Sitting on a picnic bench across from Joel Salatin on a beautiful day on Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, I am struck with how much the farmer, author and lecturer reminds me of Ron Paul: Mission-driven, a leader who has inspired millions around the world, a Christian, family man, libertarian, self-sufficient, charismatic, energetic, enterprising, optimistic, hard-working, a teacher, a communicator, a brilliant unorthodox thinker, confident yet humble, good-humored, athletic, frugal, and possessing a strong bearing and commanding presence. A great and good man.
If you type the question “Who is the most famous farmer in the world?” into Google, the result is Joel Salatin. He has appeared in many documentaries on factory farming and/or the rogue food movement including Polyfaces, Food Inc., Fresh, Revolution Food, Sustenance, Freedom From Choice, What’s With Wheat?, American Meat, and At the Fork. Ron Paul also appears in Farmageddon which shows government agents swat teaming family farmers for selling raw milk, destroying their animals and their livelihoods. Salatin has written 12 books, lectured all over the world, edits the Stockman Grass Farmer, and the self-described “lunatic farmer” shares his musings online.
Four generations of Salatins live and work at Polyface: Joel’s mother Lucille who originally owned the 550-acre farm with her husband Bill who passed away in 1988; Joel, Teresa, his wife of 40+ years, their daughter Rachel who does marketing for the farm, and son Daniel who has been managing the farm since he was 18, his wife Sheri and their three children. The farm provides food for 3,000 in the community and local restaurants.
At Polyface Farm simple farming methods are modified by new technologies. The farm is regenerative, sustainable and organic: no pesticides, chemical fertilizers or antibiotics have ever been used and seeds have never been planted. The carbon-based ecosystem is teaming with life. The movement of the animals and their meeting with grass on the farm is carefully and lovingly managed. High-tech fencing keeps the animals in and the predators out. The cows, chickens, hens, baby chicks, and rabbits look healthy and content and so does the team who work on the farm. People travel from all over the world to visit Polyface, take a tour, participate in summits, and learn how to start or develop their own farms.
A palpable spirituality permeates this space: the cycle of life is fully expressed, with every living plant, animal and person doing their part and working together in perfect synergy. Life is biological and therefore fundamentally sacred and the sacrifice of life to feed or serve others is understood. This philosophy is most certainly in stark contrast with the transhumanist agenda of the global technocrats to transform humans into machines.
Over the past 50 years factory farming dominated by industrial giants took control of agriculture in America, with government regulations favoring the monopolists and governments subsidizing many farmers. For decades growing consumer awareness and concern about industrialized farm products and the globalized industrial food system vastly increased the market and demand for organics, but agribusiness has incrementally hijacked the label organic. While organic family farms constitute only 2% of agriculture in the US and the average age of a family farmer is 60, the local rogue food movement is growing, especially since the Covid coup. Salatin says if the farming methods used at Polyface were globally implemented, all the carbon depleted from the soil since the industrial age would be sequestered within 10 years.
Q & A with Joel:
How did you get started in farming?
My dad was an accountant and my mom a teacher. They didn’t see this farm as a business. They never made money. We stand on the shoulders of greatness. We got a blank slate. We leveraged a simple but elegant basic philosophy of non-chemical using nature as a template, a carbon economy. Teresa and I lived in the attic on $300 month and drove a $50 car. We were married 20 years and figured out all we spent on cars and it didn’t add up to $20,000. We have been frugal. We never had a TV. If we made a windfall we wouldn’t change anything. We enjoy writing, have no desire for material things, and have a happy, content, well paid team. I’d rather be a pauper with a team who would die for me than die with millions in the bank with team members who don’t like me. We put a lot of attention on what are we here for – the sacredness and righteousness of what we are doing for the land, culture, community, and people. It doesn’t get any more noble than healing.
When did the modern organic food movement begin?
J.I. Rodale published the Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942, there was the Agriculture Testament by Sir Albert Howard in 1943, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962, Mother Earth News during the Vietnam War era, Wendall Berry’s “Unsettling of America” in 1977. The idea of organic farming was then codified. There was “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, and the documentary Food, Inc.
How did “the Covid coup” affect the Polyface Farm business?
Nice little entrepreneur owned local restaurants has been one of the most viable small local capital things someone can get into. We served 50 restaurants and it’s unfortunate but about 30 of these small businesses shut down.
What role should the government have had in response to Covid-19?
