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Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better Worldby Joel Salatin
From farmer Joel Salatin's point of view, life in the 21st century just ain't normal. In FOLKS, THIS AIN'T NORMAL, he discusses how far removed we are from the simple, sustainable joy that comes from living close to the land and the people we love. Salatin has many thoughts on what normal is and shares practical and philosophical ideas for changing our/sup>… See more details below
From farmer Joel Salatin's point of view, life in the 21st century just ain't normal. In FOLKS, THIS AIN'T NORMAL, he discusses how far removed we are from the simple, sustainable joy that comes from living close to the land and the people we love. Salatin has many thoughts on what normal is and shares practical and philosophical ideas for changing our lives in small ways that have big impact.
Salatin, hailed by the New York Times as "Virginia's most multifaceted agrarian since Thomas Jefferson [and] the high priest of the pasture" and profiled in the Academy Award nominated documentary Food, Inc. and the bestselling book The Omnivore's Dilemma, understands what food should be: Wholesome, seasonal, raised naturally, procured locally, prepared lovingly, and eaten with a profound reverence for the circle of life. And his message doesn't stop there. From child-rearing, to creating quality family time, to respecting the environment, Salatin writes with a wicked sense of humor and true storyteller's knack for the revealing anecdote.
Salatin's crucial message and distinctive voice-practical, provocative, scientific, and down-home philosophical in equal measure-make FOLKS, THIS AIN'T NORMAL a must-read book.
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Joel Salatin might seem like a vision of our agrarian past, but in fact, he's distinctly modern, looking beyond the conventional toward a new "normal" based on community, ecology, and flavor, too. Salatin's book is as practical as it is reflective; as necessary as it is radical."Dan Barber, Chef/Co-Owner, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns"
Joel Salatin is a down-to-earth 21st century pioneer, one of those rare contrarian thinkers whose words and work have the power to transform the way a generation thinks. 'Folks This Ain't Normal' will help seed the new nature movement and inspire people everywhere especially young people in need of some practical hope. And here's the bonus: The book is great fun to read. Sacred cows beware."Richard Louv, author of "The Nature Principle" and "Last Child in the Woods""
In Folks, This Ain't Normal, Joel Salatin says it's high time we stopped taking our industrialized food system as a given and instead consider local, sustainable food production as the norm. Good plan. Whether or not you agree with his contention that we would be better off if the government got out of food regulation, his ideas are compellingly written, fun to read, and well worth pondering."Marion Nestle, Dept. of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, NYU, and author, Food Politics"
Chances are slim you'll agree with everything in this wonderfully cranky book. But I'm almost certain you'll agree that Joel Salatin has earned the right to his convictions, and that they shine a powerful light on some of the paths out of the predicament we find ourselves in as a world."Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet"
Joel...is one of the most creative, productive and sustainable farmers working in America today...His message is that we eaters can change the world, one meal at a time."Michael Pollan, in the introduction to Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer's Guide to Farm Friendly Food
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Folks, This Ain't NormalA Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World
By Joel Salatin
Center StreetCopyright © 2012 Joel Salatin
All right reserved.
Children, Chores, Humility, and Health
“We need something for our young people to do” is a common refrain in adult circles today. Daily news reports about roving teenagers getting into mischief during the wee hours of the morning don’t make any sense to me. Every time I see that a group of young people has caused some fracas at 2 a.m. I wonder, “Who has time and energy to be out cavorting at 2 a.m.?”
Our children went to bed at 9 or 10 p.m. and were grateful for the opportunity. Our apprentices and interns normally dismiss themselves from our company and head off to bed as soon after dark as they can get there.
That young people today, at least when they are not in school, spend the day lounging around, hanging out, and then go into the wee hours burning off excess energy is aberrant in the first degree. Add to that the pastime of playing video games, exercising only thumb muscles and fingertips, and folks, we have a situation that just ain’t normal.
When the biggest thrill in life is becoming competent enough on the video game to achieve level five performance, what kind of environment are we creating for our future leaders? When I sit in airports and watch these testosterone-exuding boys with their shriveled shoulders and E.T.-looking fingers passing the time on their laptops, I realize that this is normal for them. This isn’t happening because they are sitting in an airport trying to while away the time. This is actually how many, if not most, of their hours are spent—recreation, entertainment, and playing around.
Contrast that with historical normalcy. Here is a list of chores for young people since time immemorial:
1. Chopping, cutting, and gathering firewood. In the days before petroleum and electricity, every able-bodied person contributed to keeping the household warm during the winter months. This wood accumulation required a knowledge of the forest and of what kind of wood burns well. Not all wood is created equal. Resinous woods like evergreens coat the inside of the chimney and unless mixed half and half with nonresinous will accumulate too much soot on the inside of the chimney or flue. This highly combustible residue can become a fire hazard. Whenever we cut down a pine tree, therefore, we want to look around for at least equal parts hardwoods to balance out the fuel for the fireplace or woodstove. Green wood cut from standing, living trees contains 30 percent or more water, and this moisture retards the fire because before the wood can burn it must evaporate the water.
A skilled wood gatherer knows to seek dead and dry wood for immediate burning but to stockpile the green wood for future burning. But all dead and downed wood is not equally dry. If the dead wood is up off the ground a little, it will be perfect. A standing snag is ideal most of the time. Sometimes it has already rotted and turned to powder—common in soft deciduous trees like poplar or red maple.
If the dead or downed wood is on the ground, it may be too rotten to burn. Burning wood is essentially an extremely fast rotting process: What soil microbes do over an extended period, a fire does in a short period. If the combustible carbon is already decomposed through the rotting process, nothing is left to burn.
All wood gives off about the same BTUs per pound, but different woods weigh different amounts per cubic foot. Heavy woods like white oak and hickory give off twice as much heat per cubic foot than light woods like poplar or white pine.
Gathering wood, then, requires a fair amount of knowledge to be done well. Beyond the knowledge is the skill to gather it efficiently. Obviously if we’re going to the forest to bring in firewood, we will take our tools like a chainsaw (modern), crosscut or bucksaw (premodern), or ax (old). Or imagine the Native Americans who either used stone axes or built fires around big trees to fell them. That required yet another whole skill set—one that I don’t possess.
But I do know how to run a chainsaw—a wonderful modern invention. I also know how to swing an ax, sharpen an ax, and replace the handle on an ax—all skills I developed as a youth. Once the wood is cut, it must be loaded into a vessel: trailer, pickup truck bed, hay wagon, whatever. It never ceases to amaze me when I go to the woods with our apprentices and interns how much I have to teach about efficiently gathering wood. First, we stack the branches with all the butts facing one way and uphill because the fluffy branch ends tend to build vertical height faster than the butts. If you stack the branches haphazardly, the pile gets too high too fast. By carefully placing the branches, we can get far more on the pile.
When we begin picking up the cut pieces of wood, we want to get the vessel as close to the wood as possible. No walking—pitch it into the vessel. If the piece is too big to throw, of course, then you may have to walk, but we want to keep backing the vessel into the cut wood to minimize walking. Obviously, if we pitch the wood to the vessel, we want to position our bodies between the vessel and the wood we’re picking up. This way we can reduce the throw by the length of our bodies and our arms—usually a distance of nearly five feet.
By swiveling back and forth this way, we can load the wood twice as fast as if we’re behind the pieces throwing them into the vessel. And three times faster than if we’re picking them up in our arms and carrying them over to the trailer. I know some people are reading this thinking, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of work. I’m glad I just turn on the thermostat and the heat starts.”
But now we get to the point of the story: Few activities can yield more satisfaction in the heart of a young person than riding in on a big load of firewood. This chore offers communing experiences with the forest, but not in a woo-woo cerebral academic kind of way. Rather, it’s a visceral, healthy understanding of the forest’s bounty, the diversity of its species, the different properties of each, the reality that some specimens died and some live until another day.
Some of my most satisfying experiences as a youth entailed gathering wood with Dad. Usually we would do this kind of work in the fall, the leaves turning brilliant colors, just enough nip in the air to invigorate the body. Perhaps my favorite work, still today, is working the woods. Few things are as satisfying as going into a jumbled-up mess, taking out the crooked trees, widow-makers (dead trees leaning up against their neighbors), dead trees fallen over, and walking out a couple of hours later with a beautiful order restored and excellent trees newly released (weeded) to grow better and healthier.
I consider it the ultimate multitasking. Not only have we reenergized the good trees and restored beauty and order, but we’ve accumulated our heating fuel at the same time. Whenever I throw that last piece of wood on the trailer, I like to take a few minutes, in the silence, and survey the site where I’ve worked. Branches neatly stacked will provide several years of housing for voles, chipmunks, and rabbits. Sometimes we chip them for livestock bedding. The good trees, standing straight and vigorous, reaching for the sky, will grow better now, unencumbered by the crooked, diseased, and scrub trees sapping soil and sun energy. What I could scarcely walk through two hours ago is now spacious, open, parklike, and organized.
The triumphant, exuberant spirit of our interns, riding in atop a trailer load of freshly gathered firewood, is testament to the deep personal satisfaction, the physical, emotional, and spiritual affirmation that such work engenders. This visceral, meaningful work makes the spirit soar with self-worth and accomplishment. This is the ultimate self-actualization. You won’t find that at the end of a video game, no matter how many times you play.
