A 'New-Fashioned' Food System That Helps and Heals

Author and "renegade farmer" Joel Salatin calls for food producers to tell a better story of a "new-fashioned" food system that rejects the industrial agriculture paradigm while embracing technology.

Cattle Electrified Fences

Electrified fences mean cattle can be moved frequently — better for the cattle and for the land.

Photo by Brenda Palmer/American Alps Rance

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Calling something “old-fashioned” might encourage tourists and antique buyers to take note, but it does not captivate the hearts and minds of our mainstream culture.

Too often, the Earth-stewardship movement positions itself as one of returning to a bygone era — to the good old days, pre-electricity and pre-petroleum. While washboards, hoop skirts and hearth cooking may have romantic appeal, living that way doesn’t inspire the imagination of today’s solution-seekers.

Even the majority of people who yearn for simpler times and a slower lifestyle don’t really want to go without electricity and automobiles. Those of us who strive to bring about a sustainable food system need a message that’s dynamic enough to convert fast-food junkies. The industrial food system spends a lot of time and resources refining its message. Along with disparaging the do-it-yourself ethos, pastured livestock and fertilizing with compost, it promotes phrases such as “technology,” “futuristic” and “feeding the world."

These catchwords have emotional appeal. Savvy people like to hitch themselves to that kind of engine. Solving problems, meeting needs, going places — these phrases capture hearts and minds. On the other hand, if impressions can kill a movement, stodgy, anti-tech and stuck in a rut are the last ways you want to be seen.

This is a ticklish talking point for those of us dedicated to the proven environmental stewardship principles that predate electricity and petroleum. Part of our worldview is that in a horse race, you bet on the proven winner. For example, carbon-centric soil building beats out using chemical “inputs.” But how do you commend this time-honored methodology that so beautifully mimics nature without seeming backward and unscientific?

Let’s Reframe Food and Farming

As I see more and more anti-ecology propaganda emanating from industry and government agencies, I lie awake at night trying to figure out positive sound bites for our team. If I decry the giant pork corporation Smithfield’s sale to China, I’m either xenophobic or childishly protectionist. If I denounce genetically modified organisms (GMOs), I’m naive and anti-science. If I disagree with a food-safety policy that criminalizes an artisan who sells homemade yogurt to a friend at church, I’m an anarchist.

Societal perception of the sustainability movement’s backwardness has roots that run deep. The early-1970s back-to-the-land movement that spawned MOTHER EARTH NEWS and many other publications started with the word “back.” The struggles that many of those pioneering souls experienced, from backbreaking labor to lost money to broken dreams, testify to the stark reality that truly going back is not something most of us really want to do.

So what kind of messaging — what lexicon — works? It has to be big enough, innovative enough, sacred enough to capture the hearts of all types of people. How do you stop people in their tracks — people content to watch TV every waking hour, depend on pharmaceuticals for every malady, and assume all is well in the world as long as the Kardashians’ dysfunction continues to provide conversational material? How do you interrupt that?

I think our side needs to position itself as “new-fashioned.” We have said “No” to GMOs, chemical fertilizers, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and unpronounceable food additives. These things we oppose have become the old fashion — and we need to call them that. Like neglected buildings, these approaches are outdated and falling apart. Anyone who thinks we can continue inventing drugs faster than microorganisms can adapt is guilty of backward, unscientific thinking — or not much thinking at all.

Let’s Upgrade the Language of Stewardship

Here’s some language we can use to create contrast between the old and new, and to stimulate conversation and more than passing interest in our solutions.

Integrated food and farming rather than segregated. These are powerful social words. Who wants to be in favor of segregation? Yet, a specific sort of segregation is exactly what city ordinances forbidding backyard chickens are about. Not so long ago, chickens turned food scraps into eggs and meat. Now trucks carry our edible scraps to the landfill, where they take up space and create climate-changing methane. We drive to the supermarket to purchase eggs from hens raised motionless in tiny cages and given medicated feed. How could we ever have invented such a senseless, segregated system?

