Everything He Wants to Do is Illegal

What should you know about food, farming and the meat you eat? Farmer and writer Joel Salatin sounds off on government regulations, pasture-based farming and more.

| Oct. 1, 2008

Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin raises pastured poultry and grass-fed beef at Polyface Farms in Swoope, Va.


Joel Salatin is a farmer at the forefront of the trend toward local food and grass-fed meat. Many people first became familiar with Salatin’s complex and eco-minded approach to farming when he was featured in Michael Pollan’s bestselling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But Salatin also is well known within pasture-based farming and libertarian circles. He’s especially vocal about government regulations that make life difficult for the small farmer — his most recent book is titled Everything I Want to Do is Illegal. He’s also the author of You Can Farm and Holy Cows and Hog Heaven (excerpted here in Mother Earth News). Salatin kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about Polyface Farms. Hold onto your hat! Here are Salatin’s candid thoughts on government regulations, high grain prices, vegetarians and making money at farming.

Grass Fed and Beyond Organic

Tell us a little bit 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; “pigaerator” pork; pastured poultry, both broilers and turkeys; pastured 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? 
More and more people are aware of the compromise and adulteration within the government-sanctioned organic certified community. Weary of 6,000-hen confinement laying houses with 3 feet dirt strip being labeled “certified organic,” patrons latch onto the “beyond organic” idea. It resonates with their disappointment over the government program. When Horizon battles Cornucopia, for instance, 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 dos and don’ts. And now that the high prices have attracted unscrupulous growers who enter the movement for the money, people realize that 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 at anytime 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.

How has the public’s attitude toward your products changed in the last few years? Do you find it easier to sell grass-fed meat now?
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 New York Times bestselling authors like Jo Robinson and Michael Pollan, the awareness is huge.

9/7/2010 6:48:44 PM

(Continued) I knew something wasn't right, something had to change. So after much turmoil I went and read up on the "evil" Weston Price website. When I overcame the conditioned reflex of disgust at the notion of eating an animal, (an actual living moving KICKING SCREAMING animal!) the message, the studies, the data, all began to make sense. I've only been eating meat for the past 4 months, and I already feel more energetic as opposed to the old lethargy; my health checkups have been looking up as well. My mom even said I'm "glowing with health," now looking at photos from the past years, I have to agree. The weight is coming down as well, slow and steady. The things Salatin say are true, but he is also a good salesman/preacher, so the way his message comes across might turn some people off. The best we can do for the animals is to let them express their nature; and the best we can do for ourselves is to allow ourselves to express our own nature, and always be thankful. Some recommended reading: http://www.westonaprice.org The Omnivore's Dilemma *The Vegetarian Myth (eating plants won't stop animals from dying, organic does not equal to humane treatment of animals, etc. important, terrible things.)

9/7/2010 6:17:18 PM

To all the angry vegetarian/vegans here, I've been a vegetarian for the past QUARTER of my life, and my health has been on the decline for most of it. The first few months I felt great, with all the crap clearing out of my system on a diet of plant-only foods. But it was because ANY diet, even one devoid of all traces of animal-nutrients, is better than the typical way of eating for the average American like myself. My mother became increasingly worried and commented on how "greenish yellow" I appeared, but i just ignored her and went my own way; after all, my conscience is all clear that no animal had to suffer a hellish existence to provide for me. Now I'm was not ignorant of the basic nutritional needs of a human body, I have taken several courses in human anatomy, nutrition, and sports nutrition, so I was convinced that I've been giving my body all it needs to function properly. How wrong I was. Even with all the spinach and supplements I was shoving in my mouth my iron count was dropping like a dead body. I also needed more protein even though I was eating about 50% more than required, through lentils, beans, grains, and mostly soy. I work out frequently, at least 5 days out of 7, but my muscles just refuse to grow. That didn't stop the waistline from growing though; in the past 5 years alone my middle expanded by 8 inches. My growth also stunted right when I "came clean."

Olive Farmer
8/4/2009 1:14:56 AM

Lovely article. I farm olive organically here in Crete where olives have been farmed this way for 4,000 years. My blog www.olivefarmercrete.blogspot.com (not commercial) deals with the soul as well as the soil.

