Thanks to his appearances in documentaries like Food, Inc. and Michael Pollan’s 2006 best-selling book about our food choices, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Joel Salatin may be one of the most well-known farmers in the United States today. Yet his successful, innovative, dirt-under-the-fingernails agricultural practices are far from the norm in this country. A prolific author and charismatic speaker, Salatin has been preaching his unique brand of agrarian gospel for more than two decades, and his scathing criticism of factory farming ruffles more than a few feathers. Describing himself as a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer,” he calls for revolutionary change in how we produce and distribute food, how we relate to nature, and, in some regards, how we organize society. He even questions our current understanding of what constitutes food.
Born in the U.S. in 1957, Salatin moved to Venezuela with his family when he was six weeks old. He is a third-generation farmer; his grandfather was an early adherent of J.I. Rodale, the founder of the modern organic-farming movement in the U.S. In 1961, after losing their farm in Venezuela, Salatin’s parents moved to the U.S. and acquired a 550-acre tract of run-down land in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. To heal the severely eroded land, his father planted trees. The family raised beef cattle, and his parents also worked away from the farm, his father as an accountant and his mother as a high-school physical-education teacher.
While he was still in high school, Salatin started selling rabbits, chickens, eggs, and butter from the farm. After graduating from Bob Jones University, where he majored in English, he worked at the local newspaper as a feature writer. At the age of twenty-five he returned to farming full time on the family property, which he later named Polyface Farm.
Salatin’s innovative practices include frequently moving his animals from one pasture to another (rather than feeding them in a central location) and selling his farm products directly to consumers and restaurants. He was offering pastured poultry and grass-fed beef long before these concepts gained popularity in the marketplace. His example continues to catch the attention of new and struggling farmers seeking something more promising than high-tech methods that deplete their land’s fertility, demand high costs, and offer diminishing financial returns.
Polyface Farm also trains apprentices in eco-farming methods. Through its farm store and metropolitan buying clubs, it supplies five thousand families, and it delivers its products to fifty restaurants and ten retail outlets. On principle the farm limits sales to a radius of 250 miles. In recent years it has made $1 million in annual gross sales.
Salatin began self-publishing his books in 1993. His early works — including Pastured Poultry Profits and You Can Farm — serve as how-to manuals for developing a successful ecological farming business. Over time Salatin has directed his writing to a more general audience in order to foster awareness about the threats to — and the benefits of — healthy, natural food, publishing such books as Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal and The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. His latest volume, Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World, was released last October by the Hachette Book Group and is the first of his books that Salatin did not publish himself.
For this interview Salatin and I sat at the dining-room table in the house where he grew up. Earlier that day I had taken part in one of his “Lunatic Farmer” tours, held several times a month during the growing season. Among the seventy-five participants, a few had driven from as far away as Ohio and Connecticut to see their mentor’s farm and methods with their own eyes.
Frisch: What makes working on your farm so appealing?
Salatin: We raise fifty beef cattle, three hundred hogs, fifteen thousand broiler chickens, one thousand turkeys, and one thousand rabbits on our farm, and I get to make all these animals happy every day. There’s also a real satisfaction in seeing the land heal. Every year it gets better. And I feel a tremendous joy in working with young people to help them become successful farmers, to give them a springboard from which they can launch their own land-healing enterprise.
We’re not just interested in healing the land. Producing good food makes healthy, happy customers too. It’s wonderful when a patron tells us, “I had this physical problem, and I changed what I eat, and now I’m not allergic to chicken anymore.” Or they have more energy, or their cholesterol is down. We feel responsible for the health of our customers, and we don’t take that lightly. As farmers we should be in the healing business: healing our soil, healing our water, and healing our patrons — not growing food that is nutrient deficient or pathogenic.
Have you ever tried to make monosodium glutamate? Have you ever tried to make high-fructose corn syrup? Food that you can’t pronounce or make in your kitchen is like a foreign invader to the community of three trillion microbes inside your body that are going to digest it. When I talk about healing, I’m referring to this entire spectrum, from our intestinal bacteria to the whole farm.