People intuitively know that integrating food and farming practices is the right way to live. When I encounter people who oppose urban chickens, I love to look them in the eye and ask, “Why are you such a segregationist?” Now that gets a reaction. And getting a reaction is what we need to do, because it means people are paying attention. Powerful, positive words, such as integration, move people. Having developed together for millions of years, food systems that integrate the needs of plants, animals and the soil are fundamentally superior to segregated ones. The more we point that out, the better off we’ll all be.

Food systems that caress rather than conquer. Universally, conquistadors and crusaders have negative emotional equity. Who wants to be one of those people — or to be subjected to them? Industrial agriculture has created 700 riparian dead zones in and around the United States, the largest being a New Jersey-sized lifeless area in the Gulf of Mexico. Juxtapose that damage with an Earth-centric farm’s tender touch. With an overarching approach of respect, our side caresses ecology to tease abundance out of the Earth. We don’t take what we want by wrestling with our ecological womb as if it were a reluctant partner to be forcefully subdued.

Yes, we do run chainsaws and use broadforks and chipper-shredders, but the goal of our disturbance is thoughtful stewardship. Rather than allowing diseased and poorly formed trees to take up space in the forest, we harvest them for firewood and chip the tops for winter livestock bedding in our cowsheds. This carbonaceous cover turns to compost and, in our way of doing things, displaces chemical fertilizer.

In working with natural processes we adopt a common-sense approach to what we do. I remain amazed at the number of farmers I see locating hay feeders and mineral troughs in a valley rather than on a hillside. Animals congregate at these points, which accumulate manure. Why wouldn’t you want the blessing of that manure up on higher ground, where its fertility and helpful bacteria could percolate into the soil, instead of down in the valley — the landscape’s gutter — where the first rain would wash it away?

Healing rather than hurting. Here at Polyface Farms, our cooler bags are imprinted with the phrase “Healing the planet one bite at a time.” Almost everyone would rather heal than harm. Compost heals soil and feeds earthworms; chemical fertilizers scald earthworms, burning them alive. Pastured livestock virtually dance in the field. When you enter a CAFO, you don’t see any animals dancing. It’s horrifying and terribly sad.

Here’s the point: We don’t pasture our livestock because it’s quaint or old-fashioned. We do it because it makes for happy, healthy animals. It’s the new-fashioned way to farm, a smart approach that provides all sorts of benefits, including biomass recycling, exercise, emotional and spiritual fulfillment, and superior nutrition, both for the animals and the humans who ultimately consume them.

On our farm, if I even hear a whisper of, “This is like Grandpa’s farm,” I’ll interrupt and diplomatically start a lesson about how new-fashioned we are. I’ve even put together a presentation that highlights how our farm is not like Grandpa’s was.

Here are some of the new-fashioned objects in my props box:

Electric fence energizer. Grandpa couldn’t move herds of cows every day to eat the pasture’s biomass and convert the sun’s energy into sequestered carbon. Now, with computerized, microchipped energizers, we can move the cattle frequently to spread the manure love.

Polyethylene pipe. Grandpa couldn’t easily deliver clean, potable water to the far reaches of his farm. With this rugged, flexible material, we can send water over the undulations of the land and keep animals from damaging riparian areas. Amazing.

Shade cloth. Grandpa couldn’t provide portable shelter for his livestock because roofing was too heavy and susceptible to wind damage. This newfangled material lets the wind blow through while protecting the animals — and the fabric weighs practically nothing.

Solar-friendly plastic polymers for solariums and greenhouses. Grandpa relied solely on the larder for winter food. These new materials enable season extension and passive-solar gain at low cost and high efficiency, which means we can supply our table with fresh-cut harvests year-round.

Rather than promoting a return to old ways, celebrating the solutions in our new-fashioned, technology-supported, integrated world gives us a message of hope and progress to share. We don’t want to turn back the clock; we want to be on time for tomorrow’s needs and challenges.

Let’s stop looking in the rearview mirror. Out with the hurtful, earth-conquering old — let’s get on with the life-affirming, health-giving new.

Joel Salatin is an enthusiastic renegade farmer, lecturer and author whose mission in life is for agriculture to take place in partnership with the Earth. His books include Fields of Farmers; Folks, This Ain't Normal; and The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.