7/25/2009 3:57:43 PM

As much as I respect Salatin's approach to raising animals humanely in their natural environment and his goal to treat them with respect, I found some major faults with his viewpoints on other issues. As a strict vegan (and a person who's health was completely turned around when I became a vegan 5 years ago), I was disgusted at his comments regarding vegetarians. I would not call the belief that all life is sacred a "cult of animal worship", far from it. A living being is a living being, capable of feeling pain and fear and worthy of our respect and compassion. I find his depiction of 7 year olds gladly slitting animals throats disturbing. Obviously we are raising children in a culture in which animals are seen as hamburgers and chicken nuggets and not as sentient beings with their own worth, emotions, and intelligence. And we wonder why the news is filled with stories of children who torture and dismember cats, dogs, and other animals. I also thought that Salatin's views clashed with Mother Earth's (and even Salatin's own supposed) support of the environment when he dissed parents "cowering in their hybrid cars". This man's vocabulary seems to be based in stereotyping all who might disagree with his views. I'm not a militant vegan who refuses to associate with meat-eaters, and I admire those who work to bring humane, environmentally-sound practices to raising animals used for food. But I do not respect people who resort to name-calling and exaggeration in an attempt to ridicule and discredit anyone with opposing views. I was excited to read this interview because I thought that a man who strived to raise animals humanely and sustainably would be someone who could help cool off the sometimes heated debate between meat-eaters and vegetarians. However, I was greatly disappointed at his old-fashioned, narrow-minded, and hateful comments toward a responsible, admirable, and environmentally conscious lifesty

Rachel _1
1/10/2009 11:20:52 AM

Great article! I am concerned, however, that the newest offensive against our sustainability as gardeners and farmers is the idea of "owning structure"; that is, land being owned and operated by corporate structures and investors with no regard for anything beyond money. Has anyone taken a look at this article? Thanks for a "light" at the end of a very scary tunnel! "Food Is Gold, and Investors Pour Billions Into Farming," The New York Times, June 5, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/05/business/05farm.html?_r=1

1/4/2009 10:24:20 PM

Joel Salatin, I hope I get to meet you one day, you're great. I laughed, I cried, I took notes, what a great inteview. I wish farmers didn't need to be mavericks, but from the sound of your journey, they need to be. Meanwhile, my relatives in Indiana are being paid by this great government of ours NOT to farm their land. How that program still exists is beyond words.

10/16/2008 2:47:50 AM

This guy is my new hero! I stumbled on this article while doing research for an orchard I am planning. This is EXACTLY the kind of information that people in this country need to hear. Processed agrifoods need to be wiped out and replaced by small farms! And believe me, the "food police" are very real. Do a little homework on the NAIS animal ID system that Salatin mentioned, and you will discover that it is an orchestrated effort to wipe out small family farms. I also could relate a story about how an undercover USDA "cop" entrapped a local farmer, and it nearly cost him his dairy license -- yes, you need a license to milk cows! Only direct intervention by a state legislator and intense public pressure saved the farmer. For those of you who dispute what Salatin says, I challenge you to re-examine your own ways of thinking, and how what you have been taught in school, heard from media sources and otherwise "learned" has shaped your thinking/beliefs. And please, some of you, set aside your "too smart for religion" prejudices! Last time I checked, it is not yet illegal to be a Christian! Also note that he did not generalize all vegetarians. Actually, to the contrary. I have 38 beautiful acres in Holmes County, Ohio that we purchased from family two years ago. I am taking a lot of time and doing a lot of research as I make my plans to become a farmer. What I have discovered is there is a huge groundswell of both producers and consumers who are latching on to the truths that Salatin speaks. We need to listen to people who are willing to say the emperor has no clothes, rather than trying to maintain/boost an agri-system that is slowly poisoning our population! P.S. I subscribe to an excellent publication called "Hobby Farms" that addresses a lot of the producer-based issues that outside-the-box small farmers face. I think many Mother Earth News readers would enjoy it as much as I do.

10/12/2008 11:18:19 AM

I'm proud to say that I've been a vegetarian for 2 years now, and I don't miss meat at all. I don't need meat to be healthy, and in fact, I could lose a few pounds. My husband is a meat-eater (that hails from Hereford, Texas-the meat capital of the world), so I cook meat for him because I love him (and because he says he won't be a vegetarian). I choose not to consume any myself because of the inhumane industry that Mr. Salatin is fighting against. If all farms operated as well as his does, then I would maybe consider eating meat again. I don't think there is anything wrong exactly with eating cows, chickens, and pigs. I just don't like the way the industry treats them before, during, and after slaughter. Until something changes, I don't plan on eating meat ever again. Judging a vegetarian is like judging someone with brown hair. Everyone is different. I think his comments were uncalled-for and very narrow-minded. By the way, everyone I know of that tried a veg diet temporarily (for health reasons), felt great and loved having more energy.

