Creating Sustainable Agriculture Without Government Subsidies

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

(Page 3 of 4)

Reason: I’ve heard people criticize you for using unpaid interns or for writing books. Their claim generally boils down to the notion that what you’re doing isn’t scalable because you’ve got the advantage of free labor and off-farm income. How do you respond to those critics?

Salatin: Anybody who says interns are free labor has never had them. To get this level of education, they should actually pay us. I could keep you up all night regaling you with stories about all the “oopses”: in short, nobody can possibly imagine all the creative ways someone can louse up a simple task. The sheer energy we put into these young people, to teach and bring them along in their quest for proficiency, is hard to quantify. I personally do lectures for them. We hire a full-time chef to prepare communal meals. We room and board them, wipe their noses, deal with their juvenile foolishness, relational squabbles, and a host of other things, including the notion that farmers can sleep until noon and enjoy coffee on the veranda at 3 p.m. We take complete novices who don’t know a chicken from a calf, and in one season make them self-confident enough to go farm for themselves. Now what’s that worth?

Books. The farm financed the first two and I wrote them because people were desperate for the information we had. Ask anyone who is now farming full time because they found what they needed, both inspiration and how-to, in my books and then tell me it’s an unfair advantage. While the naysayers are watching movies, reading People magazine, and twirling lint in their bellybutton I’ve been working 80 hours a week my whole life. No TV. No vacation. Driving a $50 car. Wearing thrift store clothes. Never going out to eat. Sleeping with the chicks, baseball bat in hand to ward off an infestation of rats. This is the stuff people need to know to be successful. Because I’ve done it, the books have credibility.

Everyone thinks the other guy has some advantage. The other guy is smarter, has a prettier wife, better machinery, better parents, a better side of town. The truth is that we make our way, and if the government were a tenth the size it is and we could keep our tax money, it would be a lot easier for a lot more people to make their way. It’s much easier to tear down than build up. So I don’t put much stock in people who tear down. They don’t have a clue what the Salatins do to make Polyface run. Today I got up at daybreak, moved the eggmobile and stoked the wood furnace, got the oil changed in the car, spent the day over at a new rental farm putting in a water line and sharpening fence posts for the electric fence grid. Then I came home and cut firewood, ate supper, did a half hour radio show, a pile of emails, and then answered these questions and it’s 9:18. I haven’t turned on a TV (don’t have one) or a video game (don’t have one of them either). Anyone who thinks I have some unfair advantage should come and follow me around for a day—I dare you. Matter of fact, we don’t allow it because it always slows me down. Ha!

Reason: Farmers are subject to regulations by many federal (i.e., USDA, FDA, EPA) and state agencies. From a food-safety perspective, does all this government oversight make our food safer? If not, could it possibly make our food less safe if, as I argue, government oversight offers a false veneer of safety?

Salatin: Government food safety regulations ultimately do not make anything safer; they simply institutionalize a cultural paradigm. For example, government land grant colleges are the de-facto standard-setters in food and agriculture protocols and have been establishing Best Management Practices—BMP (sometimes called Generally Accepted Procedures in some states—GAP). These are now being used to admit access to markets and as a protocol for insurance companies.

These protocols codify a certain mindset that is of course prejudicial toward innovation or alternative thinking. The BMP for manure is not compost but water-based slurry lagoon systems. The BMP for laying hens is not pastured poultry, but confinement animal feeding operations. And perish the thought that anyone would think their animals capable of health without vaccinations. The BMP for sickness is either eradication (kill the herd, flock, whatever) or administer pharmaceuticals. It certainly isn’t homeopathy, herbology, or any of a host of other alternative remedies.

As a result, with government’s injection into the system, it narrows the sanctioned offerings to a veritable non-choice. Such simplicity reduces innovation and creativity. In times of epochal change, according to Peter Bane, editor of The Permaculturalist magazine, the most important thing to preserve is variation and alternative paradigms—dissensus rather than consensus. When everyone agrees, it’s easy to head off down the wrong path. Prophets have always been out of step with the mob.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than the government’s confusion over safe food being primarily a matter of sterilization. Coca Cola is considered safe because it is sterile, without life. Raw milk, because it contains life, is considered unsafe. Chemical fertilizer is safe because it is sterile; compost piles are dangerous and hazardous because they are not sterile. This thinking indicates a profound mechanistic view toward life, rather than a biological view toward life. The whole nation is being pulled into this erroneous paradigm due to the one-size-fits-all approach from the federal bureaucracy.

If there is a role for food safety regulation, it should be done at the highest level by states and ideally by localities. That way different areas could try different things and keep the experimentation ongoing. While some would argue it would still squelch innovation, at least different jurisdictions could try different food safety protocols so that the body of practice and thinking could be more diversified rather than more simplified. 

Reason: What are some of the groups advocating for farm or food freedom around the country you support?

Salatin: I call the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund [FTCLDF] the National Rifle Association (NRA) of the food movement. Modeled after the Home School Legal Defense Fund (HSLDA) which 30 years ago created wiggle room for parents who were taken to jail for truancy violations and had their children taken by government agents and placed into foster care to protect youngsters from such socially deviant modeling. At that time, the entire credentialed expert educational establishment vituperated against this aberrant idea, declaring that the culture could not build enough insane asylums or jails to house these miscreants and socially deprived waifs. Here we are, 30 years later, and even the most dubious people now agree that our culture is richer by having decriminalized home schooling.

This is exactly where we are with the food system. Different times, same issues. Then it was who owns the child. Now it’s who owns the individual. Then it was the risk of social maladjustment. Today it’s the risk of physical maladjustment. Then it was jails. Today it’s hospitals.

The attorneys working with FTCLDF are not winning every case, but they are getting more skilled by the day. They are definitely creating wiggle room for all of us. And they win lots of things. Just being able to have real time 24/7 legal counsel gives farmers a hand-holding comfort to move into gray areas. As an example of what FTCLDF brokered, Florida now has a pet food law that allows anyone to register their item as pet food. Florida is experiencing an explosion of local, artisanal cottage industry farming and food as a result. In fact, when you talk to foodie afficionados in Florida now, they say that if you want the good stuff, you always look for the pet food label, marked “Not for Human Consumption.” Everything else is second best.

Another organization is the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA). An outgrowth of the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (VICFA) that I helped found some 15 years ago, NICFA has moved the mission to a national level. The goal is simple: unregulated direct food commerce between producers and consumers. In other words, if consenting adults want to do business, a bureaucrat does not need to get in the way of their transaction. This is a permutation on the right of private contract and dates clear back to the Magna Carta. That we, as a society, have given away these basic societal underpinnings so quickly should give us pause.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • 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||


  • ||

    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||


  • 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.


    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. Perennials build soil; annual deplete soil. American ag policy only subsidizes annuals.


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