Joel Salatin, America's Most Influential Farmer, Talks Big Organic and the Future of Food
MG: You're prominently featured in Food, Inc., a new film that lifts the veil on our nation's food industry, along with writers Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. On the film's website, they call you a "forward thinking social entrepreneur." Can you explain what they're talking about?
JS: Look at the previous answer. Ha! If my thinking were normal, it would completely relocate all the bastions of economic, political, and social power in our culture. Just imagine if people began discovering their kitchens again, and if the average household instead of popping irradiated amalgamated prostituted reconstituted, adulterated, modified and artificially flavored extruded bar coded un-pronounceable things into the microwave, actually prepared whole foods for all-down-together family meals. It's not normal for a culture to eat things it can't pronounce and that it can't make in its own kitchens. Ever try making corn syrup. Or red dye 29? If we quit feeding cows corn, and practiced mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization, 70 percent of the world's arable land could return to perennial prairie polycultures building soil and sequestering carbon. That would completely destroy the power of the grain cartel, the multi-national corporations, petroleum usage. If every surburban--or urban, for that matter--lot and mega-yard became an edible landscape, supermarkets would be gone. I don't have a vendetta against these institutions, but I do think that the world we currently live in is a veritable blip, an abnormality cyst, in the continuum of human history. Chances are in the distant if not near future our food system will be more decentralized, localized, and in-home prepared than it is right now. And that looks a lot more like the food system of 1800 than the one of 2009.
MG: You refused to ship your meat across the country to Michael Pollan when he was writing The Omnivore's Dilemma. You told him, if he wanted to try one of your steaks, he'd have to come visit. What's so important about buying your food from farmers nearby?
JS: I am tired of traveling all across North America and finding that in every locality, only 5 percent of the food consumed there is grown there. Meanwhile, food being grown there ends up in some other community which is experiencing the same low percentage. This is not about production capacity; it is about corporate welfarism, sweetheart regulatory deals, and a host of other societal and economic weeds. Not the least of which is this unquestioned assumption that every business worth its salt must have a global marketing mentality. I see it in organics. I see it in every aspect of our business climate. Remember, cancer is growth. Growth in and of itself is neither healthy nor noble. And so as I've searched for noble goals for our farm, I've found great freedom in being liberated from competing with farmers outside my bioregion. I don't have to wrestle with how to ship steaks across the country. I don't have to wrestle with how to get 500 pounds of ground beef to a college in New York. I am freed from all that hassle. Ultimately, clarifying our market and defining our product has helped us stay focused on our ministry. Businesses that refuse to acknowledge the moral and ethical dimensions of their growth paradigms with eventually prostitute themselves joining Wall Street. And I've been terribly disappointed to see fledgling organic businesses and farmers who grew up on Mother Earth News and Wendell Berry allow themselves to get sucked in when someone dangles that economic carrot out there. Because the temptation is so great, we must take preemptive action, perhaps a business vaccination, against such business thinking. One thing it proved, though, is that if you truly hold to your convictions, the world will rise to meet you. The world is still starved for people who operate by non-negotiables--that's a romantically intriguing notion that is hard to find in our world.
MG: Is your meat organic? What are your thoughts on certification?
JS: We don't participate in any government program. We are beyond organic. Organic is a non-comprehensive term--it does not define many variables. Goodness, you can grow certified organic carrots using seed that you produced yourself, bought from a seed saver, or acquired from the other side of the planet. The soil can be fertilized with on-farm generated compost and manure or bags and jugs of concoctions created in industrial factories. You can prepare the soil by double digging, tractor tilling, or carpet mulching like permaculture. You can weed those carrots with plastic mulch, by hand, propane flamers. You can pick those tomatoes yourself, with family labor, or non-community labor. And this is nowhere near the variables just in raising carrots. And in livestock the allowable variables are even more than with plants. Most organic eggs in this country are raised in factory houses. Ditto meat birds. Cornucopia project and other watchdog groups have had to routinely sue the USDA to get enforcement of the National Organic Standards. I don't trust the government as far as I can throw a bull by the tail--and that's not very far. Why in the world would people who spent a lifetime castigating the USDA for its unabashed promotion of industrial food give it the authority to regulate honest food? This is called intellectual schizophrenia.
I first realized the fallacy of organic certification in around 1990 when I realized our pastured chickens could be certified organic if we purchased certified feed from 1,000 miles away but since we didn't have any local organic grain growers, buying my grain locally eliminated the certification chances. In my opinion, patronizing my neighbor so he doesn't get discouraged and sell to a strip mall is certainly as environmentally sensible as bathing my grains in transport diesel fuel and exporting my dollars outside the neighborhood just so I could claim organic purity.
