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Joel Salatin And Polyface Farm: Stewards of Creation

joel salatin

Joel Salatin stopped by the Earth Eats studios recently when he was in town to speak at the "Bloomington Eats Green Conference" here in Bloomington, Indiana.

Salatin is a farmer, lecturer, and the author of a number of informational books about food and farming.

His farm -- Polyface Farm -- is a family-owned, pastured-based, beyond organic operation located in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and Salatin was featured in Academy Award nominated documentary "Food, Inc." and in the book "Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan.

Reluctant Celebrity

Salatin says he's a reluctant celebrity in the local food movement:

Joel Salatin: [laughs] Well, I don't wear that fame shoe very easily. We certainly never aspire to this. But it's very exciting seeing the number of people who are ready to make a change. It's very gratifying to see that.

Annie Corrigan: How much time are you spending on the farm now that you're out and about so much?

JS: I'm probably 1/3 gone and 2/3 on the farm, probably 120 days per year I'm traveling.

AC: Tell us the history of Polyface Farm.

JS: My parents bought the farm in 1961, and spent the first 10 years essentially trying to do conservation things, some innovative things. Dad did some portable structures and of course we were non-chemical.

He got that from his dad, who was a charter subscriber to Rodale's Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine from Anderson, Indiana. So, I have some roots here for sure.

Then, as we came along, we gradually just refined and tweaked, and Dad died in 1988 and I just kept refining those ideas. We do ‘salad bar beef,' grass-finished beef, ‘piggerator pork,' pastured poultry, pastured eggs, pastured turkey, and pastured rabbit. Those are our main products.

"Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-Capitalist Farmer"

AC: You call yourself a Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-Capitalist Farmer. Let's break that down, title by title…Christian.

JS: I am a Christian, and I think that the Judeo-Christian ethic calls us to realize that we are stewards of creation – that we are not to just rape it, pillage it, whatever, we are to steward it – and lays down certain principles of growth.

When God made it in Genesis, the plants were to reproduce after their own kind. And genetic modification doesn't make plants produce after their own kind. So, you know, even to that point, there are some nuances of order and a template there to live by.

AC: Libertarian.

JS: I don't think every time there's a problem, we need to look to the government for a solution. I think the government is the problem on many many things, and if we would free up entrepreneurial innovation and not give corporate welfare and special concessions to big business, and create regulations that aren't scalable and always hurt the little person more than the big person, the size of big outfits (I'll use that word loosely) would crumble in of its own bureaucracy.

So, instead of artificially propping up big dinosaurs, we should let the dinosaurs collapse and fall so that a phoenix can rise from the ashes.

AC: Environmentalist.

JS: I am a tree-hugger. I think that it is important that salamanders have four legs and frogs remain fertile. And I have a real problem with the Christian-right stereotype that has put a lot more emphasis on dominion than on nurturing. That tends to balance out the dominion part.

AC: Capitalist.

JS: I don't apologize for running a business that makes a profit. We too often just push the profit under the rug, but at the end of the day, profit is the life-blood of a business. We can't make improvements, we can't make creative innovations unless there's a little bit of money left at the end of the day to put into something new.

Factory Farming, Organic Farming and Polyface Farm

AC: Let's do some definitions. Let's start with factory farming.

JS: Factory farming, to me, is when you confine animals at a magnitude and density that keeps them from having a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness.

For a pig, that means a pig that can't root would not be able to express its pigness. And so, a slatted-floor confinement house is not an acceptable solution. A cow should be able to graze. So, when you confine them and you shoot them just corn and silage, that's not an acceptable situation. A cow is a four-legged sauerkraut vat and needs forage just like sauerkraut needs cabbage leaves to ferment.

Factory farming can actually be done on a pretty small scale by those kinds of definitions if you're not allowing the animal to express its physiological distinctiveness.

AC: What is organic farming?

JS: Organic, as it started by J.I. Rodale in 1948, was an idea. It was an idea of social, environmental, economic, nutritional…it was very eclectic. Unfortunately, it has now been codified in federal law pretty much as a system of dos and don'ts that every day are being eroded because the government owns the word and, of course, it's in collusion with the big organic growers.

