Joel Salatin, America's Most Influential Farmer, Talks Big Organic and the Future of Food
Joel Salatin is a self-described environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer, or as the New York Times calls him, "the high priest of the pasture." You may remember him from The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which he was profiled at length by Michael Pollan. Salatin's innovative farming system—where the animals live according to their "ness," the earth is used for symbiosis, and happiness and health is key—has gained attention from around the country, and he travels in the winter giving lectures and demonstrations. He is the author of a number of books including Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, You Can Farm, Pastured Poultry Profit$, and Family Friendly Farming. I talked to Joel Salatin about how he got started farming, his appearance in the new film Food, Inc., the government's role in farm politics, and his ideas on the future of food. Suffice it to say, it's not as simple as conventional vs. organic.Makenna Goodman: How did you go from being a farmer in Swoope, Virginia, to a public figure in the food movement? You have written many books on this topic, so feel free to give the short version!
Joel Salatin: From my earliest memories, I loved the farm. My grandfather was a charter subscriber to Rodale's Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine and had a huge, well kept garden with an octagonal chicken house in the corner. My great uncle raised chickens commercially and some of my fondest childhood memories are of seeing his thousands of chickens out on the field. He began building confinement houses too, and those were stinky. Dad had the same farming bug, but he was an incredible innovator and right when he was poised to be a successful farmer in Venezuela, it was snatched away from him during political upheavals and I don't think he ever really recovered, since he was 40 at the time. But he and Mom returned to the states with their little children (I was 4) and started over. As an accountant, Dad saw the vicious treadmill farmers were on, even in 1961, with chemicals and practices that encouraged disease. He immediately found grass farming, controlled grazing, composting, portable structures, and all the basic principles that undergird our farm today. I am only an extension of having gone down a very different path than most farmers, and I thank my roots for that. So I don't have a modern conversion story--I'm as lunatic as Dad was, except he and Mom gave Teresa and I a head start with raw land, good philosophy, and a can-do spirit in a fairly politically stable environment.
I inherited Mom's verbal skills, and participated in forensics and essay contests in elementary school--and won every essay contest I ever entered. I would write stories for fun and had a theatrical flare--played lead in the high school drama presentations. The point is that combining my dramatic and verbal charisma with completely innovative farming practices (at least innovative to what was practiced at the time) created a highly marketable product surrounded by a warm, fuzzy story. Throughout high school I peddled my eggs, had a vendor stand at the local curb market, precursor to today's farmers' markets, and competed in 4-H contests and interscholastic debate. All I wanted to do was farm, but like so many aspiring wanna-be young farmers, I couldn't see how to make a living on the farm--at least enough to support a family and live more than at a subsistence level. The only real way in, it appeared, was to milk a few cows and sell the milk, but that was illegal. And I don't think I've forgiven the government yet for denying me that early farming entry point.
But as it turned out, Teresa's frugality and my tenacity (or foolhardiness) created a way to be on the farm full time for one year. I quit the off farm newspaper reporter job and came home Sept. 24, 1982, fully expecting to go back off-farm for another cash accumulation stint, but I never had to. It was tight, but wonderful. My marketing savvy (which is really another name for theatrical skills) paid off as we began selling direct to consumers, bypassing the middleman and getting retail sales prices. The grass-based, portable infrastructure, compost nutrient cycling, and Aha! dining experiences worked. Within four years we knew we could make it. Within seven years, journalists began to discover us. And the rest is history. I have been incredibly blessed to be able to combine this love of calloused hands with dramatic and verbal skills. And that is why I promote direct marketing. Too often parents whose children express an interest in farming squelch it because they envision dirt, dust, poverty, and hermit living. But great stories come out of great farming.
MG: In your opinion, what's the biggest problem with the food industry in the U.S.?
JS: Wow, where do I start? Number one is that it destroys soil. Absolutely and completely. The soil is the only thread upon which civilization can exist, and it's such a narrow strip around the globe if a person could ever realize that our existence depends on literally inches of active aerobic microbial life on terra firma, we might begin to appreciate the ecological umbilical to which we are all still attached. The food industry, I'm convinced, actually believes we don't need soil to live. That we are more clever than that.
And that brings me to the second major problem: hubris. The food industry views everything through the skewed paradigm of faith in human cleverness rather than dependence on nature's design. the difference is expressed in many ways, from parts to wholes, from manipulative dominion to nurturing, from worshiping techno-glitzy to honoring wise traditions and indigenous knowledge. But this hubris seems to relish the fact that we can irradiate food to sterilize poop, rather than slowing the processing down enough that we can wash the poop off before it gets in the food.
Which opens up the next big problem: safe food. And this runs the gamut from nutrition to outright danger. The food industry actually believes that feeding your children Twinkies, Cocoa Puffs and Mountain Dew is safe, but drinking raw milk and eating compost-grown tomatoes is dangerous. The industrial food system depends on dredging up horror stories from the early 1900s as food was just industrializing and rural electrification, stainless steel, and sanitation understanding were not available to continue demonizing, marginalizing, and criminalizing back-to-heritage foods in the modern day. Using its political clout, industrial food is waging war on local, nutrient dense foods as surely as the U.S. Cavalry hunted down native Americans earlier in our culture's history. A people, who by the way, only wanted to be left alone and who were routinely labeled barbarians and worse from the earliest days of our country.
Which brings me to the final point: disrespect of the inherent uniqueness of the living world. Industrial food never asks whether the pig is happy. the pig-ness of the pig never enters the conversation. It's all about fatter, faster, bigger, cheaper. And a culture that views its life from such an arrogant, manipulative, disrespectful hubris, will view its own citizenry the same way--and other cultures. We cannot return to traditional nutrient density until we respect soil microflora and pigs for what they are and do in the system. Bringing this level of respect to the table is the foundation for a moral and ethical society. The industrial food system perhaps more fully than any other aspect of our culture expresses unabashed greedy pride.