By MICHELLE SCHMIDT
A lunatic farmer does everything opposite of standard practice and thinking, but as it turns out, that contrariness brings ecstasy because it answers many of the problems farmers routinely encounter and for which mainline agriculture has no answers. For example, at Polyface we believe animals should move. In a day when Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations are the de facto protocol for raising animals, the notion that animals should move is decidedly weird. But it answers the disease problems and drug dependency of modern livestock production.
At Polyface, we build crooked fences, adhering to the undulations of the topography. We believe farmers can fundamentally hydrate the landscape through better water management; namely, building ponds for arresting surface run-off during periodic heavy moisture events, and then releasing it strategically during droughts. The sheer ecstasy of seeing surface runoff water pouring into a pond for future leverage can hardly be appreciated if you’ve never enjoyed the luxury of abundant water during a drought.
At Polyface, we cultivate relationships with customers. This is in direct opposition to mainline agriculture, which views customers as idiots and erects “No Trespassing” signs to keep them away from farms. Most farmers sell commodities to large corporations which process, market, and distribute them to end users and siphon off as much as 90 percent of the retail dollar. By direct marketing, we become the profitable but notorious “middle men” by wearing those hats ourselves. Not only does this give us direct monitoring and feedback from our customers, but access to the whole retail dollar as well.
These are but 3 tiny examples that my book, THE SHEER ECSTASY OF BEING A LUNATIC FARMER, articulates in far more detail. But at least this gives you a flavor of the theme.
How is your farming system different from conventional systems?
1. Closed carbon loops. Rather than purchasing off-farm chemical fertilizers, we practice large-scale on-farm composting via specially-designed hay feeding sheds, pigs for aeration, and wood chips generated from woodlot enhancement projects, to build the soil through organic matter rather than chemicals.
2. Sickness and disease do not indicate a misapplication of pharmaceuticals, but a mismanagement of production methods. Problems are always my fault and the result of a breakdown in the immunological terrain, not a failure to use the correct drug. This means we would rather let some animals die on the herd’s way to a Darwinian genetic resiliency than treat with drugs or vaccines to mask weaknesses and create pharmaceutical dependency on subsequent generations.
3. Cows are herbivores. The USDA and mainline modern farming does not believe that. They believe cows, like all other animals and plants, are inanimate blobs of protoplasmic structure worthy of human manipulation however cleverly the mind can conceive to manipulate things. This is why we feed chicken manure and feathers to cows; why we feed grain to cows; why we fed dead cows to cows for 40 years as progressive science until it created mad cow disease. Valuing the pigness of pigs and cowness of cows is in direct opposition to the current agriculture paradigm.
4. Local integrated systems are more productive and food secure than global, segregated systems. Diversified, multi-speciated, complex relationship systems mimic ecological patterns and produce far more per acre than single-species linear systems. This means that rather than having factory-style egg farms, we should have chickens proximate to kitchens so that food scraps go directly to the laying hens, who consume the scraps to keep it out of landfills and off garbage trucks (even the ones heading to a composting facility); in return, the hens lay eggs which can go directly back into the kitchen. These closed loop, highly integrated, relational systems ultimately are not only historically normal, they are the low-energy and efficient way to build secure food systems.
What have been your primary influences for this style of farming and food consumption?
First was my grandfather and father. My grandfather was a charter subscriber to Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming magazine back in the late 1940s. My father got that decidedly ecological bent from him and I inherited it in due course. You could say our family has always been weird.
In addition, I have many mentors, from Sir Albert Howard’s writings to today’s Allan Savory, founder of Holistic Management and Bill Mollison and Dave Holmgren, founders of permaculture. I grew up as a teenager devouring Mother Earth News in the 1970s but never bought into the socialistic agenda of the hippie era. Instead, our family’s expropriation of a farm in Venezuela in the late 1950s encouraged my libertarian tendencies which still permeate my thinking today.
As a Christian, I view creation stewardship as a fundamental mandate, a life responsibility. The earth is not mine, but it’s mine to handle, like a caretaker, and leave better than I found it. That is such a basic Biblical principle that it’s hard to converse with many in the religious right camp who view raping and pillaging the earth as if it’s some sort of religious mandate.
Your focus seems to be on producing sustainable food, is that accurate? If so, what is meant by sustainable? What all does it include?
We must go beyond sustainable to regenerative. We’ve done too much destruction to just hold onto what we have; we must heal what has been lost. If you’re going the wrong way down the road, you don’t really change things by slowing down how fast you’re going the wrong way. You have to turn around.
That is how basic our thinking needs to change. We can’t just substitute organic fish emulsion for petroleum based chemical fertilizer, for example. We have to fundamentally change the way we farm. That means going to primarily perennials instead of annuals; primarily herbivores instead of omnivores; primarily animals instead of plants; primarily local systems rather than global; primarily multi-speciated farms rather than mono-speciated; primarily on-farm generated hydration rather than off-farm dependent hydration. These are huge, huge changes, but they are beyond sustainable, and therefore where we need to go.