BETTY Joseph_2
10/8/2008 6:34:29 PM

Congratulations on your "beyond organic" approach. My friend and I raise about 100 broilers & turkeys each year and do all of the processing ourselves. I only sell to close family/friends because of regulations in CA. My biggest problem is in pricing. How do you decide price per pound? CA feed prices are so high this year ($17.95-$20 per 50lb bag of turkey or broiler feed) and lack of rain there is not much natural grass. I let my chickens clean up after my Boer goats hay waste and feed flakes of alfalfa($15 p. bail) to my turkeys. Even though my meat, eggs & vegies are organic I would never go to the expense of being certified. I feel God has given me my six acres to be a steward of. Even though we are being swallowed up by city we are fighting to keep our rights to raise animals and even though I can only dream of 500 acres I am so thankful for what I have. Keep up the fight!!

Ted Cooper_1
10/7/2008 7:55:35 AM

First off I would like to compliment Joel Salatin on his humane going BEYOND ORGANIC methods of farming. Most interesting to myself, after the agriculture, was his thoughts and comments about FOOD CLUSTERS. For a number of years now I have been talking up what I refer to as SELF SUFFICIENT IDENTIFIABLE MARKETING NETWORKS. The concept started out as a unique and effective method of enhancing tourism revenues but with additional scrutiny it appeared more like a realistic survival plan. Joel mentions "CLUSTERS". My theory is based on "NETWORKS". Networks that once identified work towards self sufficiency through localized production of not just healthy food but other products as well. The experts agree that 2006 was the year of peak oil production. From here the price per barrel will only INCREASE as the supply diminishes. American food travels 1500 miles on average. Canadian food a whopping 5000 miles. Something has to change! Joel's FOOD CLUSTERS rings a bell ! South Dakota developed their INTERSTATE INFORMATION CENTERS. Thirteen focus communities located on their interstates have information centers that speak of that community plus the ameneties and communities within the surrounding area. Their tourist visitations have increased 29%. Cody Wyoming adopted the NETWORK theory and if you visit their site check out the DRIVING TOURS using Cody as the base. IF you take the NETWORK as displayed by Cody and superimpose that over South Dakota's interstate FOCUS communities the whole theory is explained. Then think of that identified network working towards SELF SUFFICIENCY and the network becomes a distribution route. In actual fact into that network you can plug in Joel's six components to make a whole: Production, Processing, Marketing, Accounting, Distribution, Customers. Makes a lot of sense. Joel Salatin ahead of his time! Ted Cooper.

10/2/2008 11:09:53 AM

ok on the veghead comments you know full well the ones he is discussing. when some people decide ' oh those poor animals' and solely cut meat out of their diet and waste away get anemia. it is a challenge. my self i hav know a self proclaimed vegan in leather preaching the evils of killing animals. we are omnivores and there are some nutrients that are rare to get from veggies. general health and weight is effected more by portion control than meat if you order meat other than 4 oz fillet mignon it is way too much. and it is not necessary to eat meat 3+ times a day every day. we seen the environmentalist drive up to the emmys/ what ever hollywood event in limos or SUVs. this magazine and org gardener do more good than 1 mil of the elitist snotty eviro-nuts i loved this article and would love to know how he gets away with no winter job and if he takes government farm subsities

10/1/2008 9:16:00 PM

Mikki, Salatin only offers on-farm internships to men because he only has one housing unit with shared bath and bed facilities. I believe he explains that on the site. It looks like on the polyfaceyum.com site that there are several female interns, so perhaps this has changed. I don't believe Joel to be a misogynist. I believe the women in his family participate in the farm operation in whatever way they choose to. To Gene and E.C. Sharpe, I believe the message is not for extremism but for everything in moderation, and I believe this is the key to Salatin's entire operation. The article describes natural diets for the various animals he raises. A natural diet for a human is omnivorous. It's why we are physically designed the way we are. Each human's balance point for equilibrium is different. Not everyone requires meat to be healthy. But the design is for a bit of everything.

Laurie in San Diego
10/1/2008 4:56:54 PM

Salatin's christianity is his reason for sounding so cultish and gender biased. It comes at no cost to him, however, for he is obviously "a great shmoozer" and responsible for hundreds if not thousands of people eating a more natural and healthier diet. That he irritates vegetarians and grows great eggs won't be what he is remembered for, but his middle-finger salute to governmental interference into our national food supply will be what makes him infamous. His farming methods should be taught to every person who raises animals for slaughter; from 4-H to university. Perhaps in 10 to 15 years as the remnants of us older humans raised on agrichemicals die from diseases tracked to industrial pollution of our food supply die off, our children, our future, will see that there is no (better) future with chemicals.

