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The Regenerative Farming Revolution: Eartheasy Speaks With Producer Lisa Heenan

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TIME Magazine called him ‘the world’s most innovative farmer.’ Now Joel Salatin is showing the world how to tackle climate change.

By Nicole Faires Posted May 25, 2017

Woman on chicken farm
“Today’s radical is tomorrow’s conservative.” – Mark Twain

When Joel Salatin’s parents bought their farm, the land was worn out, the soil was disappearing, and much of it was bare rock. With dreams of building a self-reliant lifestyle, they went to the agricultural extension and were told to use chemicals and other ‘traditional’ strategies. Instead, they did the opposite, using cows to kick start the natural process of grazing to restart the biomass of the land. Today, the pastures are lush meadows that have not been ploughed in 50 years. They grow with such abundance that Joel is able to graze 400 cows per acre at his Polyface Farm, instead of the usual 80 cows at other farms. No wonder TIME Magazine described him as the “world’s most innovative farmer.”

Now Joel and his farm are the subject of the documentary film, Polyfaces: A World of Many Choices. Eartheasy was delighted to screen Polyfaces and interview producer Lisa Heenan from Regrarians Media about the film. Lisa, her husband and agricultural project designer Darren Doherty, and their three children, traveled from Australia to a mountain cabin in Virginia to study, film, and showcase one of the most important regenerative farms in the world.

This interview has been edited for length.

Polyface and the Regenerative Farming Revolution

Eartheasy: For those who aren’t familiar with Joel Salatin and his work, can you tell us why the Polyface method is such a revolutionary approach to farming?

Lisa Heenan: Apart from their innovative integration of animal, pastoral, and forestry systems, their greatest innovation lies in the way they market directly to their consumer — doing so within a defined geographic boundary, or ‘foodshed’, as they describe it. Fortunately, their approaches are no longer quite so revolutionary as so many others have followed their example — an example that is the result of another innovation: farmer-to-farmer extension. Over 40 or so years, four generations of the Salatins have been extolling the virtues of their mission to new and existing farmers alike — and they’ve been very successful in influencing production and supply chain practices with many people all over the world

EE: ‘Regenerative’ farming encompasses a method of agriculture that regenerates soil, communities, and the environment. Can you give us a little more information on what that means in a practical sense?

LH: The whole realm of activities labeled under the ‘regenerative’ banner is quite vast. Leaders, such as Vermont-based Abe Collins, have identified well over 40 different methods of management and practice known to accelerate soil formation. Each of those methods have a relative feasibility. We’ve been working in this space for nearly 30 years and have seen many older practices resurface and newer ones come into accepted use. Like many others over this period, we’ve experienced confusion at which techniques are effective or not, and we ended up revisiting the integrated application of two methodologies — the Keyline Scale of Permanence (KSOP) and Holistic Management Decision Making Frameworks (HM). From these methods we developed our own 10 layer ‘Regrarians Platform®’.

EE: How have you seen these kinds of design methodologies and educational opportunities making a difference?

LH: The KSOP provided us with a scale of priority for physical land planning decisions and the HM delivers a framework for making financial, social and broader ecological management decisions referenced against a self-determined ‘Holistic Context’. We’ve seen practices shifting quite broadly and, quite pleasingly, this shift operates at a peer to peer level — something that production landscape managers, both new and old, are really responsive to.

EE Note: Keyline design was developed by Australian farmer, P. A. Yeomans, and it encompasses techniques for maximizing the use of water on a piece of land. It is used widely in Australia where water is often scarce. David Holmgren later used it as a critical part of permaculture.

EE: So this isn’t just a method, it’s a movement?

LH: In each region cells of players are forming, sharing their feedback, providing extension to newcomers, all the while building community, soils and ecosystem integrity. These cells are part of a quite social global network of practitioners and consumers who use their voice, more often than not through social media, to command attention, influence policy, extend best-practice and work towards more regenerative practices becoming the new normal.
Pigs
EE: One of the topics we’ve covered at Eartheasy lately is sequestering carbon in order to stop the impacts of climate change. How does the Polyface model do that?

LH: The Polyface farming model captures and sequesters carbon in a host of ways. Their integration of forestry systems and their management into their agricultural systems is key to this process. Every year the team at Polyface selectively harvests trees within their extensive forests. Any trees felled are graded for their various uses as sawlogs, posts, and firewood with the remaining branches and leaves all put through a tractor-powered mulcher/chipper. A thin layer of local contract grown, non-GMO corn seed is applied between two layers of this mulch under the skillions of their two hay barns. Over winter their cows are housed under these skillions and fed the farm’s hay. As the cows feed they pee and manure onto this mulch bedding. Every week or so the Salatins remove the cows to adjacent yards and lay more corn and then mulch on top of that — they may repeat this such that there’s over a yard high pile of bedding by the start of spring when the cows head back out onto pasture.

“If every farmer in the United States would practice this system, in fewer than 10 years, we would sequester all the carbon that’s been emitted since the beginning of the industrial age.”
–Joel Salatin

The Salatins then bring in the pigs they’ve housed in polytunnels over the winter and they start digging into this bedding and discover the fermented corn which only encourages them to find every kernel — all the time mixing and aerating what Joel Salatin calls a “carbonaceous diaper”. The pigs are then moved to the forests that were thinned and the bedding composts before being spread at the rate of 7+ ton/acre across the fields. Accordingly, the carbon sequestered in the soils has increased from around 2-3% to over 8% and the thinning program in the forests has increased the diameter of the retained stems, with the soils of the pastoral understory increasing in their carbon content continually. Over time this will likely exceed the volume of carbon previously held in the biomass of the (overstocked) trees that were thinned.

EE: Polyface is just one example though, right? There are many ways to do this?

LH: Outside of Polyface Farm and its model, the broad church of methods included in what’s called regenerative agriculture are roundly focused on what others call carbon farming — which is that any agricultural operation should have as its first priority carbon sequestration, be that in soils or woody vegetation. Some of the key methods applied within the movement include: agroforestry, mixed species pasture cropping, cover cropping, and Holistic Management Planned Grazing.

The Polyfaces Community

People eating at a table
In the documentary, one of top priorities of the farm, besides the land, is the people. A lot of Joel’s creative energy is spent in trying to help young farmers make money. Young families live on the farm, growing beans and rabbits and operating other businesses – one of them is a midwife, others keep cows. Young farmers can come and start a mutually beneficial independent business. Rather than asking what he can get out of these new farmers, Joel asks, “What can you bring to the table?”

This sharing and caring spills over into the greater community. Meat processing at the farm is so gentle and kind that children can be involved without trauma. Employees have been drawn to the farm because they were looking for a healthier life, and they find it not only by changing their lifestyle but by eating better as well.

Joel says in the film, “We’ve got to have a farm plan, a family plan, a business setup that is noble enough, sacred enough, and big enough to excite the passion of a young heart and a young mind. What I have to do is to create something that is way bigger than my lifetime. That is so noble and righteous that they’re willing to give their life to it too. There ya go”.

EE: One of the biggest takeaways from the documentary was how the love and care the Salatins have for their farm has spilled over into building an amazing community of people from all over the world. How can non-farmers become part of a movement like this, from where they are?

LH: With every dollar you spend, you are either supporting a producer/business who is supporting the regeneration of the planet or someone who is destroying our health and the heatlh of the planet. If we become more conscious as consumers and only support those that have our health and the health of every living thing on the planet as their main priority, we will see great change very fast. Think about everything you buy—soap, shampoo, clothes, shoes, food, and furniture. Can you buy local? Can you buy human/environmentally safe and friendly? Can you buy reused, recycled, or upcycled? There is a HUGE global village movement that connects via the internet on Facebook groups and social media and it is growing bigger every day!

The Birth of the Film ‘Polyfaces’

Joel Saladin spreading knowledge to others
EE: How did you meet Joel Salatin?

LH: We had been running Carbon Farming workshops between 2007 and 2008, bringing together experts like Kirk Gadzia, Dr. Elain Ingham, and Darren so that farmers could come and get new tools to add to their toolbox, like holistic management, soil biology, and keyline design. In 2009 we emailed Joel and asked would he be interested in joining the series because we had read his books and we were following what they were doing at Polyface Farm. He agreed, and he taught with us in the U.S. that year. The next year we organized workshops for him in Australia and then continued to work with Joel, Daniel and Sheri, Joel’s daughter-in-law, around the world

EE: As a long time ‘fan’ of Joel Salatin, the documentary was an amazing window into Polyface Farm for me. Your family did something that I think many people would love to do, which is to work and live at Polyface. How did you decide to take your whole family, including your three children, to Virginia?
Lisa Heenan and her family

LH: Succession [passing farms down to the next generation] is one of the biggest issues in farming, and so I spent a year organizing a tour to coincide with the release of Joel’s book Fields of Farmers. We had Joel, Daniel, and Sheri for this tour and it was hugely successful in terms of bringing this conversation out in the open. Hearing from Sheri was very powerful for a lot of folks who came. The next year, in 2011, Darren and Joel were teaching a workshop series in Australia. Darren has a saying: “The climate of the mind is the hardest thing to change and can be even more so when working with farmers.” We had talked about making a documentary to reach more people and get this information out to our global village faster and further. We wanted to inspire them to be supportive of farmers like the Salatins. We decided that this was the right time to make the film and Polyface was the farm!

EE: How can people find you and watch the documentary?

LH: Go to www.polyfaces.com or to our Facebook page

Pin for later: The Regenerative Farming Revolution

Author photo
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Nicole Faires is an urban farmer and best-selling author of books on sustainable agriculture and food policy. Originally from Montana, she now lives with her family on the West Coast. Find out more at http://deliberatelife.ca or connect with her on LinkedIn.
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