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Joel Salatin – The Pastor of the Pasture

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A keynote speaker at this year’s Ohio Ecological Food and Farms Conference, Joel Salatin owns and operates Polyface Farm with his family in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Polyface Farm is a successful, small-scale, pasture-based farm which raises healthy people, animals, plants and soil, among other benefits. Mr. Salatin refers to himself as a “Christian-Libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer”, and is a well-known author and charismatic media personality in the cultural conversation about food and the environment. Readers may recognize him from the movie “Food Inc.” and from the writings of Michael Pollan. He is an ardent supporter of small, localized food systems, and less government regulation of small-scale food producers. “The big corporate farms can no longer tell us that pollution will always come with farming,” said Heinz Family Foundation leader Theresa Heinz, whose organization recently rewarded Joel Salatin $100,000. “Mr. Salatin’s work shows us that is not true, because on his lands, farming is no longer part of the problem; it is part of the solution to a better environment.” Joel Salatin sees his work as a ministry.

Readers who loved the Little House on the Prairie books may remember how grateful Laura and Mary were for their kind pastor—pastor is from the same root word as pasture—and I was very grateful to have the opportunity to speak with the gracious Joel Salatin on behalf of Columbus Underground.

Mandy Henderson: It’s a huge honor to be able to speak with you. I’m a single mom and a nature nut, and I’m constantly harping on the topic of agriculture on Columbus Underground. Probably excessively!

Joel Salatin: (laughs) Sure, yeah!

MH: So, for the readers who may not be familiar with your work or with agriculture in general, can you tell us a little bit about what you do?

JS: Sure. We’re a pasture based livestock… well, the bottom line is, what we do, we’re in the healing business. So what we’re trying to do is heal the land. That’s number one is heal the land. Everything else is secondary. Of course, what happens is, when you heal the land, you heal people, and economies, and communities, and all sorts of things. But what we do is pasture-based livestock. So we do Salad Bar Beef, Pigaerator Pork, pastured poultry, eggs, broilers (that’s meat chickens), and turkeys, and pastured rabbits as well. And then we have a lot of woodland, so we sell some lumber and things like that that we mill on our band saw.

MH: Do you have a term for your kind of farming, to separate it from other kinds of farming, or even from organic farming?

JS: You know, there’s not an all-encompassing term. The government owns the term “organic”, so we can’t use that. We call it “beyond organic”, because organic doesn’t require grazing, and the animals to be out on pasture, and things like that. We like to just call it heritage-based, pasture-based, and localized.

MH: Could you tell us why how we farm is important, and what the benefits are of your type of farming?

JS: Oh my. Well, the way we farm is what determines our landscape. And a lot of our public lands are managed by farmers as well, such as the Bureau of Land Management out west. So essentially, the way the farmland goes is the way the soil, air and water goes, in the culture. The fact is, the industrial farming technique, the chemical agriculture approach, stimulates soil erosion and it degenerates the soil. It reduces the nutrient density and the nutritional components of the plants and animals grown on that soil. It impoverishes rural communities and moves that rural wealth to urban population centers, which are farther removed from the land that their decisions are impacting. And so there are a lot of fronts here that this whole different kind of farming system encourages. You know, perhaps you could cut to the chase and say the beauty of our kind of farming is that it makes happier earthworms, and it makes more four-legged salamanders and fertile frogs (laughs)!

MH: I like that. So, you talk a lot about scale in your writing. What do you think is the proper scale of farm to person, and how does that scale affect our lives?

JS: Whew, that’s a big question. I don’t know what the right percentage is, one to ten, one to one hundred, whatever…. But I do feel very strongly that a culture which has twice as many people incarcerated in prison as stewarding its air, soil, and water, is a culture that’s skewed somewhere. Imbalanced. What I’d like to bring to this discussion is what does the agrarian mindset bring to us? One of the things that farmers bring to the discussion is an appreciation that we’re not in control. Could I say they bring a humility? Now unfortunately, many industrial farmers, I think, are running on hubris. But the beauty of planting a garden, and having your children plant a garden, is to learn that there’s something bigger here that’s out of our control. The precipitation, the fertility, the nutrient cycling, these are bigger things than we can control. You can’t just press a button on a computer and resurrect the plant that died. You can’t press a button and resurrect the person that’s sick. I think that coming to life from the miracle of experience, and planting a seed and watching it grow into a plant—most of which is done without us— is just a wonderful, mystical thing that encourages humility. And our culture could use a little more humility, I think.

