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.