Natural Farming: Inspiring Passionate 'Stewards'

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SWOOPE, Va. - Joel Salatin is an outspoken, alternative farmer who wants Americans to think about what they eat and where it comes from.

And he thinks the Church should be leading the way.

His fresh approach has been featured in documentaries like "Food, Inc." and books like The Omnivore's Dilemma

Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley is not showy or high tech. Its very simplicity is actually revolutionary given the state of agribusiness today.

Salatin does not confine his animals in cramped and filthy living spaces. Nor does he inject them with hormones or offer them chemically enhanced food. Such conditions are typical for most American farms today where efficiency and corporate demands dictate much of the animals' existence.

One of Salatin's main missions is to mimic God's creation. That's why all his cattle eat grass, not grain.  There are no pesticides, no fertilizers, and no hormones. Everything is natural.

Animals Living Together

"We move the cows every day to a new spot which allows the grass time to recuperate and go through its what I call 'the teenage growth spurt,'" Salatin said.

On his fresh pastures, Salatin feeds his cows, hens and broiler chicks what he calls a 'salad bar.' It's simply a mix of all kinds of grasses which provide rich nutrients for the cattle and the other animals to follow. 

Salatin's innovative cycle builds all kinds of synergies from the different animals he raises. As opposed to corporate farms which promote a "monoculture," such as all corn or all beef, Salatin pursues a polyculture. 

The farm's name "Polyface" promotes this idea of animals living together to leverage their God-given traits in such a way that produces maximum advantage for the farmer.

For instance, Salatin puts broiler chicks on the land where the cows previously fed. The shortened grass encourages their ingestion of fresh, tender sprouts.

Next, Salatin brings in what he calls the "eggmobile," a sort of hen house on wheels. He drives it to a new spot each day and opens the doors so the hens can literally have free range on their pasture.

Along the way the hens dig through the cow patties to eat protein-rich larvae. Their droppings in turn fertilize the field all over again.

Theological Farming

Salatin believes the model creates healthy animals and ultimately, healthy people. And he believes it's an approach that makes theological sense as well.

"It is how you respect and honor the least of these that creates a consistent ethical framework on which you honor and respect the greatest of these," he said. "It starts by honoring and respecting the pigness of the pig and the chickenness of the chicken."  

Respecting these animals and their innate needs not only is good farming but foundational to a "God-don't-make-no-junk" philosophy of life, Salatin said.

Salatin explains his views in-depth in seven self-published books. He's a sought-after speaker on college campuses where he promotes local food and tears down anything hinting of corporate production.

Not surprisingly, he's viewed with skepticism by many associated with agribusiness.

Salatin's Congressman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. is vice-chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. He said Salatin is a good friend but he doesn't agree with much of his philosophy. 

"In my opinion, it's not necessary to produce food the way he does it," Goodlatte told CBN News. He added that Salatin's prices are unaffordable for many consumers.

Salatin maintains good food is worth it. He also countered that processed food is often more expensive.

Plowing Future Fields?

There are those in Washington who think Salatin might just be on to something. 

Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst at The Center for Food Safety, said he'd like to see more research on Salatin's approach.

"We need the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put as much money into studying how Joel Salatin does, so they can teach folks, as they do subsidizing the big operations," Hanson said.

Around the country. Salatin has earned a loyal following.  At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill recently, his lecture sold out and fans quickly formed a book signing line afterwards.

Steve Gisselman was one such fan. As an assistant strength and conditioning coach at UNC, he's read several of Salatin's books and said Salatin has changed his thinking,

"I've really thought about where does my food come from?  Where am I getting it from?  Is it sustainable?" Gisselman said.

UNC food studies major Lauren Wilson said Salatin is influencing many young people who are considering farming.

"He's a person out there showing it can be done and he's been successful in various ways--environmentally, economically and socially" she said.

Inspiring 'Loving Stewards'

If Salatin's plans succeed he'll help build up a new generation of farmers who subscribe to an all-natural approach. That's why he's so quick to denounce the negative stereotypes. 

"We've got this cultural mentality that you've got to be an idiot to be a farmer" he told students at UNC.

Instead, he believes, the best and the brightest should be considering it.

"If we are wanting to take care of and steward our landscape, then we are going to need more loving stewards on that landscape," Salatin said. "If it is to be done well, it is going to need excellent practitioners and more practitioners."

Every year Salatin turns away hundreds of applicants wanting a shot at his rigorous apprentice and intern programs. Daniel Pike made the cut last year.

"I always wanted to farm but I didn't think it was a real possibility," Pike said. "You know, I need to go work in an office, work with computers and make money, make a living."

Then Pike started reading Salatin's books and began to see his dream as a viable option.

"There's this alternative farming where people are making money," he said. "Where it's respecting of the animals and it goes in line with how God set up all the systems."

Salatin said the good news is that many in the faith community are beginning to re-think their attitudes toward food and farming. And it's home schooling families he says that are leading the charge.

"When a person is freed up to examine and then make an opt-out change as a strategic decision and then finds it soul-satisfying -- 'Wow, our kids are responding, our family is harmonious'-- then they say, 'Well, what else should we opt out of?'" he explained.

Creator, Not Creation, Worship

But Salatin still believes the church has a long way to go to fulfill the Biblical approach to literally eat and drink for the glory of God. 

"It really disturbs me that the environmental movement has been co-opted by creation-worshippers instead of being encouraged by the Creator-worshippers," he said.

The work on his farm has already inspired countless Americans to think more carefully about what they eat.

And if Salatin's dreams come true, it will also energize the Church towards greater environmental stewardship and raise up a new generation of passionate farmers.

*Originally broadcast on May 16, 2011.
    

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Heather Sells

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