The New York Times has called him the "high priest of the pasture." And the Virginia farmer himself calls what he does "farming as ministry."
But Joel Salatin can't be an easy holy man to follow.
His farm, Polyface ("farm of many faces"), in the Shenandoah Valley, which he runs with his wife and young adult children, has become a mecca for those seeking to learn from its unique and successful approach to profitable, environmentally sound farming. Salatin spends nearly a third of the year traveling the globe lecturing, and he's written numerous articles and books, including guidebooks such as You Can Farm and sociopolitical rants such as "Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front." He's also been written about in others' articles and books -- and been in a documentary -- on the food industry and sustainable farming; most notably, he was featured in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, itself an important chapter in the bible for the sustainable food movement.
And yet Salatin fits no mold, adheres to no clearly delineated philosophy. He doesn't believe in industrial, mechanized, mass-production farming, but he doesn't go in for "organic" certification either; he's "beyond organic." He's tough on crime, but he doesn't believe in prisons. He's a graduate of the Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University, yet he's revered by liberals in the sustainable-food/locavore movement. He'll read Glenn Beck one night and Louis Farrakhan the next. He thinks a fellow who pollutes a creek, well, might ought just to be taken out and hanged -- or at least made to pay for every dime of the cleanup out of his own pocket; no Superfund, no pardon, no mercy. But he doesn't cotton to any government regulation.
Salatin says he's a chip off the old block, his dad, who moved from Indiana to regulation-light Venezuela, where he farmed for 14 years until the coup in the late '50s forced the family to flee. They settled, in 1961 when Salatin was 4, on a deeply rutted, played-out patch of row-crop land in Swoope, Va. -- which they nursed into their enormously productive farm of today.
A former newspaper reporter with a knack for complex adjective chains, Salatin describes himself best: He says he's a "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic farmer."
The "farmer" bit is the obvious unifier of his diverse flock. Salatin calls himself a "grass farmer" specifically, and at Polyface, aside from 350 acres of timber forest, everything revolves around his 100 acres of lush, thriving pastures, which he calls salad bars. They're a natural mix of grasses, legumes and other plants upon which, in rotations he calls "stacking," a succession of cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs and rabbits feed. First come the cows, contained by portable electrical fencing. After a brief stay, they're moved to another pasture and here come the chickens -- the fryers in their open-air portable, bottomless cage, and the layers in their "eggmobile" -- who nibble more grass and peck apart the cowpats for fly larvae and other pests. The turkeys, in their similarly portable "Gobbledy-Go," have their turn, and so on with the pigs and rabbits.
This system allows, as Salatin puts it, for the full physiological expression of each animal and plant -- the "pigness of the pig and the chickenness of the chicken," as he puts it. And it creates a natural loop of waste management and nutrition absorption and grass stimulation. Salatin never uses antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or even seeds. He does heartily embrace some technology, however -- manure spreaders, for example, electric fencing, ultraviolet-resistant cloth, chippers, front-end loaders.
Salatin only distributes his food within a 200-mile radius -- the distance a person can drive to his farm and back home again in a day. Compare that, he says, to the global food industry in which each morsel of food has more than 1,500 miles under it. And the meat and eggs from Polyface, those who've eaten them report, surpass the modern concept of deliciousness. Best of all, he makes good money.
"The fact is," Salatin said over the phone from Virginia last week, "when we have highly complex stacking, symbiotic, synergistic, relationally oriented, multi-speciated production models, they absolutely spin circles around anything that a monocultured industrial model can produce. Look at cow days. A cow day is what one cow will eat in a day on one acre of pasture. In our county, for all the farms combined in Augusta County, the average is 80 cow days per acre per year. On our farm, we average 400 cow days per acre per year. And we've never planted a seed, we do no tillage, and we've never bought a chemical fertilizer in 50 years."
Other farmers can learn from him. Heck, even apartment-dwellers can, he says: "If you can have a couple of parakeets, why not chickens instead?" Indeed: They'll eat your kitchen scraps and, so they're happy, you can build them a little window-box sunporch to hang out on, he says.
But what about the rest of Salatin's self-made label, the parts that must tug and repel his followers all at once and could induce low-level anxiety or, worse, resistance to his good-food sermon? The "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic" part -- what's that all about?
Well, we asked him.
You call yourself a Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic farmer. Why are those labels important to you?