I hope this examination helps illustrate the depth and breadth of historic youthful normalcy. Because generally gathering firewood is done with at least one other person. The social time, bonding, and camaraderie that is part of the process puts icing on the cake. Yes, it’s work, but so is trying to figure out what to do with unruly youthful hormones at 2 a.m. Historically, normal youthful development entailed a meaningful contribution to the household. Work defines the individual. What is one of the first questions we ask when greeting new people? “What do you do?” That means, “What do you do for a living. What is your vocation? Your career? What defines you as a person?” Vocation clues us in to the person: engineer type, lawyer type, potter type, entrepreneur type, minister type, counselor type.
In the Jewish tradition, boys become men at thirteen years old. Any reading of colonial American biographies reveals unheard-of intrepidity among teenagers. In fact, the term “teenager” did not occur until the Industrial Revolution, when meaningful societal contributions by this age class began to wane. Until then, they were young adults. Many of the Pony Express riders were teens. These guys knew how to ride a horse, handle a gun, think on their feet, spot danger, be dependable.
Accumulating the wood, gathering it from the woods, was generally a communal chore. The daily task also entailed splitting and bringing the wood into the house.
2. Splitting wood was necessary to keep heat in the home. Normally accomplished with an ax, this chore has its own skill set. Reading the end of a piece of wood requires experience and careful observation. As wood dries, the moisture from the ends evaporates faster than what is stuck inside. This rapid drying on the end creates checks, or cracks. When setting up the block of wood to split, therefore, reading these checks reveals the natural inclination of the piece to split. Leveraging those small cracks makes the splitting much easier.
3. After splitting, the wood had to be brought into the house to keep the firebox full. By this time, the connection between gathering and necessity is clear. No wood, no heat. I remember well during my teen years taking my morning pee in the upstairs bathroom and seeing the stream splatter onto ice in the toilet bowl. That definitely motivates you to get the fire going, bring in wood, gather wood—the whole seamless chain of events to maintain house comfort.
This chore taught me both personal responsibility and dependability. If I got cold, it wasn’t anybody’s fault but my own. If I neglected to bring in enough wood to get through the night, I was victim of my own negligence. I had to think ahead, plan, be aware of outside temperature that determined how much wood we would burn for the night. I had to take note of the kind of wood. If it was a fast-burning wood, I needed more volume than if it was slower-burning wood. I needed a combination of big pieces to hold the fire and little pieces to make enough surface area to keep burning. This was all my responsibility.
But ultimately, this whole process painted a daily reminder of my dependency on nature to supply heat. It didn’t come from a pipe. I participated in the effort of growing trees, then it was up to the rain and the sun. Participating in this great work steers us toward dependency on our ecological womb. Breaking this historical responsibility and dependency may seem like a good thing for a while, but if we use that freed-up time to become self-absorbed, or become Hollywood celebrity addicts, are we really better off? For all our extrication from these chores, are we better people? Are we more responsible people? Are we more aware of our ecological dependence? I’m not saying it’s sinful to heat with natural gas or electricity. I do believe, however, that we must put more effort into remembering our responsibilities and dependency on the environment even if we don’t participate in these traditional activities.
Here’s a little-known chore: 4. Keeping animal protein in the chicken yard once a week during the winter. One of the first man-sized chores for farm boys was providing some dead critter for the laying flock to eat in the winter when the grasshoppers and crickets were dormant. Since chickens are omnivores, they need animal protein, and that’s hard to come by during the cold winter months.
Consequently, young boys had the chore of acquiring something for the chickens. Usually a squirrel, skunk, possum, raccoon, rabbit—something small. This required shooting or trapping, and is one reason why handbooks for boys written during the 1800s and early 1900s were dominated by homemade trapping devices. Often these boys were not yet old enough to carry guns, so they had to be ingenious at acquiring varmints some other way.
Matching wits against these animals that scurried around the home at night occupied many a youthful discussion and evening whittling, refining, tweaking by firelight. It occupied conversations at social gatherings and formed the warp and woof of meaningful collaboration. And it was the perfect job for young people seeking wise elderly counsel—from adults who had passed this way before and trapped or shot their fair share of the winter chicken yard protein.
Now, dear people, please close your eyes and meditate on this chore for a while, comparing it to the raucous nonsocial totally aberrant youthful passion pitting finger responses against a handheld video screen. Which do you think will really prepare young people to take their place in societal leadership? Which process actually lays a foundation of cleverness, persistence, and self-actualization to offer us world leaders who are not peer-dependent and who can think through the nuances of a problem?
For urban young people, building and launching model rockets, building and launching soapbox derby cars, and a host of other craft-type activities help develop these traditional skills. And they sure create great stories. How many times can you tell the story about hitting 100,000 in the Crazy Maniac Highway Destructo video game? But you can always tell the story about the crazy rocket that went sideways.
Here’s a chore that predates me by about a decade: 5. Picking up cow dung from the barnyard. When I was a youth, one of my old-timer neighbors told me about this chore that was one of the early rites of passage for young boys. Wheelbarrows have been around for a long time. Today they have pneumatic tires, but before that they had a simple metal wheel. Before the days of chemical fertilizer and agriculture experts telling farmers that manure wasn’t even worth hauling to the field, farmers knew its benefits.
They didn’t know all the scientific names for the various nutrients, the elements contained therein, or the enzymes saturated throughout, but they knew manure was magic. Always has been, always will be. For the record, although we know far more about manure than we did even a couple of decades ago, we still have much to learn. The more we know about nature, the more we know we don’t know.
For centuries farmers tried to figure out how to be more resourceful with manure. In the days before electric fences and front-end loaders, manure spreaders and wood chippers, this required hand work. Gene Logsdon, in his wonderful book Holy Shit, explains the historic static barn manure pack. Created in the winter when the cows and sheep were not out on pastures as much, the barn manure and bedding pack was one of the only concentrations of nutrients on the typical farm. During the grazing season, the pastured animals spread their own manure but it was so widely distributed that its effects were not as noticeable. This bedding manure was so prized that farmers wanted to gather even the cow pats dropped outside during the night and place them inside the barn under the protection of the roof and into absorptive contact with straw: what I call a carbonaceous diaper.
Hence the chore of going around with the wheelbarrow and a fork, gingerly picking up these outside cow pies and wheeling them into the barn where they could be covered with straw and accumulated until spring. While this may not have been a favorite chore, it did indicate a rite of passage, because a boy who could run that wheelbarrow around the barnyard was just around the corner from becoming a man. I remember well coaching our own children to use the wheelbarrow, watching as they tried to balance it and urging them on with “Yes, you can do it! You can do it!” When finally the day came that they could operate it proficiently, I passed the baton.
I remember as if it were yesterday the first time my son, Daniel, drove the tractor by himself. He was about eight years old and we needed to pick up a wagon load of hay bales in a large flat field. The thirteen-acre field was expansive, and since I was picking up the bales by hand, he needed to drive as slowly as I could walk. The implement was a hay wagon, which is a fairly benign implement—not like a baler or mower.
Of course, Daniel had grown up around the tractor with me, so he knew where everything was: clutch, throttle, brake, gearshift, steering wheel. I put it in gear for him, let out the clutch, and then jumped off, leaving him standing in front of the seat holding on to the steering wheel. I began loading the hay bales and he drove expertly alongside, put-putting along in fine fashion. When we were finished, he stepped on the clutch to disengage the transmission and I jumped on the tractor to drive it to the barn. I’m sure insurance agents are flipping out right about now. Trust me, you don’t know half of our stories.
That was a Saturday, and the next day at our church fellowship group Daniel beamed to everyone about what he had done. It was the only time he ever complained about homeschooling: “I wish I could go to a school tomorrow for show-and-tell.” That was a rite of passage.
I remember when I was about the same age working with my dad. We were feeding a herd of cows in the winter and had the big dump truck full of hay bales. Dad needed to throw them off and I was his only crew. When you’re feeding hay on a pasture, you want to put it out in a long line rather than a pile. This allows all the cows to get to the hay at once and it also reduces their tromping on it and wasting it. The easiest way to do this is to throw it off while the truck is moving.
So Dad put the truck in gear and let out the clutch, and I stood on the seat and steered. This 1951 International had a throttle on the dashboard, which meant you didn’t have to push the gas pedal to make it go. We were on a long, flat ridge. Dad put the truck in low first and then climbed into the back to throw off the hay. When we finished, he praised me for doing such a good job.
When our daughter Rachel was eight or nine years old, she began baking zucchini bread and pound cakes for our farm customers. Not only was she a truly gifted baker, but as a marketer, who could possibly refuse the cherubic face and expectant countenance of a child? “Yes, of course I’ll buy one,” the garden club ladies would say. And then the next week the patrons would come back and, crouching down to Rachel’s height, gently pinch her cheek and gush, “Oh, my garden club ladies loved your pound cake at our luncheon. It was delicious.”
What does that do for the personhood of a child? All of us crave affirmation, especially affirmation that genuinely recognizes our contribution to society. Being able to touch others in a meaningful way with our gifts and talents creates reciprocal affirmation. And while I may insult some people, I submit that this affirmation has a different quality, a different intensity, than simply being praised for winning a game. Perhaps acting in a dramatic production comes closer. But when we create something that we can sensually experience, and that represents our ingenuity, the gratitude on the part of the recipient speaks to deeper levels of our personhood.
