Greener Pastures with Lunatic Farmer Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin doesn’t mind being called a communist. Though the self-described "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic farmer” has a penchant for stockpiling adjectives, Salatin actually defies labels left and right. He’s a capitalist who as a matter of principle has no sales objectives and will not ship food beyond his local food-shed. He’s a Christian whose priority is environmental health. And he’s a lunatic who's running a 550-acre farm that is so self-sustaining he's never bought seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, plows, or silos—aka "bankruptcy tubes," in Salatin-speak. He’s also a veritable celebrity—having been catapulted into the national spotlight thanks to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and dubbed the “High Priest of the Pasture” by the New York Times—but he betrays no bravado as he chats with me over the phone from his home in Swoope, Virginia.
Salatin raises cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits on his “family-owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market” Polyface Farm, which has become synonymous with sustainability, bioregionalism, and honest transparency. Indeed, the farm is open to visitors at all times, with nary a corner that is not camera-accessible. An unabashed libertarian, Salatin has gone off the government-supported grid as much as possible: home-schooling his children and developing farming practices that are absolutely antithetical to the agribusiness model. ''I always said if I could figure out a way to grow Kleenex and toilet paper on trees,” he muses, “we could pull the plug on society.”
True to his spirit, Salatin has also self-published eight books and currently pens two magazine columns. The title of his most recent book, which hit the stands in October, could serve as an epithet for his worldview: Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People and a Better World.
Jessica: Who is the audience for this book?
Joel: Everybody! (laughs) There's something in here for everyone—from farmers to children to octogenarians to IT technicians.
Is this your first major publication?
Yes. This is the first book that we have not self-published, so it has the strength and the power of a global marketing network behind it. Frankly, it's starting to get overwhelming here, but it's quite a deal. It's fun to have that wind in your sails.
How has your national popularity affected your life there on the farm?
It's much different. I spend half my time not farming anymore, and of course I love farming. I just as soon go out and tote buckets of water and run a chainsaw as well as anything. However, I also know that different people are blessed with different abilities, and I've been blessed with an ability to communicate. Clearly there's an audience there and I feel compelled to give this information to our culture. I think we're heading the wrong way on a lot of things. I think we're going with this cavalier spirit that we'll be the first civilization to beat nature, that we'll be the first ones to disconnect our ecological umbilical cord and say we don’t need this womb. And I think it's a terribly misplaced faith.
You refer to yourself as a capitalist, and as someone who owns his own business, that makes a certain sense. Then again, your principles are all quite anti-capitalist.
Yes—today we had our bi-monthly farm tour, and at the end of the hay wagon ride, a woman said, you sound like a communist! (laughs) So yeah—I'm a communist capitalist. In this book, for example, I make a point that no American needs to be paid more than $250,000. Nobody. The problem with pure capitalism is the problem with unbalanced anything. Amoral, unbalanced capitalism is no better than amoral, unbalanced communism. In the book I do take umbrage with this country's incredible disparity—I just read in the newspaper today that the average college athletic director in America now makes $450,000 a year. I wonder what the Physics professor gets? $80,000? We've become obsessed with things that aren't important.
So you don't make more than $250,000 a year?
No—I don't get anywhere close to that. Now, the farm generates more than that in sales, but we have lots of expenses. We have about 20 employees, which is a pretty good crew.
I'm curious about your Christian principles, which seem to embody a very different worldview than the one I was taught growing up Catholic.
I think that our responsibility as stewards of creation is to do exactly that—to steward it, not pillage it, exploit it, but to actually massage it. Okay, you and I, with our Catholic backgrounds, let's take a principle like forgiveness—we share this, right? How do we build forgiveness into a farm? It would mean that our farm should be more immune to the vagaries of nature. The fact is you're going to have drought, flood, heat, cold. So a forgiving farm is one in which we massage the landscape so that it is more forgiving for these natural anomalies. Therefore, every time we get a few thousand dollars extra, we build another pond. These ponds draw down during droughts and allow us to have plenty of water for irrigation, for watering livestock, for keeping the frog and salamander populations high, making places for ducks to land and turtles to breed. And then during flood time, they absorb the surface run-off that swells and becomes devastating down river. So on both extremes, for example, building a greater control of the hydraulic cycle builds forgiveness into that landscape.
What I want is more forgiving immune systems in my animals. Therefore I build a terrain of production that increases immunological function rather than debilitating it. Now, if I take these animals and confine them in a factory house, then I quickly compromise their immunological system because of that toxic environment. I don't increase their immune systems by doping them up with drugs and hormones and chlorine. Rather, the forgiving thing to do is to back off from that abusive terrain and build a habitat in which the pig is fully allowed to express its pigness. Living in sync with his terrain—getting exercise, fresh air and sunshine, moving from area to area so he's not in his excrement all the time—is the way to build natural immune function.