OK, let's take 'em one at a time. Christian: I do believe that God exists, and I'm a classic Christian. I'm not the nouveau Christian. I do believe in Creation. I'm pro-life. I don't have a denomination. We go to a little fellowship group here.
My problem with the Christian community, with the religious right, has been the inordinate emphasis on dominion over everything that's not human, as opposed to stewardship, which in my view has given the religious right an extremely non-nurturing, rape-oriented view of Creation. And so while the Christians should have been the ones who were the "Mother Earthers," if you will, the ones who took ecology seriously, instead the religious right is branded as the group that has encouraged Wall Streetification, empire-building and destruction of our natural resources.
I am absolutely a member of the religious right. But I think it is as inconsistent to be a save-the-baby-whale treehugger who is pro abortion as it is for a pro-lifer to eat Happy Meals on the way to the pro-life rally.
Because the Happy Meals are the ultimate representation of the mechanical view toward life. You know, the monospecies, cheap food -- all those things that denigrate sacredness in life. Oh, listen, I spoke at a men's-only Republican senator breakfast meeting in Portland, Ore., two years ago, and when I said that they about tarred and feathered me and walked out. A buncha ol' grandpa retired senators, you know: ‘How dare you say that I'm disrespecting life when I take my kids for Happy Meals?! I'll take 'em where I want!' Listen, I have no problem with them having the right to go to McDonald's. What I'm challenging them is to realize the hypocrisy of taking the sacrament over here as if Creation is sacred, on the one hand, and treating it as if it's just a copper widget on the other.
All right, the next one: "libertarian."
So, the typical idea of the religious right is they want to force their social agenda on the world. And so I'm a religious rightist who is absolutely and adamantly, militantly in favor of legalizing all drugs. All drugs. Because the government that can tell you you can't smoke dope can also tell you you can't have Aunt Matilda's pickles or raw milk or take alternative laetrile medical treatment. See, I don't think the government owns me. I don't think I own you. And I think it's presumptuous of you to think you own me! And so I am a big believer in personal autonomy. So that means that I would, for example, not have Social Security, welfare payments, food stamps or any of the other things like that.
Is there anything good the government does, in your mind?
Well, what the government's supposed to do is keep the peace -- so, you can't hit me in the nose with your fist. So, peace, and justice. And I don't have any problem with roads and some basic things.
But what about people who are truly poor and have no family to help them?
I mean, Jesus didn't give money to the poor people. So if "he who owns the cattle on a thousand hills" did not think it was sin to not help every single indigent person on Earth, then how presumptuous is it of me to think that I can have a government that can take money from you at gunpoint and dispense charity? That's what philanthropy is for. Now, what Jesus did say is, he said, you are supposed to take care of others. He was looking at his disciples. He wasn't saying "you, the government," he was saying "you, as individuals."
Of course, the negative of libertarianism is that it's so easy to move into anarchy.
So you definitely don't lean more toward liberalism or conservativism?
I appreciate what a lot of the liberals would like to see in society -- you know, if you asked them to describe a perfect world. Where I have a problem with the liberals is they want the government to do it for them. For example, say they want a world in which nobody goes hungry. I say you get to that point by allowing people to use their kitchens and make quiche and pot pie and stews and sell it in their neighborhood in the urban food deserts. The way they say you do it is to start another government program and tax productive people more to pay for a government program and then dole it out in food stamps, or some other sort of welfare type of system.
And I have tremendous disagreements, for example, with Rush Limbaugh. I think he is fantastic when he talks about Americanism and entrepreneurism and personal responsibility and not being a victim. But I can't be more opposed to him when he goes to the jungle and starts up the chainsaw and the machine gun and shoots monkeys and laughs while all the trees fall in the jungle -- that's not funny.
OK, so, "environmentalist"?
I don't think there should have been a Superfund cleanup program. I think companies that, for example, dumped pollution in the creeks or whatever, should have paid for all of that cleanup out of their own money, or with their executives' personal wealth. And if it bankrupted them, then so be it.
But the negative of the environmentalists is that they are in many ways very much top-down. They want to regulate everything, a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. My problem with the environmentalists is that generally they are very opposed to market pressures and to simply letting their own informational education seek its place in the marketplace. Instead they come down with all these big regulations which then require all sort of paperwork that can actually exacerbate some of the problems that they have -- like finding an endangered species in the forest so then everybody goes in quickly and rapes and cuts all the forest before the legislation can go through to make the forest off limits.
