A Pigaerator? What’s that? I’m glad you asked.
Joel Salatin, Janaia Donaldson’s guest on this episode of Peak Moment TV, explains this, while providing many other fascinating insights Salatin’s pasture-based agriculture on Polyface Farms in Virginia.
To avoid the overgrazing so common in modern farm practices, animals are moved every day to fresh pasture, including their portable infrastructure such as shelters and electric fencing.
Sequester some carbon cowpies
While most modern farms house their animals on concrete that can be hosed down to flush manure down the drain, a key goal of Salatin’s lies in keeping natural sources of carbon on site, to build soil fertility. And that means spreading manure in the fields, not piping it away to a containment pond.
“It is an on-farm generated carbon cycling program” says Salatin. “That is a huge break from today’s modern idea of farming- that fertility comes from somewhere else. Our idea is, in mimicry of nature’s template, that fertility, soil, is built from on-farm solar generated biomass that then decomposes on site.”
At Polyface, cows feed on native perennial pasture, then are moved on to new areas. Cue the chickens, which are then brought in to pick through the cow patties, eating the fly larvae (yum!) and in the process, spreading the manure over a wider area, increasing the reach of fertility.
This procedure, along with others in use, was developed by mimicry of nature — observing natural systems and asking ourselves, How do we duplicate this on a commercial domestic model? Hence, observation of herbivorous herds around the world, from the bison of the Great Plains to African wildebeest and water buffalo, revealed populations of birds which followed in their wake, delighting in the treats these animals “left behind” or disturbed in their travels.
And now we come to the Pigaerator — beds of hay and sawdust are used for the cows, acting as a kind of “diaper” to absorb the “black gold” and liquid they deposit. This material also has corn mixed into it. When the cows move on, pigs are brought in. Salatin comments that pigs come with little signs on their foreheads saying “Will work for corn”… and so they do, foraging in the hay to find the corn, and thus aerating the material, helping the composting process. This compost is then used on the pastures, completing the cycle.
Rebuilding a degraded farm
Fifty years ago, when the Salatin family first came to Polyface, many areas were so degraded that there was basically no soil. Now, there are 12 inches of soil covering what used to be rock.
“Everywhere we have deep soil in the world, it was built with herbivores and perennials, periodic disturbance and rest cycles” explains Salatin. “The American buffalo, the bison built the soils that we’re still mining with corn and soybeans. That created the savings account that we’re still drawing on today.”
Unlike the current devastation and degradation created by most modern agriculture, done correctly, farming should actually build soil, Salatin impresses upon us. Westward expansion was based on wearing out farms and then moving on to the next place. Once most land was exploited and there was very little new land left, thought frantically turned to “how do we build soil?”
Two schools of thought developed. One was the chemical approach, which was based on the assumption that soil is fundamentally a mechanical thing, which led to the use of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, chemical-based and manufactured artificially.
The second school of thought, led by the early proponents of biological farming, viewed soil as primarily a biological community of beings with a physical structure. Interestingly enough, Salatin points out, scientific composting is only as old as chemical agriculture, as both were developed at the same time.
Chemical agriculture, however, got a considerable boost due to nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium also being used in bomb making during World War II. Therefore, the Pentagon paid the cost of all the initial research, mining and manufacturing of these substances. Scientific composting took considerably longer to get its infrastructure in place.
Host Donaldson, makes an interesting point: “It took the war effort to create bombs and those chemicals… and isn’t industrial agriculture a war on soil?” to which Salatin expresses his agreement.
A farm without animals ain’t normal
Salatin talks about the importance of perennials in soil building. Annuals, of which there are very few in natural ecosystems, tend to deplete the soil as they put much more of their energy into producing their seeds, for mass reproduction and survival of the species, as they themselves only live for one season. Perennials, on the other hand, put more energy into root systems and storage below ground, as they have to ensure their own survival through often many, many years.
Herbivores act as the pruners of perennials, so that the fast juvenile growth stage can once again take place and more solar energy is metabolised into decomposable biomass. Without pruning this process slows down or stops. “I call the herbivore Nature’s Biomass Accumulation Restart Button.” says Salatin.
On food security, Salatin talks of how today’s food system is driven by processed foods and that it is going to take a lot more people participating in local food production to get where we need to get. He emphasises ways to get involved with your food. For example, find your local farmer, go to farmers markets, join a CSA. Get into your kitchen and prepare and package your own fresh unprocessed foods.
“Every day we can decide to participate in this amazing community of beings that’s in us, 3 trillion bacteria, in the soil, 2 trillion per handful, and all around us, on our skin and in us,” he enthuses.
This is an amazing community of beings that we’re immersed in, like an ecological womb. We can either massage it and participate in it, or we can spurn it and say “eww, you’re yucky and dirty and I’m not gonna participate” and wherever we are in the next 20 or so years will be the sum total, the physical manifestation, of the billions of decisions that we made between now and then. Just like where we are today is the culmination of the billions of decisions we’ve made for the last several decades.
Salatin talks about his new book Folks, This Ain’t Normal which highlights that the direction in which we are currently heading is unsustainable. Society is dealing with issues such as energy problems, health problems, air problems, water problems, soil depletion, nutrition problems, emotional problems, mental problems.
“We’ve got a lot of issues that are happening,” Salatin warns, “and I don’t think that we’re going to be so clever and scientific and technologically advanced in our civilisation that we’re going to be able to continue to live with such a profound abdication of historically normal visceral relationships with the processes of living and as we go into the future, a sustainable future, and ask ok, what were the glues, what were the patterns, that held civilizations together?”
He lists a few things he feels we need to embrace:
- Grow perennial crops instead of annual ones in our agriculture.
- Move back into our kitchens and give ourselves the gift and joy of time to cook.
- Re-integrate our food and energy systems back into our lives, rather than relying on sources like factory farms and big power plants that are “out there somewhere.”
- Have things such as edible landscapes, rooftop and patio gardens and beehives.
- Localize instead of globalize.
“We’re not gonna be the civilization that sails off into some Star Trek future, severing this historical ecological umbilical,” Salatin advises. “We’re still attached. We’re still completely dependent on this community of beings that’s in us, around us, under us. We need to learn to live with it, embrace it, massage it and nurture it as a friend….We’re gonna be able to rest ourselves in the profound grace and abundance of this community of beings that wants to embrace us and dance and be our friend. That’s gonna be the future.”
Salatin brings us some truly important messages, as well as some of the possible solutions to the issues we face, and Donaldson inspires with her usual insightful and down-to-earth perceptions. Well worth taking the time to watch.
— Anthea Hudson, Transition Voice