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Joel Salatin's pattern for carbon farming at Polyface Farm

Maddy Harland
Monday, 29th April 2013

Maddy meets Joel Salatin and hears how Polyface Farm has restored the soil, locked up carbon and makes a healthy profit for all its micro-enterprises. Salatin-style farming is cool!

Joel Salatin (left) with Aranya

Joel Salatin, dubbed by TIME magazine to be the world's most innovative farmer, hit town yesterday and Aranya, who wrote our bestseller, Permaculture Design Step By Step, and runs RegenAg in the UK, invited me along to a one-day seminar hosted at Cowdray Hall in Sussex to learn more. I have long wanted to meet Joel, having heard about his work from Rebecca Hosking and others and watched YouTubes about his methods. I wasn't disappointed.

Joel is a force of nature and he's pretty wild as a speaker! He loves performing and he is very polished. Dressed in a pair of Levis and a shirt with Polyface Inc embroidered on the front, he is guaranteed to entertain and he certainly doesn't need a microphone. He's loud.

The day started with some technical problems with the projector. This meant Joel gave a more impromptu introduction to Polyface Farm, the history of the valley in Virginia where it is based and how his family came to own the land. He enjoyed teasing a mainly British audience about a certain 'revolution' that got rid of British rule.

I love to hear stories of nature's abundance. When the first white settlers came over the mountains and down the valley, the landscape was a natural silvopasture with grass 12 feet tall and a bountiful variety of trees spaced widely apart. It was teaming with animals, insects, and birds. By the 1960s the top soil on Joel's farm has washed into Chesapeake Bay and when his family (who fled the Junta in Venezuela) bought the farm, the land was scarred with great welts of bare rock. From abundance to total degradation in two centuries... Joel described how his dad had to get old car tyres and fill them with concrete with tubes in the middle so they could prop up their electric fencing to contain the animals, the soil erosion was so severe.

Joel told us that in 1830s two significant events happened. The McCormick Reaper was patented, a horse-drawn farm implement to cut small grain crops and Charles Darwin set sail in the Beagle. These events signified the birth of three phenomena:
1) mechanization - suddenly we could plough way more land than before and then process the grain
2) Evolution – that life is no longer regarded as sacred
3) That there is no room for God in this reductionist, mechanistic world.

Cyrus McCormick's reaperCyrus McCormick's reaper

Joel is passionate about how we human beings can restore ecosystems and a powerful advocate of carbon farming. He told us that if we can intersect three kinds of ecosystems – forest, pasture and water – we can create maximum biodiversity. His family have done it at Polyface and entirely restored their soil whilst also locking up carbon in healthy pastures and forests and he wants to share their methods with the world. He also says that healthy pasture can lock up far more carbon than forests. We have at our feet one key soltuion to climate change.

He is concerned that the average age of farmers in the developing world is 60 years old and that within 15 years 40% of all farms are bound to change hands. He wants to seed a new generation of innovative 'lunatic' farmers, people who are willing to think outside the box. He loves farming and he doesn't want it to be viewed as a poor substitute for a career. In 1961 his small rocky farm couldn't even support one family when his dad bought it. Now it has deep soils and the original fram plus leased ones in the surrounding neighbourhood grosses $2 million a year and pays 22 salaries. All without a single bag of fertiliser.

His methods aren't for 150 acres or 15,000 acres. They can be applied anywhere. "If it is scalable up or down then it becomes an opportunity for small or large farmers." On Joel's farms there are a variety of micro-enterprises: pigs, poultry for the table and eggs, turkeys, beef, rabbits for meat, forestry, market gardening, a fabricator, farm tours, online store to retail produce direct to the customer, and now even a film maker who makes instructional videos. They fit together like a clever three-dimensional jigsaw.

Mob grazing land

In a nutshell, herbivores in the wild are packed together for protection from predators. They graze intensely and quickly over an area, manuring the ground and do not have the opportunity to selectively prune plants. They eat up all the biomass on offer. Ecologists have noted that once the herd moves on the ecology not only recovers but thrives. Mob grazing mimics the behaviour of the herd in the wild by containing animals on a piece of land and then moving them on before the pasture is overgrazed. There are various ways of doing this.

How grass grows

Joel explains why the grasses grow better in his analogy of the three ages of grass:

First there is 'diaper' grass that is overgrazed, short and slow growing.
Then there is 'teen' grass that is much faster growing
Lastly there is old folks grass that is tall and also slow growing.
Teen grass is the most efficient at converting solar energy to biomass. The role of the herbivore is to prune and restart the fast growth stage of grass when metabolic growth is at it height.

Perhaps the most critical thing about pasture is that healthy pasture locks up large amounts of carbon. Unlike forestry, we don't cut it down either, we just prune it with herbivores.