Are there any environmental regulations you can applaud?
No, I would say that if you pollute the river, you are liable for it.
But if there's nothing saying you can't pollute the river, how can you be made liable?
If the first guy that polluted it got hung, then not many people would pollute it after that. Look, if you go way, way, way, way back in English law there's plenty of case law and precedent dealing with soiling your neighbor's property. We didn't need a great big agency. All we needed was for people to go after polluters. We don't need a bunch of new laws about it.
I am a capitalist. I think business should make a profit. Profit is the lifeblood of business and it really pains me in the "organic, ecological, Mother Earth, nirvana" community when I see so many farmers and other people that treat profit like a pariah. That's unfortunate. They say, "We do this because it's right, not because it makes a profit." You know, altruism doesn't take your spouse to dinner or put shoes on her feet. As much as I believe in being altruistic, at the end of the day what good is it to have an altruistic business that goes bankrupt?
But the con is, many capitalists don't understand that what we don't see on the balance sheet is just as valuable as what we do see on the balance sheet. Whether our business plan makes happier earthworms or infertile frogs or three-legged salamanders or breaks up marriages.
But is your way truly practical?
The first thing people say to me is, well, you can't feed the world your way. The second thing they'll say is, well, if you did this, food would become more expensive.
Well, it is right now. If I want to go buy some grassfed locally raised beef at the Co-op it's going to cost more than a chub of beef from Costco.
That's right. But the [grassfed local beef seller] is not externalizing the cost in pollution, pathogenicity, food-borne bacteria, lack of nutrition. None of those things make it on the balance sheet.
But what about the family on a budget? Maybe they can't afford to look at those externalized costs. What matters is the immediate cost to them.
Yeah, but they can go down and buy hundred-dollar designer jeans with holes already in the knees. I'll tell you what, this sounds incredibly politically incorrect, but I want you to take me to a family, who says they can't afford it, who doesn't have a TV, doesn't have a cell phone, doesn't have any soda, alcohol or tobacco. ... I'm telling you, we have dumbed down our culture to the point where we're just all victims.
OK, so why are you a "lunatic"?
That's just my joke about myself and how people view me. Most of the things we do on our farm are considered lunacy -- because, our pastured chickens commiserate with redwing blackbirds and indigo buntings and those birds "take our disease" to the science-based Tyson chicken houses and threaten the planet's food supply and the whole world's going to starve. That's what they say.
Some people say it's lunatic to drink raw milk. Here in Humboldt County, about 2,000 people signed a petition last year to try to get our county to lift its ban on the sale of raw milk. But it failed; health officials said it was just too risky. And a woman was paralyzed after drinking some bad raw milk in the county north of us here.
As if the 500 million eggs that were recalled from those atrocious Iowa farms last year were safe? Much of the paranoia about diseases we associate with milk are the result of when we had the urbanization and early industrialization of the developed world. That urbanization and industrialization preceded much of the sanitation knowledge and infrastructure, like stainless steel, electrification, hot water.
Look, we live in a world of imperfection. This whole idea of zero tolerance is absurd. If you want to live a riskless life, then go sit in a straitjacket in a thermatically controlled bubble and let people give you IV fructose for the rest of your life. I mean, all innovation and progress requires risk.
The fact is that ‘safe food' is very subjective. The government thinks it's OK for you to eat Twinkies and Cocoa Puffs; but let's talk about Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Goodness, for that matter, let's talk about E coli, salmonella and other [bacterial outbreaks] that are coming in from concentrated-animal feeding operations and industrial farms that basically didn't exist 30 years ago.
People use this argument and just act as if the industrial farming system that we have is some sort of safe system. It is not a safe system. It is incredibly unsafe, and giving us a culture that today now spends 18 percent of our per capita disposable income on health care, when just 35 years ago we only spent 9 percent on health care. So, in a generation, our health costs have doubled, while our food costs have halved. Is it possible that there's a relationship between the two?
So, why do you care?
I care because ultimately, No. 1, I'm going to one day answer to God on faithfulness of presenting what I consider a righteous earth stewardship ethic. No. 2, I'm extremely aware that I can have a positive or negative impact on the kind of world my grandchildren will inherit. And so on both counts, I'd better be Johnny-on-the-spot and be faithful to the little bit of knowledge that I've been blessed with. I'm not just doing a job here, I'm trying to encourage us all to do our part here to heal the planet.