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.

Reason: You're known to sometimes tell an audience something they might not want to hear. You told me a couple years ago about the message on the drug war you delivered to students at a conservative, religious university law school. What was your message, why did you deliver it to those particular students, and what was their reaction?

Salatin: It was the law school at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell's school in Lynchburg, and now run by his sons. The reason I went out on that limb there was partly penance for my two great aunts who devoted their lives to the Women's Temperance Union and certainly played a part in creating Prohibition nearly a century ago. They are both deceased now, but I think it's important to realize that their religious outrage over alcohol created the legal precedent to allow the federal government to come between my lips and my throat. In essence, to tell me what I could and could not ingest.

That such a precedent would morph in our day into illegal raw milk, homemade pickles, and home cured charcuterie certainly never crossed their minds. But this is why we must be very careful when we ask for the government to remedy our outrage. Outrageous behavior, also known as the lunatic fringe, is the seed bed of innovation and creativity. A government that can take away alcohol can also take away heritage food.

The drug war in the America is precisely like prohibition. I've never taken drugs and don't intend to, but I absolutely defend the right of someone to take them if they want. By the same token, I don't eat McDonald's food, but I vehemently defend the right of people to eat it. As soon as the government becomes the arbiter, by edict, of what we can and cannot ingest, the frenzy in the marketplace to gain concessionary privileges never ceases. Indeed, the incessant cry to demonize one thing over another, criminalize one food over another, thunders in the ears of politicians as businesses jockey for favors and indulgences from legislative priests.

The moment the government determines that you do not own yourself, that society owns your body, you give up all personal choice and autonomy. You are no longer a citizen, but a slave. Not a person, but a pawn. 

Reason: What's a typical dinner at the Salatin household look like? What's your favorite meal?

Salatin: We all eat together around a table laden with Teresa's [Joel's wife] finest. We ask a blessing, pass bowls and platters, and converse on topics of interest. We eat at an appointed time every day to respect Teresa's time and gift. Most of our food is grown right here on the farm. These are not complex meals, but simple and basic with world-class home grown ingredients.

Perhaps my favorite meal is honey baked chicken, home made applesauce, sweet potato casserole (or butternut squash casserole), sweet pickles, and fresh-picked lettuce with Teresa's cooked dressing. Yum, yum.

Pork tenderloin, battered and fried, with all the above side dishes, is also great.

All that said, my favorite meal is breakfast. Sausage, eggs, apple juice, raw milk. It doesn't get any better than that unless you throw in a slice of warm buttered zucchini bread. Yum, yum.

Reason: Have you ever eaten a fast food meal? If so, where? How'd you (dis)like it? Did you ever take your kids to a fast food restaurant? If so, how did they like it?

Salatin: I've eaten at Arby's and Wendy's, but not McDonald's or Burger King—at least not in any recent decades of memory. About the only place we'll go for fast food now is Chipotle or Five Guys Burgers and Fries. You evolve over time. I can tell you that when I'm traveling (which is now a third of the time) I routinely go a day or more without eating. Oh, of course everyone likes fast food. It's engineered to please our taste buds, kind of like teen sex and inhaling.

Reason: What's the worst food law in America right now? I know there are many from which to choose.

Salatin: The prohibition on raw milk specifically and direct producer-eater food commerce generally. If I could do one thing and only one thing legislatively for the food system, it would be to create a Constitutional Amendment called the Food Choice Emancipation Proclamation which would guarantee every citizen the inalienable, fundamental right to consume any product of their choice and legalizing the direct unregulated commerce between consenting adults of said product. Right now, farmers can give away raw milk and home made pickles; the prohibition is on sales. What is it about taking money for something that suddenly turns it from a wonderful charitable product into a hazardous substance?

Everywhere I go I meet thousands of farmers ready to grow and process homemade food items for their neighbors and fellow church members. But they can't due to these prohibitions, epitomized by raw dairy regulations. If this country allowed an opt-out spot for consenting adults to take personal responsibility for the food ingestion, it would unleash an entrepreneurial cottage-based localized tsunami on the marketplace. Wal-Mart would never know what hit it. If the foodies and greenies could only imagine what bottom-up freedom could create, they'd forget their demands for more inspections, more regulations, and more food police and instead campaign for true free markets. We haven't had free markets in America certainly since Abraham Lincoln started the USDA, but maybe not ever.

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.

If I want to come to your farm, voluntarily, ask around, look around, and purchase what you have, that is a transaction that no society, historically, has criminalized. Until modern America. Rather than being progressive, we're regressive—to the inquisition. Then it was dogma. Today it's food. Why can't we as a culture abide those who want to take personal responsibility for their food and their health? The reason is simple: national health care. The moment society owns your body through national health care, it has a vested interest in keeping you from doing things that might jeopardize your health. Eating pet food definitely could jeopardize your health. We cannot have food freedom as long as we don't have health freedom. The more responsible society becomes for my life, the more it will inject its mob paradigm into what I can and cannot do, or eat.