Your approach is both ancient and highly innovative. Did you grow up learning how to farm like this?
Yes—Dad was an innovator, way ahead of his time. An accountant by profession, he came to this not so much from an environmental standpoint, he just saw that you can't short-cut nature's economy. When you begin depending on chemical fertilizers from the Middle East and chemicals to kill things that can go through five adaptive generations in 24 hours, you can't beat it. So that platform allowed me to refine the thinking into something more ethical and theological, not just economical.
Would you say that our federal government is the biggest threat to the sustainable food movement?
Absolutely. The last three chapters of this book are about the proliferation of the food police. Never before in civilization has a government told a person you can't drink raw milk. It's safe to drink Mountain Dew and eat Twinkies and Cocoa Puffs, but Aunt Matilda's homemade pickles and compost-grown tomatoes are hazardous substances. That is an absolute experiment in civilization.
What role does the average citizen play in all this?
Well, supposedly the government reflects the wishes of the people. Although now that corporations are people, I don't know. (laughs) If the people rose up on this issue, the policies would change. But right now the average person thinks the only way to get safe food is for it to have a stamp by the USDA. How do you get safe food and build responsible food decision-making in the culture? The same way you teach kids—by letting them actually make decisions. Decision-making consequences lead directly to informed and participatory activity.
But as people demand government penetration into the food system, we immediately fall into a comfort zone of thinking that just because it's USDA approved, it's fine. The USDA approved DDT, pesticides, Agent Orange, genetic modification, high fructose corn syrup, and even subsidizes the companies that make the substances that are giving us Type 2 diabetes and making us obese. Since most of us are lazy, it lulls the culture into a sense of security that is not real.
So what, in your opinion, is the government most valuable for?
Stealing and killing. That’s what governments do very efficiently. I don't think we should have a professional military. I agree with the founders of the constitution that we should have a militia and I would be very happy to defund the military by about 80 percent. Do you know what we could do in our own country if we took that money and planted gardens and orchards in the interstate mediums?
As a Christian, I look at Roman 13, which says the role of government is to be a terror to people who do evil and an encourager to people who do righteousness. We've strayed pretty far from that. I don't want to get into a great big libertarian dissertation here, but in my perfect world the government would be way smaller than it is, and much that the federal does, the states would do. So if a state wants to have health insurance, let them do it. If I don't like it, I can move to another state. The problem with the federal government is it's a one-size-fits-all program and it doesn't allow for innovative prototypes on a local and statewide level.
So you advocate for the same kind of regionalism when it comes to government as you do for food production.
Absolutely. I can imagine there might be some states that want public education, other ones that want complete home schooling, others that would outlaw it. That's what the country was founded on—the ability of states to bio-regionalize their policy.
When it comes to the local food shed, are there foods that you can't produce yourself or get locally that you still eat?
Yeah—I'm a banana-aholic! (laughs) Look—we all get to pick our hypocrisy. At the end of the day, nobody is true blue through and through. I hope that we can have enough transparency and not take ourselves so seriously, that we can have room in our hearts for anomalies amongst each other. If somebody wants to fight me over my bananas, then I'll say give up your TV, because I don't have a TV.
This kind of nitpicking is like when people say they can't afford our food, because our costs are all built in, not externalized. And look—my heart goes out to the single mom in the urban setting who can’t afford our food. But instead of talking about that two percent of people, let's talk about the 98 percent of people who aren't doing what they should. We are still building houses with no regard to southern orientation. That's unconscionable and immoral, as we're heading towards an energy crisis. One of the big points in my book is that we have been encouraged not to think about soil, air, water, because we have lived in the lap of luxury to the point that we have disconnected ourselves from the visceral experience of living: hauling water, chopping wood to stay warm. Today people are much more connected to the latest belly piercing and Hollywood celebrity culture than to where their food comes from.
When you're not farming or writing, what do you like to do?
I love to read. I read all the time. I enjoy history and museums of all kinds.
Do you like the traveling that your book tour entails?
To a point. It certainly has not been as fun since the TSA got involved, since 9/11. But I love people, I love our country, I love the earthworms. And I desperately want earthworms to be happy, to dance and not feel assaulted. I want families to be happy and communities to be vibrant and secure. I want homes to be the epicenter of family life, rather than home being a pit stop between everything that matters in life. This is the stuff that drives me.
And your home is still the epicenter of your family life?
Absolutely. Which is why I say no sometimes and charge more for speaking, because it takes me away from home. I say, I'd love to talk to you for nothing, but I call this my hassle fee, because I gotta throw stuff in a suitcase and leave. We're four generations here on the farm—my mother is still very active, an octogenarian who rides five miles a day on her stationary bike. I've got my wife Theresa, our children, and our grandchildren here. All of us here on the farm—that's one of the greatest blessings of my life.