Joel Salatin: a Beyond Organic Local Food Activist

The local food movement has steadily gained ground since its beginnings in the 1970s, and Virginia farmer Joel Salatin has become one of its biggest movers.
By Megan Phelps
August/September 2009
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Joel Salatin and his family walk the walk, raising pastured livestock at Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA as part of a longstanding commitment to local food.
PHOTO: RICHARD JEONG
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Joel Salatin is a farmer at the forefront of the return to local food and grass-fed meat. He's best known for his innovative techniques for raising and selling grass-fed meat, his books and articles about farming, and for being outspoken about government regulations that make life difficult for small farmers. His most recent book is Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front.

Hold on to your hat! Here are Salatin's candid thoughts on government regulations, vegetarians, the organic food industry, and making money at farming.

Tell us a little about Polyface Farm.

We're located eight miles southwest of Staunton, VA, in the Shenandoah Valley on 550 acres (100 open and 450 forest). We also lease four farms, totaling an additional 900 acres of pasture. We sell "salad bar" (grass-fed) beef, pastured pork, pastured poultry (both broilers and turkeys, as well as eggs) and forage-based rabbits.

Your livestock and poultry are “grass-fed,” and your farm is “beyond organic.” Do you find people are familiar with those terms?

Public awareness is definitely up. In the 1970s, when I was selling grass-finished beef and pastured poultry, nobody had even heard of the word "organic," much less "grass-finished." Now, thanks to best-selling authors such as Jo Robinson and Michael Pollan, the awareness is huge.

Also, more and more people are aware of the compromise and adulteration within the government-sanctioned organic-certified community. They're weary of hearing about 6,000-hen confinement laying houses with a 3-foot dirt strip being labeled as "certified organic," and our patrons latch on to the "beyond organic" idea. It resonates with their disappointment over the government program. For instance, when Horizon battles to keep its organic-certified industrial-scale dairies, consumer confidence falls.

Intuitively, people understand that the historical use of the word "organic" identified an idea and a paradigm rather than a visceral list of do’s and don'ts. And now that the high prices have attracted unscrupulous growers who enter the movement for the money, people realize no system can regulate integrity. That is why we have a 24-hour-a-day, 7 -day-a-week, 365-day-a-year open-door policy. Anyone is welcome to visit Polyface Farm at any time to see anything, anywhere. Integrity can only be assured with this level of transparency.

When someone asks if we're certified organic, we respond playfully: "Why would we want to stop there? We go beyond organic." That response generally leads to an info-dense discussion, and people come away with renewed awareness, rather than just another case of hardening of the categories.

When did you decide you wanted to be a farmer?

As early as I can remember, I've wanted to be a farmer. I love growing things. I appreciate the emotional steadiness of animals. Every day when I go to move the cow herd, they're glad to see me. And to watch the land heal, with ever-growing mounds of earthworm castings, is better than any video. Indeed, walking through a dew-speckled pasture in the early morning after a blessed nighttime thunderstorm, the ground literally covered with copulating earthworms — what could be more magical than that?

I had my own laying hen flock at 10 years old, pedaling eggs on my bicycle to neighbors, selling them to families in church. The fast-paced, frenzied urban life disconnected from the ponds, the trees, and the pasture never held much allure for me. Go away? Why? Where? I think I was planted here. I think God tends my soul here. It's not for everyone, but it satiates my soul with wonder and gratitude.

What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced as a farmer?

Anyone familiar with me would have to smile at this question, knowing my answer would be the "food police." The on-farm hurdles we've faced, from drought to predators to flood to cash flow, are nothing compared to the emotional, economic, and energy drain caused by government bureaucrats. Even in the early 1970s when I was a young teen operating a farmstand, the government said I couldn't sell milk. The first business plan I came up with to become a full-time farmer centered on milking 10 cows and selling the milk to neighbors at regular retail supermarket prices. It would have been a nice living, but it's illegal. In fact, in 2007, I finally wrote Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, documenting my run-ins with government officials.

I think it's amazing that in a country that promotes the freedom to own firearms, freedom to worship and freedom of speech, we don't have the freedom to choose our own food. If I can't choose the proper fuel to feed my body, I won't have energy to go shoot, preach, and pray anyway. Half of the alleged "food" in the supermarket is really dangerous to your health. In fact, if we removed all the food items in the supermarket that would not have been available before 1900, the shelves would be bare. Gone would be all the unpronounceable gobbledy-syllabic industrial additives, irradiated, GMO, cloned pseudo-food.

As the food police have demonized and criminalized neighbor-to-neighbor food commerce, the food system has become enslaved by the industrial food fraternity. And just around the corner is the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), which will annihilate thousands of non-industrial farms under the guise of food safety and biosecurity. We don't need programs; we need freedom. If we really had freedom, farmers like me would run circles around the corporate-welfare, food adulterated, land-abusing industrial farms.

What should people know about the meat they buy from you? What should we all know about the meat we eat?

