Sustainable Farmer Joel Salatin Goes Beyond Organics
On a modest, idyllic 550 acres in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm has given the modern food industry a lesson in agrarian integrity. On his pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm, Salatin raises animals with ethically and ecologically sound methods that mimic natural movement patterns and preserve the landscape.
The self-declared “Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-Capitalist-Lunatic” has entered the national spotlight as a main subject in Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Ominivore’s Dilemma and the upcoming film Food, Inc. The author of six of his own books, Salatin is not shy about his beliefs. He bluntly speaks out about the disgraces he sees in the current industrial food system, and lately he spends about one-third of his time giving lectures.
The Polyface Farm land was purchased by Salatin’s parents in 1961, and today the farm remains a small family-based operation, anchored by Salatin’s son Daniel and a meager staff of fewer than two dozen, which includes interns and apprentices.
At his farm, Salatin offers complete transparency. He invites his customers to visit the farm and see how the animals live. Despite a great increase in demand for Polyface’s sustainably produced meats, shipping farm-fresh meats is not an option, as it goes against Salatin’s principle of recreating a local food chain. He invited BRO to the farm in late spring.
BRO: What should people know about the meat they get at Polyface?
JS: Our cows are moved every day to a fresh paddock, so we’re mimicking the patterns of herbivores in nature. They’re moving away from yesterday’s manure. We take the natural, moving, mobbing, mowing pattern as a template. Fertile soils of the world have been built with herbivores. This grazing allows grass to grow through its cycle. If everyone practiced this pattern, we’d sequester all of the carbon that’s been emitted in the industrial age in fewer than 10 years.
Good food should be aesthetically pleasing from field to fork. We’re standing here among thousands of chickens with no odor. A good food production model doesn’t force a huge landscape change. It’s gentle on the land. It actually nests into its ecological umbilical cord. We only touch each square foot of land once a year with these birds. We move them every morning, so they get fresh salad every day, away from yesterday’s excrement. This is to eliminate pathogens that affect crowded chickens. We also don’t want to exceed the carrying capacity of the soil.
BRO: What’s the difference between this and free range?
JS: The pastured poultry is what we’re most famous for. We don’t call it free range. We call it pasture. Most free range chickens are on a dirt pile. That’s where we differ from operations that don’t have a portable infrastructure to give them fresh ground every day.
BRO: Can you explain what you mean by “beyond organic” in describing Polyface?
JS: Organic has become an extremely loose term that people don’t really understand. Now it’s been codified by the government and prostituted, so industrial food can enter the marketplace under the guise of organic. We’re beyond organic in that we put the animals on fresh grass and move them around all the time. We process at the farm with neighborhood labor.
BRO: What are your thoughts on vegetarianism and benefits to land use?
JS: Animals are one of the most healing things possible on the landscape, if they’re managed and raised properly, especially herbivores. The main reason for vegetarianism is an anti-vote against inhumane industrial agriculture. That is certainly valid, but I think it would be a lot healthier to turn that into a positive vote and purchase from grass-based farm outfits. The data that supports a conclusion that eating beef is a leading cause of global warming is based on grain-based industrial feed lot production. As soon as you go to a paradigm of a perennial, non-tillage, self-fertilized system, all that negative data goes out the window.
Beyond that, vegetarianism is actually totally foreign to the three-trillion member community inside of us. On this planet, things are being eaten all over the place, whether it’s the preying mantis eating an insect or a lion eating a wildebeest. From any way you want to look at it, there’s no ecological reason for vegetarianism.
BRO: What is your vision for the future of farming in this bioregion?
JS: I envision entrepreneurial local food collaboration, where we actually consume what’s grown here. Right now in the developed world, only five percent of the food consumed is produced locally. Food should be grown and eaten in its own region. People need to find their own kitchens and begin eating more seasonally.
BRO: What’s your biggest frustration in running this type of farm?
JS: Government regulations. The market is there, but the only reason we don’t have a more viable local food system is because of malicious, capricious regulations that put undue burdens on small producers and give big producers a free pass. I’m not just talking about the USDA. The problem also includes zoning regulations that don’t let somebody, for example, sell a quiche they made in their house because they’re in a zoned residential area. It’s the ultimate compartmentalized society. Throughout history the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker have been embedded in the village, not confined to their living quarters, so they have to drive somewhere to get to work.
You can’t buy a glass of raw milk legally in Virginia, even though it’s legal in 22 other states, and no one is getting sick. Our ability to make our own food choices is being infringed upon by people who tell us it’s safer to feed our kids Twinkies and Mountain Dew than raw milk from a neighbor.
BRO: What makes these battles worth it to farm this way?
JS: I want to leave a better world for my children and grandchildren. If things keep going the way they’re going, the only choice my grandchildren will have is Archer Daniels Midland eradiated, amalgamated, red dye 29, fecal junk.
BRO: Has your outlook on farming become more positive with public awareness?
JS: I am positive about what you and I can do as individuals, but I’m not positive about the agenda of the industrial food system to demonize and marginalize the type of food I want to produce. There’s a bill running through Congress right now that would allow the USDA to come onto any farm and determine if it is using scientific practices in the name of food safety. Scientific practices means industrial feed lots. Scientific means eggs come from nine birds cooped in a 19 x 22-inch cage with eight other cages stacked high in a confinement factory house. What I do is considered non-scientific. In the food system, we are at Wounded Knee. The industrial food system is not going to be happy until those of us who adhere to heritage-based principles are exterminated or put onto the reservation.
BRO: So we need a food revolution?
JS: I say we need a Food Emancipation Proclamation that would give us, as eaters, autonomy over the food that we eat. The only reason the founders of the Constitution didn’t give us that right is because they couldn’t have envisioned the day that selling a quiche to a neighbor would be considered illegal. What good is it to have the freedom to assemble, own firearms, or pray, if we don’t have the freedom to obtain the food that gives us the energy to shoot, pray, and preach?
BRO: Are we shedding the perception that local food is elitist, due to the higher price?
JS: I don’t know if we’ve turned the corner on that yet. People need to know that much of the cost of local artisan food has nothing to do with inefficient delivery or production. It has to do with the onerous government regulations that are non-scalable. A normal business that is our size should be paying $2,000 for worker’s comp, but we have to pay $10,000 because we don’t fit into a specific category. A lot of the problem is strictly regulatory requirements, as opposed to inherent inefficiency of small-scale production.
BRO: How does the work you do relate to your faith?
JS: I believe we don’t own the earth. We’re just pilgrims going through it. I do what I do as a steward of creation. God put us here to nurture his creation, not pillage, rape, and extract everything in the short term. In spiritual terms, I am in the business of trying to build forgiveness into nature. All of our farming techniques nest into the landscape as opposed to dominating the landscape. •