None. Health is not a government responsibility; it’s a personal responsibility. As soon as you make it a government responsibility, you begin taking sides as to which procedures are good and which are bad. Obviously, expert opinion is often wrong: think DDT, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and antimicrobial soap.
How has Covid-19 changed local farming?
2020 will go down as a time of accelerating interest in questioning scientific orthodoxy and individuals taking responsibility for their own health realizing they can’t depend on government yo-yos to do it. Catastrophes don’t make trends, they clarify trends. The seed companies sold out and you couldn’t buy freezers at Lowes. Supermarket shelves went empty last spring (2020). There has been a tsunami of interest in gardening and in homesteading. One million backyard chicken flocks went in, and we sold many raise-to-lay pullets and hens. They start to lay eggs at about the 20th week. Customers walk in the Polyface store and tell us “Before this I would have never come out here and I can never go back.” There is a homesteading movement and the price of small acreages, five acres and down, it doesn’t go on market for 24 hours, and people get 10-15 % above the asking price.
What can you say about the thinking of these customers on the Covid shots?
There are people questioning vaccines. They have children with autism, they are aware of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s work with the Children’s Health Defense. More dots are being connected with adult ailments linked to vaccination like autoimmune diseases. I didn’t know there was a fund for people who got hurt from vaccines. There is an alignment of this vaccine questioning group against the overall pontifications from the CDC and this is all eroding faith in conventional thinking. Not the least of this has been the inversion of eating butter and lard which the government claimed was not healthy and hydrogenated oil which consumers were told was healthy. They have an overall question about how to stay healthy including economic concerns: what happens if we become a banana republic? How do I stay healthy if the stock market crashes?
How did people allow industrialized farming to take over?
We are addicted to convenience. We would rather drink coke and at age 50 expect many visits to the doctors. These things accumulate. The statistics 35 years ago were 18% of per capita income was spent on food while 9% was spent on health care. Today 9% is spent on food and 18% on health care. There is a link. You get what you pay for with clothes, automobiles, country club memberships, TVs and food. This is food on the table, and it’s a sacred spot. We are supposed to buy a Pinto and have the health of a Mercedes. The hardest thing to change is diet. We like what we like, like the smells of grandma’s kitchen. The most intimate thing we do is to take this material, eat it, and it becomes me. This is common sense.
We are told climate change is a threat, carbon is bad, coal plants must be shut down. The farm economy is based on carbon and globally soil has been severely depleted of carbon. Can you reconcile these two views?
You can never go wrong building up the carbon in soil. So why not start with where everyone agrees and leave the causes and fringes alone? Further, how about reducing energy consumption, like regionalizing food systems rather than globalizing them. Like using your kitchen to prepare food rather than urban industrial centers. Like eating whole foods rather than processed foods. If we reduced processing and transportation energy, we’d get carbon reductions by default.
How would you describe the beliefs of those interested in food self-sufficiency?
When we began getting notoriety visitors were liberals caring for the earth and tree huggers, and then the home schooling movement joined them. The visitor ratio shifted to a lot of conservatives. We had these two polar opposites coexisting. They all agreed they didn’t like the system. When you do something unorthodox and unconventional and you find it rewarding, your next thought is “What else have I been missing?” People started going to the acupuncturist instead of the doctor, started baking bread, started putting chickens in their backyard, and buying the acres to put in milk cows. I think 2020 will go down as a similar pivotal time in the overall health movement. An MIT professor who studies trends concluded liberals and conservatives agree on three things: 1) 2020 showed we are going in wrong direction and proved we are dysfunctional 2) I want to help the situation, and 3) I don’t know how. The energy and power we can bring is we can show people how so they can say “I helped.” We can bring functionality where there is dysfunction.
What kinds of health issues can result from food supply chains?
Vulnerabilities are pathogens, toxins and diseases that affect the food system, like swine flu, influenza, and Covid. The food industry is sterilizing everything. Food doesn’t have life in it. Hydroponic crops are not grown in soil but they are called organic. Animals, plants and humans can have an effect. The genetic diversity of all our major food sources is narrow. All dairy cows in the US come from two bulls. The homogeneity of genetic selection creates more vulnerability. Diversified pasture is a more healthy, resilient system than annuals and monocrops. We are setting ourselves up for an Irish potato famine.
Do you foresee food shortages?
