Magazine article The Christian Century

Barnyard Dance

Magazine article The Christian Century

Barnyard Dance

Article excerpt

A SERIES OF recent books, like Erich Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Andrew Kimbrell's Fatal Harvest, have exposed the deadly side of America's highly industrialized food production system. The system relies on monocultural crop production, extensive use of fossil fuels and chemicals, massive injections of growth hormones and antibiotics, expensive capital investment, the confinement of animals, standardized production, farming practices that erode soil and deplete groundwater, and a deceptive way of calculating gains and losses.

This is a system obsessed with control and maximum profit. It offers a technological fix for every problem--like the idea that we should irradiate our entire food system to kill the bacteria that the system creates:

An entirely different approach to food production can be glimpsed at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in central Virginia. Salatin is explicit about saying his Christian faith informs the way he raises and slaughters the animals on his 500-acre farm. He sees it as his responsibility to honor the animals as creatures that reflect God's creative and abiding love.

Not that there is anything sentimental about his approach. Salatin knows that the animals are not pets. They are raised to be food. But Salatin's method of food production is designed to honor God's work.

It does so by learning from and attending to the patterns of symbiotic life, noting carefully how different species live best with each other, and making use of those patterns rather than imposing on creation an industrial or market-efficiency model. Creation forms a complex whole in which its members--in this case, the grasses and animals--live in a complex dance of interdependence. Salatin is like a choreographer who has learned to bring the best out of his troupe.

At Polyface Farm the cattle eat the grass in the pasture, but only on a limited section each day. The following day the portable electric fences are moved and the cattle enjoy a fresh patch. The movement of fences is crucial since it ensures that the grass/legume mix is not depleted beyond the point of recovery.

Following behind the cattle is the "eggmobile," loaded with laying hens that are free to roam and rummage through the pasture just vacated by the cattle. As they forage through and disperse the manure, they aid in fertilizing the field. Both chickens and cows are thus free to do what they do best--eat grass and roam for bugs and larvae while stimulating optimum grass growth. The pasture will produce an excellent hay crop for winter feed or be ready for a new rotation.

This system honors the creatures by enabling them to live the way God intended them to live. The cattle, ruminants created to eat grass, are not fed corn, nor are they stacked up and confined to standing in their own waste. As a result, they do not need the hormones and antibiotics that have become indispensable in industrial beef production. Nor do they produce the deadly strains of E. coli that now regularly surface in our food supply. The chickens, meanwhile, do not peck at each other like their confined and stressed industrial counterparts. They are free to roam.

The fields, in turn, do not require the synthetic fertilizers and the toxic pesticides that other farmers routinely use. They are fertilized and kept relatively pest-free by the activity of the animals feeding upon them. Conventional farmers who visit Polyface Farm are routinely baffled by the fact that Salatin has no need of costly and toxic inputs. …

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