Salatin says local food can feed the world
By Jean Caspers-Simmet
Date Modified: 05/14/2012 3:49 PM
GRINNELL, Iowa —With his voice taking on the cadence of an old-time preacher, Joel Salatin, a self-described environmentalist and capitalist farmer, told students and community members who filled Herrick Chapel at Grinnell College that local farming systems can feed the world.
Practical Farmers of Iowa and Grinnell College teamed up to bring Salatin to Iowa. Earlier in the day, he spoke to a crowd at Tom and Mary Cory's farm near Elkhart.
It's one of the most common questions people ask Salatin. They look at his family's Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shennandoah Valley, and ask "Well that is all well and good, but at the end of the day can you really feed the world?"
Even "militant environmentalists," who endorse pastured livestock, biological farming and compost fertility, have this nagging doubt and are secretly relieved for the Green Revolution, Salatin said.
Two schools of thought exist on how to maintain soil fertility and crop production, said Salatin. One grew from Justus von Liebig's theory that nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium levels are the basis for determining healthy plant growth. The other grew from the romanticists —Shelley and Keats —that soil and life and food and farming are a biological approach, a living thing.
During the 1930s, mechanical N, P and K were developed primarily through the war effort, Salatin said. These chemicals were also the basis for explosives.
At that same time, Sir Albert Howard was working in India to develop aerobic composting. He was looking at the relationship between soil fertility and animal disease because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
He found that animals pastured on compost-fertilized grass never contracted foot and mouth disease but animals pastured on chemically-fertilized grass contracted the disease at a rate over 50 percent, Salatin said.
"He deduced that disease is a nutritional problem and nutrition comes straight from the soil, which is fundamentally a biological community of beings," Salatin said.
Howard's book, "An Agricultural Testament" is the foundation for biological farming, Salatin said, and it's as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1943.
Salatin remembers when the U.S. secretary of agriculture in the 1970s said manure was not worth hauling to the field.
"Today 50 percent of all manure generated in the country is lost," Salatin said. "There is plenty of N, P and K generated from manure to completely run all of the fertility program in a regenerative soil building way."