Take Two #83: Farming Healthy, Farming Right

By Kyra-lin Hom

It is currently way too hot for thinking. My apartment is on the third floor of an old, air tight converted house. It's air tight to cut down the sound pollution from the nearby airport. This it does remarkably well. So we don't suffocate if we so choose to shut and lock every window, however, there is an internal ventilation system. Unfortunately this cannot be made to serve as an air conditioning unit. We just get the rising heat from the lower apartments. That and my unobstructed window faces west, rendering my normal workspace as hospitable as midday asphalt come evening.

The upside is that this weather is perfect for evening walks. I have in fact just returned from one. See, in researching both this column and my previous one on ag-gag legislation I have rendered myself unable to eat a lot of the foods I would normally enjoy. The walk was to clear my head and acquire a dinner that didn't turn my sensibilities.

It's a disturbing feeling to realize your breakfast sausage may contain the mashed meat of thousands of abused and sickly pigs or that the burger you were considering for lunch was likely washed in ammonia before hitting the shelves. After last week, I continued my personal investigation into the way food reaches our tables. Most of what I found left me queasy but not all of it.

Featured prominently in the food industry documentary Food, Inc., Polyface Farms is a shining beacon of hope that meat doesn't have to be grown, slaughtered, cleaned and packaged in a sunless factory. We're used to thinking there isn't another way to produce food on the scale our modern world demands, that places like the Smithfield Hog Processing Plant are economically necessary evils. Polyface Farms kicks that kind of thinking in the teeth. It just took a dedicated family, a self-termed lunatic farmer and a disregard for USDA laws.

To quote from the Polyface Farms website, “In 1961, William and Lucille Salatin moved their young family to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, purchasing the most worn-out, eroded, abused farm in the area near Staunton. Using nature as a pattern, they and their children began the healing and innovation that now supports three generations.”

They looked to nature and tradition, giving a big fat finger to the big food processing corporations. One of their biggest innovations – though it can only be called so because the rest of the US has so blatantly overlooked this – has been to combine animals with plants. Normally, crops and animals are kept completely separate. The logic being that otherwise the animals would contaminate the crops. Well yes, seeing as major beef plants keep their steer and cows in ankle deep manure, I can see the concern. Polyface farm's current leader, Joel Salatin, on the other hand points out that this 'modern' mode of thinking contradicts millions of years of evolution, thousands of years of human behavior, and quite frankly just doesn't make sense.

Salatin is a bizarre contradiction of a man. In an interview with Off the Grid News, he calls himself a, “Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist lunatic.” He has all the accent and mannerisms you might expect of a stereotypical blue collar farmer, but when you bypass how he talks and start paying attention to what he is saying his radical intelligence shines through.

In one pointed segment of Food, Inc., we watch Salatin and his family killing and preparing their chickens for market. Four of them work cleanly and efficiently out in the open air under the shade of a temporary awning. Salatin points out that the USDA almost shut them down because it viewed their open air technique to be unsanitary. So he sent his chicken breasts off to a local lab for testing along with some big farm, grocery store chicken breasts still in their factory packaging. The Polyface Farms' chicken had 133 cfu (number of viable bacteria or fungal Colony Forming Units). The store bought chicken had 3,600 cfu. The USDA dropped the case.

Polyface Farms raises their animals out in the open with clean air and healthy grazing pastures. There is no corn, no petroleum or chicken bone fertilizers and no growth hormones. And guess what? By playing to nature's strengths, Polyface Farms has created a natural ecosystem that takes minimal effort to maintain and produces a lot of really good food.

It's proof that a solution is out there. We just have to want it hard enough. Consumer choice is a powerful thing. Walmart, for example, introduced organic food and declared itself RBST free because of consumer spending habits.

Organic food isn't just the new fad. It's the old fad finding its voice again after 50 years of suppression. Don't be fooled by the technology or the marketing campaigns. We're not magically separate from the ecosystem or the food chain by fact of our opposable thumbs. If it isn't good for the plants and animals we eat, you bet it's not good for us.

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