The grain inputs on Polyface Farm: Joel Salatin’s take

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion at UC Berkeley titled “Is Sustainable Agriculture the Future?”, in which Joel Salatin was a participant. For a while, I wasn’t even planning on going. For all my interest in asking Salatin what he thought of my calculations that suggested that his farm was less efficient than feeding grains to people, I didn’t expect a substantive reply.

At the last minute, however, a friend talked me into going, and I was able to ask Salatin a question. I have reason to believe that a video of the event exists, but I have not yet found this video, and as far as I know, it has not been made available. Thus, I’ll summarize the relevant parts of the exchange here, but I’ll update this post with video if it should become available.

The event consisted of a speech by Salatin, followed by some discussion based on a few prompts, followed by audience questions. Salatin’s answer to the first question in this last segment reminded me exactly why I hadn’t planned on going in the first place.

The questioner referred to something from Salatin’s speech, and then asked, “Don’t we need to eat less meat?” Salatin then asked her, “Are you a vegetarian?” as though her dietary choices had some relevance to the question. “Vegan,” she answered. Salatin proceeded to construct a straw man about all life being the same, before assuring the audience that he didn’t mean to be disrespectful and suggesting that the questioner lie down in her garden naked and see what gets eaten. He then went on to argue that animals have important ecological roles on farms, and that meat production can have important benefits like sequestering carbon and building up the soil.

I didn’t find this argument very compelling, particularly as a response to the question that was asked, but it allowed for a convenient segue into my question, which went something like this:

You talked earlier about the role of animals in sequestering carbon and building soil. There’s something else that’s important there, and that is the grain that is fed to the animals. Your farm wouldn’t work without that grain, and it’s not an insignificant amount. Do you get more out of the farm than you put into it? Is Polyface really sustainable agriculture, or is it just outsourcing the environmental degradation to the grain farm?

It certainly wasn’t the best question that one might have asked. In particular, it didn’t clearly articulate the point that much of the carbon and nutrients that farms like Salatin’s added to the soil was brought in through that grain.

Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty with which Salatin responded. He said that it was a great question, and that I was exactly right. He explained that other people say his farm is sustainable, but he doesn’t advertise it as such. He said that consumer demand for chicken is such that he needs to use a lot of grain right now but added that there is a farmer in Australia (apparently Colin Seis, who has developed a technique called pasture cropping) whose farm does not require the grain input but can only produce poultry once every five years.

It strikes me as not entirely fair to attribute the amount of grain required by Polyface Farm to consumer demand for poultry. That grain isn’t merely poultry feed; it’s also fertilizer for the pasture. When Salatin talks about building up soil, most of the added nutrients are coming from the grain he feeds to his chickens. Seis’s pasture cropping may have the potential to reduce or eliminate that dependence on grain, but I haven’t been able to find much information on the inputs and outputs of that system.

I’ll conclude by cautioning readers not to make too much of Salatin’s acknowledgment that Polyface isn’t sustainable. In the literal sense, the word “sustainable” describes something that can continue indefinitely. I don’t know of any agricultural system (with or without animals) that is sustainable in that sense, though some are obviously a lot worse than others.

Next week, I plan to have another post up focusing on what we can and cannot conclude from my analysis of Polyface. I’ll look at statements made by Michael Pollan as well as discourse that has arisen from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, including comments from pastured meat advocates and vegan advocates.

Correction (2/15): The original version of this post referred to some discussion of nitrogen, rather than nutrients more broadly. On further consideration, I have realized that I misremembered that, and so I have corrected the post accordingly. I believe that the essential point of the post stands in spite of this correction.

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20 Comments »

  1. Awesome job on your blog, this post, and your earlier work on Polyface Farm analysis, Adam!

    I plan to profile your Polyface Farm mythbusing in a future post. Here are some of my own articles you might interested in checking out:

    1. Top Ten Livestock Myths (in progress – see the third comment for a reference to your work).
    2. A Maine Vegan Responds to Eliot Coleman
    3. Facing Death
    4. Introducing Plant-Based Nutrition to Energy Descent and Climate Change Activists in Transition

    All the best,
    Jonathan

    • Adam Merberg said

      Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for stopping by. I’ve been following your blog for quite a while, though I must admit that I’ve fallen behind on reading it lately. I very much admire the ambitiousness of your permavegan project. Also, I am curious, would you happen to know anything about pasture cropping?

      Thanks again,
      Adam

      • Hi Adam,

        Sorry, but I got interrupted on the way to posting my comment, and didn’t get to finish adding in the numbers…there are four distinct links in my comment above, for those who may be wondering.

