In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan introduces to the reader Joel Salatin, an outspoken back-to-nature farmer that quickly became my hero. Salatin has managed to extract huge amounts of organically produced food from a relatively small farm, but in today’s agricultural scene of gargantuan yields the output isn’t the most striking feature of his Polyface Farm. That recognition goes to the diversity of species Salatin employs to successfully produce such huge yields.
American agriculture is dominated by monocultural farms utilizing chemical fertility in the form of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Year after year the same crops are planted on the same soil, deteriorating the natural fertility and causing serious problems like topsoil erosion. This is touted as a cost of doing business, unavoidable with a priority on producing a huge proportion of the total world food supply. Salatin’s farm demonstrates the fallacy of this argument. The only inputs his farm requires are sunlight and human labor, to produce “25,000 pounds of beef, 50,000 pounds of pork, 12,000 broilers, 800 turkeys, 500 rabbits, and 30,000 dozen eggs.” He clearly demonstrates the potential to take a relatively small amount of land (100 acres) and turn it into a sustainable producer of animal products, which by and large are produced as harmfully to the environment as the monocultural crops mentioned above. The question we then have to ask ourselves as a society is why we haven’t embraced the system of agriculture demonstrated by Salatin to be both productive and sustainable.
There is something to be said about the benefits of mechanized agriculture and petrochemical utilization. Where 80% of the population used to be employed in agriculture, American farmers now only make up 2% of the total workforce to produce enough food for all of American society and more. This energy intensive agricultural system makes sense in an economy with a surplus of labor demand and plenty of cheap fossil energy that doesn’t have an impact on the larger environment, which used to be the case. Or at least we didn’t know about the environmental impacts. The American economy today is facing job losses not in solely in a cyclical sense but increasingly as a function of the new structure of the labor market: labor intensive jobs are being either exported for cheap labor elsewhere or are being replaced by automated processes. We are also facing the potentially catastrophic prospect of devastating climate change due to the exploitation of fossil fuels. The agricultural system that draws a huge proportion of its energy inputs from fossil fuels, whether from farm machinery or from petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, is clearly detrimental to the cause of mitigating climate change. This is especially true when increased use of human labor and species diversity could potentially reduce the need for the energy intensive inputs, as Joel Salatin has so successfully demonstrated. Assuming this analysis is cogent, we have to examine the cultural barriers to transforming our agriculture from the energy intensive chemically induced system it is to one of sustainability and diversity.
I’ve never heard of parents dreaming of their kids growing up to be farmers. Of course, while I’ve lived all over the country, the locations have generally been in some form of sprawling ubiquitous suburbia. This is significant though: most of our population lives either in suburbia or inside one of our many cities. I think it’s safe to say without research that no significant number of children raised in these environments knows anything about farming and even fewer are being encouraged to pursue careers growing food. American children are encouraged to become doctors, lawyers, athletes, and engineers, but not farmers. I’ll speak from experience that most of these same children are in no way prepared to participate in the labor intensive agriculture employed at Polyface Farm; adolescents today loath physical labor. This lack of a push toward agriculture and a television glued youth presents a significant problem to transforming our agricultural system, barring the naturalization and encouraged immigration of Mexico. I have no idea how we might go about creating social incentives toward agriculture as a career, short of artificially boosting wages to an economically unsustainable level. I won’t try to speculate on a solution; I’ll just hope that someone more experienced than me is on the job.
There is also a lack of institutionalized skill in the type of farming Joel Salatin has mastered. It would be a huge undertaking to establish that kind of knowledge set artificially, but luckily for our society there are growing pressures toward a more sustainable agriculture, which will incentivize farmers to acquire the skills necessary to grow food absent artificial inputs.
I called Joel Salatin my hero at the beginning of this piece because he has held on to his principles and stood up against a massive industrial-agriculture system that literally eats small establishments. His example has inspired me to consider spending some time learning his style of farming and pick it up myself. We’ll see: as an economist my potential job market is pretty sparse right now.
Source: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan