Here is the full transcript of American farmer and author Joel Salatin’s TEDx Talk: Cows, Carbon and Climate at TEDxCharlottesville conference.
Joel Salatin – Organic farmer
Sunbeams are the essence of poetry. Dreams, fantasy, fairy tales; sunbeams.
And yet, as esoteric and mystical as sunbeams are, they are the energy driver of the planet in a very visceral, physical, scientific, empirical sense. But if I asked you to go out and grab me some sunbeams, we know they’re valuable, right? Well, grab me some; could you bring them in here?
Let’s talk about sunbeams. Children will take you up on this, they’ll dance around a little while and try to grab them, but they can’t. The fact is, that something as esoteric and mystical as sunbeams is captured by nature’s photovoltaic array, called photosynthesis in plants, through the chlorophyll of plants. And, specifically, grass.
So, the problem is that most of us, in our modern culture, are quite disconnected from grass. When I say “grass,” people immediately think of lawns, golf courses, maybe a soccer field. But you’re not thinking about the kind of grass that the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe found in the early 1700s, when Governor Spotswood, the colonial governor of Virginia sent his friends, dubbed the “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe” – they were British after all – sent them across the Blue Ridge. The British had bumped up here against the Blue Ridge. What was over Afton Mountain? What was over there? So he sent them over to discover what was there.
And what they found, they wrote back, and they spent a couple of weeks, and they said, “Everywhere we rode in the Shenandoah Valley, we could take the grass and tie it in a knot above the horse’s saddle.” It was a magnificent silvopasture of elk, deer, passenger pigeons, prairie chickens, pheasants, turkey and bison, up to herds of three to four million. Captain Jim Bridger got behind a herd out in the Black Hills of the Dakotas, when he was sent out to explore it, behind seven million bison.
Now, that’s always intrigued me “Lieutenant, could you come up here a minute please? Sharpen your quill. Start counting; one, two, – you got that?” I have no idea, but the legacy of these migratory herds that were moved by both natural- and Native American-lit fires as a landscape choreography, and these migratory patterns where they move thousands of miles created the soils that we are currently mining today in the Midwest, and that we already mined in Virginia – up to three feet of topsoil washed off of Virginia – during the European colonialization of the state, and up until today, and it’s still washing off today, because we have turned this beautiful, perennial-based system into an annually-based tillage system, which is highly erosive.
In the Shenandoah Valley, where I live, arguably three to five feet of topsoil have washed out and created the turbidity in today’s Chesapeake Bay. So how does nature actually work? How nature works is sunbeams come down, it’s captured by photosynthesis, and converted into biomass; into vegetable material. And if we look at the different kinds of plants, trees, bushes, and grass, intuitively, we think, “Well, what’s the most efficacious plant to collect these sunbeams and sequester the carbon?” Your mind tends to go to trees, because you can see, “Wow, look at all that biomass!” But in actuality, trees are the least efficient. Brush is more efficient, you know, bushes and brush, and things like that.
And then, the pinnacle is grass. The fact is that when you look at a forest, you’re seeing 50 to 80, maybe 100 years of stored carbon all standing visible. You’re not seeing 80 years of grass visible at one time. Now, the grass goes through a growth cycle just like us, just like all living things it goes through a growth cycle. It starts slow, and then it accelerates, and then it goes into senescence.
So the three stages of grass, I call: diaper stage; so right here in this pot I have freshly-eaten diaper stage. It’s just been grazed, and it’s coming back. Here, I have teenage grass, okay? Juvenile, fast-growth grass; remember when you could eat a half-gallon of ice cream and it didn’t go on your hips? This is juvenile grass. And then we come into more juvenile, but you see it’s starting to brown down, and eventually it goes to what I call “nursing home grass”. Okay? Senescence, the end.
The role of the herbivore in nature, if you’ve ever thought about it, and the reason I’m concentrating on this, is because herbivores have gotten a bad rap in recent days, cows, climate change and all that stuff. You see, the data points to study the effect of cows on the environment are all coming from a position that does not respect and honor the herbivore in it’s classic role. The role of the herbivore, and the reason the planet is so full of herbivores, think about Africa, think about South America, the alpacas, think about Indochina, yaks, they’re all over the place Reindeer, caribou, there’s a lot of herbivores, groundhogs, prairie dogs, you know, everything. Because without them, this biomass would simply turn into senescent material, and just volatilize, and die, and quit growing.
So the role of the herbivore in nature is to take this as it approaches senescence, prune it back, just like a viticulturist would prune a vineyard, or an orchardist would prune an apple tree. Does anyone think ill of an orchardist, “Why are you pruning your apple tree?” No, we think that’s good, we think that’s good stewardship. And that’s exactly what the herbivores did. So, they pruned this back to restart this rapid biomass production. Without them, it stops; the whole program stops.
Now, the problem is, how do we duplicate this if we don’t have migratory patterns? If we don’t have four million buffalo in a herd, if we don’t have 10 million wolves chasing them, if we don’t have fire, if we don’t have the magnificent, amazing choreography of nature, how do we duplicate this amazing principle that hydrated, built soil, fed all the mycorrhizae and the actinomycetes, and built the soils that we’re still mining today? How do we duplicate that if we have a system of private land ownership and all that?
Well, we do it with high-tech, electric fencing. Space age, microchip, electric fencing. It’s almost invisible to the eye, and yet we can encircle a herd of a thousand cows with an almost invisible wire that you would never see. Visitors to our farm are told, “Watch the wire.” They walk into it. It’s practically invisible, but because it’s such a strong psychological barrier, the cows learn. And they can see way better than us. In fact, they can see all the way around their heads, except for 30 degrees on their back end. So, they can see this, they know it’s there. And it allows us to duplicate this mobbed movement that they would have had in eons before we had private land.
We call this, “mob-stalking, herbivorous, solar-conversion, lignified, carbon sequestration.” And so, as the biomass gets to this point, we prune it back with the herbivore, and then it begins to grow. And as the leaf area begins to get more and more chlorophyll, the growth accelerates and accelerates, so that from here to here, let’s just say, for sake of discussion, from here to here, this time period is 20 days. From here to here, the time period is only 10 days. So it’s accelerating and then it slows off.
So what we’re doing is using the herbivore, – in this case a cow, it could be a sheep, a goat, whatever, in this case a cow – we’re using the animal in its historic role, using high-tech, electric fencing, in order to leverage and stimulate the biomass production.
The bottom line is that in Augusta County where I live, which is over the mountain, in Augusta County, the average pasture, the biomass production, if you dry it down and you weigh it, the biomass production on the average acre of grass in Augusta County, is 2500 pounds per year. On our farm, we’ve been there almost 60 years, we’ve never planted a seed, we’ve never bought a bag of chemical fertilizer, and on our farm we average well over 10,000 pounds per acre. We’re all familiar with the tension between ecology and economy. And that there’s a battle, and we can’t be environmentally sensitive unless we sacrifice the economy.
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