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Planet  |  Ecosystems  |  Food  |  Happiness

Joel Salatin: How to Eat Animals and Respect Them, Too

Why this foodie farmer believes sustainable farming includes meat.
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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. By doing 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. We’ll 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 Polyface?

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 halal, or 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.

Joel Salatin photo by Mike McGregor
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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. But by coming here and seeing the respect that’s afforded to that animal all the way through, we can create a thankful, gracious, honoring experience when we come to eat. 

Madeline Ostrander interviewed Joel Salatin for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Madeline is senior editor at YES!


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