The main idea we promote is that our animals enjoy a habitat that allows them to express fully their physiological distinctiveness. I like to say we want our pigs to express their "pigness" and the chickens to express their "chickenness." The industrial food system views plants and animals as inanimate protoplasmic structures to be manipulated. But herbivores in nature do not eat dead cows, chicken manure, dead chickens, grain, or silage — they eat fresh or dried forage. Here at Polyface, our cattle can forage. What's neat is that empirical data is discovering the nutritional and ecological benefits of this approach. We're reading about omega-3 and omega-6 balance, conjugated linoleic acid, polyunsaturated fats, and riboflavin. Whenever a new laboratory confirmation of our philosophy hits the news, we make sure our patrons know about it. In a word, this is all about healing — healing our bodies, healing our economies, healing our communities, healing our families, healing the landscape. If it's not healing, it's not appropriate.

Because it's such a hot topic, let me address the cow/global warming argument. Every bit of the alleged science linking methane and cows to global warming is predicated on annual cropping, feedlots, and herbivore abuse. America has traded vast herds of bison that require no petroleum, machinery, or fertilizer to produce meat, for feedlots full of beef cattle that require all of that, and we think we're efficient. Without question, grass-finished,

"mob-stocked" beef (also known as managed intensive rotational grazing) is the most effective way to heal the planet. We should drastically drop our chicken and pork consumption and return to our indigenous, climate-appropriate protein source: perennial forages turned into red meat and milk.

Do vegetarians ever challenge you about raising meat?

I will answer this in two parts. The first has to do with the people who think a fly is a chicken is a child is a cat — what I call the cult of animal worship. This would include the people who think we've evolved beyond the barbaric practice of killing animals to some cosmic nirvana state where killing is a thing of the past.

Rather than indicating a new state of evolutionary connectedness, it actually shows a devolutionary state of disconnectedness. A Bambi-ized culture in which the only human-animal connection is a pet soon devolves into jaundiced foolishness. This philosophical foray into a supposed brave new world is really a duplicitous experiment into the anti-indigenous. This is why we enjoy having our patrons come out and see the animals slaughtered. Actually; the 7- to 12-year old children have no problem slitting throats, while their parents cower inside their hybrid car listening to "All Things Considered." Who is really facing life here? The chickens don't talk or sign petitions. We honor them in life, which is the only way we earn the right to ask them to feed us — like the mutual respect that occurs between the Cape buffalo and the lion. With these people, I don't argue. This is a religion and I pretty much leave it alone.

The second part of this answer deals with folks who don't eat meat in order to vote against pathogenicity, animal abuse, or concentrated animal feeding operations. To be sure, many of these folks have bought into the argument that environmental degradation is inherent in livestock farming. But to these people, Polyface is a ray of hope. When people find out that raising grass-based livestock is the most efficacious approach to planetary health, their guilt typically gives way to compensatory indulgence. After all, they have to make up for lost time! These people routinely become our best customers.

You've made it a general principle not to ship anything. What are some of the ways you sell your products?

Yes, we have three marketing venues. On-farm sales still account for 30 percent of our total sales. We have public hours, 9 to 4 every Saturday, and our simple sales building contains scales, freezers, and counters to handle these customers.

Restaurant/retail we lump together because we deliver to them on Thursdays and Fridays every week and they pay about the same prices — it's a bit of a volume discount. We service about 25 upscale restaurants and about 10 retail venues, primarily specialty, foodie-type businesses. We now also provide meat for one fast food establishment: the Charlottesville branch of the national Chipotle chain. This has been a huge undertaking for both of us, but heralds a new awareness of local and ecologically sound food. These venues account for 30 percent of our sales.

Our metropolitan buying clubs grew serendipitously out of quarterly on-farm sales. Three Maryland patrons asked us to deliver to their area for all their friends who would not make the trek to the farm. This has grown to 20 drop points, and we deliver to them eight times per year. This venue now accounts for 40 percent of our annual sales.

It's the ultimate marketing below the radar, and it keeps us out of the supermarket, with its slotting fees, red tape, and tardy invoice payments. We also don't have to deal with farmers market commissions, rules, product speculation or politics.

You work with young farmers through your farm apprenticeship program. What are some of the biggest challenges you think new farmers will have to face?

The first and greatest challenge is experience — how to do more with less and how to solve problems creatively rather than with something purchased.

Land is more available now than it has been in decades. With half of America's farmland set to change hands in the next 15 years due to aging farmers, a lot of this land will be available for management at extremely modest cost, owned by family members who aren't ready to sell, or by new e-boom buyers able to afford to buy.

I think the opportunities are practically unprecedented. We had an apprentice leave two years ago, and within three months had offers for 1,000 acres to manage in New York — at virtually no cost except to use it and keep it aesthetically and aromatically romantic. That's what healing farming is all about, and why it has so much potential.

What landlord wants a Tyson chicken house built on his or her farm? But all of them love a pastoral setting, especially the ability to entertain their city business partners with grass-finished steaks on the porch overlooking your herd of cows. The problem is that our culture tells bright, bushy-tailed young people that farming is for backward, D-student, tobacco-chewing, trip-over-the-transmission-in-the-frontyard, redneck Bubbas.

When was the last time you heard a group of parents bragging? Ever hear one say, "Well, you can have your doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers. My kid is going to grow up and be a farmer." Ever hear that? Not on your life. The biggest obstacle is emotional — overcoming the cultural prejudice against splinters and blisters. That is why I talk about economics and marketing, along with the mystical, artistic elements of the farm. Yes, it's a lot of work. But what a great office. What a noble life. What a sacred calling.

Joel Salatin farms and writes at Polyface Farms in Swoope, VA. His books include You Can Farm, Holy Cows & Hog Heaven and Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front.


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