So, we now have the organic industrial, like Michael Pollen described in "Omnivore's Dilemma." It takes people the Cornucopia Project and that sort of thing to continue suing the USDA to enforce its own organic standards. That's unfortunate.

But to me, organic is an idea. I don't use the word anymore, because it's been kind of prostituted, if you will, so I use different words, which encourage discussion instead of hardening of the categories.

Polyface Farm: Stewards of Creation

AC: What is Polyface Farming?

JS: Polyface Farm is a multi-species, pastured-based, diversified kind of farming that is not limited to animals, vegetables, or whatever, in which the farmer sees himself or herself as a massager of the landscape as opposed to just a cattle farmer, dairy farmer, orchardist, or whatever.

Rather, we're stewards of this niche of creation, and the more relationships that we can build on that, the more stable and productive it will be.

AC: You talk about your animals being co-laborers. That's an interesting concept.

JS: Part of building these relationships, is to allow the different plants and animals to express their distinctiveness in a certain functional niche. In mainline, 21st century American farming, we simply are trying to produce more pounds of bacon or more dozens of eggs with no thought to the role that that animal or plant can fill in a functional niche.

For example, [at Polyface Farm] we follow the cows with the egg mobiles and the chickens then – like the egret on the rhino's nose in nature – the chickens then scratch through the cow patties and eat out the fly larva, scratch the dung into the soil on a much wider area obviously than just the paddy to begin with.

And so there's a balanced nutrition to the soil. There's an insecticide principle (a grub-acide, a parasite-acide). And they convert the grasshoppers and crickets, which compete with the cows for the grass, they turn those insects into more nutrient-dense eggs than you could ever get at a factory-caged farming situation.

So, the chickens then save us from having to run the cows through a head gate and give them grub-acide, parasite-acide, things like that. The chickens come along side us in this land-healing concept.

Transparency And Accountability In The Food System

AC: People can visit your farm, they can touch your animals, they can see the process, and then they can buy your products. And you have chef appreciation days, you have farm fairs. Why is that important for you to do?

JS: It's important because, number one, for our own accountability, we need transparency. Michael Pollan said this is "Omnivore's Dilemma" -- if all factory farms had glass walls, every American would be a vegetarian, or we would demand something different.

You can't just go out to a factory farm and visit. You can't just go to the Campbell's Soup Company and walk in for a tour. So, it's the very opaqueness of the food system that enables the kind of short cuts – whether they're nutritional, environmental, economic, or social – the kind of short cuts we see in the food system.

So, we are fundamentally committed to a 100% transparent farm.

If you think that we're putting on 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer at 2:00am in the morning or that's when we crank up the spray rigs, you know, to do it in the dark of night…well, you just come right on at 2:00am in the morning and see for yourself. Don't wake me up, but you are welcome to visit and walk the fields.

Transparency is the beginning of accountability, and when we don't have transparency, we don't have accountability. And when we don't have accountability, we don't have integrity. So all of those three things go together, that's why.

Connected With The Cycle Of Life

AC: You can also watch the animals be slaughtered and prepared. I could buy a pig that I see you kill. That might make some people uncomfortable.

JS: It may. Although we believe that one of the reasons we're having some nonsensical thinking in our culture right now is because people are so removed from the life, death, decomposition, regeneration cycle.

This cycle has been going on a lot longer than Twinkies and Coco Puffs have been made. We think that it's actually very healthy for people to get this viscerally connected with this cycle of life.

Interestingly, we typically have families come – they want to come and see the chicken butchering, for example. Well, Mom and Dad (they're in their late-20s early-30s), they stay out behind in the car, and the 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year-old children come around to see this. We have not found any child under 10 that's the least bit put off by it.

They get right into it. We'll even give them a knife and let them slice some throats. They haven't been sanitized in their thinking to be ‘yucked out' yet.

This is what every person did before we became so sophisticated that we thought we could just feed ourselves with little vitamin chips and a high-powered nutrient drink. So, we think that's a good thing, to be involved at least one or twice in your life, to be involved with it and actually see it.

AC: So, I'm going to your farm, what can I buy? I can buy beef, pork, what else?

JS: You can buy beef, pork, chicken. You can buy whole chicken, boneless-skinless breasts, legs and thighs, all the parts. You can buy a whole chicken cut up. You can buy stewing hens, which are not very common anymore. Rabbit. Â We normally have turkeys from late August until through Christmas.

