BISMARCK, N.D. - Joel Salatin drops nuggets in his speech that might be - and probably would be - controversial in many circles of agriculture. He disparages veganism and Monsanto. He explains the comparative cost of crop farming in comparison to running livestock on perennials. And he criticizes big animal agriculture companies for their environmental practices and for creating a high cost of entry for new producers.
Salatin, a Virginia farmer who speaks and writes on soil conservation and holistic management, was the keynote speaker at the annual convention of North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts on Monday, Nov. 19.
NDASCD works to further the widespread application of sound soil and water practices in North Dakota. Employees, staff and producers from the state's 54 soil conservation districts attended the convention, which began Nov. 18 and ran through Nov. 20 in Bismarck. The convention also featured workshops, meetings, fundraising auctions and a recognition banquet.
Organizers of the annual convention knew Salatin might be controversial to some in agriculture, but they were willing to take the risk in order for their crowd to hear Salatin's message.
"I think he's right when he says we need to hear the hard story," said Darrell Oswald.
Oswald works for the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District and helped the NDASCD bring Salatin to Bismarck for the conference. He called Salatin "a soil health guru" and said his message that the problems in agriculture are fixable "gets people moving in the right direction."
"Replacing management with inputs and working more in a regenerative manner in a systems-approach agriculture to improve soil health, I think, is a positive message," Oswald said.
Other than a few asides, Salatin didn't say anything overly controversial in his speech in Bismarck. In fact, much of what he said has become mantra for many in agriculture as focus continues to shift to an emphasis on soil health for both economic and environmental sustainability.
Salatin explained that the farm his family has been on since the 1960s was inexpensive to purchase because it was poor quality land due to years of adverse soil practices. To illustrate that, he told how there wasn't even enough topsoil to anchor posts from which to string electric fencing wire.
But years of focus on soil health has added 12 inches of soil with a high percentage of organic material, he said.
Salatin wanted the crowd to focus on his four "E's": ethos, economy, elegance and empowerment. Ethos refers to building an appreciation for our dependence on the soil and how the soil needs to be developed. Economy refers to the need for an incentivized economic way to develop value and worth in carbon. Elegance has to do with developing a "beautiful landscape" of multiple species. Empowerment enables people to embrace the soil and its importance in our system.
On the last point, Salatin urged the conference attendees to become coaches and cheerleaders of the importance of soil health.
After his speech, Salatin said he hoped people would take away the importance of livestock on the land, because, he explained, "there is no animal-less ecosystem."
"The idea is that mobility, mobile animals, mobile infrastructure, management intensive systems, actually change the equity to skills, knowledge and customers and that's a great point of entry for a young person to be able to get in," he said.
The animals also provide an economic way to keep land in perennials.
"I'm a big believing in perennials versus annuals," Salatin says. "Well-managed perennials can absolutely out-compete corn, soybeans or any other annuals, and it doesn't require all of that equipment and all of that hauling and transportation and fuel."
Salatin also wanted people to know that it's OK to fail and that they should be trying new things. The saying that "if it's worth doing it's worth doing right" doesn't work, he said. Before you can do something "right," you have to be willing to learn from experience.
"It's OK to fail," he said. "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly first."