In her early teen years, Rachel’s baking business expanded. Then she added a housecleaning business, and by her midteens she was employing others. We homeschooled and never had a television in the house, which created time to pursue these entrepreneurial activities. Contrary to much popular opinion, I would suggest that this was the ultimate preparation for adulthood, rather than an adolescence of coddling and endless recreation.
Our son Daniel started a rabbit project when he was eight. Some friends moved to the city and their new lease restrictions excluded animals. Their three rabbits needed a new home and Daniel took them in. We built a portable rabbit shelter and he moved it around the yard, fertilizing and mowing. Knowing what rabbits are known for, we decided to add “RABBIT” to our farm offerings in the next season’s product order blank. We assumed that not too many people ate rabbit, but hoped that enough would that Daniel would be able to sell some.
Within two weeks after the order blank went out, Daniel had orders for 150 rabbits. This was quite a tall order, even for rabbits. It launched his business and he gradually built it up to a sizable operation that recently has been commissioned to independent contractors on the farm.
I’m a big believer that children should have autonomous businesses. This teaches the value of a dollar, persistence, thrift, and good math skills. The earlier someone learns the difference between profit and loss, the better. I well remember Daniel going down to the farm store and purchasing half a ton of unmedicated rabbit pellets when he was about twelve years old. His nose just cleared the counter and the guys would josh with him: “Only half a ton? Why don’t you get a whole ton?”
Daniel would matter-of-factly respond, “I don’t have enough money for a ton.” How many adults have not learned that lesson? Both of our children hit twenty years old with $20,000 in the bank. I don’t believe in allowances—nobody should be paid to breathe. This was not pay for chores. It was self-earned, saved income from their businesses and provided a wonderful nest egg for future pursuits. That, my friends, is liberating and launching.
Our grandson Travis was only about five years old the first time he went with me to raise and lower the tractor front-end loader for something I was doing in the field. All he had to do was work the joystick that operates the hydraulics to move the loader up and down. He watched me closely for instructions and did what he’d seen his daddy and me do many times. His triumphant smile over helping me do something I couldn’t have done by myself oozed affirmation. He barely touched the ground for the next day, making sure everyone knew he had helped Grandpa. We were a team, there in the field, old geezer and kindergartner, working together to solve a common problem, sharing in the triumph of a physical, seeable, measurable job well done.
Recently I was in Washington State conducting a seminar, and a middle-aged lady told me her grow-up story. She said when she was a girl, when school dismissed for the summer, the apple orchards in the area would lease the school buses and print a picking schedule in fliers in the newspaper. The school buses would come through the city on a schedule, just like the ice cream truck, and if you were older than ten years old, you could get on the bus and ride out to the orchards and pick apples for the day. This gave young people spending money, physical exercise, and affirmation as contributing members of society. At the end of the day, the buses would deliver them back home and they were richer than the money in their pockets.
Can you imagine such a reasonable activity occurring today? The insurance underwriter for the school district would go apoplectic that the buses were being used for something other than carting brains to school. Child labor laws would scream “Exploitation!” and criminalize even the notion of such an activity. I find it amazing that today our culture thinks it’s sensible to put a sixteen-year-old behind the wheel of two thousand pounds of steel and send it hurtling down the expressway at seventy miles an hour, but if that same person pushes a lawnmower or operates a cordless drill, that power tool is too dangerous.
On our farm, we routinely have younger teens in the fifteen- to seventeen-year range wanting to come and work for the summer. Many are homeschooled and quite mature, eager to get on with their life’s objectives, which in this case means starting a viable agriculture endeavor. But although we used to take them, we don’t anymore due to overreaching occupational safety regulations that classify a cordless screwdriver as a power tool and therefore illegal for anyone under eighteen to operate.
The same teen who can’t legally operate a four-wheeler, or all-terrain vehicle (ATV, commonly known in the vernacular as Japanese Cow Ponies), in a farm lane workplace environment can operate a jacked-up F-250 pickup on a crowded urban expressway. By denying these opportunities to bring value to their own lives and the community around them, we’ve relegated our young adults to teenage foolishness. Then as a culture we walk around shaking our heads in bewilderment at these young people with retarded maturity. Never in life do people have as much energy as in their teens, and to criminalize leveraging it is certainly one of our nation’s greatest resource blunders.
Our culture now denies young people the very activities that build their self-worth and incorporate them as valuable members of society. Rather than seeing children as an asset, we now view them as a liability. If there is any expression of our society’s aberrant behavior, it is certainly expressed in the “cost of children” analysis in the modern press. What happened to the day when they were considered a worthwhile asset?
Our societal paralysis to leverage youthful energy in a more meaningful way than soccer, ballet, and video games indicates profound imagination constipation. This protective timidity that denies our young people risk and self-actualization keeps them from attaining emotional, economic, and spiritual maturity.
Worse than being hurt on the job is growing up without a sense of self-worth. Gangs are a direct result of this societal abnormality. While I’m not naïve enough to believe that if we encouraged childhood work we wouldn’t have gangs at all, I would argue that their proliferation has mirrored young people’s eviction from visceral societal contribution.
Lest anyone think I’m proposing child labor, I also love to see children free to enjoy imaginative play. Our children grew up building dams in the creek, forts in the hay, forts in the firewood pile, forts in the woods. After reading The Swiss Family Robinson, Daniel and Rachel spent several days in the woods. Teresa and I weren’t quite sure what they were doing, but we knew they were into a serious project. After three days, the children asked us to come and attack them—giving us clear directions on where to assault their stronghold first.
As Teresa and I approached along the designated path, Rachel and Daniel let loose with whooping and hollering, moving deftly from one booby trap to another, releasing a bag of sticks on us, then entangling us in string. When we finally made it through the hazards and arrived at their inner sanctum, we all had a wonderful laugh at their rendition of the classic book’s story.
Compare that to spending all day in front of a video game trying to race a car around a track or decapitate the alien invaders. I am not a psychologist, but it seems to me that the video alternative is a far cry, as a personal development technique, from the forested fortress. The children tied, sawed, climbed, rolled, heaved, and built something with their own creativity. Video games confine creativity to someone else’s software imagination. And we haven’t even addressed the physical benefits of all that exercise—climbing up the trees to string twine and gathering armloads of sticks. Oh, and the site was half a mile from the house. They had to walk there and walk back. Precious memories.
My grandchildren’s escapades are already epic. They have their flags and forts throughout the farm and barn, daily venturing forth to slay dragons and protect righteousness. Who needs amusement rides and Disney when every day, with a little sweat and imagination, you can create your own castles and story lines? When I ask Travis and Andrew, sometimes with Lauryn tagging along, what they are up to, they regale me with fantastical stories, crisp descriptions of how the “bad guys” came over that “hill right there and we… we ambushed them right there and… and…” Trust me, folks, this narrative can go on through chores if you have the time to let it unfold.
Although childhood active playtime is wonderful, so is work. One particularly poignant illustration of this occurred when Daniel was about ten years old. A neighbor boy a year younger wanted to build a fort below his house, so he enlisted Daniel’s support in the project. Since diaperhood, Daniel had been going with me to build fence, and I routinely paced myself by not stopping for a drink until I had achieved some specific point in the project. He would ask for a drink and I’d say, “No, we’re not going to get a drink until I finish setting this post.”
He went over to the neighbors’ to build the fort the first morning of the project, and about two hours later the boy’s mother called our house: “What’s wrong with your son? He won’t let my son have a drink of water until they’ve finished the first wall.” We laughed ourselves silly over old ten-year-old slave driver Daniel. But folks, that is the stuff of life. That is the stuff of maturity. Persistence and faithfulness. Can these be learned equally from entertainment or recreational venues? If we relegate our young people to only find accomplishment from entertainment or winning the athletic trophy, have we not shortchanged their understanding of human value?
I like a great ball game as much as anybody, but all game and no meaningful work creates an unbelievably jaundiced view of life and our role in it. And that brings me to the sixth chore in this discussion:
6. Gardening. As recently as 1946, nearly 50 percent of all produce grown in America came out of backyard gardens. Hoeing, pulling weeds, planting vegetables, and then canning, freezing, dehydrating, and fermenting accounted for significant family time and energy. Laying by was not an option; it was a necessity. That someone would enter the nonproductive off-season with an empty larder was simply unthinkable. And foolhardy.
With the proliferation of just-in-time inventorying and supermarkets with long warehouse stays and a global inventory chain, this historically normal domestic activity has been relegated to unnecessary status. Such food production, preparation, and processing simply gets in the way of extracurricular outside-the-home activities.
When a child plays a video game, if the race car wrecks, in a few seconds the game gives him a new one and he goes right on playing. If he’s fighting alien invaders and his character gets his head bashed in, the machine replaces the stricken victim in a few seconds and the game goes on. No one, at any other time in human history, has been able to replace their materials, their tools, even their playthings with such instant fabrication or resurrection.
Life is not like this at all. In real life, if you drive your car like a maniac and wrap it around a tree, you don’t swagger away cavalierly from the catastrophe and receive a new car plopped down by the auto fairies in a few seconds. It’s a real loss, with real consequences and real upheaval.
