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Salatin's message resonates in farming community

November 14, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Farming doesn't have many rock stars, but Joel Salatin comes close.

When he's not driving his cattle out to fresh pasture and moving chickens in for cow pie mop-up duty, he's packing lecture halls, as he did here last week, with people who would prefer not to eat meat that's been shot full of drugs and fed the feedlot standard of grain, dead chickens, chicken manure and dead cows.

The sustainable agricultural community quotes Salatin like a Baptist quotes Ezekiel. He (Salatin, not Ezekiel) wants consumers to have a choice between natural food and contrived foodlike substances. He demands respect for animals. And he wants producers to be able to enjoy that most unorganic of concepts: Profit.

Does his message resonate? Well, how many other farmers could pack a standing-room-only crowd into a concert hall? I don't know, but I bet the secretary of agriculture himself wouldn't have filled 20 seats.

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This muck-booted messiah happily brings up all of the things the rest of us would rather not think about, such as the feed regimens that produce our meat or the "fecal soup" in which industrialized chickens are processed.

Salatin knows if he can get his message out, he (and the entire eating public) wins the war. And he knows the odds of getting that message out when global corporations, their pockets filled with money and lawmakers, are willing to pull out all the stops to maintain a factory farming blackout.

But for all their money and connections, they're up against a tough customer. Salatin is the Casey Jones of public speaking, his sentences (filled with complex words that might or might not be part of the standard English language) typically gather speed and momentum like a brakeless freight train on the back side if the Sierras, eventually landing in a pileup of syllables and exclamation points that are tough to untangle, but easy to follow.

Factory farms are themselves rambling down a mountainside in a race that is ultimately unwinnable. More and more animals and birds have been crammed into smaller and smaller spaces in the name of economic efficiencies. But these unsanitary, shoulder-to-shoulder conditions are a hotbed of diseases, which must be battled with more and ever-stronger medications just to keep the critters upright until they become meat.

At some point, a disease will evolve that no antibiotic can treat.

Since nature is a ruthless competitor that does not lose, Salatin has taken her side. Chickens were designed to eat bugs and seeds, so that's what they get, moved to fresh pasture each day.

Cattle are herbivores, designed to roam and eat grass. So his animals are provided with a lush salad bar of plants, and they, too, move to new ground every day. Behind them come the laying hens, which scratch at the manure, eating the bugs and flies that are common on more traditional farms.

A well-managed farm, Salatin says, has few pests and no smell. Wastes are composted with carbon (leaves, sawdust and such) that soaks up all the odoriferous ammonia that gives manure its fragrance.

On their way to their ultimate destination, all animals are given jobs. Cows mow and fertilize; chickens perform pest and weed management; hogs compost. Salatin sprinkles a few corn kernels into the chickens' winter bedding. When the hens move out in the spring, in come the hogs, which fluff and toss the litter in search of food. He calls them his "pigerators." Unlike tractors, he notes, pigs don't rust. By shunning traditional and expensive farm equipment and infrastructure, Salatin's returns are $1 for every 50 cents invested. Most farms spend $4 to make $1.

Salatin's system is natural, seamless, wholesome and nutritious. So, of course, the government hates it. The Department of Agriculture, Salatin says, sees farming in terms of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, pills and shots. "Scientific" farming, it's called, where the holy grail is maximized production - not what's good for you or for the animals.

At one point Salatin was asked what role government could play in the promotion of organic farming. His response, in essence, was a tart, "None, I hope."

Why, he asked, would he want help from a government that says it's OK for people to eat Twinkies and Cocoa Puffs, but that it's illegal to drink unprocessed milk straight from the cow?

In the end, Salatin brushes aside government interference and regulatory roadblocks. Call it civil disobedience if you must, but with today's governmental budget deficits, he believes that natural producers can market good food and if the government tries to hunt them down, "We'll run 'em all crazy."

Which, aside from farming, just might be the pursuit that brings Salatin the most joy.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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