Creating Sustainable Agriculture Without Government Subsidies

An interview with “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic” Joel Salatin

I first met farmer, author, entrepreneur, thinker, and self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic” Joel Salatin at his rural Virginia farm, Polyface, in 2009. We sat in rocking chairs in his home office and talked about everything from food and agriculture to law, regulations, and the Bill of Rights.

I’ve seen Salatin several times since—in Washington, DC, and Little Rock, Arkansas and, most recently, back at his farm—and have even invoked his unsubsidized farming practices to argue that he and farmers like him should serve as the model for supporters of sustainable agriculture—meaning farming that eschews government subsidies while both minimizing environmental impacts and also turning a profit.

Salatin’s books include Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, probably the best book on the crushing regulatory burden faced by small- and medium-sized farmers in America. In his most recent work, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, Salatin takes a broader look at what once was normal and how a modern society like ours can still embrace elements of traditional normalcy without resigning ourselves to a Luddite future.

What follows below, the result of an interview I conducted with Salatin by email in late April and early May, are Salatin's thoughts on everything from farm subsidies to intern labor, and from the War on Drugs to which fast food joints he's eaten at over the years. Oh, and Salatin reveals which home-cooked meal makes him say "yum."

Full Disclosure: Salatin is a member and supporter of my nonprofit, Keep Food Legal.

Reason: You recently posted your response to a column by James McWilliams, a professor and vegan and the author of the anti-locavorism book Just Food. McWilliams claimed only a vegan diet can save the planet. You responded in part that the farming practices you employ are often better for the environment than those touted by McWilliams. The thing about the conversation that interests me most is not whether either of you is objectively correct. Rather, it’s your competing visions of how to build a better food system. Should the government take sides in this debate by implementing particular policies that favor your views? Or should the government just allow this debate to flourish in the marketplace of ideas?

Joel Salatin: I think the government should allow this debate to flourish in the marketplace of ideas. The government entered this debate in the early 1970s by publishing the first food pyramid, a guide for what Americans should eat. The obesity and diabetes epidemic in this country are a direct result of that intrusion, sponsored and massaged along by the grain cartel and big ag, from chemical companies to equipment dealers. Grain requires more machinery, more energy, and more risk (hence justification for manipulation) than pasture based livestock, and especially forage-based herbivores.

In the last 50 years, Americans have doubled their consumption of wheat. Gluten intolerance and celiac disease are direct results of American agriculture policy and specifically the government’s wading into the food arena. Eliminating government involvement stimulates people to inform themselves and actively participate in the discussion. As soon as the credentialed officials enter the fray, the average person withdraws to let the experts figure it out, which always leads to ubiquitous ignorance.

Reason: How do you make money without federal government subsidies?

Salatin: In general, we run the farm like a business instead of a welfare recipient and we adhere to historically-validated patterns. For example, instead of buying petroleum fertilizer, we self-generate fertilizer with our own carbon and manures through large scale composting, which we turn with pigs (pigaerators) rather than machinery. Letting the animals do the work takes the capital-intensive depreciable infrastructure out of the equation and creates profitability that is size-neutral.

Nature does not transport carbon very far, so neither do we. We practice an integrated system rather than segregated. Animals are near their feedstuffs so that the manures can fertilize the plants that grew the food. The numbers are kept low enough for the farm’s ecology to metabolize the manure and compost rather than it becoming a toxic problem due to over-abundance. The farm runs on real time solar energy via photosynthetic activity that creates decomposable biomass. Perennials rather than annuals form the basis of our program. Perennials build soil;  annual deplete soil. American ag policy only subsidizes annuals.

We control health and pathogenicity by complex multi-speciated relationships through symbiosis and synergy. Portable shelters for livestock, along with electric fencing, insure hygienic and sanitary housing and lounging areas, not to mention clean air, sunshine, and exercise. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations are always mono-speciated, filled with fecal particulate, and deny sunshine and exercise. You could not design a more toxic system.

Finally, Polyface direct markets its products, becoming the notorious middle man that makes all the profits. We are the brand name, marketer, graphics artist, distributor, processor, warehouse, and all the businesses that skim off portions of the consumer dollar. As a result, we enjoy a higher gross margin on what we sell because rather than being commodified, it is differentiated with excellence. We are price makers rather than price takers.

Reason: What do you think about what looks to be a move in the next Farm Bill away from crop subsidies and toward crop insurance? Is this real change?

