Farming outside the box

Organic and natural food expert Joel Salatin urges local growers to experiment
Sustainable-farming advocate Joel Salatin, left, of Virginia-based Polyface Farms, whose farming practices have been featured in books and an Oscar-nominated documentary film, talks to a group touring Yale Creek Ranch in the Little Applegate Valley on Friday.Jim Craven

APPLEGATE VALLEY — Joel Salatin, a leading light in the local food movement, met with several dozen local farmers and ranchers on a warm February day that made him wonder aloud about returning to snowbound Virginia.

A practitioner of natural and organic farming, Salatin has little need for massive investment in machinery and other components associated with USDA-approved corporate food production.

Joel Salatin's beef production formula

Joel Salatin likens good beef production to a pie, each slice lending a necessary element.

"You don't want a pie with a piece missing," he said.

The components include: genetics, forage, age, minerals, adrenaline, hang-time after slaughter and cooking.

"Pie slices differ from place to place," Salatin said. "You can compensate for poor genetics with excellent grass."

Genetics contribute to tenderness; smaller cattle marble quicker; the right minerals help the tissue relax after slaughter.

His cattle lead unstressed lives. They often journey through the corral where they are gathered to go to the slaughterhouse then exit the other side to a new feeding area.

When restaurants carrying his beef take orders, anyone requesting steaks to be cooked more than medium rare are asked to select another item on the menu.

"I'm into stewardship and creating value," Salatin said. "I'm into multiple-use equipment instead of the single-use equipment that enslaves farmers."

After presenting an overview of his Polyface Farm in Virginia at the Upper Applegate Grange, Salatin roamed nearby Yale Creek Ranch in the Little Applegate Valley on Friday, observing organic farming as it's practiced on 83 acres in Southern Oregon.

Yale Creek Ranch raises cows, sheep, chickens and field seeds. More recently it added goats and pigs to its repertoire.

"I'm still trying to figure out how to orchestrate it," admitted manager Tim Franklin.

Salatin had a variety of hints and strategies, as well as homespun encouragement.

"Nobody ever does it right the first time," he said. "Be liberated and keep trying things."

Salatin calls himself a grass farmer who uses animals to fertilize and mow his fields in the Shenandoah Valley.

"We're co-conspirators in the land-healing ministry," he said. "We don't put anything in them we couldn't eat."

The intersection of riparian areas, marsh and open land is a critical element of his pursuit.

"I've never planted a seed or used chemical fertilizer. I'm using pigs as biological tools," he said. "An acre of grass sequesters more carbon than an acre of trees. If everybody with cows used (his farm's) technique, in 10 years we would sequester all the carbon produced since the beginning of the industrial age."

The herbivores and perennials on his farm have "a wonderful symbiotic relationship," Salatin said.

"We don't want sterile, we want active biology. We depend on bacteria, there would be no cheese, wine or sauerkraut without bacteria.

His animals are always moving, they are mobbed up to fend off predators, mowing the grass and performing a variety of roles.

Every plant and animal has its niche on his farm, Salatin said. In a culture that views animals as inanimate plasma, Polyface provides and ethical and moral framework from field to fork.

People have a relationship with their food, he said. "There's a courtship, relationship and romance leading up to an intimate experience."

"The weak link on your farm and mine is between our ears," he said. "We have to think outside the box to unleash and leverage our resources."

Unlike some of his farming neighbors, Salatin said he welcomed the "McMansion" crowd to his neck of the woods. Some farmers have been worrying about declining markets for nearly a century. "When the market is coming to us," he said "Let's embrace it."

Nonetheless, Salatin is not a big believer in farmers markets.

"They are what I call frustrating impediments to market penetration," he said. "They are destinations so you have to go there at a certain time, and our customers might have a Nutcracker performance, an elders meeting or be coming home from Little League practice."

He thinks a common cash register would improve the markets as well.

The 53-year-old farmer has written a half-dozen books and spends much of his time traveling around the world as a spokesman for local food production. His varied audiences across the political spectrum share a desire to produce and eat better food in the face of a culture where cheap — but not necessarily healthful — food has dominated the shelves and counters.

"They want me to tell them they can succeed," Salatin said. "We can actually do this, that it's credible and not pie-in-the-sky. The demand is there for a local food system."

He later spoke to 500 people Friday night at North Medford High School, relating a message that gained prominence when he appeared in the documentary film "Food Inc."

Salatin doesn't worry about those who disagree with his perspective.

"If I can find someone who agrees with me 60 percent of the time," he said. "I've got a buddy. The present system is going to unravel from the bottom up."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail

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