MH: I agree. You write about having many kinds of plants and animals working together on your farm. Do you look at the farm as a little ecosystem?

JS: Well, one of the things that our culture is struggling with, in our post-Greco-Roman-western-reductionist-linear-systematized-fragmented-disconnected culture—

MH: You make it sound so attractive!

JS: (laughs) —yes, is that we are all about examining the individual. We are not good, or have so far not been good, at examining the individual in relationship to that individual’s community. Whether that individual is an actinomycetes in the soil, or whether that individual is the mayor in a town. The point is, that just like no man is an island, it’s also true that no actinomycetes is by themselves, no cow is by herself, and no tomato plant is by itself. We’re all surrounded, below our feet, above our heads, and to our sides, with an entire seen and unseen world of bacteria, microorganisms, physical structures, minerals, and the periodic chart of the elements, okay? And as a result, it behooves us to look at individuals as components of communities rather than just as individuals. What that means to the farm is that a farm is a community of beings. The more we can create and massage diverse relationships on that farm, the more stable it will be. And this is what ecosystems do. Ecosystems are always about diversifying, and they’re about cycles, not just linear-factory-we’re gonna pour this in this end, and pull this out that end—that’s not an ecological cycle. Even the term “ecological cycle” assumes a total recycling. And so from a farm perspective, I’m not interested in monocultures, monospeciation, and single-plant, single-animal, single production of anything. I’m interested in relationships between the plants and animals, among the plants, among the animals, so that we have a diversified landscape that creates its own checks and balances within the system. Like a community does.

MH: So ideally, if we were really going to heal the landscape, what do you think is the proper proportion of agricultural areas, urban areas, wilderness areas, et cetera? Land use, I guess.

JS: I do know that a healing landscape would have a lot more perennials than annuals, and would have much more edible landscaping than inedible landscaping. And what we have here is 35 million acres of lawn in the United States. 35 million acres. And so when we talk about land use, you know, it’s always easy to tell somebody else what they ought to do with their land, the question is, what am I doing with mine? And whether you’re a school with all this lawn that you’re mowing, or a college, it should be edible landscaping, so the kids can pick pears and apples and strawberries on their way from classes (laughs), you know, grazing students! The whole idea of using land in an integrated food production model is just a wonderful idea. What we’ve done in our culture, is we’ve segregated, we’ve created essentially— food and economic apartheid. So that the food is in one place, the people live in another place, the factory is in another place, and we don’t have the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker imbedded in the village in an integrated network. And so when we talk about land use, I think that’s what we need to be dealing with, is the integration of different segments of culture and society and living, to integrate it all together.

MH: It does seem more efficient, environmentally-speaking, to do things that way—

JS: Absolutely.

MH: One of the things you had said was that you’re not allowed to do things like have a smokehouse on your farm, when things like that are such an integral part of Appalachian culture, Appalachian heritage.

JS: Right. Absolutely. If you go to Williamsburg, the beauty of Williamsburg is you go through the Smith house, and then you walk out back and there’s the soap maker, the candle maker, they’ve got the barrel-stave maker, the blacksmith, woodworking shop. What I’m saying is, historically the butcher, baker and candlestick maker were imbedded within the village. And what happened in the industrial economy is that all of these crafts scaled to such a repugnant size that society decided “You know what? I don’t want to look at you—I don’t want you near me, you’re belching smoke, you’re polluting the water, you’re ugly, you’re nasty, you’re noxious.” And so what we did was, we extended our Greco-Roman, western, you know, compartmentalized fragmented thinking to a total economic apartheid of all the sectors of industry and residential areas, to separate them rather than integrate them.