I don’t. We are not going to run out of food. For the first time in history we are throwing away 40-50% of the food on the planet. You can increase the population by 50% and we are growing enough food for people. China is paying people to have kids. Africa has untapped potential and is awash and rich in resources. The problem is socioeconomic. US foreign aid displaces their own indigenous wisdom and ability to grow. There is sickness and disease that are unrelated to fertility. The problem is we have a shortage of nutrition. Food plays a role in the rise and fall of civilizations. Historically soil erosion meant there wasn’t enough food. Population growth would be decelerating in the US if it weren’t for immigration. There won’t be a farmer’s revolution in the US – there are twice as many people in prison than farmers – but there could be a food issue. A lot more people are interested in food than in growing it. Polyface Farm is now getting four times the county average of production per acre pasture, four times per acre of the average farm in the county. Imagine if the whole country did that. We could double or triple that production in five years if we wanted to with a change in management. The US has 35 million acres of lawn not including golf courses and 36 million recreational acres for horses, that’s 71 million. Think of the millions of acres of unused suburban land that can be turned into production area if the Bureau of Land Management would allow it
What can people do to start to become food self-sufficient?
The idea that we can create a different world but nobody has to change is not true. Everything that is going on now – Biden, Trump – we have a physical manifestation of decisions people have made until today. In 40 years, it will be the same thing. The future starts now. I have a favorite Chinese proverb, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” We must make a change. Bloom where you are planted. Fill your space whether it’s an apartment or a condo, townhouse or house. Put kitchen scraps in a composter and let the earthworms eat it. You can hang things, pack compost in, and have an herb garden. Put a bee hive on your roof or a garden. Raise chickens or rabbits if you have any land. Buy two bushels of green beans and can them. Create a food larder. Historically homes had a chicken house next to it, a piggery next to it, and the pigs would get the spilt milk from cheesemaking. How much whey in cheesemaking do we throw away instead of feeding it to pigs because we have a segregated food system? In my perfect world there wouldn’t be egg sales at the supermarket. If one in three households had chicken scraps, they would turn it into compost, feed it to earthworms, and feed them to chickens. Surround yourself with people who appreciate this.
How else can unorthodox thinking further be applied to decrease dependency on the industrialized farming system?
There’s a day called the Great American Smokeout that started about 20 year ago – one day when no one will smoke. What if there was a Great American Junk Food Out? For one day no one ate junk food. Imagine the repercussions of that. It would bring the industry to its knees.
How does farming differ from the virtual world?
A garden is one thing in the life of children that is real; it’s viscerally participating in the mystery of life. How much time do people spend in front of screens playing games? This is fantasy. When you get immersed in real life drama, not games, it’s for all the marbles. When the tomato plant dries up and dies, you don’t have another tomato plant in a minute. This finality is real which makes life more sacred, and death is part of that cycle. You can compensate for that by moving to a more resilient system.
How is that accomplished?
Diversification is the answer. True organic soil doesn’t dry out as fast. We built ponds as part of flood control. This is water that accumulated in February in ponds. We were really dry. We got nice rain last night. Decentralize animals so they are not in the same structure, and then the structures are cheaper. If something happens to the chickens, you have cows. An efficient, integrated, relationally complex system takes a lot of attention to create. Having a functional team takes a lot of effort to create in a business environment rather than letting it spin out of control. Fragility doesn’t take any effort.
How does someone become an intern at the farm and what is the impact of that experience on them?
Apply. We have a formal selection and vetting process; the primary criterion is attitude and spirit. For those young people to step in and viscerally participate in healing beyond themselves creates purpose-driven incentive. There are few things as profound in life.
How does someone become an apprentice at Polyface Farm?
At the halfway point of the five-month stewardship program (internship) you can apply for the 12-month additional apprenticeship. By that time, we’ve been together for about three months so it becomes fairly clear what makes a good fit. At that point, of course, we seriously consider leadership qualities.
What can you say about your new book?
I have written a manuscript for another book to be published next month called “Polyface Micro” and it talks about raising animals scaled down to a microscale, like two cows. What if I live in a New York apartment and am devoted to animals and not plants? How do you do it with no odors? It takes 11 chickens on average to generate the same manure as one dog. Flies come to the manure and lay eggs, and the maggots come from flies. People say, “I’ve only got one acre, how do I do this small?” It’s a big umbrella thought: if you want to you can, it’s mental more than anything else.
How are family farmers, including you, fighting back against unfair government regulations?
A whole movement called the ROGUE FOOD movement has launched to inspire and inform people how to circumvent onerous and malicious government regulations. We share techniques and encourage circumvention rather than compliance. (Polyface Farm is hosting a Rogue Food event in August.)