Salatin: No, because it masks the true cost of tillage, annuals, and cropping. Insurance is not offered to apple growers or cattle producers; only a narrow range of grains. As a result, it artificially stimulates the profits for those crops to the prejudice of competitors and other products. It continues to push American agriculture toward a simplistic, non-diversified handful of genetics and products, rather than the cornucopia nature enjoys.

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  • R||

    FIll your hands you son of a FIST!

  • R C Dean||

    What's the thinking on Salatin's next encounter with our masters? Drone, or SWAT?

  • ||

    Why can't it be both?

  • SIV||

    Your comment contains a word that is too long (50 characters).

    He won't eat McDonalds but he eats at Arby's? Gross

  • BMFPitt||

    Anyone else read that name as Joe Stalin the first time?

  • Mike Laursen||

    Nyet.

  • ||

    Stop drinking. For a while.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Not exactly, but I did think of it.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Or... drink more. For a while.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    I like the way you think, good sir.

  • 0x90||

    Yep.

  • Alan||

    I disagree about his disrespecting GMOs (for one thing, cross-species sharing of genes occurs naturally), but he is absolutely correct that it is outrageous that Monsanto is able to sue farmers for being the unwilling recipients of GMO crops. I am also doubtful whether it should be legal to patent genes, period.

  • Sevo||

    "he is absolutely correct that it is outrageous that Monsanto is able to sue farmers for being the unwilling recipients of GMO crops."

    I would agree. Did it ever happen?
    (my post certified by reason squirrels to contain no words longer than 50 characters)

  • ALHaines||

    Sevo, see

  • ALHaines||

    See the link or google Perry Schmeiser.

  • ALHaines||

    Ah, link isn't working. Schmeiser planted non-Roundup Ready seeds on his farm, and pollen from Roundup Ready seeds pollinated his plants. Schmeiser saves seed to replant year after year, and after a time most of his crop had become Roundup Ready due to cross-pollination from another farm. Monsanto successfully sued him for using Roundup Ready seeds without a license. He battled and lost, and after 50 years of breeding and perfecting his own seed (his crop was canola), he had to destroy his seeds and purchase new ones, hand his '97 and '98 seed harvest over to Monsanto, and paid 400K Canadian in legal fees.

  • Sevo||

    "Monsanto successfully sued him for using Roundup Ready seeds without a license. He battled and lost,"

    Yep. As well he should have.
    As far as any critical reading of the story goes, he's a thief.

  • An0nB0t||

    Of all the stupid comments that could be made about the Schmeiser case, this one takes the cake. Back to the farm Salatin's intern, Sevo, and don't come back until you understand the fundamentals of seed-saving and property rights.

  • ||

    How long before people like that are extinct and even home gardening is illegal? People will be shot not for growing pot but tomatoes.

  • ||

    I wish you wouldn't exaggerate like that.

    I'm sure they will only shot their dogs for the illegal growing of tomatoes.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    We're all thinking it, so I'm going to come out and say it. We should all going to muster at Polyface when the zombie apocolypse hits. We'll build a wall around it and hold out until the zombies play themselves out outside the fence.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Ha! In such a situation if you think he'd be welcome to a lot of freeloaders taking up space and eating up all his food, you're probably going to be disappointed. You'd probably be standing on the wrong end of a 12-gauge being politely told to move along.

  • o3||

    outside the fence?
    dont we ALL carry the virus?...or please pass the FoE & taters & sum pepper!

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Not to worry, FEMA camps will be set up to protect us from the "zombies."

  • cw||

    What the heck? Why can't I share this interview on Facebook? Reason ain't getting along with Zuckerberg?

  • Randian||

    Huh, that is interesting. Anyway, I would just get the Share Bookmarklet for your browser and go that route.

  • cw||

    Hey, thanks.

  • ||

    Why won't you post my comment?

  • ||

    Because you think everything in a blockquote or italic is one word?

  • ||

    WTF? where is this 50 character word you refuse to post?

  • ||

    I think it thinks everything cut and pasted is one word.

    **************************
    ATTENTION SERVER SQUIRRELS
    **************************

    You need to fix this

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Give 'em a break, they're working through their "Dummies" books as fast as they can.

  • ||

    Quotation marks and apostrophes are usually the culprits - replace the copy/pasted ones with fresh characters and the problem should go away.

  • ||

    The old adage "your fist ends at my nose" actually works for a lot of things. The first time Monsanto's life form when across a fence and adulterated my plants, they should have been held liable for their fist hitting my nose.