Eating sustainably means making decisions, some of which aren’t always obvious. Which do you feel is more sustainable: locally produced, but conventionally grown food or buying organic produce from Costco? Why?
I don’t see a viable place for supermarkets. They’ve only been here since 1946 so a relative newcomer to the farmer-consumer interface. Rather than trying to figure out how to get our products into the supermarket, I’m trying to circumvent the supermarket altogether. I’m not suggesting we don’t have aggregators and volume distribution. But with the internet and electronic interfaces today, we can create local economies of scale efficiently without bricks, mortar, and physical cash registers.
Furthermore, I do not participate in the government’s organic program. It has been completely co-opted by industrial players and does not adhere to the ideas espoused by those of us who originally used the word. In the big scheme of things, I’d much rather have locally-grown even with some chemicals than government-sanctioned paperwork-licensed foreign organic from an unknown entity. That said, certain remote areas may produce more than can be consumed in the area; I don’t have all the answers. But if everyone who could purchase and sell locally would, it would so fundamentally change the food and farming system that we can’t envision what would emerge out the other side of that paradigm shift.
Our communities are in the middle of nowhere – a desert with a long, cold winter. What would it look like for our region to become more sustainable in it’s food production?
We have almost miracle technology today to overcome the weaknesses of local-dependent food systems. Season extension floating row covers, tall tunnels, plastic, foam insulation, thermal mass sinks, water pipes, wood furnaces–goodness, the list is almost endless. Plastic cisterns and aquaponic systems with integrated solenoids, temperature-actuated valves and a host of other infrastructure make beyond-seasonal production both economically viable and ultimately practical today.
If we put all the petroleum (which I view as a blessed bonanza that should be leveraged for future resilient designs and global ecological remediation like ponds) used to run trucks from warm areas to cold during the winter months delivering lettuce and carrots, into plastic for season extension, we could produce these things throughout the year in northern climes.
I was in Minneapolis during the winter and met a couple who put a solarium on the side of their garage. Using solenoids, thermal mass and simple fans, they produced winter greens for 30 families in their neighborhood.
We mostly grow commodities here – wheat, lentils, beans. What would more sustainable farming look like here, without economic damage to local growers?
Leveraging ecological principles never destroys the economy. Destroying the ecology, however, will always ultimately destroy the economy. I don’t believe it’s sinful to raise wheat, lentils, and beans. If these are part of a complex multi-speciated and integrated system, their volume would go down but the volume of other complementary products would go up.
Ground that is this productive and valuable could also grow perennials, especially grasses. If those were put into a modern grazing program, the net income would compete head-to-head with these commodities. That’s just one example. Then these commodities would be put in a long rotation wherein the annuals are grown only once every five or six years, which gives the perennials and animals time to build up the soil enough for that periodic annual extraction.
The problem with all innovation is that it is fundamentally disturbing and therefore disruptive to the status quo. The average American farmer is now 60 years old, which adds another dimension to innovation: old folks don’t. Change is often uncomfortable. Goodness, having a baby is uncomfortable, but who wants to live in a world without babies? SPIN farming and aquaponics can produce $100,000 per acre.
We get frost from October to April. What are we supposed to eat from November until April when the lettuce begins to come up?
See answers to the question above. I think this is essentially the same question. I would suggest that if we would put as much effort in season extension and seasonal preservation (canning, drying, freezing) as we currently put into trucking and distributing fresh produce to northern climes in the off-season, we would be far more food secure, have far more economic opportunities for our local farmers, have far more diversified farms, and be spiritually encouraged due to living amidst the earth’s abundance in our own domestic larders.
What are the major obstacles you’ve observed for individuals and communities in food sustainability?
Apathy. We’re an overfed and undernourished culture. We still think drugs and surgeons are the answer to ailments. We still believe our problems would all be solved if somebody else did the right thing. Unless and until you and I decide to make different decisions and be passionate about different things, we’ll continue eating unpronounceable food, depleting soil, desertifying our landscape, and
destroying our health. The blame game runs deep in our culture. As much as I appreciated the iconic documentary FOOD INC., it perpetuated the myth of victimhood with the family who stopped for Burger King and then said they couldn’t afford vegetables. For the price of that fast food meal, that family could buy two pounds of our Polyface world-class grass-finished beef, which would have contained far more nutrition. The problem is that 80 percent of Americans have not thought about supper prior to 4 p.m. But we’ve thought and conversed about the latest belly button piercing in Hollywood celebrity culture; we’ve perused the headlines to see what the Kardashians are doing. We’ve got time for that, but not time to think about the most basic human need: integrity food to fuel our bodies. We cannot change the system until we decide to participate in the system. Nobody else will do it for us.
Are there small, practical things each of us can do to eat more sustainably? What are some good first steps?