Frisch: In the context of agricultural production, aesthetics is rarely, if ever, mentioned. In fact, there’s a saying that the stink of manure “smells like money.” In contrast, you write in The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer that if it smells bad or is not beautiful, it is not good farming.
Salatin: A farm should be aesthetically, aromatically, and sensuously appealing. It should be a place that is attractive, not repugnant, to the senses. This is food production. A farm shouldn’t be producing ugly things. It should be producing beautiful things. We’re going to eat them.
One of the surest ways to know if a wound is infected is if it is unsightly and smells bad. When it starts to heal, it gets a pretty sheen and doesn’t smell anymore. Farms that are not beautiful and that stink are like big wounds on the landscape.
Farms have become so repugnant that they have been relegated to the edges of society. And anytime you isolate an economic sector to society’s periphery, that sector will start taking economic, societal, and ecological shortcuts, because no one is there to see what comes in or goes out the back door. When the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker are working in the village, the inherent transparency facilitates accountability, which is the essence of integrity. That comes from embeddedness in the community.
Frisch: What do we teach our children when we call soil “dirty”?
Salatin: We’re teaching them to disconnect their ecological umbilical cord. In our culture today a profound number of people don’t have a link to the land. We live in a fantasy world.
That’s the reason I advocate exposing children to home gardening. In the world of video games if you wreck your car, the game gives you a new car. But if you’re gardening and your tomato wilts, that’s final. It’s gone. If your chicken dies because you didn’t take care of it, it’s truly dead. This fantasy culture we are creating is incredibly dangerous: people think we can extricate ourselves from our ecological niche.
Frisch: I suspect that you find a lot of things to emulate and celebrate about the farms and agrarian culture of bygone days.
Salatin: Farms used to be diversified, symbiotic operations. They were seen as the centerpiece of the economy. So many of the things that have been moved off the farm — baking, weaving, leather tanning, shoemaking — used to be embedded in farm life. All of these home industries were done near the resource. The processing of the farm products, which added to their value, was seen as an integral part of work on the farm, not a separate business.
Today we view the farm as a production unit, responsible only for sending raw materials across the globe for processing, often to be disseminated back to within a few miles of the farm. I call it “economic apartheid.” It’s colonialism. As the processing has moved off the farms, the farms have become the new colonies.
Frisch: People work hard on Polyface Farm. You’re out tending animals before dawn. This type of farming is more physically demanding than mainstream agriculture with huge equipment, where people are simply pushing buttons on machinery or even sitting in an office.
Salatin: If land stewardship is to be done well, it’s going to take more loving stewards on the land. It can’t be done well when we have driverless tractors run by GPS. Where’s the appreciation of the landscape in that?
The ultimate outsourcing is the outsourcing of decision making. Right now the average piece of farmland is being governed by people who will never set foot on it or see the ramifications of their decisions. They don’t ever have to see it, smell it, or live with it.
If you raise chickens for Tyson Foods, you’re consulted by their field man, who is credentialed and has learned all there is to know about chickens in the laboratory. The chickens you’re raising are his chickens. You, as the farmer, get the privilege of having the mortgage and removing the dead chickens. This greatly affects the way you are going to farm — for instance, by encouraging you to use genetically modified grains that are pushed by subsidy programs.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama last year, uses the phrase “science-based” eleven times as a regulatory term to ascertain whether a farm is using proper procedures. But whose science is the government referring to? The science of the compost pile, of the earthworm, of Aunt Matilda’s pickles? Or the science of genetic engineering and irradiation?
Frisch: So you distrust the regulating agencies’ view of “sound science”?
Salatin: Yes. Take the example of outdoor poultry processing, which is currently illegal. The government says that if you don’t have an enclosed slaughterhouse, then the air is unsanitary. That’s the official science. The official protocol to sanitize the chicken is to put it through a chlorine-bleach bath and expose it to UV light before taking it to market. These government regulators live in a world of gloomy, confined processing facilities that are running 24/7 year-round.
We have an open-air facility at Polyface. Our farm runs seasonally, we don’t process every day, and our chickens are raised in a field with fresh air and sunshine. But the official protocols say you have to have chlorine and an enclosed building to have clean chickens. So we had a culture taken from our chickens and one taken from chickens from the supermarket that had been through the chlorine baths, and we had them analyzed in a neutral lab off-site. The chickens from the supermarket averaged 3,600 colony-forming units of bacteria per milliliter. The chickens from our farm averaged 133 units.