    Uh huh. And when the wind shifts and your life form goes across that same fence and adulterates their plants, you will be only too happy to be held liable. Right?

    Too bad. I was really on board with you up till then. Turns out, you're just another rent seeker.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    I wouldn't call it rent seeking, but his views on the subject are extreme.

    I don't know how it is here, but I've seen that in other countries this can be a huge problem because farms have to be certified in order to call their produce organic (and therefore get the higher price that organic produce commands).

  • Sevo||

    "I don't know how it is here, but I've seen that in other countries this can be a huge problem because farms have to be certified in order to call their produce organic (and therefore get the higher price that organic produce commands)."

    In which case, he needs to enclose his fields. It's he who wishes to be 'certified'; he bares the costs of that.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    So it's OK to spray pesticides onto somebody else's property?

  • Sevo||

    Fatty Bolger|5.5.12 @ 1:41PM|#
    "So it's OK to spray pesticides onto somebody else's property?"
    I would presume most farmers, having paid for pesticides, would spray them on calm days. But if a breeze came up,you going to sue? For what damage?

  • Fatty Bolger||

    For turning your organic produce into non-organic produce. For costing you your certification as an organic farm.

  • Sevo||

    Fatty Bolger|5.5.12 @ 1:55PM|#
    "For turning your organic produce into non-organic produce. For costing you your certification as an organic farm."

    Sorry, if farmer A *chooses* to 'certify' what he cannot deliver at his own cost, either he loses the cert, or he pays the costs to the surrounding farmers to maintain that cert.
    Any bozo who gets a certification that can be voided by a wind carrying normally-used compounds is either too dumb to have any certification, or should be willing to cover the entire cost of maintaining it.

  • ||

    Why isn't it "if farmer B chooses to spray his farm, either he guarantees the chemicals stay on his farm, or he pays damages for any chemicals that get on somebody else's land"?

  • SIV||

    Whose farm was there first? If you set up your organic farm right next to a commodity farm field expect a little spillover. It's like moving next to an airport and complaining about the noise.

  • Sevo||

    SIV|5.5.12 @ 3:53PM|#
    "Whose farm was there first?"
    Sort of.
    If farmer A gets his cert and thereby can claim damages from neighboring farms *prior to* any neighboring farms, the value of that land is reduced by that liability. Farmer A has used the government (cert) to 'take' value from the current owners.
    If farmer A gets his cert *after* neighboring farms are established, and claims damages from those neighbors, farmer A is using the government (cert) as a rent-seeking device.
    Either way, the government-granted cert is a way to 'take' from others.

  • Sevo||

    Joshua|5.5.12 @ 3:43PM|#
    "Why isn't it "if farmer B chooses to spray his farm, either he guarantees the chemicals stay on his farm, or he pays damages for any chemicals that get on somebody else's land"?"

    For the same reason you don't pay 'damage' if moisture from your lawn sprayer ends up on your neighbor's lawn; there's no 'damage'.
    The 'damage' in this case is only to a certification which farmer A chooses to get.
    Farmer A can make that choice, but he cannot transfer the costs of that choice to his neighbors.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Like if a neighbor paints his house and the overspray lands on your house. There's no 'damage', it's just got a little different color on it now. If the owner *chooses* to maintain a single color on the house, well, he just have to cover the costs for doing so.

  • Alexander||

    What is your logic here. The damage is not to the certification, the damage is to the crops. Also, the chemicals would be polluting the other farmer's land.

  • wareagle||

    where did he claim any hold harmless standing?

  • A Mathematician||

    Actually his reasoning is valid because he isn't patenting his crops.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    OT: Julia's circle of life, courtesy of Iowahawk

  • VG Zaytsev||

    That's fantastic.

  • Portable Solar||

    I saw this guy on some food documentary which was pretty good actually. The comments above are funny and all over the place! The guy has a unique name though :)

    Ryan @ Portable Solar Generator

  • James Anderson Merritt||

    If Gary Johnson wins the Presidency, might there be a role for Joel Salatin as Secretary of Agriculture (perhaps the last occupant of the post)?

  • Fatty Bolger||

    I have a better chance of winning the Powerball lottery.

  • zamoracarl711||

    just as Jeffrey explained I am alarmed that a mom able to profit $5474 in one month on the computer. have you seen this site makecash16.cøm

  • joy||

    Perennials rather than annuals form the basis of our program. http://www.nikewinkel.com/trai.....-c-58.html Perennials build soil; annual deplete soil. American ag policy only subsidizes annuals.

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