Tom Carey: Joel Salatin talks gardens, technology

Joel Salatin poses with columnist Tom Carey.

Joel Salatin poses with columnist Tom Carey.

Tom Carey

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I spoke with Joel Salatin this week. Joel is working on the leading edge of sustainable farming practices at his Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He makes an appearance in the movie “Food, Inc.” and numerous other contemporary agricultural media productions. He’s written several books, with his most recent titled “Folks, This Ain’t Normal.” The Homegrown Co-op online farmer’s market and Slow Foods sponsored Joel’s speaking visit to Rollins College on April 18.

Tom Carey: How big is your vegetable garden?

Joel Salatin: It’s hard to say, but a quarter acre would be about correct and add a quarter acre in hoop houses. As the animals from the hoop houses come out in the spring, we then go in with vegetables starting with sweet corn. We do a lot of micro-site gardening. Shitake logs under the eaves of the barn get the roof dripping on them. Where the cows are kept at the hay shed in the wintertime, the deep bedding gets churned up muddy and heavily fertilized, almost compost. We grow our potatoes there, it’s already tilled up, and so we just set the potatoes on the ground under some straw. Another barn we have has a southern exposure and that’s where we grow our cucumbers. They grow up the side of the barn with moisture dripping from the awnings. It’s a real nice fertile micro-site, full of red wrigglers, with compost from the barn animals. You can get a lot of space real quick using micro-sites.

Tom: At my gardens, I get a lot of requests from folks wanting to help to get some dirt under their fingernails. I watch your Polyface Farm’s Facebook posts and blogs by your interns and apprentices. Do you look at your educational help as a source of affordable labor, or do you put emphasis on teaching the next generation of farmers to help them dip their toe in the water?

Joel: We do look at it as an education, and while we certainly do work them plenty hard, we also do some formal evening lectures; we visit other farms and agricultural enterprises. Lest anybody think this is cheap labor when you’ve rewelded the trailer hitch for the 10th time because somebody took off without lifting up the jack. This cheap labor comes with a cost.

Tom: I’ve read your new book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, and numerous Acres USA columns and articles. Following the themes you write about, do you see that decentralized food production is becoming more efficient due to appropriate technology and information sources?

Joel: We are seeing a local food tsunami that is being enabled by technology. A big hurdle has been economy of scale and efficient distribution between farm and fork. You can’t expect everybody to drive around to 10 farms to get their food. Now, there are companies that are electronic farmers markets (Homegrown Co-op). The electronic media technology was developed for globalization but is being co-opted to enable localization. We’ll see a move away from bricks and mortar to embracing the electronic commerce interface. We’re finding much more efficient ways to interface the customer and producer. We’re making an end run around big warehousing. Retail façades are too expensive, from display coolers and cash registers, to stocking shelves with retail processed products. We did a comparison of our prices and we’re now cheaper than most competitors in our area, even the organic supermarkets. By leveraging the sheer efficiency of the electronic interface we’re seeing the beginning of the future.

Tom: Food deserts in inner cities are starting to be served by urban farms using high-intensity hydroponic and aquaponic systems, hoop houses and framed raised beds. There’s just not a lot of acreage growing in the ground. I like to say I’m a dirt farmer, trying to grow the best crop of dirt I can. Are you comfortable with these high-tech methods?

Joel: There’s still so much we can do using traditional methods. This country has 35 million acres of lawns, 36 million acres for recreational horses, and we haven’t even touched golf courses. Cornell University did a study, and the state of New York has 3.1 million acres of fallow farms, land that is no longer working farms. Twenty years ago there was so much concern over suburban development and malls gobbling up farmland, but the bigger issue now is land abandonment. I do not espouse the idea that the only way to heal land is to abandon it. Human involvement with land is not inherently evil or debilitating. Our mandate as humans is to use our intellect to massage the landscape into better productivity, i.e. more solar energy converted into growing biomass, than nature does if left in a static state.

Tom: I started with half percent organic matter, and now it’s up to 2 percent, that’s a four-fold increase, but it still looks like beach sand. Hydroponic plants not attached to the earth, grown in an inert media, even with organic fertilizers and pest controls, have different types of roots and nutrient demands. When organic produce, grown in real soil, must be certified (which my gardens are not), while all the other high-tech methods, not to mention conventional chemical farming, aren’t certified, it all gets a bit confusing.

Joel: There’s no comparison to knowing your farmer, visiting the farm, taking a look around and satisfying yourself. People say ‘I don’t have time to do that,’ but they do have time to watch TV, go on a Caribbean cruise, visit Disney World, to shop for $100 designer jeans with holes already in the knees. We tend to make time for the things we think are important. We need to choose to take our time to discover the farm treasures in our communities. You’ll get knowledgeable and find what is important to you.

Tom: Are that many more people getting the message (about local sustainable agriculture)? These things happen gradually, but are we at a point in history where these are becoming important issues?

Joel: I see two sides to this issue. One is that there is a general sense we are on the precipitous, precarious precipices, that things can’t go on the way they are. There’s peak oil, food prices, the economy, China, debt, health costs, obesity, diabetes. There is a general feeling that something is out of whack. The way we are running as a culture, it won’t be like this in 100 years.

The other is that most people don’t want to analyze the situation or are too disconnected to know what anchor to grab, what lifeline to get a hold of. Part of the reason for writing this book (“Folks, This Ain’t Normal”) is not only to shake people up, but to also make people aware that there are a lot of lifelines out there — from your own personal garden, to community food production, how to develop your larder, to your own culinary skills — so you are not dependent on cheese spread and frozen pizza. You can actually have your own fresh, frozen, dried or canned food, and be familiar with them so you don’t have to run to the supermarket every three days just to stay alive. These are very doable things that anyone can learn, but it does take effort. No lasting change ever comes without some effort.