Monday, October 29, 2012

"We need to create farms that are aesthetically and aromatically romantic."

We've been on a 3-day road trip to Victoria and back. It was long. We got a little bit cranky at times and the kids went a bit stir crazy in the back seat. But it was so worth it. We travelled through some beautiful countryside, ate too many crackers and lemonade fruits, spent time with some old friends and their gorgeous kids, picnicked by a mountain top lake and toured Taranaki Farm with Joel Salatin. 

Joel Salatin addressing the crowd from within the portable pig pen
We first learned of Joel Salatin four or five years ago while reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and a couple of years ago I had the good fortune of hearing Joel speak in Sydney when he was brought to Australia by Milkwood.  I was captivated and moved by his charisma and smarts and wit and amazing oratory skills. What's interesting for me to reflect on is that, at that talk, two years ago I was listening purely as a consumer, albeit one attempting to consume "ethically". That night I ran into an old friend and we talked of our various plans to leave the city one day. I probably uttered the words "We're thinking we'll move to the far south coast in 3 to 5 years". Ha! Within a year we were here and living on our land. But even then as I uttered those words to my old friend, our future move was premised upon a yearning for a more self-sustaining way of life. Now we're here we're thinking differently, self-sustaining yes but now we know we also want to help feed our community. We hope that one day we will be able call ourselves farmers. 

Happy, healthy milking cows enjoying their "salad bar"
Oscar, making some new friends on the farm
The trip to Taranaki was an attempt to see a beyond-organic, regenerative farm in action and to be inspired, once again, by the beautiful oratory of Mr Salatin. We weren't alone in our desires: there were hundreds of people on the tour and such an eclectic mix too. There were hipsters and old-school farming types, non-believers wearing Coke t-shirts, members of a Christian sect, Muslims, elderly people, Jewish people, young wannabe farmers and so many kids. It was a joy to behold this mixed mob traipsing around the farm. 

Happy cows in foreground, portable milking shed in background
Our first stop was the portable milking shed where Joel talked about the limitations of capital-intensive industrial agriculture. The average age of farmers in the U.S and Australia is around the age of sixty. One reason for the ageing demographic is the massive cost associated with the massive amounts of infrastructure required of the modern industrial farm. As young farmers cannot afford to get in, old farmers cannot get out and as Joel says this indicates a system in decline. The approach at Taranaki is to make use of portable, low-cost infrastructure such as this portable milking shed. As the cows are moved frequently, the milking shed can go with them. And as the cows are moved onto fresh pastures regularly they are happier and healthier and there is less stress associated with a milking shed that comes to them. The milk from Taranaki is raw milk and as you'd probably know it's illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption in Australia so it is sold as bath milk. Joel, in his usual acerbic style said, "We now have a government that decides it's ok to feed your children cocoa puffs, twinkies and Mountain Dew but that raw milk is injurious to your health". 

Piggies, doing their piggy thing

Next stop were the pigs in their temporary enclosure. The pigs have no permanent home but are moved around the farm wherever they are required to do their Piggy pigerator thing. They're enclosed in electric fencing for a period of time while they break up the ground, creating periodic disturbance and allowing the seed bank stored within the ground to come alive and help increase the biodiversity (and hence fertility) of the pastures. It was pretty special to see them up close breaking the ground with their noses and to see in practice what Joel encourages, which is to learn our lessons from nature. He points out that the pigs are just being pigs but in the process replace potentially tens of thousands of dollars worth of machinery. Their ongoing portability means that there's no piggy stench and I can attest to the "aesthetically and aromatically romantic" pig enclosure, as well as the rest of the farm. Few flies, no bad smells. It's all about creating a farming system that is portable, carbon-centric, solar-driven and perennially based. This is the farming of the future. 

Beyond "free range" chickens

Chickens in, around and under their tractor
The next stop was the beyond free range pasture raised chicken and their portable chicken tractors. The chickens follow the cows, as in nature birds follow herbivores, so the chickens are moved in to clean up after the cows thus creating a loop that mimics nature. The chicken are protected by Maremma dogs, however it was pointed out that regenerating the land also helps prevent against fox attack. You see, the creation of extra ponds and dams helps a vibrant diversity of life to flourish across the farm. This extra life means the foxes are less interested in eating chickens as they have many other food sources. 

We also met the beautiful herd of beef cows who are moved (with the help of electric fencing) often across the fields. While the farm has permanently fenced pastures these don't prescribe where the cows go or for how long. It's all about the grass. The state of the grass dictates where and when the cows move. This constant cow movement and the requisite grass increase and decreases ensures more and more carbon is sequestered into the ground. This grass farming is the most efficient way of storing carbon in the soil, more effective than planting trees or growing herbivorous crops.  

And we met the broiler chickens in their portable enclosures. They also get moved around the fields. They have short but happy lives. We ate their brethren for lunch and they were delicious. 

It's all about "vertically stacking" the farm with a variety of animal activity. This ensures a regular income stream but also allows a farmer to set up systems that more closely mimic the natural world hence limiting the need for costly infrastructure, costly chemicals and costly pharmaceuticals that harm us, the earth and the animals involved. 

Taranaki Farm has been designed as a keyline system to ensure the increased hydration of the land. This is another way that they are increasing the resilience of their farm. As Joel pointed out, nature isn't always kind so "it's up to us to build resilience into the landscape" in order to better withstand extremes of heat and cold and floods and droughts. 

We concluded with Joel wishing us all well in our food producing endeavours and echoing Wendell Berry's statement "Eating is an agricultural act" when he reminded the consumer in us all that "Everyday we get to vote three times on whether we want a land-healing or a land-degrading food system" and with that we feasted on farm fresh pasture raised chicken and local sausages, hand made bread and home made icy-poles. Good times. We left with our hearts and tummies full.

As we drove away we felt so happy as we considered how the "vertically stacked", portable, carbon-centric, solar-driven, perennially based regenerative farming system is so possible for any size farm, it's an entirely adaptable model. Our brains are busy ticking over what we might be able to do with our little 7 acres. We drove and we drove, finally collapsing into bed in Albury. Then today we drove some more....

As we drove down Brown mountain and saw the Bega valley spreading out before us we smiled and commented on how beautiful it is. We've just driven through many many hundreds of kilometres of country and while much of it was very lovely, it also helped us to see that this place we've chosen to live in is really quite spectacular. How lucky we are. 


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