When the head of the Virginia meat-and-poultry inspection program and his federal superior sat in my living room, trying to shut down our farm, I showed them that report. Wouldn’t you think they’d turn cartwheels and say, “Here’s chicken that is more than twenty-five times cleaner than chicken produced by the usual methods!” and consider changing their protocol? Instead they asked how many bathrooms we have, how many light bulbs in the ceiling, how many changing lockers for employees.
So are they after clean chicken or not? If we can gut a chicken in the kitchen sink and have it meet the regulators’ empirical standard, who cares where it was done? And yet the government isn’t willing even to study outdoor poultry processing, because it’s so far outside the paradigm. It’s similar to when they closed the goat-milk operation of a friend of mine. If they had pulled a sample from a bucket of his goats’ milk and it was cleaner than what’s in a grade-A bulk tank, it wouldn’t have mattered to them, because their scientific protocol requires that the sample be pulled from an enclosed environment. The poor farmer with only two goats is shut down because he can’t afford a ten-thousand-dollar bulk tank.
I have met a lot of these bureaucrats, and they absolutely believe that if farmers like me were turned loose on the marketplace, the hospitals would soon overflow with sick people. Their motivation is sincere and their intentions noble, but they are misguided and ignorant about the true antidotes to nutrient deficiency and food pathogenicity.
A farm should be aesthetically, aromatically, and sensuously appealing. It should be a place that is attractive, not repugnant, to the senses. This is food production. A farm shouldn’t be producing ugly things. It should be producing beautiful things. We’re going to eat them.
Frisch: The philosopher and animal-rights advocate Peter Singer believes that requiring farmers to send animals to licensed slaughterhouses makes it more difficult to have a humane farm. What are your thoughts on this?
Salatin: This is one time when Peter Singer and I are in complete agreement. Farms like mine are required to take an animal conceived, birthed, and reared on our property and then, on its last day of life, commit the ignominy of putting it on a trailer and hauling it up the road to a place where it is commingled with unfamiliar animals and slaughtered by people who never cared for it. That’s outrageous. In fact, I would go a step further and say that nobody should be compelled to slaughter animals every day of his or her life. Even the priestly Levites of the Bible drew straws to rotate the sacrificial responsibilities in the Temple. If we integrate the slaughtering with other farm work, nobody has to do it every day, and the animals never have to leave their familiar surroundings. It changes the emotional ramifications of the activity.
But our culture never asks what makes pigs happy. It looks upon them as if they were merely piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated. A culture that views life in that fashion will view its citizens and other cultures the same way.
Frisch: You’ve written that if the Founding Fathers could have seen into the future, food sovereignty would have been guaranteed in the Constitution. What makes this a priority issue for you?
Salatin: It comes down to autonomous personhood. If I don’t have the freedom to feed my three-trillion-member internal community of microbes in the manner I choose, then the infringement of other rights, such as freedom of the press and freedom of religion, can’t be far behind.
It is important that small farmers be able to reach people who want to practice personal autonomy, because the regulatory climate is marginalizing, demonizing, and criminalizing much of this heritage-based, indigenous type of food production.
Frisch: I’ve been listening to news of food-borne-illness outbreaks during the last several months: cantaloupe in Colorado, chopped romaine lettuce in California, ground beef in multiple states. This used to be a concern only when traveling to a third-world country. Why is there so much food contamination in the U.S.?
Salatin: The problem is that scientists are confusing sterility with safety. Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently released a video that says we’re only 15 percent human. We’re 85 percent nonhuman. When you measure our bacteria, our cells, the cloud of stuff we have around us, like the Peanuts character Pigpen, we live in a bacterial-fungal bath. Sterility has its place — in surgery, for example — but life is not sterile. What we need to do is create circumstances where the good bugs beat out the bad bugs.
In the cantaloupe, the romaine lettuce, and the ground beef we have bypassed the immunities that are supposed to act as a barrier that’s too high for the pathogens to jump over. Those hurdles are everything from biologically active soil to farm diversity and crop rotation, where you don’t grow the same crop in the same field every year.