If your tomato plant dies because you failed to water it, you don’t count to ten and watch a miraculous resurrection. Death is final. It’s over. The hubris with which our young people enter life, living in this world of replacement and limitless instant gratification, engenders an arrogance toward life and ecology that is both scary and dangerous. No fear is the mantra of fools.
When we started our apprentice program at our farm I saw this illustrated daily. Though only thirteen at the time, Daniel had an awareness of danger, a situational awareness far superior to apprentices twice his age. He knew what happened if a tractor tire ran over something. He’d seen squashed buckets or bent metal. He knew what an errant tree falling could do. He was well aware that a random groundhog hole could dislodge a whole wagon load of hay and bury the stacker under a ton of bales. He knew how unpredictable—and violently strong—a cow kick could be in the corral, and where to position himself to not be the victim of such actions.
Apprentices twice his age were constantly putting themselves in dangerous positions. Not because they were foolhardy, but simply because they had not been in these situations and therefore had no clue about what could go wrong. Over the years, we’ve had only one apprentice we had to send home due to his inability to assess dangerous places. We actually feared for his life because he couldn’t grasp the gravity of a given situation.
Knowing what to fear is the first step in knowing what to fix. I fear that we are bringing to our world a whole generation revved up on hubris, who think they have the world by the tail. Solomon, generally described as the wisest man who ever lived, said in the biblical book of Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” If this doesn’t denote appreciating the gravity of the situation, I don’t know what does.
The gardener fears changes in the weather pattern, lack of water, soil loss, husbandry negligence. That so few in our generation have a visceral experience with any deprivation is why, in the face of mounting water shortages, soil erosion, atmospheric changes, and chemical toxicity most people can still drink their Coca-Cola, munch their nachos, and spend hours glued to sitcoms, oblivious to catastrophes building around them. The wise gardener studies his environment, watching for weeds, bugs, drought, flood, heat, cold, and soil changes.
Cultivating this habitat awareness and responding to its nuances allow the gardener to enter a world of mystery and grandeur. Ultimately all gardeners realize that their landscape depends on something much bigger than themselves. Seasonal cycles, frost dates, degree-days, day length, and even waxing and waning moon cycles all play a part in this majestic garden dance. It’s a place of wonder and awe, ultimately impressing on the gardener a palpable humility toward this divine ecological umbilical.
The sheer joy expressed by schoolchildren in gardens when they first discover those plump potatoes, buried under green foliage all season, is the stuff of unbridled exuberance. No discovery could elicit a more enthusiastic response. No hidden treasure can excite more enthusiasm than those potatoes rolling out of the ground. One of my favorite interactions on our farm is when city children peek under laying hens and see eggs for the first time, the exhilaration as they catch their breath, open their mouth in a big smile of wonderment, and say to Mommy or Daddy, “Look! Eggs!” And if they happen to actually watch a chicken squat and lay an egg, you’d think they just discovered the moon.
I’m reminded of a study I read about when Teresa and I were contemplating homeschooling our children. The crux of the study was that the earlier a child learns specific spatial data, the less spiritual the child will be. Using the moon as an example, what these researchers found was that the sooner children learn that the moon is comprised of this and that elements and that it is so many miles away from the earth, the sooner they lose their awe and wonder toward the moon. It moves, in the human mind, from a majestic orb in the sky, a mystical object of wonderment, to simply a ho-hum rock.
Maintaining a sense of awe and mystery toward the universe, and cultivating a profound sense of dependency on something bigger than ourselves, seem to be a fundamental responsibility we adults should have toward our children. To abdicate this responsibility is to populate our culture with manipulators and dominion-thinkers on overdrive. For my religious right friends, remember that the first occupation of humanity was to be a gardener—with specific restrictions on hubris, known as the forbidden tree. Overreaching dominion resulted in paradise lost. That should instill fear in all of us to not take our dominion reach beyond our grasp of creation’s rules.
Watching new life spring from last season’s dead and decomposed relics instills hope. The garden’s cycle helps young people understand that what is will not always be, that regeneration requires death and decomposition. Out of sacrifice springs life. To encounter that, to see it, touch it, taste it, smell it, gives old-fashioned common sense and reasoning abilities. It is the real world, not some artificial cyber-fantasy that titillates the mind with cerebral extravagance. The computer game cries for more, more, more. More violence, more drama, more excitement. More consumerism. It’s like a cerebral drug trip, ever more demanding, less satisfying, dependency-enslaving.
The garden teaches balance. No gardener plants only one thing. Yes, industrial agriculture does that, but no gardener would think of such nonsense. Gardeners balance high plants with low plants, top growers with bottom growers, vegetables with flowers. The gardener learns about crowding plants, about earthworms, soil tilth, and a host of comparisons and contrasts that create a vibrant place. Carrying capacity expressed in seeds per square foot teaches discipline. If you want to grow ten corn plants per square foot, try it one time. You’ll be sorely disappointed. Perhaps stacking people too close together has the same result.
Disciplining ourselves to respect and honor ecological limitations and patterns is part of wisdom. Failure to adhere to these principles should make us tremble with fear. It is this kind of humility, this kind of nurturing caregiving toward creation, that children who garden bring to their adult life. While I’m sure plenty of software designers have tried to duplicate this on a video screen, the difference between seeing something shrivel on a video display does not and cannot compare to watching the shriveling occur in real life.
In addition to attitudinal normalcy, I would suggest that gardens also strengthen children’s immune systems. Autoimmune dysfunction is reaching unprecedented abnormal levels. Many researchers are working on this epidemic that is pointing more and more toward what is called the hygiene hypothesis.
Callaway, Harvey, and Nisbet, in a paper published in Foodborne Pathogens and Illness, discussed the hygiene hypothesis, which they say first began being bandied about in the mid-1990s and has increased in credibility among doctors and other experts. According to these researchers: “This hypothesis states that a lack of exposure of children (as well as adults) to dirt, commensal bacteria, and ‘minor’ pathogenic insults results in an immune system that does not function normally. This lack of antibodies to true pathogens in the immune system has resulted in the dramatic increase in allergies and asthma in developed countries over the past twenty years.” The paper cites an American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology estimate that from about 1990 to 2010, the number of people with allergies increased by 100 percent.
According to this hypothesis, the immune system becomes lethargic due to lack of true immunological exercise, a problem especially common in developed nations. My intuition, and probably yours, is that immune systems need exercise just like muscles.
Although this research is primarily aimed at sterile food, I would argue that it applies to any childhood devoid of soil contact. Most of us have heard our grandmothers say, “Every child should eat a pound of dirt before they’re twelve,” or some variation on that theme.
One of the central arguments in Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel is that the cultures that ended up dominating the world were the ones that developed a greater array of immunities due to proximity to domestic livestock. For those of you who are already thinking along with me, yes indeed, a backyard rabbitry or chicken flock to complement the backyard garden would be a great addition to your child’s immunological arsenal.
Splinters, blisters, and real dirt under the fingernails are all part of a normal childhood that builds immune systems. That, as a culture, we are reducing or even denying this immunological exercise is not only abnormal when viewed through the lens of history, but does not bode well for proper body and soul development. Indeed, it may prove devastating to children’s health. Children’s laboring in gardens is both attitudinally and physically positive. Weeding the beans and picking cucumbers should be seen as part of a healthy child development program. Certainly better than computer screens and television.
Where should these gardens be located? Any lawn, any flowerpot, and any windowsill offers a garden spot. Incorporating gardens into the family’s domestic landscape is both normal and healthy. The notion that children actively engaged in food production exploit these little innocents just ain’t normal. A normal childhood involves digging, planting, germinating, weeding, watering, and preparing. That nourishes both the immune system and the soul.
How about some things to do?
Grow things… anything. Indoor grow lights are still magic, and can bring sunlight indoors for remarkable discoveries.
Lobby for more lenient child labor opportunities so that once again teens can do historically normal work.
Instead of going on a cruise or Disney vacation, how about choosing a working ranch experience for the family, or an extremely rustic wilderness adventure where you make some traps and hunt for food?
Brainstorm entrepreneurial child-appropriate businesses—hand crafts, repair, tutoring, calligraphy, customized invitations, cleaning homes, mowing lawns, picking up rocks, hoeing weeds. The list of possibilities could fill many pages. Don’t underestimate the creativity and resourcefulness of your sixteen-year-old unleashed on the community. Stay out of the way and let her run.
A Cat Is a Cow Is a Chicken Is My Aunt
No civilization has ever been in this state of environmental ignorance. In previous eras, people who lived in an area, whether they were newcomers or old-timers, had to be intimately aware of their surroundings and viscerally involved in rearing and preparing food for the table.
But in recent decades, in our culture, putting food on the table does not require any knowledge or involvement except how to scan a credit card, open a plastic bag, and nuke it in the microwave. No civilization in history has ever been able to be this disconnected from its ecological umbilical. And in more frequent dinnertime discussions, I’m finding more and more people wondering if a civilization this disconnected can actually survive.
Today we can live day to day to day, even a lifetime, without thinking about air, soil, water, lumber, and energy. If we do think about them, we think about them in the abstract. We don’t have a visceral relationship with any of these essential resources.