MH: I work with a nature preserve, and the people there have read a lot of your books. One of the things you say is that there may be too many nature preserves. I’m finding that my definition of a nature preserve is evolving, as my definition of maybe what a farm should be is evolving. Maybe a nature preserve is more of a garden of biodiversity that’s managed and maintained, and a farm could be a little bit more like a preserve, where you would have more biodiversity. Do you feel that the rules of those things may have been a little hard and fast and that maybe they should be integrated as well?

JS: Sure. Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more. I think that the farm, as it’s come to be known, as like a soybean farm, or a corn farm, or a dairy, is extremely inappropriate. Basically, land is just a niche of God’s creation. And so the idea is to intercept solar energy, and transfer it into recyclable, reusable biomass and material, as efficiently as possible. And that requires a lot of symbiosis and synergy across species.

MH: We’ve had a recent controversy, I’m sure you’ve heard, with the amendment to the Ohio Constitution—

JS: Oh, yeah, Prop 2.

MH: What is your opinion on that and governmental regulation on agriculture in general? I know that’s a loaded question for you.

JS: (Laughs) Yes, that’s a loaded question. I think we have way too much government intrusion already. Including the government intrusion that gives free passes and corporate welfare to large businesses. When people like me tend to say we don’t want more government control, typically the more liberal, “we need more government control”-type people say, “oh, you just want abuse, and you want the Rockefellers to get bigger”, and so on. And people like me tend to (not quickly enough) say that when I don’t want more government regulation, I also mean I don’t want government special concessions to big business, corporate welfare, and all the things that prejudice the system against the small producer. I think generally speaking, when you give the government more control, it is going to cater to the large interests. Which is exactly what we see happening now, which is why it’s legal to give your kids Twinkies, Cocoa Puffs and Mountain Dew, but not raw milk.

MH: So, do you feel that Prop 2 is a step further in that direction?

JS: Oh, absolutely. I think Prop 2 is absolutely a step toward more regulation. And the problem is, in America, when you say “the government”, you’re basically saying, “the alliance of government and corporate”. President Obama has just named the head of Monsanto’s genetic engineering department to head up the Food and Drug Administration. This revolving door is just obscene. So when we say we want to have the government involved with things, what we’re really saying is, the government plus Monsanto. And that’s a real different thing than just government.

MH: So I have to ask you, being a huge fan of Wendell Berry, Masanobu Fukuoka, Thomas Berry, all these environmental writers whose faith has influenced their environmental ethos—

JS: (Laughs) Right! Sure.

MH: Could you talk about these writers a little bit, and maybe also how your faith has influenced you?

JS: Yeah, you know, my moniker is, that I’m a Christian environmentalist libertarian capitalist lunatic farmer. And each of those has its liability and its asset. Where I get crossways of my conservative, religious-right  friends is this notion that we’re supposed to be actually nurturing— caressing, if you will— this Creation, and not just dominating and manipulating it. Unfortunately, the biblical view of land stewardship has been prostituted to mean manipulation and domination. Plenty of people think the religious right is responsible for a lot of land degradation. And I absolutely would agree with that. It’s just like saying, “cows have destroyed a lot of landscape”. That’s true, they have. But it’s not the cow; it’s the management of the cow that either makes the cow a landscape healer or a landscape destroyer. So the people that have used their conservative, religious-right theology to justify a very arrogant, disrespectful view toward Creation, are certainly not adhering to the message of Jesus. Or to the message of Genesis, either, for that matter. For me, I believe that that initial order and pattern is premium. And so how can I domestically use that natural template that we see, and conform my commercial farming model to that. Which means a cow, which is an herbivore, is fed like an herbivore. We don’t feed dead cows to cows. I didn’t feed dead cows to cows forty years ago when the USDA told us that that was the new, science-based methodology. I didn’t spurn that advice because I was a Luddite, because I didn’t like the USDA, or because I didn’t like new things, I spurned that because I knew that there’s no place in nature where herbivores eat dead animals. So that’s why it’s important to have our philosophy right, because it’s our philosophy that creates a moral, ethical boundary— a cell wall— around our innovative nucleus, to keep us within what is functional and protective as a community, as individuals in a community.

MH: That’s a really good analogy; I will keep that with me. So, speaking of environmental farmer writers, have you read any Louis Bromfield, one of our native sons of Ohio?