Certainly the E. coli outbreak in lettuce in California in 2010 was the result of dust-borne bacteria carried on the wind from a large, high-density cattle feedlot, where E. coli can thrive. In fact, there are feedlots in which the livestock are drugged so heavily that their manure isn’t compostable. It’s too sterile.
If I wanted to build a farm full of pathogens, here’s what I’d do: I’d diminish the diversity and rear only one kind of animal, so as not to confuse the pathogens. I’d crowd the animals close together, so the pathogens would have easy access to hosts. Sunshine is the number-one sanitizer in nature, so I would lock the animals indoors. I’d make sure they didn’t get any exercise, so they would have poor muscle structure. I’d make sure the animals breathed in a fecal particulate that would make lesions in their respiratory membranes, bypass their immunological barriers, and go straight into their bloodstream to cause infections. I’d routinely give them drugs to suppress their natural immune systems. And I’d feed them an extremely nutrient-deficient diet of chemically fertilized feedstuffs.
What have I just described? Science-based American farming!
Joel Arthur Barker’s book Paradigms popularized the word paradigm. One of his principles is that every paradigm at its apparent point of perfection is on the verge of collapse. Many think our culture is approaching the zenith of food production through genetic modification, chemical fertilization, and factory farming, when these things are actually the beginning of the collapse.
It took five hundred years for metallurgy and sociopolitical events to create the ultimate warrior, a knight in a suit of armor, mounted on a horse. This was the perfect impregnable war machine. Within twenty years it was obsolete due to the invention of gunpowder, which was the ultimate democratization of power.
Nature tends to move toward the democratization of power when there is too much domination from the top. Right now there is three times as much centralization in the U.S. food industry as there was in 1906, before the Food Safety and Inspection Service was established. Seven outfits controlled 60 percent of the nation’s beef in 1906; today three companies control 80 percent. That’s a significantly greater concentration of power.
But nature bats last. Nature begins looking for the chinks in that armor. Nature acts like gunpowder, if you will, to democratize the power structure.
That’s exactly what I think is happening in our food system, and it’s borne out by the health problems we’re seeing on a massive scale, including our epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes. The U.S. leads the world in per capita rates of the five most prevalent chronic diseases: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and lung conditions like asthma.
In thirty-five years the budget of the average family in the U.S. has gone from 18 percent food costs and 9 percent medical costs to 9 percent food costs and 18 percent medical costs. There’s an obvious correlation. Americans need to spend more money on healthy, natural food.
Frisch: Let’s talk about the animals on the farm. In your article “Let the Animals Do the Work,” you put forth the idea that farm animals are naturally disposed to particular activities that can contribute to a farm’s ecology.
Salatin: Farmers are choreographing a biological ballet of plants and animals. That’s a profoundly different way of looking at a farm than the industrial approach, which emphasizes force and dominance and a mechanistic framework. On my farm we ask, “What is the essence of the pig? What is the ‘chickenness’ of the chicken?” The only question our culture asks is how we can grow it faster, bigger, cheaper. That isn’t noble. That isn’t sacred. And it certainly isn’t healing.
We want to create a habitat that allows the animal to fully express its distinctiveness. If we can figure out a way to use that plow that is the end of a pig’s head to our benefit, the pig is happier, and we get more work done.
We use pigs to make our compost. We sprinkle corn into layers of hay, straw, and manure in the winter. In the spring the pigs seek out the fermented corn, and in so doing they stir up the mixture and turn it into fluffy compost. No machine or petroleum is involved. We don’t even have to steer the pigs. And they don’t need spare parts or an oil change. It’s like buying machinery that appreciates in value.
When we get our work done with things that don’t rust, break down, or depreciate, then we don’t have to work in large volumes to cover all the infrastructure costs. If you are going to use a twenty-thousand-dollar compost turner and employ an operator to run it, you’d better be making a lot of compost to pay for the machine and the operator. But if you are doing it with a pig that runs on corn, that doesn’t require an operator, and that you can sell for more than you bought it for, you can be just as profitable per cubic yard of compost with two cubic yards as with five thousand cubic yards.
