What's this? Joel Salatin, the most famous organic farmer in America, star of Food, Inc, the Academy Award- nominated polemic against factory farming, is being investigated for animal cruelty?
"That's right," he says, his eyes sparkling behind his specs. "We just got turned in to Animal Control [his local animal welfare officer].
"Somebody drove by our field of 300 beef cattle, saw this mob and said 'I don't like crowds and this looks like a crowd, so those cows must not like that crowd'."
Animal Control and the Virginia state veterinarian were called in. The vet told Mr Salatin: "You don't have an animal problem, you have a people problem."
It's an irony not lost on the owner of Polyface Farms, home to free-range cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys.
The animals are grass-fed and chemical-free, a rarity in America, and he is an evangelistic, intellectually articulate promoter of their rights to free expression.
"Our motto is we respect and honour the pigness of the pig and the chickenness of the chicken. That means not confining them in a house with hundreds of others.
"But at the same time, animals are not people. This herd of cows was exhibiting a primal desire to mob up for predator protection."
The complaint is a sign of the widening gap between town and country, farm and food, he says. "Some of these people, their only connection to the biological world is their pet dog or cat, so there's this anthropomorphistic projection [ascribing human attributes to animals]."
The logical extension of that is the view that animals should not be killed for food. "Those people, they say 'Come on, isn't that really a barbaric act, haven't we evolved past eating animals to a new place of cosmic nirvana'.
"The truth is, everything is eating and being eaten. If you don't believe it, go lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten."
It's an amusing thought, and an example of the keen sense of humour that is a useful attribute for a sought-after speaker. He spends 100 days a year talking to schools and environmental groups and is in New Zealand for a week to address farmers in Hawke's Bay and Manawatu.
This is his first time here and he is careful not to appear "preachy". "I don't want to be that arrogant SOB who comes in from outside. But all through my life I have developed a reputation for thinking outside the box."
He is a farmer and a marketer, but with self-imposed limits. The produce from his 220-hectare home farm and 400ha of leased farms is sold to 4000 families, 50 restaurants and 10 retail chains. But he won't sell outside the bounds of four hours' driving time.
"The shorter the chain between raw food and fork, the fresher it is and the more transparent the system is," he says.
The hour-long interview produces two ideas for New Zealand, which he expands on in a free- flowing, stream-of-consciousness style.
One is around marketing. He likes the idea that New Zealand can be marketed to the world as a cluster of villages. "We - I'm talking as a New Zealander here - do the production and processing on a transparent local scale, but then we aggregate for export. And on the brochures we have 'Village to the world', and we even promote villages within the village. I like that; that's pretty cool."
Told that the prevailing view is that New Zealand does not have the power to influence the demands of the big supermarket chains, he says "You don't think you do, but how you frame your market approach can have an effect.
"New Zealand has incredible global recognition for grass-fed livestock. The next step beyond that would be, 'Not only are we pasture based, we're community- processing based'."
That would mean local farmers clubbing together to process their own meat for export, he says. "A group in a small processing centre could actually take what is now considered a liability - being small - and turn that into an integrity asset that can be marketed as part of the New Zealand clean-green mystique.
"Instead of buying into the global agenda, which is using food as just industrial stuff, we would say we view food as biological, a living thing, that belongs in smaller communities." He pauses and grins. "How am I doing? I'm just winging it here."
WHEN the laughter dies down, he is asked for another idea. It is a radical one for pasture farmers. It is to allow their grass to grow as much as a metre high before putting cattle on to it.
It works on his cattle-only pastures but in New Zealand wouldn't be practical for sheep. However, it could be a useful way of returning fertility to the hills without having to fly on fertiliser.
"We've done it for 10 years," he says. "Instead of going six times a year at yea high [he holds his hand a few centimetres off the floor], we go two times at this height [his hand moves up to his waist]. What that allows us to do is to put 400 head on less than two acres for a day. Imagine that."
The idea is that the cattle rumens get plenty of starch, much more than they do from normal pasture covers. The benefit of this to their digestion of nutrients is seen in their weight gain, but more immediately in the cowpats they leave behind.
This leads to a colourful description of manure. "We monitor it carefully. If it's coming out in cookies, that indicates the forage is too mature, too lignified. If it's coming out in sheet cake [a popular American chocolate cake] it's too high in protein. What you want is a pumpkin pie - round, slightly elevated on the edges, sunken in the middle, with a little," - and here he makes a high- pitched sound, "dwee-irt", and points his finger downward - "in the middle, where the sphincter muscle cut off the last little bit."
He says the cattle can't eat all the high pasture in just a day. "But what they don't eat they tromp on to the soil surface, so that weeds, brambles, thistles, anything undesirable, is not left standing. It gets the carbon back in, chips it up with the hoof and presses it into the soil surface where the microbes can actually eat it."
He adds, "We say you can't walk through it and 24 hours later a mouse has to carry lunch in a knapsack to get across it.
"We call it our poor boy carbon fertility programme. Basically we're grazing hay. I call it mob- stocking-herbivorous-solar-conversion-lignified-carbon-sequestration-fertilisation."
He has the born writer's fondness for playing with words - he was a newspaper reporter before taking over the family farm and has written seven books on farming, some of them bestsellers.
With this system, production per animal is less, but production per acre has a huge increase.
"That flies in the face of the commercial mindset, which is we need to grow these animals faster, with average daily gain, milk per cow per day. But the fact is the farmer doesn't get paid on average daily gain or milk per cow per day, the farmer gets paid on converting solar energy into a marketable product. So, it takes us two more months, but we've increased production per acre and changed the whole manure flow and the carbon cycle."
The chickens come in behind the cattle, pecking the fly larvae out of the cowpats and adding their own manure. New grass sprouts soon after.
As the cattle make their daily round of the paddocks of tall grass, the poor doers become more obvious. "We call them the wolf pack - they're what the wolves would have eaten in a natural herd. So, once a month we run the mob into the corral and pull off those 20 or 30 poor doers and put them on a weekly rotation. Most will straighten up. A few won't and they become hot dogs."
Which brings us back to life and death, and the voicing of thoughts few farmers will have considered. "Life requires sacrifice. You cannot have life without death.
"The cycle of life is death, decomposition and regeneration, and a person who wants to stop killing animals is actually anti-life because it's only in death that life can be regenerated. That kind of notion does not indicate a new kind of evolutionary spiritual plane, it indicates a new devolutionary movement toward disconnectedness from our ecological umbilical."
At the same time, he believes the welfare of animals and humans are ethically and spiritually interconnected. "If we don't respect and honour the habitat that is conducive to the pigness of the pig, then we are disrespecting the Maryness of Mary and the Thomasness of Thomas.
"A culture will only respect and honour the individuality of its citizens as well as it respects and honours the physiological distinctiveness of indefensible critters."
An example is university research into removing stress genes from pigs so they can be easier to farm.
He condemns this as "manipulative arrogant hubris".
"If we're viewing animal life like that it's not a big jump to begin viewing other life, human life, in the same light. And who wants to live in a civilisation where life is viewed as inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure.
"Our ability to innovate things beyond what is expedient for our societal ethics is incredible. We are creating models that we can't spiritually, mentally, morally or physically metabolise."
Which leads to the next question. Is he religious? "I'm a Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic. It's a humorous way for me to describe that I'm not stereotypical," he says. "I encourage farmers to expose themselves to other ideas, to read the left and right, the atheistic and the religious, and be big enough to become acquainted with all those views."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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