JS: Oh, I’ve read all of Louis Bromfield! Oh, he’s an icon, absolutely!

MH: It was amazing, I went to the Columbus Library catalogue, and there was so much Louis Bromfield, and not a single one was checked out, and I thought, no one even knows this guy anymore. And he won the Pulitzer Prize, and—

JS: And Lauren Bacall got married in his house (laughs)!

MH: —right, so that’s not too shabby. So what lessons do you think Louis Bromfield still has to teach us?

JS: Oh, absolutely, well Louis Bromfield, he has a lot of lessons to teach us! One was that fertility starts from the inside, not the outside. We have this notion today, in industrial agriculture, that fertility has to be imported from outside. And what Louis Bromfield showed was that the foundation of fertility was internal, was recycling the biomass from the decomposition of the plants and the animals. Another thing that he certainly showed us was that the farm should be primarily perennials, not annuals. And he converted a lot of plowed fields into perennial forages that have deep roots and mine those minerals from down deep. And he was a lover of ponds. He said the answer to flooding in the Mississippi is not the big Army Corps of Engineers dams; it’s rather millions and millions of farm ponds up here at the headwaters. Like little hoof prints on the landscape, to not let the water get to where it could flood, but let it seep gently into the aquifers and recharge everything. He was a big believer in very, very innovative machinery. The tillage tools that he promoted, or like the barn that dried down the hay by leaving a space under the floor to let the heat come in and dry the hay. Those were marvelous and still cutting edge ideas. So yeah, Louis Bromfield, they don’t come any better.

MH: So Ohio has a lot to be proud of there!

JS: You sure do, yes indeed. Well you know I was born in Wooster. I only stayed six weeks, but I was born in Wooster.

MH: Were you really? Wow! So, what’s the best way for customers to get involved with this, or for people who want to get into farming, how can they get involved?

JS: Oh my. Well, that’s such a wonderful question, because it’s an empowering question. Whether it’s a window box on a townhouse, to keeping two chickens in a parakeet cage (don’t ask don’t tell), to going to the landlord of your condominium and saying, “You know what? Instead of you paying a landscape service, how about I take over this contract? You don’t have to pay me anything”. And people turn these into gardens. Of course one of the best things that everybody can do is to rediscover their kitchen! As consumers, we tend to put a lot of the onus on farmers, without realizing that the best opt-out strategy in our whole culture right now is– don’t buy the industrial food. Get the unprocessed stuff, and then prepare it in your own kitchen. No culture has spent more on kitchen remodeling and amenities, and been more lost as to where they are or how to use them! And there’s no reason why you have to go to Starbucks. You don’t have to go to McDonald’s. You don’t have to buy tobacco. You don’t have to buy alcohol. There a lot of things you don’t have to do. You don’t have to buy DiGiorno’s microwaveable pizza. You don’t have to buy potato chips! There a lot of things that we don’t actually have to buy. And if we would just enjoy rediscovering the farm treasures in our communities, and the treasures in our own kitchens, we would begin a very quick progression out of the industrial food paradigm.

MH: So one more thing, when can I come and work for you? Can I live in your tool shed? I mean, what can you say to young people that don’t have land that want to get into farming? 95% of Americans used to be farmers, now it’s less than 3%?

JS: It’s actually less than 1.5%. Again, bloom where you’re planted. If you’re working on a preserve, you’d be surprised how many opportunities there are. Whether it’s a neighbor’s yard, or your own yard, or some friend or acquaintance you know. I’m a firm believer that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. I think the thing to do is just to move forward with where you are, with what you have, if you have an opportunity there. And if you’re faithful in that one, the next one will come along. You don’t have to sit here and figure out five years down the road, ten years down the road, because who of us is ever where we thought we’d be five years ago. Nobody! And so what we need to do is just take advantage, leverage the opportunity that we can see right now, and then the next opportunity will show itself, if we’re faithful in utilizing the one that’s in front of us.

MH: Good. Well, thanks a lot.

JS: It’s been a pleasure, Mandy, thank you.

Polyface Farm gives tours as well as hires a rotating staff of interns. For those who are interested in learning more, please visit www.polyfacefarms.com.

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