By integrating the animals into the work of the farm, we save money on operating costs, and the animals become co-laborers and team players, rather than just bacon or hamburgers. Their lives become part of our dance.
Frisch: How do you answer critics who might say, “So you use pigs for work, and then you kill them for food. How is that respecting the animal?”
Salatin: Everything is eating and being eaten. If you don’t believe me, go lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. All life springs from the sacrifice of something living. The death-decay-life cycle is the most fundamental and important ecological principle in the world. We give life to others as we sacrifice ourselves.
With this in mind, the practical question is “How do we sanctify the animal’s death?” By honoring the “pigness” of the pig and offering it meaningful work as a co-laborer and healer of the land, we respect the life that nurtures us and make its death more sacred.
Frisch: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] is offering a million-dollar prize for the commercialization of chicken meat produced in a lab from animal stem cells.
Salatin: PETA’s problem is that they are trying to get life without sacrifice. We revere life because it requires sacrifice. To break — or even aspire to break — the cycle of life and death, decomposition and regeneration, has profound emotional and spiritual ramifications.
Frisch: But humans don’t need to eat meat to survive, so is it a necessary sacrifice? Some might say the animal gives up its life simply for our pleasure. Wouldn’t not eating meat be a minor sacrifice on our part, as opposed to the animal’s major sacrifice: its life?
Salatin: Why think animals are more special than carrots? Just because a life-form appears more closely related to humans doesn’t mean it’s more important than one that doesn’t, such as a bacterium. That said, animals do fulfill important functions. They are the only way nature has to defy the gravitational pull of fertility. Due to downward movement valleys gradually become more fertile while slopes and hilltops become infertile. But herbivores eat the plants in the valleys and defecate on the slopes and hilltops, where they’re safer from predation.
Animals, especially herbivores — such as goats, sheep, cows, yaks, and water buffaloes — convert soil-building perennials into nutrient-dense foods. Were we to eliminate farm animals, we would run out of soil due to the inefficient carbon cycle of a plant-only tillage-based system. Omnivores — poultry and pigs — recycle scrapped and spoiled produce into food for humans. These days our culture thinks it’s environmentally healthy to put kitchen scraps into a bin to be sent to a composting facility via diesel truck, to be bagged and sold as compost. Historically humans, plants, and animals could not be segregated like this; they were intricately integrated.
The notion that we could have a functional planet if people did not eat animals indicates a profound ignorance of ecology. Animals would soon overpopulate the earth. Oh, you say predators would increase? I’m sure people would love to live next to large predators. Plant destruction would lead to population collapse. Erosion and soil destruction would follow. Even urban areas now have deer-hunting seasons, because if the deer population isn’t controlled, they’ll destroy all the vegetation. With little vegetation, temperatures increase, the rain stops, and the earth is destroyed.
One of the basic mandates of humans is to stimulate the creation of more healthy soil, plant, and animal matter than would otherwise occur in a static state. Today we have marvelous technologies like electric fencing, plastic piping, microchip energizers, and shade cloth that allow humans to do this better than ever before. The productivity of well-managed livestock systems is far higher than static wild systems. Unfortunately most farms are not operating this way, but that is an indictment against humans, not animals.
I would certainly hope that anyone placing animals on such a high pedestal would not spend more on his or her dog or cat than on making sure hungry children in Africa got fed. This is a litmus test of priorities. Americans spend more on vet care for their dogs and cats than the entire continent of Africa spends on healthcare. As a culture we have Bambified ourselves into foolishness, and it’s reflected in our values and our day-to-day activities.
Eating grass-fed beef or food-scrap-fed chicken is actually one of the most healing things you can do for the planet. This is not ultimately about pleasure; it is about fulfilling our role in nature. Humans are arguably the most important species on the planet; therefore, we must be thoughtful about how we fill our niche.
Frisch: You don’t rely solely on human and animal power at Polyface. What technological innovations allow your farm to perform better in terms of productivity, labor requirements, and environmental impact?