Reason: In your most recent book Folks, This Ain't Normal you write that "profitable farming is no more static than the culture." You make this point to urge legislators and regulators to permit broader uses of farm property. What are some restrictions that haven't allowed farms (and farmers) to change with the times?

Salatin: Perhaps the most obvious is zoning regulations. These come in many permutations, from planning commission overlays to preservation zones to agricultural districts. They all view farms as producers of raw commodities to be processed, value added, and sold somewhere else. This economic apartheid discourages integrated food systems and encourages segregated food and fiber.

Classifying, for example, butchering as manufacturing and not farming makes such historically normal farm activities illegal. In our county, charging school kids for an on-farm tour is illegal because education is not a permitted use of farmland. That's to be done in schools. In fact, a local rocket club was banned from launching on a farm because farmland, according to the county commissioners, was not to be used "for fun." Apparently farmers are supposed to keep their laughing to themselves.

These zoning and land use regulations are popping up everywhere, from precluding intern housing to even excluding a second generation from building a second home on the ranch due to greenbelt or land preservation requirements. The last remaining dairy in Montgomery County, Maryland is not fighting for its survival against a green space land trust because of the conservation easement these farmers put on their farm 30 years ago. Now the farmer realizes his survival depends on bottling his own milk and selling it to the urban community that has grown up around him. But the easement trust won't let him put in a bottling facility because that is manufacturing, and not farming.

In our county, woodworking shops are illegal on farmland. So are sawmills. What better place to saw the logs or build from boards than near where the trees grow?  Vineyards are constantly battling over the right to have tasting rooms, events, or even to make wine from a neighbor's grapes because wine making is not considered farming: it's manufacturing. And heaven help us if someone gets entertained on a farm. These regulations, started to reduce development, have now become a tool to destroy farm profitability in a day when more and more farmers are realizing the value of historically normal on-farm processing and recreational opportunities.

Interestingly, this is not a greenie vs. entrepreneurial divide. Many conservatives, especially agribusiness and large farms, don't want consumers coming out to farms, whether to buy food or have a hootenanny, because they are afraid of disease, liability, and transparency. Greenies want to freeze the landscape in some pre-modern 1950s Mayberrry RFD mystique. Both sides converge to keep progressive farmers from being able to morph into modern resilience.

Reason: With the (largely) libertarian Reason audience in mind, is there any question you wish I'd asked that I did not? If so, please feel free to ask and answer the question.

Salatin: How should a libertarian view Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) technology?

First, GMOs, which I prefer to label transgenic modified organisms, are not simply an extension of Mendel's peas. Mendel only crossed peas with peas to hybridize them. In transgenic modification, Mendel would have been crossing peas with carrots with salmon. That's a completely different deal.

Realize that the very goal of this technology is to pollinate indiscriminately. The very nature of the beast is to roam the countryside, irrespective of boundaries, and impregnate plants willy-nilly, creating totally new life forms heretofore unimaginable. When the sexual plumbing does not match, you have to force the issue pretty hard.

I do not believe we need laws regulating GMOs any more than we needed laws to regulate pollution. If historic trespass law had been properly administered, we would not have needed either the Environmental Protection Agency or the Clean Water Act. When you pour something in the river that crosses my boundary, you are liable for it. For sure, businesses that pollute should be held liable for the total cost of the clean up. If it bankrupts them, so be it. In fact, I would say that the corporate officers should be held personally liable for those violations.

The old adage "your first ends at my nose" actually works for a lot of things. The first time Monsanto's life form went across a fence and adulterated my plants, they should have been held liable for their fist hitting my nose. And I shouldn't have to sue them; the district attorney should prosecute it just like a bank robbery or a murder. If that had been done, GMOs would never have been released on the planet to wreak the havoc they are currently wreaking.

Our culture has not become such a pawn of these large interests that today, not only is Monsanto not liable, but the farmer whose plants become impregnated with Monsanto's patented life forms is liable for the privilege of having of allowing the promiscuity to occur in his fields. It's unspeakably outrageous. Why the libertarians and conservatives can't understand what this blatant disregard for property rights is doing to our jurisprudence and the basic American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness I can't fathom. We are supposed to be secure from trespass in our persons and property—that's the whole point of warrants for search and seizure. Granting Monsanto the right to roam the countryside with its property and violate the security of land and persons is unconscionable in any functional civilization. We have indeed been overtaken by the barbarians: they wear pin-striped suits and sit behind mahogany desks at the Supreme Court and Wall Street. It's an unholy alliance if there ever was one.