First, get in your kitchen. Buy unprocessed. A good Idaho baking potato costs only 69 cents a pound; potato chips are $4.99 a pound. Far more potatoes are being sold processed than unprocessed. We’ve never been blessed with more gadgets: food processors, timed bake, slow cookers, fry babies, ice cream makers. This is not a return to barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. It’s an embrace of modern technology that allows us to duplicate heritage connections in a quarter the time. I find it amazing that parents have no problem driving the 6-year-old three hours to the little league soccer game, but then stop for Happy Meals because they didn’t have time to cook. It’s outrageous and an abdication of proper parenthood.
Second, get rid of the TV and take all the time you were going to spend on entertainment this year getting in touch with your food treasures in your area. Every area has wonderful integrity farmers producing extremely high quality food. Many of these farmers are desperate for a few more customers so their farms can be viable enterprises–in many cases, the farmers would love to leave their town jobs and do farming full time. These farms need to be patronized. And I don’t mean nibble around the edges, assuaging your guilt and bragging about “buying locally.” I mean buy bushels of blemished tomatoes and make them into salsa and tomato juice. I mean substitute your grocery dollars to the local food shed and make culinary arts a focal point of a home-centric economy.
Third, grow something yourself. Do you have a rooftop? A patio? A back yard? A southern aspect on your house? These are all highly productive areas to grow things. Get rid of the gerbil and pet dog and put in a couple of chickens–in your house, if necessary. One dog eats as much and generates as much manure as 11 chickens; the chickens are far more productive. They actually create wealth instead of depleting wealth. Enjoy.
Backyard chickens are becoming popular, but we hear complaints about how they attract rodents and destroy lawns and gardens. Is the fact that they’re functioning outside a system part of the problem? Is there a way to bring chickens into the backyard in a way that maintains balance?
For very small lawns, I do not encourage free ranging for the very reasons you’ve cited. I recommend a coop with deep bedding. The bedding, built from any carbonaceous material (wood chips, saw dust, peat moss, bark mulch, rice hulls) needs to be at least a foot deep and preferably more, even up to 3 feet deep. This creates a composting blanket for the birds and eliminates odors and pathogenicity. If it stinks, add more carbon. The birds need at least 5 sq. ft. per bird in such a setup, but it’s extremely secure from predators and generates many bugs and worms in the living compost bedding. This is a much simpler, hygienic, and chicken friendly system than trying to move the birds around on a postage stamp yard or letting them run over the same area and turn it into a dirt yard.
In Omnivore’s Dilemma, you say you’re a grass grower. I am too. I cut it each week and throw it away. How do I make my backyard productive? Does a functional backyard mean an ugly backyard?
I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In full disclosure, I’m not opposed to any lawn. It’s nice to have a place to put up a volleyball net or kick around a ball. A lot of this is balance. Most of us can take off a piece of the lawn and grow food. Why are vegetables considered unsightly? I’ve seen productive food gardens far more beautiful than a lawn. This is all about paradigm and awareness. Edible landscaping is a fundamental component of a secure food system. An apple tree, I would suggest, is certainly as pretty as any other tree, especially when it’s full of sweet, juicy apples.
What resources would you recommend for people who want to learn more about growing food sustainably?
I’d recommend Mother Earth News magazine, Countryside and Small Stock Journal magazine, permaculture periodicals and sustainable agriculture/gardening materials.
Today the question is not how to learn more; the question is how do I live long enough to apply all the techniques I can learn about. Indeed, the big issue is starting. I always tell folks that they don’t have to know all about it to begin. Just begin and learn by doing. The problem is not finding information; the problem is being interested in learning about self-reliance.
We’ve cultivated a culture of dependency and think it’s normal. If you read the culinary works of Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon or Jefferson at Monticello, or Dolly Madison at Montpelier, you’ll find out that they ate a host of things you’ve never seen in a supermarket: quince, currants, huckleberries. Goodness, just the homestead fruits numbered some 30 varieties.
Rather than feeling self-satisfied that today we have more than our forebears, we need a dose of reality that we’re extremely deprived. Oh, but we have reality TV today, so it doesn’t matter, does it? If we only eat different configurations of potato, corn, and soybean, what more could we be missing? Lots, and our bodies didn’t get here on just re-configurations of potato, corn, and soybean. Maybe our bodies are wanting something more. Perhaps? A teensy, weensy possibility?
Schmidt can be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 305-4578.
If you go:
WHAT: “The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer” by Joel Salatin sponsored by Palouse Permaculture, USDA SARE program, UI Extension, WSU and the Moscow Food Co-op
WHEN: 7-9 p.m. Saturday, June 29
WHERE: Latah County Fairgrounds, 1021 Harold St., Moscow
In addition to the free evening lecture, Salatin will be offering two workshops from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. One is on the relationship between animals and plants and the other on strengthening the local food economy.
These events are part of a 9-day permaculture workshop series coordinated by Palouse Permaculture, a group dedicated to creating sustainable living environments modeled on natural ecosystems. More information on this and other workshops can be found online at www.palousepermaculture.com. The cost is $50 and re-registration is appreciated.