        On pasture-cropping, I know a little about the technical details, but a more reasonable amount about the principles and land use trade-offs involved. My sense is that pasture-cropping is a slight net improvement over conventional soil disturbance methods, but still quite primitive relative to what we must accomplish moving forward. So long as food taken off the farm (whether animal or plant product) is not returned as humanure compost, the process is to a greater or lesser extent soil depleting. Minerals matter, especially if we extrapolate over say a million more years of civilization.

        I believe the use of cropland to raise any form of animal biomass other than human biomass and healthy soil organisms is shortsighted in the extreme. In a world of 2 or 3 billion people, with temperate hydrocarbon consumption, we could have a leisurely discussion about our neighbors’ livestock production methods. In a world of 7-10 billion, on the verge of ecological collapse and in the face of a steadily declining EROI from fossil fuel depletion, we have to look at the total ecological footprint and energy demand of our planet’s infrastructure, and consider all land use decisions from this perspective.

        Pasture cropping may be a marginal improvement over what we now have, but that doesn’t mean it is scalable. We need to sequester much more carbon, improve the hydrological cycle, feed more people, use much less land, protect more biodiversity, reduce health care spending, shorten the distance from farm to plate, reduce wastewater treatment costs, and eliminate oil dependence by making a long-term shift to a closed-loop, human-scaled veganic system. I don’t see anything in pasture-cropping to suggest that it is a scalable whole systems design response for the world of 2050.

        Sorry for the rant, but that’s my take in a nutshell!

      • Adam Merberg said

        Thanks for your perspective. I edited your other comment to number all of the links.

  2. Thanks much for the edits, Adam. I really should add that I don’t want anything in my comment to suggest that we would not benefit from a close analysis of pasture cropping. If you have been doing some work in this direction, I would very much encourage it. I believe a steady, gradual decrease in global fish and livestock consumption to about 20% of current consumption levels by 2050 is a politically fair and practical prescription, and that means I do need to be supportive of the best transitional and residual livestock production systems.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I haven’t been doing any analysis of pasture cropping, but there are a number of academic studies on it. This one is touted on the website. Here is another one which I haven’t had time to look at much.

  3. Mmm, so this is less on the mathematical end and more on the social justice end, but I just wanted to say (about Salatin’s words, not yours):

    “Vegan,” she answered. Salatin proceeded to construct a straw man about all life being the same, before assuring the audience that he didn’t mean to be disrespectful and suggesting that the questioner lie down in her garden naked and see what gets eaten.

    Gee, that wasn’t condescending at all. (P.S. I’m not going to get eaten if I lay down naked in the garden; I’m not dead and going through the process of decomposition! Seriously, what the hell?)

  4. Mikko Lahtinen said

    Salatin’s answer leaves a lot to hope for.

    Regarding the sustainability of grass-fed meat production there are all kind of information available. Some quite new calculations tend to show that there is a good possibility that grass-fed is not more “environment-friendly” than grain-fed. In fact, it may be even worse on many areas. This calculation/study was released last year:

    http://wsu.academia.edu/JudeCapper/Papers/251708/The_environmental_impact_of_corn-fed_vs._grass-fed_beef_finishing_systems

    There are few points worth thinking about. If this calculation is real, then (in comparison to grain-fed finishing):

    1. Grass-fed uses 2,5 times more energy
    2. Grass-fed uses 3 times more land area
    3. Grass-fed uses 7,5 times more water
    4. Grass-fed produces 3 times more methane
    5. Four grass-fed animals weigh the amount of three grain-fed animals

    With such numbers the whole thing becomes very questionable on the ecological aspect. Even if in reality the numbers may not be as devastating as shown on that calculation, it still makes you think about the claims that have been told about the postitive ecological aspects of grass-fed animals. Doesn’t it?

    There is a quite good article that deals with these same points:

    http://www.calfnews.com/issue/may2010/feature-1.htm

    According to that there are many questionable and not-very-certain things about the promotion of “ecological” grass-fed cattle.

    My English is probably not-so-good, but I hope someone understands. I also hope that someone with better understanding of these matters would comment that calculation. Is there something fundamentally wrong about it, or is it somewhat correct?

    • Adam Merberg said

      Your English is fine, but I’m skeptical of some of Capper’s numbers, particularly given the absence of useful citations. I don’t understand why grazing would use more energy than growing and harvesting grain. I recall seeing in David and Marcia Pimentel’s Food, Energy, and Society that grass-fed beef uses half as much energy as grain-finished, but I don’t know where even that number comes from. The water number probably varies regionally, too. In California, grass-feeding requires a lot of water, but if a pasture gets enough rain, it doesn’t make sense to factor rain into water usage.

