Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia, was at UVA on Thursday. I went and checked out his lecture on “Fitting Our Farm into Natures Template,” much excited at the prospect of finally meeting the man who has become one of the leaders in the local, sustainable food movement. I was not disappointed. Mr. Salatin is a fascinating and inspiring lecturer, to say the least.
One of his main points was that if we want healthy, ecologically sustainable farms, they must mimic the patterns of nature. As he said, we must use nature as a “template” for devising our agricultural systems. On his farm, animals are raised so that they can engage in relationships with each other and their environments that are “natural” and thus healthier and more sustainable. As Salatin explained, the industrial food system is built on unnatural practices. Cows are fed corn, a food that they were not designed to eat. This has been linked to an increase in human cases of E Coli, among other problems. Crops are grown on the same soil for many years instead of being rotated like they were by our ancestors. This results in vegetables that are not as nutritious as they used to be and is enabled only by the use of massive amounts of chemical fertilizers produced with petroleum. The ills of industrial agriculture go on and on… This made me think about our own small system at the UVA Community Garden. What are we doing that fits in with the patterns of nature and what can we do better? How can we utilize natural patterns to make our tiny system more efficient, better for the environment, and better for us?
At one point Salatin started to try and explain why industrial agriculture employs such horrible practices. At first he attributed it to “the stupidity of man” and asked “What happened to the idea of Jefferson’s intellectual agrarians?” (Too bad we didn’t get to show him our garden!). Although I don’t agree with his suggestion that modern farmers are stupid, I thought his second answer was right on. The system, he said, is completely distorted with rules, regulations, and special interests. After all, the reason that industrial cows are fed corn is because it is cheap, and the reason it is cheap is because of massive government subsidies. As another example, when Salatin tried to supply UVA Dining with his products, Aramark stepped in and demanded a prohibitively high insurance policy. With the system skewed in favor of industrial agriculture, it’s no wonder that there are so few farms like Polyface.
At the end of the lecture, someone asked Salatin what he thought about the fact that local, organic food is so expensive and that some people just can’t afford it. This is a criticism that I hear all the time, so I was happy to hear Salatin dismiss the “brouhaha” over price as “a bunch of fluff.” First of all, the true price of industrial agriculture is much higher than it seems, once you take into account the hidden environmental and health costs. Second of all, most of us spend a lot of money on unhealthy junk food that has very little nutritional value, not to mention countless unessential non-food items. In other words, maybe we just need to spend less money on other things and more money on healthy, sustainable food. After all, there are not many things more important in life than food.
Which brings me to Salatin’s final message. The bottom line, Salatin said, is that we need to get in touch with our food. We should know where our food comes from, how it was made, and how it got to us. He encouraged us to bring more transparency into the system by building relationships with our local farmers and visiting our local farms (field trip to Polyface anyone?). As I sit writing this I am digesting a delicious meal made almost completely from vegetables from the UVA Community Garden (Eggplant, Chard, and Grean Bean stir-fry, SO GOOD), and I realize that one of the great things about our garden is that it enables us to get in touch with our food at the most intimate of levels. I know exactly where this food came from and how it got to me. I know that no one was exploited when it was grown because I helped grow it. I know that no chemicals were sprayed on it because I was there. And I know that it is fresh because I picked it myself just a few hours ago. What’s more, it was super cheap, the only costs being our collective labor and a few small inputs.
Salatin ended the lecture with a challenge to all of us that I thought was tragic but inspiring at the same time: “May you leave your children with a world that is better than the one my parents left to me.” Certainly, a good start would be fixing our broken food system.
Happy Weekend, Trevor