by Joel Salatin, Photos by Molly McDonald Peterson
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms proposes an alternative to the Shenandoah Valley’s poultry industry in this exclusive excerpt from his new book.
Before industrialism, farms were localized and seasonal. The ebb and flow of production and activity followed a pattern dictated by local economies, weather, and availability of nearby materials. . . .
Compare that to today’s confinement turkey industry, which started just 30 miles north of our farm in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The only reason the industry started there was because an entrepreneur named Charles Wampler began raising turkeys in confinement. Eventually the breeding program at the USDA research farm in Beltsville, Maryland, developed the double-breasted turkey. By that time, the pharmaceutical industry was up and running to supply cheap medications so that the birds could be kept alive in extremely unhealthy and unnatural conditions.
The entire industrial food system was only possible because of antibiotics for animals and pesticides for plants. Without those two things, these anti-nature production models would not exist and humans would still be dependent on multi-speciation, intricate relationships, and indigenous conditions. . . .
Today, this industry completely dominates the local economy and community to the point that most people believe it is the local economy. But it has a tainted underside that is worth examining. First, it requires hundreds and hundreds of farmers to grow these turkeys. In the wisdom of the business model, as a vertical integrator, the turkey company owns the hatchery, the birds, the feed, the processing, and the marketing. The farmer signs a contract that requires him to supply a house and labor.
In many cases, since the farmers don’t have the money to build a $300,000 football-field-sized house, they mortgage the farm to borrow the house construction money. Often, this is borrowed from the turkey company, thereby giving two income streams to the turkey company: interest on mortgage payments, and turkey sales. This arrangement converts the farmers from autonomous decision makers to a completely dependent class of people—dependent on exports, off-farm inputs, and outsourced decisions. . . .
The bottom line is that in my region, to disparage the poultry industry is akin to assaulting America. Good patriots agree: not only is this poultry industry good for our local economy, it is in fact the foundation of our local economy. And to suggest anything else is to hate your neighborhood. If you suggest we may have been better off without it, you’re in favor of massive unemployment, bread lines, and homelessness. In fact, you’re a lunatic who must be silenced. . . .
Nothing about the poultry industry generally and turkey industry particularly, as illustrated by Harrisonburg, is local. Most of the turkeys are not sold in Harrisonburg. Their feed does not come from Harrisonburg. The labor to process them does not come from Harrisonburg. The poop can’t be handled in Harrisonburg. The whole deal, top to bottom, has nothing to do with indigenous resources, markets, or labor.
And yet, for all this, farmers are still lining up to borrow money to build poultry houses, viewing industrial poultry as a panacea and an opportunity to hold onto their farms. It pollutes the community, upsets the neighbors, clogs the schools and prisons, and turns farmers into serfs. Amazing. And the industry just keeps on building and growing as if in the perfect world, every square foot of the Valley would be covered with a confinement poultry house and we would become a septic tank instead of just a toilet. . . .
Compare all we’ve talked about with the Polyface pastured poultry model. First, it’s seasonal. We aren’t burning propane to keep chicken houses warm. When it’s hard enough keeping all the people warm in a community, isn’t it strange to be keeping chickens warm? We let the season dictate the production time frame. Over the years, many patrons have begged us to raise meat chickens (broilers) through the winter. We have steadfastly refused. First, it would take lots of energy to do so. Second, we want a break. . . .
But what about off season? That’s what freezers are for. And they are a lot cheaper to run in the winter than in the summer. In areas where the winter would naturally shut down pastured poultry production, the seasonal cold makes storing in freezers quite cheap. As ambient temperatures drop, the energy requirement to maintain freezing temperature is less. A lot less than trying to keep birds warm in the winter. And although the body heat generates significant warmth, the birds must eat extra feed to have enough calories to give off heat.
We process right on the farm. No late night interstate travels, spreading feathers all over the countryside. What a strange thing, to process the birds right where they grew up. Shouldn’t they all have to go to a megalithic concrete monument to the stupidity of man in order to be readied for eaters? . . .
But doesn’t our system take way more land than the efficiencies of confinement factory houses? Not at all. In our system, the birds are out on grass, dropping their poop and eating grass plus grain. In the confinement houses, their grain has to be produced somewhere and their poop has to go somewhere. Even if our birds didn’t eat any grass and consumed the same amount of grain, the land required to grow the grain would be the same per pound as it is in a confinement house. No land difference there. Everyone needs to understand that radiating out from every single confinement animal operation, whether it be poultry, pork, beef, dairy, or guinea pig, an entire unseen land base supports it. You don’t see the corn fields. You don’t see the corporate offices. You don’t see the manure-hauling trucks and the acres on which the manure is spread. Our pasture-based model actually takes less land than the industrial model.
But how can you feed the world? I think we just answered that. The land requirement is actually less. More acute is my presumption that globalist agriculture should simply not be practiced. We would actually have a stronger local economy, a stronger local social structure, a stronger local ecology, if Harrisonburg did not depend on exports to maintain its poultry empire. . . .
Certainly our localized, multi-speciated, pasture-based system requires more farms, more farmers, and more people scattered out across the landscape. But what is wrong with that? I can think of a lot worse situations to find myself in than being cooped up on a farm (no pun intended). I may not make lots of money, but I sure have a great office. Plenty of people cooped up in Dilbert cubicles working as cogs in a multinational corporate machine would give their eye teeth to be stuck on a farm if they felt like they could make a living on it. And that is partly what [my] book is all about. You can make a living on it, but you’ll need to think and act like a lunatic when compared to the presiding paradigms.
I think repopulating the countryside with loving stewards is a great aspiration. I think it might even be a good national security policy. So would populating our homes with lovers of domestic culinary arts.
What a joy to know that our farm isn’t dependent on foreign currencies and foreign resource streams. That it works right here, or anywhere. That it can empower a Kenyan tribe to feed themselves rather than make them dependent on my anti-community empire. That, folks, is the sheer ecstasy of being a lunatic farmer.
Excerpted with permission from The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, by Joel Salatin. Salatin—an internationally acclaimed farmer, conference speaker, and author—and his family operate Polyface Farms in Augusta County near Staunton, Virginia.