MG: Have you ever considered selling your meat to a larger organic or all-natural company, who will then get your food onto supermarket shelves? If not, why not?
JS: Yes, we have considered it. And we have sent beef and pork via Sysco to Virginia Tech. We are currently supplying the Charlottesville Chipotle Mexican Grill with their boneless pork, beef soon to come. We have found Whole Foods completely untrustworthy. When the founder of the company practices grossly unscrupulous business procedures to grow the empire (like spreading rumors to drive down stock prices of competitors he wants to buy) that translates to completely unscrupulous practices on down the line. The biggest impediment to marketing in these venues is not about production, but about liability insurance. They generally want $3 million product liability and I don't know any companies willing to underwrite that for small farms, and especially for farms that use some heritage-based procedures, like open air slaughter or indigenous smokehouses. I think the supermarket is an inherently disconnected food distribution system. And because of its opaqueness and disconnection, it is simply a model that is incompatible with non-industrial food. Rather than trying to tweak it to make it compatible, I think we'd get much farther ahead to just scrap it and invent something better. And that is not necessarily farmers' markets, even though I'm a big fan of them. The problem is that they require a special trip, only open certain times, and deny customers many of life's staples: like milk, meat, and poultry. We need local collaboration and friendly regulations to make the new animal appear. We have an on-farm store. But we can't sell a neighbor's extra pumpkins without all the requirements of a Walmart. As soon as we sell a neighbor's pumpkins in our farm store, we need an inspected building, commercial zoning, handicapped parking, public restrooms, etc. and etc. These are the kinds of things that are artificially and capriciously holding back integrity food, and I would much rather push to overturn these asinine restrictions than figure out how t o crack the supermarket barrier.
That said, we gladly sell to anyone who wants to pay our price. We're even glad to sell to entities who want to put their label on our product. We are completely open to venues that do not adulterate our core values. Fledgling locally based distribution entities are cropping up all over the country, all internet based, and I think that is wonderful. None of us knows yet what tomorrow's economically and environmentally friendly farm-to-fork channel looks like. But it probably does not look like today's conventional supermarket. In the end, a supermarket is still just a supermarket, whether it's called Whole Foods or Kroger.
MG: Wal-Mart now sells organic food, which some say is a huge step in the right direction. They argue the best method to changing our corrupt food system is to convert all large-scale conventional, factory, mechanized farms into other large-scale ones with a sustainable, organic model. Do you agree?
JS: This all sounds genuine enough, but every outfit that walks through that door prostitutes its mission a little. It justifies the inner changes, whether it's Horizon Organics purchasing heifers from industrial dairies to supplement its own non-pastured confinement operations or the turkey farm I know that used to supply pastured turkeys to Whole Foods and then went to confinement housing because "nobody cares anyway." We're all too familiar with exceptional small business that grew up to be ho-hum big ones. Again, I find it amazing that so many people who have lambasted Wal-Mart from a local economy perspective suddenly flip-flop when executives visit them on their farm and promise them the world. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The fact is that each of us must choose, daily, where to invest our time, creativity, and money to effect the changes we want in society. The trick is to find the greatest reaction for the least input. I suggest that aiding and abetting Walmart is a fundamentally flawed exercise if your goal is localization, decentralizing, integrity, transparency, and triple bottom line accounting. Walmart business models do not include the question: "Does this make more earthworms or fewer?" A few pennies tossed to environmental organizations do not make a company green. I think there are such things are righteousness and evil, and it's best to identify which is which before you get sucked in to collaborating with something that will betray you. I don't think industrial organics is really any better than industrial anything else. When Organic Valley pulled out of Walmart because of the price and production pressure being exerted on that coop, I couldn't have been prouder of them. I like folks who practice true-blue beliefs rather than expedient casuistry.
MG: I'm a beginner farmer in a rural area. I want to make enough money to keep my farm sustainable, my animals happy, and my food nutritious and delicious. If I stay small, am I making a difference?
JS: Never apologize for being small. Small is relative, anyway. Many would say that Polyface [Salatin's farm], with sales now exceeding $1.5 million annually, is no longer a small company. But plenty of room exists before we become a Cargill or Tyson. Trust me. Small business still represents the lion's share of all employment and business in America. The Fortune 500 companies are only a few percent of American business. We all have a skewed perspective of things because the big businesses are the ones that buy the most expensive and highly visible advertising. Why do they do that? Because their product, service, or idea are not big enough to capture customers by sheer extraordinariness. I think generally an inverse relationship exists between glitzy packaging and quality, advertising budgets and quality. The Jeffersonian ideal of the agrarian intellectual is about as culturally American as it gets--and I suggest as revolutionary today as it was in his day, when breaking from royalty and all its worldviews was as different as breaking from globalization, and its worldviews is today.