For example, when I say “grass,” most people associate that word, in its first sense, with lawns. And yet that is a paltry, uninformed notion of grass. Artificially planted and maintained two-inch turf grass is a far cry from the grass I’m talking about. I’m talking about native prairies, and Little House on the Prairie, where Ma and Pa Ingalls feared Laura would become lost if she went out of the house. The University of Nebraska still maintains an acre or two of this grass in Lincoln. It’s twelve feet tall with stems more than half an inch thick. The first Europeans into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley wrote letters home describing grasses that could be tied in a knot above the horse’s saddle.
When I say “pasture,” do you think of it as a glorified lawn? Imagine grass as high as your head and so thick you can scarcely walk through it. That’s grass. The point I’m making here is that as a culture, our references even to fundamental farming concepts stem from an urbanized mentality. Rather than viewing lawn as a downsized, unnatural, high-maintenance pasture, we view pasture as an upsized, high-maintenance lawn to be doted over, a money drain.
To have a discussion about normal living, normal ecology, all my readers need to understand how ignorant we’ve become as a culture. With our frame of reference skewed, our perceptions about farming, and our notions of what is environmentally enhancing or not, we approach farming with prejudicial brain damage. As a result, we have environmentalists spouting the ignorant notion that cows are belching methane and causing global warming. The scientific studies impugning the cow view her as taking, taking, taking, and not putting anything back.
That’s like valuing children on the basis of diaper costs. Do they not have any redeeming value? I cringe when I read modern reports of how much children cost. A culture that creates a negative value on children has to be the least creative culture on earth. Children have always been valued as a treasure and a blessing. Throughout history, the cow has been considered an asset, and even worshipped in some cultures. She is the basis of dowries in nomadic societies, the ultimate currency. Ours must be the first culture in history that demonizes the cow.
The cow, perhaps more than anything else, represents civilization. Domesticating this multipurpose beast that can turn lowly grass into meat, milk, power, clothing, cordage, tools, lubricant, cleansers, and roofing materials arguably defined civilized living opportunities. Ecologically, the cow restarts the photosynethetic biomass accumulation process. Pretty important, I’d say.
Pruning is a universally accepted horticultural practice. On our shrubbery, our apple trees, our vineyards, pruning develops the foliage, strengthens the plant, and creates better fruit. An herbivore is a grass pruner. Without the herbivore, the forage would grow to senescence, fall over, and oxidize CO2 into the atmosphere. The herbivorous pruning restarts the juvenile growth phase of the biomass engine—kind of like pushing a horticultural restart button. Without the herbivore, the photosynthetic activity—viewed like a solar collector—shuts down into dormancy. Throughout history and worldwide, the herbivore reawakens biomass, stimulating it to greater solar activity.
When farmers divorce the herbivore from fulfilling this ecological function, it cannot perform the positive function it is supposed to. In what will surely be a classic on this entire subject, Simon Fairlie’s book Meat: A Benign Extravagance gives the math and apologetics for all the positives derived from herbivores. From antiscientific UN reports to religious broadsides, the antiherbivore campaign is both highly abnormal and incorrect.
Because some people use the cow abusively by denying this normal role is not reason to demonize the cow any more than it would be proper to eliminate automobiles because someone drives one recklessly. Not a single long-term tillage system on earth exists without an herbivorous component. You can’t just substitute tofu (made from tillage—soybeans) for the herbivore. It doesn’t work ecologically. Period. No matter how much you like tofu.
This is perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings people have about farming ecology. In a desire to get rid of the cow, they want to substitute plants that require tillage. No long-term example exists in which tillage is sustainable. It always requires injection of biomass from outside the system or a soil-development pasture cycle. To think that plants which require tillage can build soil like perennial pasture indicates environmental absurdity.
Tillage, or stirring the soil, burns out organic matter due to the hyperoxygenation it creates. While this offers a tremendous amount of energy to a growing crop like squash, corn, or wheat, it comes at a price in soil degradation, and especially nitrogen retention. On our farm, we use the lawn around our house as a biomass importer for the vegetable garden. We mulch our vegetables with the grass clippings, which slowly decompose and build soil that the vegetables deplete. The lawn accumulates fertility and the garden depletes fertility. This is the nature of tilled versus perennial systems.
It doesn’t matter whether the tillage is for cotton, corn, soybeans (tofu), peanuts, or tomatoes: Tillage always depletes soil organic matter and vital nutrients. This is why all traditional cropping systems demanded a multiyear pasturage component between cropping years. Newman Turner’s ley farming system in Britain illustrated the soil-developing strength of pasturage. In this case, he would grow red clover and orchardgrass, for example, for three years and then grow one year of grain followed by a year of a root crop like turnips or beets before going back into forage.
The Argentina system of pasturage followed by two years of annuals like small grain, corn, or soybeans was developed because chemical fertilizer was too expensive or unavailable. Most sustainable farmers in America who grow annuals practice a multiyear rotation that includes pasturage. At the least, they grow a soil-developing cover crop between cycles. Cover crops are generally leafy annuals allowed to accumulate biomass and then tilled or mown ahead of another crop. The point is that the soil’s biological economy requires putting something back. Historically, the herbivore-pasturage cycle put things back.
Some say, just because we use the cow to graze the soil-building pasture component, does that mean we have to eat her?
This is the kind of question that scares me. Rather than showing some new enlightenment, it illustrates a new state of absurdity. Who is going to handle these cows if they have no value other than as mowers? What happens when a cow gets old? Who is going to manage these cows to make sure they are on the field that needs them at the right time? Are you willing to pay a hundred dollars for a loaf of bread in order to finance the cow component necessary to rejuvenate the soil?
This brings me to one of the biggest abnormalities we’re facing on the farm: anthropomorphism. This past summer, a group of well-meaning women near one of our rental farms turned us in to the animal control officers for abusing our cows. One of these ladies had driven by the paddock at 4 p.m. and saw the bunched-up 300-head herd, waiting patiently by the gate to the next paddock. We move the herd to their next paddock every day at about 4 p.m. and they get very used to the routine.
She called animal control, insisting that these cows looked like they were crowded, and since she didn’t like crowds, the cows must be unhappy. Folks, this kind of ignorance just ain’t normal. That our culture has the luxury to employ somebody to take this lady seriously is indeed abnormal in the history of civilization.
Realize that this herd had a couple of acres to spread out into had they wanted to do so. It wasn’t as if they were corralled in a tight spot. They could have gone anywhere in the paddock. But cows are herding animals. Get it? Herding. Why do the wildebeests on the Serengeti bunch up when they could spread out over thousands of square miles? They bunch up for predator protection. This is instinctive herding behavior. Another advantage of bunching up is that bodies rubbing together disturbs the flies, keeping these irritants from landing. Swarming, disturbed flies are much easier for birds to catch in midair than when sitting on the backs of animals. From a nutrient standpoint, the crowding creates more aggressive hoof action to chip up their manure, treading it into the ground to stimulate fertility. It shades their urine so it seeps into the ground rather than evaporating.
A lot of cool things happen in that tightly grouped herd. It is all positive; not one negative thing. Animals are not people. Unfortunately, we’ve entered a time in our culture when the only interaction most people have with an animal is with a pet. Some people call their pets their children. In fact, many people are more concerned about the food nutrition for their pets than for their children. When Fido gets all-natural raw canine-primal pampering, the humans are glued to the TV munching nachos dipped in Velveeta. Are we missing something?
To put this subject in perspective, I receive letters from time to time pleading with me to quit raising livestock. The writers always include some metaphysical encounter or an epiphany that moved them into a higher spiritual dimension of oneness with cows and chickens. The result is a new understanding that animals are humans. They are just four-legged people, and if I would quit murdering them, then I would be a greater blessing to our world. The writers implore me to join them in this new level of understanding: A cow is a child is a fish is a fly is my daughter.
This does not indicate a new evolutionary heightened cosmic awareness, but a new devolutionary and unprecedented disconnectedness with our ecological umbilical. One writer provided me a list of quotations that she hoped would “inspire” me, beginning with the Bible’s Job 12:7–8: “But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach you; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell you: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach you: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto you.” If this isn’t consistent with my admonition to honor the pigness of the pig, I don’t know what is. I learn from my animals every day. I learn from my carrots and tomatoes every day. I even learn from people—sometimes.
The writer of the letter, however, insisted that I take this biblically enjoined animal education and elevate the beasts to human equivalency. Not only does this misconstrue the biblical admonition, it also assumes that all teachers must be humans. Such insistence is nonsense. Practically everything can teach me something. Even inanimate objects, like a stubborn bolt on an engine or a water pump that won’t prime—everything can teach. Just because I learn something from an entity does not make that entity human.
Included in this biblical passage is a broad “earth” concept. Who among us does not learn from the earth? But does that mean that a carrot must be worshipped? When I pluck that carrot from the ground, I mash it, rip the fibers apart, and pulp it in my mouth. It is absolutely and violently destroyed as a carrot. But that gives me the energy to plant another carrot; hence, carrothood is ensured through this sacrifice.
The fact that life requires sacrifice has profound spiritual ramifications. In order for something to live, something else must die. And that should provide us a lesson in how we serve one another and the creation and Creator around us. Everything is eating and being eaten. The perpetual sacrifice of one thing creates life for the next. To see this as regenerative is both mature and normal. To see it as violence that must be stopped is both abnormal and juvenile.
