Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lunatic Farming

On Sunday, Aaron and I drove up to the University of Minnesota to attend a lecture given by Joel Salatin. Joel is a bit of a pioneer in sustainable agriculture and pasture farming, and he is featured in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and the documentary Food, Inc. The lecture was titled, "The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer."

When I was a senior in college in Virginia, several of my classmates and I took a day trip to Polyface Farm as part of a class on food systems. It was one of the most inspiring trips I have ever taken, because it illustrated so clearly that what Joel preaches is possible. And that is, this:

That farming can be environmentally conscious, and not only that, but also environmentally beneficial, because carefully managed grazing can enrich soils and encourage the return of native plant species.

That there is a moral thread that runs from the field to the fork. While many in our agricultural system view life in a manipulative or cruel way, there are farmers out there who are allowing their "pigs to express pigness." By allowing a plant or animal to express itself, we can move toward respect in our food system.

That we can attract more people to agriculture by "romancing" them onto the farm - that is, by creating farms that are aromatically and aesthetically pleasing. And that instead of encouraging our brightest students to leave rural areas, we need to create a farming system that attracts them. Farmers are, after all, the stewards of our land, air, and water.

And finally, that it should be our mission to bring beauty and healing to everything within our sphere of influence.

There are a lot of people today who don't want to think about where their food came from. They don't want to visit the CAFO where their meat was raised, and even if they did, in many places they wouldn't be allowed in. But I think many people enjoy watching the ballet that occurs on diversified farms where animals are raised on grass.

When I was walking through Polyface, it was incredibly clear to me that this was how I, or anyone else, could leave a positive mark on the world. I thought of the pigs that could clear the underbrush from our native oak savannas, the cows that could, through rotational grazing, calm thistles and encourage the growth of prairie grasses. Thriving rural communities, and, at its simplest level, good food.

When I imagine a future where such practices would be considered normal, and not lunacy, I could cry.

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