by Matt Rales, a Polyface Farms Rancher
Virginia’s Farming Heritage
Five hundred years ago the landscape in the Shenandoah Valley looked markedly different than it does today. What today is National Forest land were likely giant open savannahs, with huge productive mast bearing trees. Open grasslands dominated, from tall grass prairie to short grass plains. In many locations six to eight feet of rich, life-giving topsoil have been plowed off in just the last century. The productive grasses that grew here supported a volume and diversity of life unimaginable today.
Pre civil war travelers who rode through the valley on horseback wrote of being able to braid the tall prairie grasses over the palms of their saddles. The grass that grew here was thick and perennial, meaning that it did not have to be planted year after year – it just grew back. The trees that did grow in the valley were widely spaced so as to allow enough light to penetrate through the canopy to allow grass to grow underneath. Of course, this landscape was not naturally occurring, but very intentional. Native Americans relied on huge herds of ruminant herbivores like bison and elk (Which used to graze east of the Mississippi) as their primary food source, and these animals relied entirely on grass to survive and grow fat. The Native Americans knew that they must maintain the grass to ensure the survival of their food source. Setting low burning brush fires and hunting pressure were their primary tools for keeping the trees in check and the grass thriving.
The Resurgence of Grass Based Farming Today
So how does this historical context apply to our local food system in the Shenandoah Valley, its surrounding bio-region, and to Polyface Farm today? First, it validates for us that the Shenandoah Valley is a grass-growing region, and that grass is the most suitable “crop”. It also suggests that we must mimic this natural grazing template on our farms in order to recreate the productive capacity of the landscape.
Today at Polyface we aim to provide the kind of food in abundance that creates vibrant health for people. Grass is nature’s most nutritious vegetable, converted by the cow into exponentially available nutrition for people. The fat from ruminants (cud chewing herbivores) grazing mineral rich, perennial pasture is the ultimate superfood, hosting Vitamins A, D, E and K.
The Shenandoah Valley is very rich in the base minerals Calcium and Phosphorus. The original settlers in the valley set up their homesteads based on the presence of these minerals. These base elements conferred strong bone structure to the wildlife, livestock and subsequently the people who consumed their products.
Healing our Land, Healing our Environment
Grass heals degraded land by building topsoil. Topsoil formation happens quickly by heavy grazing pressure coupled with rest and regrowth. At Polyface, we mimic the grazing patterns of North American Bison and African Wildebeest with beef cattle. The deep, black soils of the North American Prairie and the African Serengeti were created by the “herd effect” of these animals. These soils are the most capacious carbon sinks on earth.
The Inconvenient Cow
The media has decided to demonize the cow for a host of environmental crimes. The EPA has even proposed to tax farmers for the gas that their cows emit. We’ll discuss why these propositions have no basis in sound science. Suffice it to say for now that planetary numbers of methane producing herbivores once numbered manifold more than the domesticated cattle that we produce today. Trees and wetlands also produce methane. The government solutions are as bogus as their accusations. Drugs, vaccinations, cloning and more feedlots are their current suggestions.
What you Can Do to Support Grass-Based, Sustainable Agriculture
By becoming a Polyface buying club patron and purchasing grass finished beef you are not only opting out of the United Nations/USDA sanctioned system above, but also encouraging a continuum of environmentally enhancing ecological processes including but not limited to soil building, carbon sequestration, water cycling and retention and thus drought and flood prevention. You are also keeping responsible custodians of the landscape viable and thriving, stewarding the farm through to the next generation, so that more farmers can feed more people healthier food.
I want you realize that your support for grass-based farming and ranching puts you on the forefront of an environmental and human health revolution. The cow has the power to transform grass into food for the soil and food for people that is beyond compare in its healing qualities. Let’s utilize her gifts and allow the next generation to flourish. I hope you become as excited as I am about the fascinating prospect of rejuvenating our soils and our own health rapidly and abundantly.
Come and Meet Matt at National Realty
Thank you Matt for this wonderful article. We hope everyone in the DC Metro Area, will join us at our Polyface Farm Drop Launch Party. See details on our meetup.com/WholeNutrition/ site.
Membership in the meetup is free, and you will need to join to rsvp to the event. You can opt out of the meetup group at any time.
To Learn More about Polyface Farm visit their website, Polyfacefarm.
Click here to go to my husband’s blog, NationalisOnline.com– Farm Buying Club Page!