Pigs

"Disturbance in life is the precursor of innovation and success," says Joel. He places 50 pigs on half an acre of paddock with two tons of feed. If the pigs weigh 100ibs they stay there for 8 days. If they weigh 200lbs he halves the time. The pigs rootle about and eat up insects. He calls it 'exercising the ecology' and afterwards the grasses regrow at a faster rate. Then he sends the pigs into the forest into 2 hectare areas. They once again grub up any brambles and saplings and eat the bugs that affect the trees and they leave their manure. The trees grow better, the pigs breathe in spores and then breath them our, spreading beneficial fungi in their wake and the income from the forest is raised.

Cows

Cows mob grazing at Polyface Farm: Image courtesy of http://regenag.comCows mob grazing at Polyface Farm: Image courtesy of http://regenag.com

Joel says one acre of healthy grass can sequester more carbon than 2000 grass fed cows can emit. He gives an equation for how you calculate how to mob graze, i.e. how much space to allow a herd and when to move them on:

Cows x days (calculated by the height of the grass) over
An acre (or hectare)

One cow means the equivalent to a full grown adult so if you are grazing heifers you need to work in equivalent weights. The days are calculated by the height of the grass and how long it would take the herd to eat it down but not overgraze it. The bigger the herd, the larger the paddock required. All paddocks have a moveable water supply, a mineral lick and a shade 'trailer (house on wheel). Research has shown that stockers gain 0.8lbs a day if shade is provided in a summer climate like Virginia. "If your cows seek shade then you need to provide it," says Joel. Shade cloths also prevent urine evaporation so nitrogen is capture in the soil. Joel has evolved designs for all this moveable kit. The only thing that doesn't move is the two perimeter fences. Electric fencing contains the herd at the front and the back of the strip. Joel says he has no problem moving the cows. They love being moved on to new sweet grass. All he has to do is take an electric fence down at one end and call his cows. This he does at 4 pm. Supper time!

Chickens

Joel with a moveable chicken houseJoel with a moveable chicken house

Next come the chickens three days later. The cows have left their valuable pats in the newly pruned pasture and insects have laid their eggs. Maggots are hatching out. The chickens spread out the pats to fertilise the grasses and they create eggs as a by-product. If you have seen conventional pasture you'll recognise those blooms of nitrogen where the grass is greener. Cows don't like grazing where they have left pats so this method cleans and sanitizes the pasture and it manures it too. Chickens leave their nitrogen too, especially where they perch.

Again, the chicken house is a simple moveable design for the warmer months and the chickens are mob foragers like the pigs, being contained within electric fencing and moved to fresh ground as soon as necessary. They are fed some grain as well.

Winter accommodation

In winter, hoop houses are used to accommodate pigs, chickens and rabbits. They are stacked. The pigs live at ground level, the chicks above them and the rabbits in cages at the side. Pigs like rabbit droppings. The hoop houses provide shelter and the animals leave behind a well weeded and manured environment. In spring the hoop house is planted with vegetables. Joel says by mixing the species it 'confuses' the pathogens. He also says that placing rabbits in moveable housing on one acre of pasture can generate $40,000 per annum. They have a foraged based diet and are selectively bred by his son who started his own enterprise aged nine.

Hoop house with summer vegHoop house with summer veg

Cows are accommodated in simple barns. The deep litter is stacked high by the end of the season. In between layers of straw corn is spread and left to ferment. The hay mangers are designed to be raised so that the feed stays hygienic as are the water troughs. After the cows are put out to pasture in come the pigs. They forage for the fermented corn and turn the compacted bedding that can be up to four foot high. The anaerobic bedding becomes aerobic and composting starts. Then the compost is placed outside in piles. It is so hot rodents are deterred. At the end of the process it is bagged and sold. Another yield is possible.

Stacking

Joel doesn't only stack animals in a hoop house or stack grazing regimes on a piece of land. He also stacks complimentary enterprises on the farm. He calls it 'stacked synergistic complimentary seasonal enterprises'! He got a shiitake mushroom grower farming mushrooms on the shady side under the eaves of his shed, farm tours for kids, food fairs as well as a delivery service direct to customers, all the sales from livestock and eggs.

I'll tell you about how Polyface Inc markets its produce, creates customer loyalty and structures these micro-enterprises tomorrow. One thing is for sure, Joel would succeed at anything he does. He understands patterns and accounting. He has huge energy. He is highly intelligent, a lateral thinker and he is utterly single minded. He also made me laugh. I don't know anyone in the world who makes farming more interesting.

With grateful thanks to the UK RegenAg team for organizing such brilliant events and to Cowdray Hall for their hospitality. 

Further Resources

Rebecca Hosking on Farming for the Future - despite what the neighbours think

Read Tim Green on Bovine TB, badgers and permaculture perspective

Read Rebecca Hosking on How pigs can compost manure on a farm scale - saving you fuel and money

Watch Allan Savory on How to green the world's deserts and reverse climate change

Watch John Lui on the full length feature: Green gold - how can we regenerate large-scale damaged ecosystems?

Aranya's book Permaculture Design Step by Step is available in the USA from Chelsea Green Publishers. You can see a great talk by Aranya about permaculture design here.

Help spread the permaculture word...

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