Thursday, April 23, 2009

Natural Solutions to Hunger

Joel Salatin is a third generation alternative farmer who practices agroecological farming on Polyface Farm in Virginia. His story and the story of his unique farm are featured by Michael Pollan in the book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Salatin is an alternative farmer because instead of rapidly producing animals and meat simply for monetary gain to be sold in the existing food market, Salatin works with nature to farm sustainably without the use of machines and agrochemicals. The alternative methods that he uses to produce food include: rotational grazing, use of manure and compost, and a plethora of processes to simultaneously facilitate animal husbandry and improve the quality of their land. Some of these processes include aerating cow manure through use of pigs, reducing insect population and ammonia from rabbit urine through use of chickens, and using hoofprints from cattle to grow seedlings. The Salatin family developed a lot of these processes on their own through a deep understanding of agriculture, ecology, accounting, as well as other disciplines. Unlike traditional methods of farming existing today, their techniques require a greater level of intelligence and still return high yields of food without many economic costs or labor.

It seems that if Joel Salatin’s farm can successfully produce food non-industrially without having to input large amounts of technology and money, his techniques would be a perfect solution for impoverished farmers in underdeveloped countries. The characteristics that make traditional food production difficult in these areas—poverty, soil erosion, agricultural community, undomesticated animals, large labor force, and limited access to agrochemicals and machines—are the very qualities that have made Salatin’s Polyface farm so effective. Agroecology in these types of areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have the potential to completely transform the lives of rural farmers by improving the quality of their land, limiting soil erosion, increasing product yields, growing healthier animals, providing jobs, improving health, and eliminating poverty.

According to a class reading from Hungry for Profit by Miguel Altieri, some farmers in these regions have adopted agroecological approaches in producing rice, legumes, millet, cereals, and various types of vegetables. In Honduras, hillside cropping has recovered land, controlled soil erosion, and increased tripled and quadrupled yields. In Peru, agroecological approaches have reduced the amount of diseases, increased productivity, and raised incomes of families. In Senegal, it has been found that agroecology produces higher yields than pesticides.

In my own experience, I have seen that rice farmers in the country of Bangladesh are not able to sustain themselves because their rice crops continually become flooded. In times of stable rainfall, the farmers employ age-old farming techniques to produce large amounts of rice and are able to maintain a good standard of living. In this situation, machinery and agrochemicals would not help to improve the lives of these farmers because they would not be able to afford the technology or maintain them; an agroecological approach would help the farmers rely on their knowledge of farming and use resources they already have, such as livestock, to increase their crop productivity.

Polyface farms and these case studies demonstrate the immense value of agroecological farming to not only provide food for families, but to improve the quality of the environment and eliminate some of the socioeconomic issues that have arisen as a result of current farming practices. I believe that these techniques need to be taught to farmers, especially those in underdeveloped countries, encouraged by governments, and established on a large scale basis in order to have the greatest impact and help to solve the global food crisis.

In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Joel Salatin is quoted to have said: “Polyface is proof that people can sometimes do more for the health of a place by cultivating it rather than leaving it alone.” If more people cultivated nature, instead of merely extracting from it, the overall health of the environment and of humans would improve as a result. This notion seems drastic in this modern age, but it has roots in the age-old traditions of farming. Perhaps its is time to return to tradition to overcome the many perils associated with conventional farming today.  And as Salatin states in the book, perhaps the perils, such as the higher incidence of disease in livestock and environmental degradation, are nature’s way of telling us we’ve been doing it wrong and it’s time for a change.


Altieri, Miguel A. Hungry for profit the agribusiness threat to farmers, food, and the environment. New York: Monthly Review P, 2000.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2007.

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