The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer
© 2010 Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin is crazy and glad to be so; in print and in media like Food, Inc and Fresh, he gleefully rejects what the late 20th century produced as conventional farming. The Sheer Ectasy of being a Lunatic Farmer is a defense of farming, and in particular a defense of his kind of farming. While grounded in traditional knowledge, Salatin’s delivery incorporates a lot of modern ecological connections. His style is folksy in the extreme, the narrative a conversation. Salatin is no rube, though, His and his father’s approach redeemed a swath of dead land, turning it into a thriving business — and Salatin himself has become a leader in the local foods movement.
Sheer Ectcstasy opens with a history of how Salatin’s father gave new life to their purchased farm. They made the foundation of their farm not a good range of machinery, but the health of the soil. Take care of the soil, and everything else will follow. Salatin’s work emphasizes closing the nutrient cycle as much as possible; while some nutrients invariably escape (their selling as food being the point of a farm), modern farming is dominated by inputs and outputs. After importing seed, farmers rely on mountains of fertilizer, pesticides, and antibiotics to bring the crop (be it corn or cows) to its marketable size. Every stage relies on finance and import, and nothing from the farm’s crop is used to sustain it other than its sale. Salatin’s Polyface Farm is different.
Instead of taking his cue from a machine, Salatin looks to nature. Deeply religious, he sees a providential plan in the design of nature, and holds that any human plan that goes against it will ruin itself eventually; it is patently unsustainable. While the libertarian Salatin disdains the label ‘organic’, being now a certified label issued by a government he regards with contempt, the approach is nevertheless one inspired by life. Salatin relies an ecological understanding of plants and livestock to power his farm. While he never lays out his entire plan of operation in the book, each chapter reveals another element, and taken together Salatin appears a genuine maestro conducting a symphony of eating and excreting. Cows graze a field, and chickens follow, removing parasites that spread disease. The cows’ winter bedding packs are mixed with corn and given over to pigs to root in, creating compost. Instead of being penned in one place, animals are moved on a daily basis in a simulation of their species’ natural grazing patterns. His animals aren’t merely the ends of the farm; they are its means. Salatin sees them as cocreators, with man and beast working together for their mutual advantage. Salatin’s life-inspired approach applies toward disease prevention; while the natural parasite removal and mock-migrations do their part, he also employs the time-honored method of selective breeding to produce stock that is robust and naturally disease-resistant.
Salatin has been fighting convention for so long he embraces it on purpose. This sometimes brings him to the border of quackery, as when he investigates the possibility of a tool that collects ‘cosmic energy’ and prevents drought. It doesn’t work, of course, and he cheerfully admits it, but he’s impressed by the salesman’ dousing taking him straight to the spot that Salatin would have picked to stick it. This is an example of being in tune with the land. More skeptical minds (mine) would say it’s an example of being cold-read. I would not be surprised if the douser picked up on Salatin’s body language that inclined him toward a spot, visual tics that told a sly mind when he was getting warmer to Salatin’s ideal spot. Salatin only prescribes advice that is based on evidence, however, on his careful study of the landscape.
On the whole, Sheer Ecstasyis a fun first look at how agriculture can adapt to sustain itself.
While this sounds like a fascinating read, I am unlikely to be persuaded that this is any kind of a life for this city boy. I had my fill of farm life from a close distance as I grew up in a (small) city where our back yard abutted corn fields that stretched as far as the eye could see, broken only by a tree line or two.
Nowadays, as I ride the bus into the downtown loop of our great of Chicago, I barely notice the “Farm in the Zoo” as we speed through Lincoln Park.
Salatin has written other books explicitly to entice others to farm ('You Can farm!” / “Fields of Farmers”), but this one is more of a celebration of his kind — contrasting it with the dreary solitary farmer going up and down fields the size of Delaware all day. He's fun, but sometimes a little *too* zany.