10/1/2008 1:05:07 PM

I have thought Joel Salatin was a nut for years. I am surprised to see him featured on something so "mainstream" as the Mother Earth News website. While he is undoubtedly a great farmer, his problems with government most likely stem from his interest in militias. I seem to remember him being banned from a farming forum for his contrary ways some time in the past. Maybe he has learned to play well with others.

10/1/2008 12:12:54 PM

I enjoy Mr.Salatin's ideas and his compassion for the animals he raises, I would ask him, however; why his website advertises: "An extremely intimate relationship, the apprenticeships offer young MEN the opportunity to live and work with the Salatin's." I am a woman, hoping to one day own a farm and raise food for my family. Why are the apprenticeships only open to men?? I would love to know Mr.Salatin's position on this, especially since Pollan's book "Omnivore's Dilemma" portrays Salatin and his son and several male apprentices doing farm work, while his wife and other women are only mentioned at dinner time- mainly in reference to the cooking. I hope I am wrong in my assumptions here...

10/1/2008 12:03:55 PM

I just recently read Mr. Salatin's book "Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal" and absolutely loved it. I am intrigued by the methods that he uses and that he is able to maintain a "beyond organic" farm in this day and age. His approach to land management is not only beneficial to the land but extremely humane to the animals which live off his land. If I am ever in the Swoope Virginia area, I would feel privileged to be able to visit the PolyFace farm.

10/1/2008 10:33:06 AM

continued... To Mr. Salatin, I would ask if he believes we should reduce our consumption of beef and if his economic model holds up to that.

10/1/2008 10:30:50 AM

Even though I have a few differences with Mr. Salatin, he comes across as very intelligent, articulate and sincere. His grasp of the issues is very progressive and a welcomed breath of fresh air and I agree wholeheartedly with his approach to the science of farming. I wish him great success as a model of farming policy here in the US. I had to wince at his portrayal of vegetarians but I understand firsthand that there are zealots in every pursuit and he was right not to pursue those of religious fervor. I do think that vegetarians should not be dismissed as a group though. Some vegetarians, such as my wife, have come to believe that we as a species no longer need to take the lives of other living animals to survive. When our daughter was born, my wife left her fast tracked life working for a major auto manufacturer to be a full time mother. To be a HEALTHY vegetarian requires lots of preparation/variety, etc. That is why some folks don't do well - not enough commitment to researching, buying, preparing fresh produce, nuts, grains, etc. As Mr. Salatin points out, many folks have forgotten or lost the cooking skills of previous generations. To elaborate a bit, my father-in-law was a meat cutter by trade and had his own shop, processing local grown beef and pork. We've always had an OVER abundance of meat in our diet and subsequently I ended up with gout and polyps. One day, while devouring some absolutely delicious prime rib in celebration of our wedding anniversary (some years ago), my wife turned to me and said "this is the last meat I'll ever eat." She and I both had been extensive outdoors folks, hunting and fishing together. But she just no longer wanted to be responsible for another living thing losing its life. I love the flavor of meat but I also chose to reduce substantially my intake of it and feel that my health is better for it. (No polyps this last check.) To Mr. Salatin, I would ask if he believes we should reduce our consumptio

10/1/2008 5:41:02 AM

To E.C. Sharpe, To call him a bold faced liar is a bit extreme. Vegetarianism did to me exactly what he described. We all have different bodies and metabolisms and just because your healthy, doesn't make him a liar. I would reconsider your comments. I enjoyed the article and would like to hear about more of this type of farming operation. Thanks

9/30/2008 5:08:25 PM

As a strict vegetarian since 1979, I was particularly interested in Mr. Salatin's comments about vegetarianism. But when I read, "Their emaciated vegetarian faces fill out, their strength improves and they are happier ", it was immediately apparent that this is just another con artist posing as a business man, determined to turn a profit by whatever means necessary. Had he ever actually met any vegetarians, he'd know that there are plenty of us who are quite healthy. Some of us even have to watch our weight. But I'm sure his tall tales go over well with the "I feel like I should be veg, but I really don't want to" crowd. I'm glad Mr. Salatin talks about the importance of at least allowing the poor animals destined to be slaughtered some sort of dignity. Trouble is, since he has told at least one obvious, bald-faced lie in this interview, how can I believe anything else he has to say?

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