MG: How can we best trust what's in our food?
JS: Know your farmer. Turn off--or get rid of--the TV, and spend the next year turning all your recreational, educational, info-tainment time and energy into a treasure hunt in your locality to find integrity food. It exists everywhere. Put down the can of soda, get up off the sofa, and go put as much effort into finding trustworthy food as you would into finding a good church fellowship or music concert. The shorter the chain of custody between field and fork, the easier it is to establish trustworthiness. Buy only from entities you trust. If increased sales are part of the business' goals, don't buy from them, because they have a predisposition to increase volume. If visits are carefully choreographed, don't trust them. All of our animal rations, infrastructure, and farm fields are open to anyone anytime anywhere to see anything. Transparency is the only way to ensure trust.
MG: On a different note...many farmers work nonstop. You have managed to be a writer alongside farming—another profession that never seems to see an end point! With all this, is leisure time important to stay sustainable? If so, how do you chill out?
JS: I love to visit with people. Whether it's family, my grandchildren, neighbors, or the many visitors who stop by the farm, visiting with people is my personal enrichment time. I like what I learn from other people, especially when they come from other cultures. And of course I enjoy telling stories to people who are interested. We have structured our farm so that chores require no more than 4 hours a day. Dad always said if you're doing chores more than 4 hours a day, you will burn out because no time is left for progress and dreaming. We do work some long hours, but they come in spurts. Chores are every day. I am a Type A person, love my work and vocation, so it's nature I'd be more energized in it than someone who works in a Dilbert cubicle shuffling information for some global conglomerate. My work is my joy, the ultimate expression of my Joelness. I'm blessed to be able to straddle lots of variety, with the farm, with marketing, with theatrics, and with writing. I love them all, but not any one to the exclusion of the others. I write mostly in the winter, and I write fast. I cogitate for a long time and when I finally do sit down to crank out a bunch, it's stream-of-consciousness that comes out as fast as I can get words on paper. And I do type fast--to the consternation of my public school guidance counselor who I sent into double apoplectic seizures--once when I trade physics for typing, and secondly when I traded my gifted brain to become a farmer. What tragic losses indeed.
When the crush of people gets to be too much, I especially enjoy just walking over the farm and dreaming. About a rock garden here, a pond there, a vineyard over at that spot. I've developed this place a hundred different ways over the half century I've lived here, and it's always changing. I love to read, and have been known to pull all-nighters if I get hooked on a really good book. Is that enough?
MG: Do you think even organic companies, if they get big enough, can become in danger of marginalizing small farms?
JS: The only way a big business can be detriment to small business, in my opinion, is when it creates for itself special government sweetheart deals prejudiced against competition. For example, rBGH, the bovine growth hormone debacle of a decade ago, could have been the catalyst to dismantle the industrialized confinement dairy industry were it not for government regulations that a prejudiced against small scale producers. The day anyone can buy or sell raw milk--or pasteurized milk, for that matter--directly between producer and consumer will be the day industrial dairies die. But the industry, in collusion with bureaucrats, amasses all kinds of restrictive paperwork and regulation that is too costly for small entities to do. If you don't believe me, just try selling some homemade egg noodles from you kitchen to the families in your church. See how long it takes before the food Nazis show up at your door with a cease and desist order. The only reason I've been able to get as far as I have with pastured poultry--as an agricultural movement--is because of the PL90-492 Producer Grower exemption that allowed us to home process these birds and start as a prototype. All innovation requires prototypes. And by definition, prototypes must be small so they can be modified, and so that they don't jeopardize the mother ship if they sink. These regulations require that prototypes be so big in order to be birthed that the embryo is too big to be birthed. Domestic terrorism that dashes entrepreneurial dreams on the one hand, and denies eaters freedom of food choice.
MG: In the future, will there be room for both small farms and big organic companies…or is real revolution achieved in just one or the other?
JS: Again, some folks would say we're pretty big. I think size is not as important as attitude. Do you have an exclusive or inclusive mentality. By that I mean are you trying to squelch the competition or do you think there's enough water to float the boats of all comers? Red flags to notice what kind of attitude a business has are words like market share analysis, trademarks, and fancy packaging. I think the room is big enough to accommodate all comers, and appreciate whenever someone with integrity comes to the table. If I can't be innovative to preserve my own business with more copycats coming along, then apparently I don't deserve to stay in business. So I promise not to picket the WTO or dump manure on McDonald's parking lot or write nasty letters to Stonyfield Farm and Ben and Jerry's. In exchange, you guys let me sell raw milk from my farm, unlabeled homemade ice cream to my neighbors, and yogurt in un-inspected jars to my church friends. How about that?