyfacefarms.com.