To take this one step further, I would even suggest that the sacrifice is elevated to sacredness based on the respect and honor bestowed on the sacrifice during its life. For example, if we string up a murderer, we don’t call that a sacrifice; we call it just deserts. But if an honorable person is strung up, then he is immortalized as a sacrifice. The life well lived bestows upon the sacrifice its sacredness. And so how the chicken or carrot or cabbage lives defines the life’s value consummated in the act of death—chomping, masticating, burying in our intestines to regenerate flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. That no life can exist without sacrifice is a profound physical and spiritual truth. And the better the life, the greater the sacrifice.
I have no problem with vegetarians who choose to vote against industrial farming by eating that way. Teresa and I have always said that if we didn’t know somebody like us, we’d practically be vegetarians too. And for the record, when Rush Limbaugh fires up his machine guns against the monkeys in the jungle, I don’t think that’s funny. Animals do indeed have rights, but that does not elevate them to humanhood. Where the animal rightists cross the line is when they call a cow or chicken a human. I do not try to argue with those folks. It’s useless. And I won’t spend time on that here. What I want to discuss is the level of ignorance about farming in general and animals specifically that makes even well-meaning people appear absurd.
For example, the following comes from a bulletin I picked up at a green living fair from United Poultry Concerns. A visitor who claimed to have toured Polyface Farm “on a sweltering day” questioned the animals’ “freedom” and our “compassion” for the animals. “Chickens were in tiny cages with tin roofs in the beating sun, panting like mad. The cages were located over manure piles the birds were supposed to eat larvae from. Rabbits were kept in factory-farm conditions in suspended, barren wire cages.” I won’t quote the passages about other farms in the brochure, but I will take a look at these assertions since they deal with our farm.
First, realize that our farm has an open-door policy. The fact that anyone can come at any time, unannounced, to see anything, is certainly a transparency that is both vibrantly open but also risky. We don’t screen people to be sure they comprehend what they see. First of all, we have to understand that these people violently oppose eating animals. On the front of the brochure, they quote author Joe Bob Briggs, writing online in We Are the Weird, “The waiter said, ‘All of our chicken is free-range.’ And I said, ‘He doesn’t look very free there on that plate.’ ” While this might elicit a smile, it’s pure nonsense. A carrot doesn’t seem very much like a carrot in my intestines, either. Give me a break.
The above visitor admits she toured Polyface on a sweltering day. It was a sweltering day, okay? I’ll guarantee you that I was sweating way more than those chickens out there in the field. Animals have a dramatic ability to adapt to weather conditions. Have you ever watched ducks and geese swimming on a pond when it’s freezing outside? Doesn’t that look cold to you? And yet those ducks and geese are perfectly happy.
A friend told me his neighbor called animal control on him because his horses looked cold. It had snowed a couple of inches and the horses had some snow on their backs and were standing in the cold. The neighbor’s ducks and geese were swimming contentedly on the pond. Not only were the horses not cold; they were as content as could be. In winter, these animals grow extra feathers, hair, and wool to give them more insulation against cold. Far more animals have been killed through respiratory trauma being locked in buildings than died being out in the cold.
A chicken is perfectly happy as long as she doesn’t get wet and stays out of the wind. Although the quarters may be frigid, she’ll be just fine. Haven’t you ever seen a sparrow or chickadee sitting on a tree branch on a day so frigid you wouldn’t want to be outside? And yet these tiny little creatures are chirping and swooping, seeming to have the time of their lives. Just because your cat would rather be inside doesn’t mean it’s abusive to have these animals in the cold.
Heat is the same way. Dogs pant. Cats even pant. And yes, on a sweltering day our chickens pant. I sweat. This is nature’s way of dealing with heat, of the body getting rid of the heat. If every day were like this, we’d probably make some changes. In extremely hot areas like south Texas, pastured poultry producers take the summer off in their seasonal production just like here in Virginia we take the winter off. Not every single day is 70 degrees with blue skies and little puffy clouds.
These visitors probably didn’t know that just before they arrived we were up there spraying water over the shelters to cool things off and give the birds some relief. This is life. We’re all uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you’re about to die. I wonder if these visitors returned home to air-conditioning that is destroying the planet through unsustainable energy use. It’s so easy just to step onto someone’s place and start finger-pointing, without any context, and with a jaundiced view toward animal welfare.
I wonder how many of the people who go apoplectic over alleged herbivore carbon footprints jet to Africa for photo-safaris. How many Nature Conservancy members burn copious amounts of fossil fuel toting their kiddos to soccer and ballet, then returning to air-conditioned comfort? Let’s be big enough to recognize our inconsistencies. I’m inconsistent too, but it’s a lot easier to spot it in others than myself.
The visitor says the birds were crammed into tiny cages. Interestingly, whenever one of these chickens inadvertently gets outside the shelter (or cage, as she calls them), the bird immediately begins circling, circling, circling, chirping an alarm, and trying to find a way back inside. Instinctively, the birds know they are vulnerable to predation outside. Besides, being social beings, they want to be inside with their mates. To think that these birds would rather be outside their “cages” indicates a profound lack of understanding regarding chickenness; a profound ignorance about predator and weather protection.
On that sweltering day, an afternoon thunderstorm would wreak havoc on those young broiler chickens. Their “cage” protected them from both the stifling sun and the violent rain that was boiling up, unseen, on the other side of the mountain to our west. Interestingly, the visitor says nothing about whether the chickens acted hot or uncomfortable. All she knew was that the shelter didn’t look like a place she wanted to be, so she assumed it was a place the chickens didn’t want to be. Until they are in their last two weeks of age, broilers can handle 100 degrees without any problem. When they get big, we put prop sticks under the shelters to create air convection sucking under the sheltered lid. If the author of the critical commentary was like most visitors, she wouldn’t even have noticed these props, or felt their air current. Most visitors don’t notice all these nuances of our care. But they know what they know what they know, and write about it in publications and spread their ignorance.
The comment about the birds being over manure piles they were supposed to eat larvae from is interesting to me. I have no clue what was going through the visitor’s mind. Actually, cow manure contains seven essential enzymes necessary for bird digestion. Birds following herbivores is symbiotic, and one of the most elemental patterns in nature. Here again, I’m assuming the author of this report thought this was despicable. Actually, these lethargic broilers don’t scratch the cow pie like the mature nonhybrid and aggressive, fully mature layers in our Eggmobiles do. But the cow manure still aids in the digestion. Just because a manure pile seems yucky to the visitor certainly does not mean it’s yucky to the chicken. To the chicken, those manure piles are like Grandma’s cookies. Yum. I’ve never known a chicken to show aversion to a cow pie, except for the one time when we brought some ivermectin-treated cows to our farm. The sterile cow pies had nothing to offer the chickens.
That we move these shelters every day to a fresh spot isn’t even mentioned by this prejudiced visitor. The truth is that our birds at Polyface receive far more square footage per chicken in their lifetime than free-range flocks; they just don’t receive it all at once. Instead, they receive a fresh piece of pasture every day so they can’t soil the whole. That keeps things sanitary, keeps pathogens down, and keeps the pasture salad bar fresh to stimulate the appetite. Animals all eat dessert first. They notice staleness much sooner than a human.
In the final analysis, I assume a child’s playpen would be considered abusive to this visitor. What’s the point of a playpen? It’s a protected environment to allow the child limited freedom at an age when unlimited freedom would invite harm. That is exactly what our field shelters are all about. These birds go out to the field before they are three weeks old. That’s scarcely bigger than a sparrow. And it’s a mighty tasty morsel for a crow or starling. And mighty vulnerable to weather shifts. What the visitor needed to say, to be honest, was that she considers domestic livestock inherently sinful. Come on, just be open about it.
Now let’s go to the rabbits, suspended in factory farm–style cages. I wonder if this visitor has ever visited a factory rabbit operation? In multiple tiers, the cages reek of urine and feces. Ours has roomy cages, one level only, with chickens scratching through the droppings underneath. It’s interesting that nowhere did this visitor indicate any noxious odors. That is a powerful omission, and shows she couldn’t enjoy something different even when it hit her on the head.
Our rabbits receive forage routinely, another nonfactory reality. They receive high-quality hay in the winter and green chop in the summer. I wonder if she saw the bunnies in portable field shelters nearby? She would have thought them too confined as well. But they receive a new spot every day and eat up to 75 percent of their diet off the pasture. In truth, on our farm the rabbits do push the “rabbitness” envelope harder than any other animal we raise.
The reason rabbits in the world are not in groups is because they are extremely susceptible to coccidiosis, a disease caused by a soil-borne protozoan parasite. Most commercial rabbitries feed a coccidiostat routinely and subtherapeutically to combat this problem. Whether it is technically an antibiotic is subject to debate. On our farm, we do not feed coccidiostats. By our suspending the rabbits above chickens on deep bedding, the manure and urine feed nitrogen to the carbonaceous bedding and eliminate odors. The composting bedding also grows bugs and worms that entice the chickens to scratch deeper and aerate the material, further encouraging bug and worm proliferation.
One other critical factor: Does (mother rabbits) eat their bunnies when disturbed or frightened. Who knows why, but stressed does will eat their bunnies. Having the does out where dogs, urban visitors, and machinery frightens them encourages this cannibalistic behavior. Our Raken (Rabbit-Chicken) house creates a soothing ambient chicken chatter that ameliorates fright from visitors. I suppose you could argue that rabbits should not be raised domestically because of these instinctive constraints.