Salatin: I cannot overstate the importance of electric fencing. It enables us to move huge numbers of animals from one part of the property to another, which duplicates the wild system of nature. With electrified netting we can run chickens onto a different pasture every day. We can encircle three to five acres of forest on which to run hogs. This is no Iowa hog mudhole.
In addition to the pigs, we also have amazing machinery that allows us to efficiently turn manure and plant matter into compost. We use the animals as much as possible at Polyface, but pigs don’t haul fertilizer into the field. Manure spreaders that draw power from the tractor’s engine were the big breakthrough. Before that kind of machinery, manure was spread by farmhands who had to manually load it with a primitive pitchfork onto a cart pulled by mules and then shovel it and fling it on the ground. It makes me tired just thinking about it. So it wasn’t frequently done, and soil fertility decreased.
In the U.S. we should have been using petroleum and modern technology to build healthy soil. Instead petroleum is put into chemical fertilizer, which further deteriorates the soil. We have squandered our mother lode of fossil fuels. Americans haul off 70 percent of all the urban compostable waste and dump it into landfills. It’s unconscionable.
This is the number-one thing that has to change in modern agriculture. We cannot afford to continue floating our food on oil. Farmers need to grow the carbon and fertilizer on-site, not bring it in from elsewhere. They need to move toward compost generation with light carbon footprints and away from factory-farming methods with heavy footprints.
Frisch: How does your farm’s energy use compare to that of a conventional farm?
Salatin: We did an audit here two years ago, when fuel prices spiked, because we’d read that 50 percent of the average farm’s expenses is energy. The audit concluded that energy was only 5 percent of our expenses. That includes the cost of delivering our products to our customers, an expense that the average farm doesn’t have. The price of diesel fuel could go as high as almost ten dollars a gallon, and our farm would still be able to absorb the cost, because our energy expenses are currently so low. I should note that, for the purpose of that audit, we did not include the energy use associated with the feed we buy for the pigs and poultry.
Frisch: Doesn’t pastured poultry depend on cheap feed from other farmers who are depleting their soil’s fertility to grow the grain?
Salatin: The closest organic grains to my farm are eight hundred miles away, and I’m not willing to accept the use of that much diesel fuel to have organic grains. If my farm used certified-organic feed, we would have to raise our prices substantially. I would rather sell a 95 percent perfect product that everyone can afford than a 100 percent perfect product that only 10 percent of the people can afford.
Frisch: Even champions of local organic food are concerned about the affordability of this type of food for ordinary people. How can we address this challenge when small farmers are also struggling to stay afloat?
Salatin: That’s one of my favorite questions. I believe the idea that local organic food is too expensive is largely a fabrication. If you say you can’t afford it, I want to go to your house right now, and I don’t want to see any soda, alcohol, or tobacco. I don’t want to see lottery tickets or tickets to Disney World. I don’t want to see designer jeans with holes already in the knees. I don’t want to see flat-screen TVs or iPods.
I understand there are people who can’t afford their rent or who are homeless, but the majority of Americans could afford organic food if only they would change their priorities. Most people are way more knowledgeable about the latest celebrity belly-piercing than they are about what’s for dinner.
Americans have abrogated their culinary responsibilities and subcontracted the domestic arts to corporate globalists. You have to get in your kitchen and use that Cuisinart to make your own potato chips. You can go down to the farmers’ market and buy heirloom potatoes for three bucks a pound, but Lay’s potato chips in the store will cost you five bucks a pound. For the cost of a meal at Burger King, you can buy two pounds of ground beef from our farm that has way more nutrition. But you have to cook it yourself. So are you buying nutrition, or are you buying convenience?
In thirty-five years the budget of the average family in the U.S. has gone from 18 percent food costs and 9 percent medical costs to 9 percent food costs and 18 percent medical costs. There’s an obvious correlation. Americans need to spend more money on healthy, natural food.
Frisch: It takes significant time and energy to prepare home-cooked meals, though. Isn’t it understandable that a single mother with two jobs might not want to spend her evening in the kitchen? Or that cooking may take a back seat to other activities in families where both parents work outside the home?
Salatin: How about the soccer moms and dads who spend all weekend mowing their suburban lawns and toting their twelve-year-olds to soccer games three hours away, then stopping off for a meal at McDonald’s because they have no time? Just because the most extreme cases might have difficulty does not mean that the majority who could do something about their diet shouldn’t.
