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Joel Salatin on American Agrarianism

Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin - the world's most innovative farmerPolyface Farm is a multi-generational, multi-speciated, multi-enterprised farm located in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, across the Blue Ridge and a mere 40 miles from Monticello. In Thomas Jefferson's day, that would have  been a long, hard day's riding, but today it's a mere one-hour jaunt.
Having digested Jefferson's Farm Book recently, I am honored and thrilled to be addressing the Heritage Harvest Festival in September.  The heritage of American agrarianism, embodied and perhaps epitomized by Jefferson,  included a rich diversity of plants, animals, enterprises, and people on the farmscape.  Jefferson's farm business was the Microsoft, the Google, the eBay of its day and he was the CEO.  
Bustling with enterprises as diverse as the commercial nailery, wool fiber development through better sheep breeding, and an ongoing effort to maintain a river front transportation conduit to Richmond,  the farm's many aspects were  similar to our own experience here at Polyface.  We named the farm for its many faces, and today our talented staff along with livestock and horticulture at the production level, processing on-farm, retail sales and a frenzied speaking, writing, and educational outreach is truly many-faced.  I'd like to think that if Jefferson were alive today, he would  have a farm like ours.  But maybe he wouldn't.
What plagued Jefferson and other plantation owners, was a lack of ecological understanding and an economic paradigm as flawed then as it is today.  Indeed, the pillars of the plantation system revolved around four basic assumptions:
1.  Exports (globalization) are the key to success.
2.  Annuals are more important than perennials.
3.  Fertility cannot be in-sourced.
4.  Cheap labor is economically necessary.
Indeed, in modern American culture, these paradigms still rule and justify the industrial food and farming system. Our current love affair with grain subsidies, exports, chemical fertilizers, and low-wage farm workers shows a  profound mirror image of early American planters' thinking.  We could even call modern feed lots and factory farms the current version of the plantation mentality.
Expensive energy and transportation restrained this paradigm from full expression.  Modern fossil fuels and machinery have enabled unfettered exploitation of this mentality.  Jefferson, living prior to fossil fuels, rural  electrification, arc welding, polyethylene, ball bearings and computers was paradigmatically earth dominating mentally, but bound by hand tools, blacksmithing, and draft power physically.  That makes his insights and innovations appreciated by both environmentalists and industrialists.  We could argue that he was not responsible for his lack of ecological understanding, and thus forgive his four assumptions.  Like all of us, he was bound, too, by the society in which he lived.
While he generally was opposed to slavery, for example, he didn't see a way out . . . yet.  In like manner, I'm generally opposed to government social security--as I'm sure Jefferson would be--but I don't see a way out right now.  Perhaps some day.  Like so many of his contemporaries, Jefferson embraced the basic plantation assumptions without realizing it, which is the definition of a paradigm.  He was not perfect.
At Polyface, in direct juxtaposition to these plantation pillars, we have an opposite set of assumptions:
1.  Localization is the key to success.
2.  Perennials are more important than annuals.
3.  Fertility must be in-sourced through the carbon cycle.
4.  Good farming requires good salaries.
I will be expanding on these themes during my presentation at the festival.  Jefferson would have to change his plantation assumptions dramatically to be a 21st century ecological farmer.
What Jefferson would be gratified to know is that almost all of his frustrations, both emotional and logistical,  have been solved.  For example, fencing and keeping animals contained required capital investments that could never be recouped from the livestock enterprises.  Fences were elaborate, heavy, wooden affairs that took huge amounts of time, resources, and energy.  Today, computer-chipped electric fence energizers and aluminum alloy wire on plastic insulators allow unprecedented animal control for pennies.  Today we even have polyethylene webbed netting interwoven with stainless steel conductive filaments supported on built-in fiberglass stakes to protect and control commercially-sized flocks of pastured poultry.  Would Jefferson have  embraced this, or would he have built confinement factory chicken houses at Monticello and hired low-wage workers to oversee them?  That is a fascinating question.
Soil fertility, the holy grail of his day, consumed his thinking and discussions.  The soil association meetings and discussions with neighbor and friend John Taylor of Caroline were unable to solve this ongoing dilemma. Imagine what Jefferson would think of wood chippers, front end loaders, PTO-powered manure spreaders and the whole idea of scientific aerobic composting.  The word "compost" had not yet been invented.  The living soil food web, now revealed with electron microscopes, was virtually unknown.  He did not know the soil was a  community of beings more numerous in a quart than humans on the face of the earth.  Marvelous indeed.
I wonder what Jefferson would have done with someone like Bill Mollison, founder of modern Permaculture, who would have surely expressed dismay at the plan to locate industry and domesticity on top of a mountain.  Proverbially short of water and accessibility, Monticello's mountain location indicated Jefferson's
indomitable faith in his ability to shape and dominate his world.  As the industrial revolution took hold,  entrepreneurs with a more practical understanding of transportation logistics and resource distribution located near large bodies of water.  This is one aspect I love about Jefferson.  Obviously a genius, deep within him a poet yearned to defy practicality with enough faith in his own creativity to overcome the liability of following heart over head--sometimes. 

In my own life, I find this tension between what is possible and what nature constrains our vision to be an  ongoing anguish.  I know pigs can't fly, but wouldn't it be fun to figure out how to do that?  I can't imagine being as articulate, as visionary, as multi-discipline knowledgeable as Jefferson, yet I think I share his passion for trying to do what others find too hard.  People who have been to Polyface know that we abut Little North Mountain, a small piece of the great Allegheny  and the greater Appalachian chain.  

While all our neighbors sold their mountain land to the Commonwealth of Virginia back in the late 1960s and early 1970s to create the Little North Mountain Wildlife Management Area managed by the Va. Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries, our family held out for a vision of ecological development in that inhospitable environment. Today, we have an all-weather road, ponds, pig pastures, picnic areas, and timber stand improvement projects up the side of that mountain.  Crazy?  Perhaps.  I think Jefferson would love it.  We have millions of gallons of water stored in ponds located in valleys up the side of the mountain, dispensing high pressure gravity water across our acreage-- no pumps, no electricity, no switches--like the old days, heritage.  But it's possible because of efficient earth moving machines, threaded plumbing fittings, stainless steel pipe clamps, and polyethylene pipe--all high tech.  Yes,  Jefferson would love it all.
He is the quintessential seeker.  The Jeffersonian intellectual agrarian mystique has almost gained mythical  status in our day of local food tsunami and interest in local, biologically-based farming and food production.  All of us who participate in this great groundswell identify with the themes and tensions that make up the man and American icon, Thomas Jefferson.  May he live in our hearts and our minds as we embrace a food revolution that honors artisanship, cottage industry, individualized entrepreneurship, and pronounceable food.  The kings of corporate food and farming in America are no less daunting today than King George was for the author of America's Declaration of Independence.  And they are no less insulting to freedom and personal intelligence.
In Jefferson's spirit, then, each of us who dares to defy these corporate kings whether by breastfeeding our babies, planting a garden,  acquiring food directly from local farmers, or preparing a meal from scratch is participating in his great freedom revolution.  May his legacy live in our spirit.  May we love it and live it in a way that would make him proud.


Friday, September 14, 2012 from 6:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Join us for an evening with Joel Salatin, described by the New York Times as “Virginia’s most multifaceted agrarian since Thomas Jefferson” and the “the world’s most innovative farmer” by Time Magazine. Joel Salatin is a third generation organic farmer and award-winning author whose family owns and operates Polyface Farm "a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley." The farm features prominently in Michael Pollan’s New York Times best-seller "The Omnivore’s Dilemma" and the award-winning documentary "Food, Inc." 




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