I would argue that people eat rabbits. They are going to eat them whether we raise them or not. We may as well supplant factory rabbits with our kind rather than giving it all up to the industrial mindset. Furthermore, rabbitries have been part of domestic livestock for centuries. My son Daniel wanted to raise them as an independent business when he was eight years old, and his rabbit enterprise provided him an early farming endeavor that helped entice him into farming. I do not for a second apologize for this enterprise that helped shape his character and business acumen. Go point your finger somewhere else. The rabbit enterprise has been foundational to express the Danielness of Daniel.
The final statement in this visitor’s report says there was no sign of compassion or freedom for the animals. What is freedom? What is compassion? Do you know what the animal considers freedom? Remember, I admit that the rabbit enterprise pushes the envelope as hard as anything we do here at Polyface. We certainly have our rough spots. But the trade-off of providing a stress-free life, with a natural forage-based diet, certainly offers some positives. And the fact that these rabbits are healthy without antibiotics and other props indicates their happiness in this environment. With that said, we are always looking for ways to do better.
And no compassion? Wow. Ouch. That’s a pretty broad brush there, dear visitor. Perhaps she has not seen the sleepless nights, the days in sweltering heat providing additional care, running extra water lines. Which brings us back to the herd waiting to be moved, the herd that looked like a crowd. Another abuse charge was that we were not feeding them any hay. Since every other farmer in the county was feeding hay, she assumed we were starving them. And finally, she said they went four days without water.
The reason we were not feeding any hay was because with our grazing management, we had a nice forage stockpile ahead of them that we were systematically marching through one day, one paddock at a time. When we explained this to her, she responded, “Well, if you’ve already grazed it, what is there to eat?” We explained that we rested these paddocks. “How long?” she queried. “A hundred days.” She had no clue about controlled grazing management, and did not even have the understanding to notice the cattle being moved every day into tall, rested forage.
The water, of course, was available to the herd in a portable trough that we also moved along with them every day. But the water trough could not be seen from the public road, so she assumed they had no water. We explained that the cattle drank out of a water trough that was always with them. Incredulous, she asked, “How does the water get there?” Trying to hold back our laughter, we explained, “We pump it through a pipe.” Folks, this lady is a college-educated, upper-crust garden club type, well-intentioned as can be, but ignorant as a post. But the animal control officers, regardless of whether or not the charges are outrageous, must follow up each allegation as if it has merit.
After several days of our time squiring these officials around the farm, the top veterinarian said, “You don’t have an animal problem. You have a people problem.” The informant accused us of not being neighborly. We responded that neighborliness would have meant that she called us before the animal control people. That’s what neighbors do. Cows want to be in a herd. They don’t eat potatoes and pheasant; they eat grass. They like being outside in the winter just like deer and elk and moose and bison. They find places to shelter themselves; even the lee of a little ridge can make all the difference in the world.
And finally, sometimes everything isn’t perfect. I’m sure these folks that demand that everything every day at Polyface be perfect never have a day when their house is a mess or their marriage takes an awkward turn. Judgmentalism combined with ignorance is a dangerous combination.
A perfect example is the crusade many animal rightists are waging against shipping chicks in the mail. Chicks are not human babies. When a bird lays a clutch of eggs to incubate, she can’t lay all the eggs in one day. She lays them over the course of a week or more and then goes into a semihibernation state called setting. The first egg laid, exposed to ambient temperature, does not grow very fast. That embryo in effect waits on the others to be laid. Once the hen quits laying the clutch and begins setting on them, she has to stay on them and not let them be exposed to ambient temperature for more than a few minutes. Just enough time for her to get off the nest and grab some water. She eats very little during these roughly three weeks.
Finally, the eggs begin hatching. The first one to hatch is probably the first egg laid. The eggs will hatch over the course of twenty-four to seventy-two hours. If the hen gets off the nest to care for the early-hatched chicks, she will expose the not-yet-hatched embryos to the cold at their most vulnerable time. So she has to wait for the last one. God designed chicks, therefore, with a unique ability to survive just fine without feed and water for three days so that all their siblings can hatch before the mother hen takes them on their first meal outing. In case you’re wondering, chicks don’t nurse their mothers. The mothers take them to food, and from day one, chicks feed themselves. How about that, moms? Pretty cool, huh? Chicks are not human.
This unique quality allows chicks to be shipped through the mail without hurting them. People who want to close down this practice are actually hurting the alternative to chicken factories. Anybody up on these issues is well aware of the stench and other problems associated with concentrated animal feeding operations. David Imhoff’s blockbuster book The CAFO Reader can dispel any ignorance about these industrial operations that view life mechanically rather than biologically. Factory farms don’t need to send their chicks through the mail because due to their volume they have dedicated hatcheries and delivery vehicles to transport thousands of chicks to one factory house at a time.
Too often, factory farming detractors—of which I am one—fail to differentiate between animals raised well and those that are not. Their abhorrence of the industrial abuses swings their pendulum all the way over to a prejudicial view toward all animal consumption. At that point, the charges become disingenuous. To refuse to admit that systems exist that honor and respect the animals shows the true agenda—no livestock whatsoever. That is not only highly abnormal historically; it is both unrealistic and ecologically devastating.
The function that herbivores play, for example, in stimulating biomass accumulation is both powerful and real. Chickens have historically converted kitchen scraps into eggs. Pigs have historically scavenged domestic waste products as varied as whey, offal, forest mast, and spoiled grain. That a large percentage of landfilled material is animal-edible food waste should strike us as criminal. Rather than showering landfill administrators with greenie awards for injecting pipes into the anaerobic swill to collect biogas, we should be cycling all that edible waste through chickens and pigs so that it never goes to the landfill in the first place.
Instead, we send armies around the world to ensure cheap petroleum to energize chemical fertilizer factories to inject acidulated elemental Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosporus (N, P and K) into tilled soils to grow grain to be harvested, gas-dried, then transported to animal factories. And now that the landfills are filling too fast, we routinely incinerate these wet, edible wastes in energy-intensive systems that run at a net energy loss. It’s insane. Nature’s systems do not generate waste. When will we learn that there is no away? We say we’ll throw it away, but away doesn’t exist. That’s why nature is full of loops and cycles.
People who think it’s better to incinerate kitchen scraps, or biogas them at the landfill, than it is to feed these materials to pigs or chickens are out of touch with normalcy. Traditional recycling like this was foundational to the economy of a farmstead or village prior to this blip that we now know as cheap energy.
Another argument often touted by the anti–farm animal crowd (notice, they usually aren’t opposed to pets) is that it generates too much manure. And they cite experts who finger manure as one of the top ten pollutants in America. Its two billion tons is seen as a liability rather than an asset.
Ecologically astute farmers realize that this manure is the answer to maintaining soil fertility and development. The problem is not the manure generation. The grains people are supposed to eat, presumably grown in places like the Midwest, are still mining the mountains of manure and biomass accumulated there during the millennia of grazing bison. What has become a curse through modern abnormal factory farming is supposed to be one of nature’s greatest blessings. This carte blanche demonizing of a historical blessing indicates a profound disconnect to our ecological umbilical.
The antimeat crowd routinely argues that more people could be fed with grain directly than from the meat created by animals eating grain. In a world of starving people, how can we afford land-wasting models like animal production? Indeed, the most vehement of them charge that animal production increases famine.
Most articles promoting this notion greatly inflate the grain-meat conversion ratio, using outlandish figures like fifteen pounds of grain to one pound of meat. I don’t know where these scientists get these figures, but it sure isn’t from a farm. It’s probably from some prejudicial software. The real numbers are about seven pounds for beef, three pounds for pork, and two pounds for poultry. But again, herbivores would not need any grain, and hogs could run with electric fencing on the nation’s forests. If all kitchens had enough chickens attached to consume the table scraps, egg commerce would not exist. Perennial pasture completely changes these animals from liability into asset. And pasture is land-healing rather than land-debilitating like grains.
Furthermore, nobody in the world goes hungry due to lack of food production. It is distribution and other problems that create starvation. Because they can eat perennials that do not require tillage, herbivores are always preferred in impoverished societies. This is why the most efficacious famine-relief agencies I’ve been privileged to work with, like Heifer Project International, are founded on livestock. If you really want to help impoverished people, get them started in animal husbandry.
I find it strangely abnormal that people accuse meat eaters of elitism. “Why do you want people to starve?” they ask. The truth is that if someone had magical powers and could click their fingers, doubling the world’s food production tomorrow, it would not find its way into one needy stomach. The ugly truth is that nobody goes hungry due to a lack of food. They go hungry due to a lack of distribution.
I know a lady in North Carolina who lives next to a yogurt factory. She raises pigs—that was the occasion of my acquaintance—on rotten milk. She said the factory throws away tractor-trailer loads of milk all the time—she can get as much of it as she wants, for free. Anyone who has worked in industrial food processing facilities knows that this is the case. If all the whey generated from cheesemaking went through hogs, like it did historically, we could produce the pork as a salvage and still get all the meat and manure. As it is, most of it is just thrown away or energy-intensively processed into organic fertilizer for potted geraniums in the homes of middle-class Americans.
