Madeline Ostrander: What do
you think a sustainable diet should look like?
Joel Salatin: What would a sustainable diet look like?
Ostrander: Because it’s often talked about as a
Salatin: No, not at all. I think we need to go back to localized
diets, and in North America, yes, we can really grow perennials,
so there would be a lot of herbivore - lamb, beef - in a diet.
our fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content,
would be grown close to home, preferably in our backyards. In
1945, 40 percent of all vegetables consumed in the United States
were grown in backyards.
I think a local diet would have an indigenous flair. If you’re
along the coast, you’d eat more seafood. If you’re inland, you
would eat more herbivore and vegetables. If you’re in Florida,
you would eat more citrus.
Historically, it’s not about the
relationship of meat to vegetables or whatever. It’s more about,
what does this area grow well with a minimum of inputs?
Ostrander: Cows have gotten a bad rap lately for their
contributions to environmental problems. What’s your response?
Salatin: Don’t blame the cow for the negatives of the industrial
food system. All of the data that the anti-meat people use
assumes an irrigated, concentrated animal feeding operation.
Over 50 percent of the annuals that we grow in American
agriculture are to feed cows. Cows aren’t supposed to eat corn.
They’re supposed to mow forage. It’s completely inverted from
nature’s paradigm. To use that inverted paradigm to demonize
grazing, the most efficacious mechanism for planet restoration,
is either consciously antagonistic to the truth or is ignorant
of the kind of synergistic models that are out here.
Here’s the thing. There’s no system in nature that does not have
an animal component as a recycling agent. Doesn’t exist. Fruits
and vegetables do best if there is some animal component with
them - chickens or a side shed with rabbits. Manure is magic.
Now, we could argue about how many animals we should be eating.
I really don’t think Americans should be eating so much chicken.
Because chicken requires grain; it’s an omnivore. Historically,
herbivores - beef, lamb, goat - were every man’s meat because they
could be raised on perennials. The kings ate poultry because
they’re the only ones who had enough luxury of extra foodstuffs
Poultry used to fill a recycling niche. Today, if every single
kitchen had enough chickens attached to it, there would not be
egg commerce in America. All the eggs could be produced from
What a wonderful thing that would be. There’s no
excuse for an egg factory.
Beef cattle - there’s no excuse for a feedlot. We don’t need all
those irrigated acres in Nebraska. See?
And suddenly all of the
data that the animal demonizers are using just crumbles like a
house of cards.
Ostrander: Your website says that your farm respects and honors
the animals you raise. What does it mean to respect an animal
and then eat it?
Salatin: It is a profound spiritual truth that you cannot have
life without death.
When you chomp down on a carrot and
masticate it in your mouth, that carrot is being sacrificed in
order for you to have life. Everything on the planet is eating
and being eaten. If you don’t believe it, just lie naked in your
flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. That
sacrifice is what feeds regeneration.
In our very antiseptic
culture today, people don’t have a visceral understanding of
life and death.
Ostrander: What do you feel is your responsibility to the
animals that you raise on
Salatin: Our first responsibility is to try to figure out what
kind of a habitat allows them to fully express their
The cow doesn’t eat corn; she
doesn’t eat dead cows; she doesn’t eat cow manure, which is what
is currently being fed to cows in the industrial food system. We
feed cows grass, and that honors and respects the cow-ness of
Chickens - their beaks are not there for us to cut off, as
industrial operations do. Their beaks are there for them to
scratch and to hunt for insects. So we raise them out on
pasture, in protected enclosures, in a free environment, so they
can be birds.
We look at nature and say,
“How do these animals live?”
imitate that template.
We have the chickens follow the cows, the way birds follow
herbivores - the egret on the rhino’s nose. The chickens sanitize
behind the herbivores, scratch in the dung, eat out the
parasites, spread the dung into the pasture, and eat the insects
that the herbivores uncovered while grazing.
The pigs make compost from cow manure, which we mix with wood
chips. They love to do it, and they don’t need their oil
changed, they don’t need spare parts, and they’re fully allowed
to express their pig-ness. Then animals become team
players - partners in this great land-healing ministry.
This is all extremely symbiotic and creates a totally different
relationship than when you’re simply trying to grow the fatter,
bigger, cheaper animal.
But the animals also have an easier life than they would in
nature. Nature is not very philanthropic. I mean, every day the
gazelle wakes up and hopes she can outrun the lion, and every
day the lion wakes up and hopes she can outrun a gazelle.
protect our animals from predators and weather. We give them
good food and care for them, and in return, they are more
Ostrander: So honoring the pig-ness of the pig is about ecology
as much as ethics.
