Joel Salatin has over 500 acres on his Polyface Farm. Backyard fruit and vegetable gardeners typically are lucky if they have an acre. So it’s probably not intuitively obvious what you can learn from Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm.
Stay with me on this, and you’ll see why I think it is helpful.
Who is Joel Salatin?
Salatin is the celebrated farmer who is probably best known as a key subject in Michael Pollan’s bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
He is a self-proclaimed grass farmer. What does he mean? He raises grass-fed livestock without chemicals using a number of ingenious methods that imitate nature’s solutions to the farm problems.
Salatin calls himself a grass farmer because he consider grass the linchpin ingredient in turning sunlight into food. As you might expect, his animals eat the grass and, ultimately, become the food lucky people eat.
For the backyard gardener
Of course, it’s one thing to synchronize the movement of livestock around a 550-acre farm.
It’s quite another to use the same type of tactics to reduce curculio on dwarf apple trees or squash borers from your pumpkin patch. But, if you think about it, the same farm management principles apply.
What do I mean by this? If you want to improve soil and eliminate pest problems without pesticides, Joel Salatin has the right ideas.
Here’s an nice example: Salatin waits to move his cows at the end of the day because that is when the sugars in the grasses are at their peak.
Once it turns dark, the grasses use stored reserves for growing. Moving cows at the end of day provides the best possible nutrition for his animals.
How is that important to backyard gardeners? Could we also pick our salad greens at the same time of day? Would this provide the same benefits?
I’ve noticed that if I pick salad greens at the end of the day, the salad is at its peak flavor.
Here’s another example. In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes Polyface as a farm “where a half dozen different animal species are raised together in an intensive rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis.”
Could we also rotate our animals over our fields?
Animals do the work
Salatin often says that on his farm the animals do the work.
The cows graze the pasture. This lowers the grass to a height where the chickens can move around – no mowing necessary.
Salatin then moves the chickens in so that they can sanitize the cow patties by eating the fly larvae. This eliminates cow parasites without the cost of chemicals and feeds the chickens at the same time. Tasty eggs too!
The chickens fertilize the grass. After the grass has had a chance to rest and grow, Salatin brings the cows back in and the process starts again.
Most backyard gardeners don’t have chickens or cows and certainly not both. But they do have other (I’ll call them) players.
Your players could be tomato plants, native wildflowers and beneficial insects. If you allow a wild strip of native plants to grow alongside your tomato plants, the wildflowers will attract beneficial insects.
These insects will help pollinate the tomato flowers giving you more and better fruit. The beneficial insects also will pollinate the wildflowers, helping the native plants prosper, resulting in more beneficial insects.
At the same time, the beneficials will feed themselves by eating horn worms and other troublesome insects. This improves your tomatoes without the added cost of pesticides.
No pesticides mean more beneficials. And so it goes on.
If you have other examples of how backyard fruit and vegetable growers can use Salatin’s symbiotic management strategies, please let us know by commenting below.
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