These homes, by the way, could fertilize their geraniums with manure generated from a couple of chickens fed on kitchen scraps. Why are chickens dirtier than parakeets? I say get rid of the parakeets and put a couple of chickens in there. They’ll make far less noise and give you beautiful eggs to boot. Talk about win-win.
The nutrient density of meat is far superior to grains, and far easier to come by. A no-livestock agenda actually starves people and impoverishes developing societies.
Much if not most of the land in perennial pasture, worldwide, is not suitable for tillage. Were it ripped up in tillage, the assault on the earth’s precious soil resources would bring far more cruelty even than factory farming. The amount of nutrition per resource expenditure is more on perennial pasture than it is on tilled ground. The anti-animal prejudice here is quite apparent. So is the naiveté that tillage is ecologically neutral. It never has been and never will be.
Another argument advanced by the anti–farm animal crowd is that it uses too much water. Again, I’ve seen the numbers, and many of them are ridiculous. I don’t know if they pull these numbers out of a hat.
All across the world, where historically normal (natural) herbivore-perennial patterns are being practiced, hydrology cycles show marked improvement. Springs run again; creeks remain viable longer into dry periods. Protective ground cover increases. The fact that anti-animal folks refuse to learn about these success stories does not dismiss their reality. Only a simpleton assumes that all beef is feedlot beef and creates numbers from that model as if it’s the only one that exists. Why don’t they qualify all their charges with the words “grain-fed” or “feedlot,” rather than just saying “beef”? This broad-brush approach is neither fair nor scientifically accurate. And for the record, if they really want to save water, how about attacking flush toilets that use potable water?
The same dichotomy exists on the vegetable side. Too often these grain-only advocates do not differentiate between ecologically friendly plants and those that aren’t. Failure to qualify the terms is a failure to appreciate the devastating effect grain production has had on the world’s ecology.
Depending on which historian you read, our Shenandoah Valley lost three to eight feet of topsoil during its first two hundred years of European settlement. When our family moved to our farm in 1961, shale bedrock exposures on the hillsides provided a natural monument to years of soil loss under grain production. And now, after fifty years on these soilless barrens, using perennials and animals, lots of compost, and patience, the soil has rebounded and those wounds are covered with several inches of fertile soil. Except, of course, where we fenced out cattle. Those areas are still barren and soilless just like they were in 1961, even though we fenced them out and let trees begin growing.
In the last century, Iowa, breadbasket of America, has lost half of its topsoil. Wouldn’t it have been better to return our omnivorous livestock to food salvage operations and utilize our techno-glitzy electric fence systems to mimic undulating bison herds on the Iowa fields? Until the advent of the electric fence, we couldn’t really duplicate the kind of management on a private-property scale that nature accomplished in the wild. But now we can, so we have no excuse not to return to historically accurate land management normalcy with herbivores. This is the land management, by the way, that created the deep soils we’ve been mining for the last century growing grains since vacating our Shenandoah Valley’s eroded soils.
Remember, people, you always need to compare what somebody says against historical and philosophical authenticity. The dearth of farming-ecology understanding is ubiquitous in our culture. I appreciate that I’m ignorant about things. Having grown up deprived of TV and in turn depriving my own children of TV, I’m extremely ignorant about Hollywood, movies, and celebrities. I’ve heard of Bonanza and The Beverly Hillbillies, but I really prefer cowboy shows or comedies if I’m going to watch something. Okay, okay, I’m not that bad… but I’m pretty bad.
I really like those old shows. I’ve decided the way to know you’re becoming an old fogey is when the only shows you like are sponsored by Depends, the Scooter Store, and Viagra. Ha!
Back to our discussion about ignorance: Seriously, what is important to know? What we spend our time discovering and learning is a direct reflection or result of what we believe to be important. When I look at a bookstore shelf during layovers at airports, one of my favorite pastimes, much to Teresa’s alarm—“Another book? Where do you expect me to put it?”—I’m attracted to the subjects I deem important. This is a fact of life, and for the record, I do buy things from every side of the argument and political spectrum. I like to know what the other side thinks—and often I learn things I didn’t know.
One of my messages in this book is to try to awaken a thirst and hunger for some basic food and farming knowledge before our appetite for cerebral and academic techno-subjects crowds out all of this historically normal knowledge. This is why it’s more important, in my humble opinion, to acquaint your children with your local farmers than with Bambi. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s just as important to attend a forest walk-through with a logger as with a birdwatching club?
Wouldn’t it be as valuable to go process your Thanksgiving turkey, or at least spend some time with it in the field, as it is to face-paint your five-year-old and stick colored feather-shaped construction paper in her hair? Farms and food production should be, I submit, at least as important as who pierced their navel in Hollywood this week. Please tell me I’m not the only one who believes this. Please. As a culture, we think we’re well educated, but I’m not sure that what we’ve learned necessarily helps us survive.
I’m talking about the skills and knowledge contained, for example, in the Foxfire books. The back-to-the-land books of the hippie era are still some of the best living manuals out there. Country craft and farmsteading enjoy an interest revival every time things look bleak. To me, it seems prudent to acquaint ourselves with some of this information before a meltdown occurs. A rudimentary, basic understanding of things won’t crowd out our celebrity information or keep us from knowing how to use a cell phone. Trust me, it won’t. I love people, and I love learning. And it seems to me that an educated person should know a few basic things about farm ecology. Not much, just a little. Just a little. I offer the next examples in the spirit of explanation.
“You don’t have roosters with your laying hens. How do they lay eggs?” Dear folks, chickens don’t need roosters to lay eggs. They need roosters to hatch eggs, but not to lay them. Just like women don’t need men to lay eggs; they just need a man to hatch one. A mere century ago, not one in a hundred would have been ignorant of this common agrarian knowledge.
The next common one: “Oh, there’s the bull, ’cause he has horns.” Dear hearts, horns do not make a bull. It ain’t what’s on top of the head that counts. It’s what’s between the legs. I don’t know if horns have anything to do with horniness, but they sure don’t have anything to do with masculinity.
A farmer friend of mine told me recently about a busload of middle school children who came to his farm for a tour. The first two boys off the bus asked, “Where is the salsa tree?” They thought they could go pick salsa, like apples and peaches. Oh my. What do they put on SAT tests to measure this? Does anybody care? How little can a person know about food and still make educated decisions about it? Is this knowledge going to change before they enter the voting booth? Now that’s a scary thought.
Do you know the difference between hay and straw? Straw is the stalk and leaves of a small grain plant. Stover is the leftovers of a corn plant. Hay is solar-dried forage. When forage gets tall, you cut it and let it lie in the sun. The sun dehydrates it so it can be packed together without molding. Hay is edible for the animals and straw is generally used for bedding because the edible part came off in the grain, which is really a big fat seed. If forage is packed together before it dehydrates, and you exclude the air with airtight packaging (silo, plastic) it ferments, making silage.
In order to get hay equally dried, it is windrowed to let the air blow through it and get the underneath leaves turned up to the drying sun. A windrow is a long tube of hay. A baler picks up the windrow and forms the hay into packages: round bales, little square bales, little round bales, or large square bales. Each of these has a different machine and different reason for use.
How do you herd cows? Cows have a flight zone. Since their eyes are on the sides of their head, they have far more peripheral vision than people. They can see about 300 degrees around themselves. If we could do that, it would be equivalent to having eyes in the back of our heads. Depending on our approach toward the cow, she either wants to go past us, turn around and stand off at us, or turn tail and run away. All these responses are a result of how we approach her flight zone.
Trees grow out, not up. They only grow up right at their buds. That is why you can put a rope on a tree and it stays at the same height. Once bark forms, that height does not change. The cambium grows the tree horizontally, in diameter, but not vertically. Otherwise that hammock we stretched between those two trees this year would be a foot higher next year and a foot higher the year after that. Wouldn’t that be funny?
Farmers speak in precise language. A cow is a female who has had two calves. A first-calf heifer is a female who has had only one calf. A heifer is a female who has not calved. A bred heifer is a female who is pregnant but has not yet calved. A bull calf is a young uncastrated male. A bull is an uncastrated male old enough to breed—and that is far from full-grown, believe me. A calf is an unweaned bovine of either sex. A heifer calf is a female calf; a bull calf is a male calf. A stocker is a weaned calf prior to finishing. A finisher is a calf almost big enough to slaughter—it’s being finished. An open cow is one that is not pregnant. A dry cow is nonlactating. A fresh cow is one that has very recently calved, and a freshening cow is one that is just about to calve. A bull can cover (breed) about thirty to fifty cows.
Folks, that’s just cows. And believe it or not, virtually every American knew all this lingo a scant century ago. Every species has this same level of nomenclature. Not long ago, common knowledge included the difference between a wether (castrated male sheep) and a ram (breeding-age male sheep). A ram lamb and ewe lamb. A shoat (castrated male pig) and a gilt (unbred female pig). Sow and boar. And then you have the whole grouping thing: herd, flock, gaggle (geese). And as if that’s not enough, the birthing takes on distinctives: cows calve, sheep lamb, rabbits kindle, hogs farrow, horses foal.
Excerpted from Folks, This Ain't Normal by Joel Salatin Copyright © 2012 by Joel Salatin. Excerpted by permission.
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