Raising Rabbits

AC: You were talking about rabbits. Chefs buy rabbits from you a lot. And that's not something we have on menu around here too much. I've never had rabbit. What does it taste like?

JS: Rabbit is the most dense protein meat that there is. In fact, historically, that's why the biggest purchaser/buyer of rabbit in our country has been the military for rations because the protein is so dense that you don't have to eat very much to feel full. Of course, when you're packing your meals on your back, you don't want bulk.

It's a very fine textured, very dense meat, extremely flavorful. Our chefs prepare it all sorts of different ways. Culturally, around the world, Italy, France, the British… rabbit is extremely common and a real delicacy in all of those cultures.

Joel Answers Questions From Earth Eats Listeners

AC: We talked to our listeners. Someone wants to know if you'd be willing to go around the country to talk to people about setting small farms of their own, how to get started.

JS: Well, I've been doing that for a long long time. It's only been in the last five years that I've begun doing things like I did last night more frequently (lecturing in front of an audience).

My whole stock and trade since 1988, so about 20 years, has been doing sustainable farm conferences and workshops and all of that, to do the hardcore how-tos. And of course, I've written several books about that as well.

Interestingly, our son, Daniel who is now 28, he's actually shouldering a little more of that burden -- he's now doing more of the how-to stuff while I get the more eclectic-type audiences that aren't just agrarian audiences.

How Did You Become An Author?

AC: You are an author. You have a number of books out. What's that like to become an author? Did you have any background with writing before?

JS: I've always had a flare for writing, even when I was in elementary school and junior high, high school. I entered these essay contests for the Daughters of the American Revolution, and every one I ever entered, I won. So that started early early. I'm a storyteller, gregarious smoozer, alright! People love a good story!

I had a flare for that, and even in college I won essay contests and things. And when I was in high school, I worked part-time at the local newspaper writing police reports, obituaries, things like that. They actually let me do a couple of bigger projects. And then when I got out of college, I worked 18 months as an investigative reporter at a local newspaper while I was trying to get the farm up and running.

Writing is in my blood. When we came to the farm fulltime on September 24, 1982, I did not conceive that I would write lots of books. But, once we became successful as farmers, and people started asking us "How do you do this," it was natural with my flare for writing to just go ahead and crank [them] out.

The first one I did, I did a little pastured poultry manual in 1989, 1990 something like that, and that sold so well that we just went ahead and did a full-fledged book. Everything else has been downhill from there.

Political Views And Local Agriculture

AC: How do you think your political views on government have helped or hurt the cause for community-supported agriculture, environmentally friendly local agriculture?

JS: I can't help but think that community supported agriculture would be much better and more encouraged if farmers and little cottage kitchens didn't have to jump through a hundred hoops in order to make some pot pie or some heavy stew or egg noodles or jam and jellies and pickles and things like this that were all part of the indigenous food system years ago.

In fact, I think there'd be nothing better than some sort of constitutional amendment that guaranteed every American the freedom of choice to eat whatever kind of food you want.

I think it's pretty ridiculous that we have decided, in the culture – the food police, I call them – have decided that it's safe to eat Twinkies and Coco Puffs and Mountain Dew, but it's not safe to drink raw milk and compost-grown tomatoes. I think that's atrocious.

So, generally I can't help but think that my curmudgeonness in this is creating doors of opportunity, cracking that door of opportunity for entrepreneurial innovation on the local level.

What's In Your Fridge?

AC: And finally, tell me what's in your fridge right now.

JS: Let's see…raw milk, some raw cheese from a dairy up the road, and probably some leftovers from dinner (whatever that was). Our own green beans that we can from the garden. Our cellar is full of 800-1,000 quarters of corn and sauerkraut and green beans and beets and pickles, all sorts of sweet pickles, dill pickles. That's the way we live. And I've always said that if could figure out how to grow toilet paper and tissue paper on trees, we could pretty much pull the plug on society.

AC: Joel Salatin, thank you so much.

JS: Thank you for having me.

Joel Salatin visited Bloomington as part of the "Bloomington Eats Green" conference. When he's not traveling around the country giving lectures and teaching aspiring farmers, he spends time on his farm in Swoope, Virginia.

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