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Wildlife Asset

written by

Joel Salatin

posted on

June 5, 2024

This morning I had to go up the mountain to check on a water line and spring.  After a nice thunderstorm last night, the early morning mist rose up from the valleys as I dodged heavy-droplet leaves hanging out into the gravel road.

As the 4-wheeler and I rounded a bend, I braked quickly for a doe nursing her newborn fawn.  We stared at each other momentarily, not more than 20 feet apart.  The fawn suddenly vanished—I couldn’t see it run—and the doe stayed there.  We stared at each other for a bit and then I had to be on my way.

As I started to go, the doe jumped off the road but didn’t go far.  As I eased the 4-wheeler forward, my eye caught the fawn, hunkered flat against the ground under a fern and mountain laurel bush on the edge of the road.  Probably less than 24 hours old, the fawn had not yet learned to run from danger, but rather tried to hide.

It didn’t move when I walked to it.  Leaning over and gently cooing to it, I stroked the soft fawn like a kitten, assuring it I was a friend.  It didn’t move a muscle.  I didn’t pick it up or handle it.  It could have run off, but didn’t.  It just stayed there, pressed tightly against the ground, with mama nearby.  I caressed it for another minute, relishing the moment’s magic.  Then I eased away.

I had a spring and water line to check on, but as I turned to remount the 4-wheeler and continue on my errand, tears welled up in my eyes.  The freshly washed forest, rising mist, nursing mother and newborn fawn, and then the soft connection, all in stillness and mutual reverence.  How special is that?

As I fought back tears of gratitude for being able to enjoy magical experiential moments like this, I couldn’t help but think about the agri-industrial complex narrative vomiting out of public relations firms denigrating wildlife as an egregious liability.  A minute prior to encountering the nursing doe and fawn, I had enjoyed a wild turkey hen prancing through one of our pig pastures.  And yes, I’ve picked up newly hatched wild turkey poults too, while mother hen cavorts and clucks a few feet away. More magic moments.

Last week when I drove down the farm lane and crossed the bridge over Middle River (yes, it looks like a creek, but it’s the beginning of Middle River), I noticed a mother duck with six freshly hatched ducklings paddling up the river.  I watched them disappear under the bridge.  I wonder where they were headed.

Is all this wildlife really as terrible as the conventional mainline farm industry suggests?  Deer bring cow diseases.  Waterfowl bring bird flu.  The industry makes it sound like if we’re going to survive, we must eradicate wildlife.  That attitude is a natural development when you prop up life with artificial means (think unnatural animal habitations, antibiotics, vaccines, etc.). It seems very anti-life.

Starting with Justis von Liebig’s 1837 allegation that all life is simply a re-arrangement of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium and continuing to the herbicide, pesticide, grubicide developments post WWII, industrial food’s assault on life is unspeakably profound.  If an animal gets sick, it must be pharmaceutically disadvantaged, not immune-compromised.

The key to good food is ship-ability and shelf life.  Cardboard tomatoes and cheese that won’t mold—oh, don’t forget shelf-stable ultra-pasteurized organic milk—is the Holy Grail of modern American industrial food.  The new frontier of lab-cultured meat-like substances and 3-D printed proteins is the next iteration in this entire anti-life progression.

Here at Polyface, we believe any farm and food system that demonizes wildlife is fundamentally anti-life and therefore anti-nutrition, anti-wellness, and anti-health.  To be sure, that doesn’t mean we let errant and rogue carnivorous predators abscond with our pastured chickens.  Or let mice and rats run rampant through the house.

But it means we have a deep and abiding respect for the majesty, complexity, and value of nature and wildlife.  If we have an animal sickness, it’s not because of wildlife; it’s because we mismanaged something and compromised the immune system.  Any livestock farmer eventually neglects something at an inopportune time and has to learn the hard way that social structure, hygiene, sanitation, genetic selection, rations and other things affect the habitat for health.

The reason I can enjoy these routine magical encounters with wildlife is because we believe the foundation of good farming—and good food—is a vibrantly balanced and functioning ecology.  That starts with the native critters.  If we can’t add livestock without destroying the native life, shame on us.  And shame on the industry for blaming wildlife for diseases.  The wildlife figured out long ago how to live without chemicals, vaccines, and pharmaceuticals.

Perhaps it would behoove all farmers to look at the resilient wildlife for instruction in our domestic livestock production.  Informed by the natural, cows, pigs and chickens can enjoy a healthy existence without anti-life inputs.  When you patronize Polyface, you say to the world “life matters to me, even the bumblebee and fawn.”  That’s a great life lesson for our kiddos.  Together, as farmer and patron, we can promote life, both wild and domestic.  

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