      • Mikko Lahtinen said

        Thank you for clarifying few things.

        I didn’t mean to pass those numbers as absolute facts, just wondering how much there is truth in them. If someone can clarify the numbers regarding energy, that would be great. Being a very layperson on this matter, it is sometimes quite hard to find the possible errors.

        Capper has done many papers on the subjects of grass versus grain and benefits of modern factory farming (http://wsu.academia.edu/JudeCapper/Papers), but based on the criticism I have read, her work isn’t nearly perfect. However, this is interesting subject and should get more attention in the future.

        Where I live (Finland) some people promoting grass-fed meat easily forget the significance of surrounding conditions. The grazing season here lasts only about four months, so there is a great need for producing feed for the fall and winter months. That drops the energy efficiency down quite a lot. In addition to that here are many other limiting factors, for example land area used for farming and grazing is only about 6-8 percents of the total land area. Much of the data comparing grass-fed and grain-fed is coming from U.S., Australia, New Zealand and countries like that, so it makes applying to local situation difficult. What I’m trying to say here, is that you have a very good point in mentioning the regional differences.

    • Bill said

      One point that most people do not consider is that lots of hilly land is not suitable for anything else but pasture. So grass ed on this type of land makes all kinds of send.

  5. Angela said

    Hi Joel & Teresa

    When you get your products out to the market place are you able to distribute your food anywhere in the US without the involvement of using large corporate organisations, who we know are only interested in massive profits and filling their own pockets.

    Ang

  6. […] that Polyface Farm may require more calories in grain and soy than it produces in meat, and Joel Salatin seems to have confirmed this when I asked him last month. This analysis has received a bit of attention in various corners of […]

  7. […] inputs of a factory farm, though. The point is well taken, however. The author went on in another post to detail Joel Salatin’s reponse to his direct questioning. That was an excellent question, I really commend the author of this […]

  8. skip said

    Ok so a little counterpoint thing… I am a part time vegan by default. Meaning my wife is one, so most of my dining is as well. If you do the math look a little closer please. Salatin uses mob grazing so he achieves 400 cow days per acre as compared to the industry standard of 80… That means he needs 5 times less land to produce a cow… He also uses chickens to sterilize the pasture so the chickens control bug population and decrease his dependence on grain as well as the likelihood of disease. He also operates on about a 5 percent fuel cost compared to the 50 percent on traditional farms. I could go on but I think he’s on the right track here. As far as the argument of wasteful use of land I know farmers that go to market for local food sales and end up throwing out 25-50 percent of what they bring… Improve on his model and I bet he would add you to his christmas card list… Try to abolish meat and your just tilting at windmills. I think most vegans forget that be you a person tomato or cow we all live and we all die… You can’t change that. I believe that salatin allows his stock to live an amazing life and fullfill its purpose. I wish I could say that about most of the rest of us. You can try convince me to give up meat but do it in a holistic way… If not for food what is the purpose for a cow or chicken or pig… And if you want to get rid of them what’s next my dog or cat?

    • Adam Merberg said

      I don’t argue that this inefficiency means we should give up meat. My point is simply to counter the notion that what happens on Polyface Farm is a strong argument for meat eating on environmental grounds. See also my followup post.

  9. …mmhm, I am *sure* he “didn’t mean to be disrespectful”. Barf.

  10. […] and in the near future I’ll be posting a video of the exchange I had with Joel Salatin (which I paraphrased on this blog). If you’ve found this blog interesting, I hope you’ll take a […]

  11. Thrivalista said

    Sad to say, Capper’s paper is no longer available via the link above, nor can I find it on wsu’s website on her papers page. Too controversial?

    Thanks for leaving your excellent blog up as a resource.

  12. […] A very thoughtful critic, Adam Malberg, has dedicated a blog to deconstructing some of the factual errors in Michael Pollan’s work, in his blog at http://www.saywhatmichaelpollan.wordpress.com. If you are in doubt about some of the claims by Michael Pollan, his blog is a fair assessment. I won’t rehash his critiques though, but would like to reference his astute observation that the model farm for Pollan’s conceptualization of sustainability is Polyface Farm, as featured in Food Inc., is dependent on grains for fertilizer. Grains are fed to chickens who spread nitrogen through their manure. This nitrogen did not appear out of nowhere though, instead it originated from the grains fed to the chickens. (https://saywhatmichaelpollan.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/the-grain-inputs-at-polyface-farm-joel-salatin&#8230😉 […]

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