Salatin: Honoring the pig-ness of the pig establishes a moral
and ethical framework on which we build respect for the Mary-ness
of Mary and the Tom-ness of Tom. It is how we respect and honor
the least of these that creates an ethical framework on which we
honor and respect the greatest of these.
A culture like ours - that views plants and animals as inanimate
piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however
cleverly we, in our hubris, can imagine - will soon view its
citizens and other cultures in the same kind of disrespectful
Ostrander: You claim that the kind of agriculture that you do
could feed the world. How would that work?
Salatin: Well, for example, take cows. If we do what I call
mob-stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon
sequestration fertilization, we could triple the number of
herbivores and the amount of carbon we’re storing in the soil.
Ostrander: What was that long phrase?
Salatin: Mob-stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified
carbon sequestration fertilization.
The idea is you’re
mob-stocking: Herbivores in nature are always mobbed up for
predator protection. Now we don’t have predators, so we use an
electric fence to keep them mobbed up. So we’re not Luddites.
We’re using high-tech.
We farm grass, and we harvest that grass with cows. But we don’t
just turn the cows out into a field. We move them every day from
paddock to paddock and only give them access to a single spot a
couple days a year. We let the grass grow to what we call full
physiological expression, the juvenile growth spurt.
that we’re actually collecting a lot more solar energy and
metabolizing it into biomass than you would if the grass were
kept short like a lawn.
The difference is, for example, Augusta County, where we are,
averages 80 cow/days per acre (a cow/day is what one cow will
eat in a day). On our farm we average 400 cow days per acre, and
we’ve never bought a bag of chemical fertilizer and we’ve never
planted a seed. We’ve taken the soils on our farm from 1.5
percent organic matter in the early 1960s to an average of 8
percent organic matter today.
That cycle of herbivore,
perennial, and predation builds up root biomass below the ground
and sequesters carbon and organic matter. It’s the same process
that built all the deep soils of the world - the Pampas in
Argentina, outer Mongolia with yaks and sheep, the American
plains with the buffalo.
Now, if you consider vegetables, we could do edible landscapes.
There are 35 million acres of lawn in the United States. I tell
people, we’ll know that we’re running out of food when the golf
courses around Phoenix start growing food instead of
petroleum-based grass to be irrigated with precious water.
know that we’re short of food when we can’t run the Kentucky
Derby anymore, because we need that land for farming. Go to
Mexico. They don’t mow the interstates.
Every farmer along the
highway has a staked-out milk cow.
Ostrander: Can you describe how you slaughter animals at
Salatin: Well, the chickens, for example, are taken from the
field right into our open-air slaughter facility, and we don’t
electrocute them like the industry does. We do a kind of a
kosher type of kill, which is just slitting the jugular,
and they gradually just faint or fade away.
We have raised them. We have nurtured them and cared for them.
It’s different from the compartmentalization of the industrial
system, where we have people who have never seen the animal
alive doing the slaughter.
And frankly, I believe it is psychologically inappropriate to
slaughter animals every single day. Even in the Bible, the
Levites drew straws; they ran shifts in the tabernacle where
they did animal sacrifices.
Ostrander: Is there a different emotional experience that people
have when they’re eating food raised on Polyface than if they’re
eating a McDonald’s hamburger?
Salatin: We have a 24/7, open-door policy. Anyone is welcome to
come at any time to see anything, anywhere without an
appointment or a phone call.
We encourage anyone to come and
walk the fields, pet the animals, bring their children, gather
the eggs out of the nest boxes - in other words, to build a
relationship and create a memory that can follow them all the
way to the dinner plate.
Our culture has systematically alienated people from the
experience of dining.
I can’t believe how many kids come here
and watch a chicken lay an egg and then say,
“Oh, is that where
they come from?”
The amount of culinary and ecological real-life
ignorance in our culture is unbelievable.
So what we want to do at Polyface is provide a platform, so that
anyone can come and partake of this marvelous theater that was
all a part of normal life 150 years ago. We want to create a
greater sense of all the mystery and appreciation for seasons
and for the proper plant-animal-human relationships.
Some people even want to process some chickens with us. And that
is a very powerful memory to take to the table with you. If the
average person partook of the processing of an industrial
chicken, for example, they probably wouldn’t eat chicken.