Sustainable farmer discusses chemical-free practices

Thursday, November 4, 2010 | 7:19 p.m. CDT; updated 5:56 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 18, 2010
Joel Salatin speaks to a group of farmers Thursday at the National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference at the Boone County Fairgrounds. Salatin, a sustainable farmer who has been featured in "Food, Inc." and "The Omnivore's Dilemma," was speaking to the group about how they as farmers must make choices to run their farms more sustainably and not wait for the government to act.

COLUMBIA – Joel Salatin was in his element on Thursday. He referenced Louis Pasteur and Sir Albert Howard, alluded to the Manhattan Project, discussed the French idea of "terroir" and trotted out germ theory and economies of scale for good measure.

His audience of several hundred small-scale farmers was rapt. They laughed at all the jokes and cheered at appropriate times.

Many people probably know Salatin as that absurdly articulate sustainable farmer featured in "Food, Inc." and "The Omnivore's Dilemma." He's become a voice of the chemical-free farming movement, with his innovative Polyface farm in Virginia that emphasizes raising happy animals.

Salatin delivered the keynote address for the 18th National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference, which continues through Saturday at the Boone County Fairground. Salatin taught a workshop titled "Everything I want to do is illegal."

For people who don’t know about Polyface farm, how would you sum it up?

We’re in the pasture-based livestock business, so we raise beef, pork, chicken, turkey, eggs, rabbit and forestry products without chemicals, using compost and controlled grazing techniques, pasture-based techniques with portable infrastructure and direct market everything to about 50 restaurants, 10 retail establishments and 4,000 families.

The question about this system that many people have is: How could this possibly be applied in a large scale to serve major metropolitan areas?

It’s the number one question I’m asked – "Can we feed the world?" It’s always nice to talk about, oh, this is nice and warm and fuzzy, and I really would like to enjoy the “pigness” of the pig. But can it really feed the world? Because ultimately, if this can’t feed the world, we’re not going to save things with altruism here. We’ve got to get down to the nitty gritty.

Let me say a couple things. One is, nobody in the world goes hungry due to a lack of food. Food is rotting by the millions of tons everywhere in the world. Distribution is the problem. If I could wave a magic wand and double the world’s food supply tomorrow, it would not affect one hungry belly anywhere in the world. That’s important to understand. There’s plenty of food. It’s a matter of distribution.

Number two: We waste half of the food we do produce. In spoilage, in long-distance transportation, in handling, a demand for blemish-free food, all of these things.

Number three: America has 35 million acres in lawn. America has 36 million acres growing food and for housing horses ... seventy-one million acres. That’s enough to produce all the food for every American without a single farm or ranch. There is plenty of land.

And finally, when we talk about ecological food production, we have this perception that it’s not very productive because of the green revolution. Everyone says, “I’m so glad for the green revolution or half of us would have died.” The fact is, Sir Albert Howard introduced a science-based aerobic composting to the world in 1943. But we had a Manhattan Project for something else. ... If we had had a Manhattan Project for compost, not only would we have been able to produce all the food, but we would not have created three-legged salamanders and infertile frogs in the process. It took 50 years for electric fencing, chippers, hydrolic front-end loaders, little four-wheel diesel tractors and all the infrastructure to metabolize the knowledge of science-based aerobic composting that we didn’t know about until the late 1930s. ... There was an unfair advantage to the chemical side that it took our side 50 years to catch up with.

What do you think about big box organics, like Whole Foods produce or Walmart selling organic salad greens?

I don’t think it’s an answer. I think it’s an interesting transition, but I think, ultimately, industrial organics really doesn’t solve anything. It certainly doesn’t create food security. It certainly doesn’t create informed consumers. You still have opaqueness or lack of relationship, and you still have all the food miles. You still have all the carbon footprint of shipping 90 percent water 1,500 miles. So, I think generally speaking, the supermarket concept where you pull stuff from around the globe and you bring it to your local supermarket, ultimately that system is so energy dependent and spoilage-prone that it can’t possibly be the answer for long-term regeneration. 

You have been called the “High Priest of the Pasture” and “America’s Most Influential Farmer.” How have you and your family adapted to becoming the image of this movement?

That’s a tough question. Yeah, I’ve told people all my life I’ve been the ugly stepsister, and to suddenly be chic is a big deal. You know, we’re obviously at the farm, we’re actually doing a lot of things to try to metabolize this fame or this pedestal we’ve been put on. And we don’t always do it with grace, but we are trying to not be swamped by this media tsunami.

Just two months ago, we had a four-person Korean Broadcasting System crew, and Korean Broadcasting System aired a 60-minute documentary on Polyface in Korea last week. Within three days, I had e-mails and calls from publishers in Korea wanting to publish my books in Korea. Saturday, we had several Korean couples come down who had seen it on Korean TV.

So there’s a lot of hunger and thirst for what I call really truthful answers. So we’re just trying to be faithful in this kind of role we’ve been given and be faithful with the responsibilities of it.

You’ve mentioned your belief that farmers should be able to make “white-collar wages.” How much does your farm make now? 

Our farm now grosses about $2 million a year, so it’s not a back yard operation. We own 550 and we lease another thousand. There’s about 20 of us that work. Not all of those people are farming necessarily; we have a full-time truck driver, a full-time accountant slash product manager, a full-time call screener slash public relations slash Joel’s personal assistant. So all these people aren’t planting beets and gutting chickens. It takes a lot of skills to make an operation go.

In your workshop, you talked a lot about raw milk and how people should be able to buy it if they want it. Do you still think there should be some kind of protection for unsuspecting consumers against unscrupulous sellers who might sell something that makes people sick?

I differentiate strongly between a supermarket sale and a direct sale between you and me, producer and consumer. I don’t think there needs to be any regulations regarding private contract, private treaty – which is what a direct sale is. If I have a used car to sell to you, it might be a lemon. But if you look at the car and you decide to buy it ­– and nobody’s coercing, we’re not talking blackmail and coercion here, we’re talking about freedom of choice – then you’re taking a risk, and there’s a level of trust there.

When we come to food, it’s the same principle. If we do not allow any risk in a decision then we do not allow any innovation in a decision. Innovation and risk go hand in hand. Innovation is risky. If you do something new, then, ooh, this is uncharted territory. But that risk, that edge of risk, ... is where new knowledge, new things are learned and new things happen. A life without risk is a life of drudgery. ... So while I don’t think there should be governmental involvement between direct producer-consumer interactions – industrial production or going to a supermarket, that’s a different ballgame. A different discussion for a different day.

What would be the single thing that the younger generation should keep in mind?

The single thing that you can do is to opt out of industrial food. You don’t have to wait for an election to vote. You can vote every day to patronize local, transparent, integrity food systems. I’m not saying you can never have a Snickers bar. But at the end of the week, did the dollars that I spend feed this beast, or that beast? You don’t need to drink Coke. You don’t need to buy processed DiGiornio’s pizza. You don’t need to buy potato chips. You can get whole potatoes for a tenth of the price and eat whole potatoes, not potato chips. You don’t have to buy processed food. A lot of these things, we do have a lot of discretion over, and we can decide which of these dogs we’re going to feed, and we should all step up to the plate and say as much as is within my power, I’m going to feed the good dog.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I have no clue, my life has taken so many twists and turns. I don’t know, I mean I’ve certainly got some other books I want to write. And the farm is just going great. By that time our grandkids will be 17, 15 and 13 instead of 7, 5 and 3. And so, again, I’m not a prophet, I don’t know. But I trust we are still being faithful, growing more earthworms, making happier cows and encouraging people to make really sacred land-healing decisions on a daily basis.

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