Americans have developed such a culture of victimhood that it disempowers them from realizing they are ultimately responsible for the changes they want to see. I don’t have a TV in my house. People constantly marvel at how much I get done. This is not some big game we’re playing; it’s for real, and it’s for all the marbles. People in horrendous situations can still make huge changes. Before we assume that the difficulty is insurmountable, let’s take a hard look at character and priorities.
Frisch: How do you define efficiency?
Salatin: I would say that efficiency is not a single value. Our culture’s values tend to be rather myopic. For example, at an innovation conference in Phoenix I spoke to a group of supervisors for Fortune 500 companies about scaling up without selling your soul. Everyone there, no matter what company they worked for, would agree at the end of the day that healthy families and healthy soil, water, and air are more valuable than their stock portfolios. And yet none of these things merits an S&P analysis or a Dow Jones Industrial Average. The most valuable, most important things in life don’t appear on business plans.
When I speak to a group, sometimes I’ll ask, “The last time you presented a business plan to your banker, did he say, ‘Wow, this is the best business plan I’ve ever seen. But I have one question: What is this going to do to the actinomycetes in your community?’ How many people have been asked that?” Yet every one of us is profoundly dependent on the actinomycetes, this community of soil bacteria. Everything we are, see, and can do is built upon this unseen world of microscopic beings. And yet we don’t have a way to measure it or put it on a business plan.
If you destroy the soil, water, and air in the name of efficiency, that’s not truly efficient. Efficiency is only one component within a greater framework of ethical, unseen values that each of us knows intuitively.
Frisch: You call yourself a libertarian and say that, in a perfect world, there would be no government regulations keeping you from selling compost-grown tomatoes, homemade pickles, and raw milk. But without regulations, what would stop factories from dumping toxic chemicals into the rivers?
Salatin: The government must enforce property rights and trespass law. When your pollution spoils my land, that’s trespassing.
There’s no perfect system, but in my opinion the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency was symptomatic of a culture already moving in the right direction, as was the creation of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. The latter was formed in response to Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, which exposed the horrific conditions in the meatpacking plants at the Chicago stockyards. But these organizations have become the skirt that industry hides behind.
Without these organizations and their laws and regulations, people would have banded together and boycotted the companies that employ offensive practices, or else the district attorneys should have prosecuted these big outfits for trespassing.
Frisch: I’m wondering about the difference between regulations on the one hand and property rights and trespass laws on the other. Aren’t they both government rules enforceable through the legal system?
Salatin: Property rights and trespass law are part of the most ancient religious and governmental traditions. They are not an American construct. Even in what we consider the most primitive cultures, the village elders determine who gets to use what land, based on tribal and familial history. Furthermore, it makes a big difference whether the regulation comes from the U.S. federal government or from a township or other local jurisdiction. All governments conceived in freedom have gradually given way to totalitarianism and then collapsed as the centralized bureaucracy has overreached and become tyrannical. Many things I oppose at a federal level would be fine at a local level due to the inherent transparency and accountability there. Scale and jurisdiction do make a difference.
Frisch: Many innovators are secretive, but you’re absolutely not. You seem to take a lot of pleasure in sharing everything you know.
Salatin: Thousands of people have told me that they’re farming because of me, and it’s changed their lives. That’s way better than the satisfaction that comes from cornering the market, circling the lawyers, and protecting a patent.
Frisch: You’ve influenced thousands of farmers and potential farmers, but you’ve also said that most farmers don’t want to change. Why is this?
Salatin: Most of them are stuck in an old paradigm. Often paradigms are so subconscious that we don’t even know they’re there.
When electric netting for poultry first came out, a guy from Australia suggested I try it, but I resisted. At the time, I was raising chickens in portable field shelters that could be moved to new ground daily. Their droppings fertilized the soil wherever I put the shelter. It was slick. It worked. I was on the front page of Acres USA. I dragged my feet for two years before finally experimenting with electric netting for laying hens, because I had invested so much emotional and economic energy in the other paradigm.
My own reluctance to change gave me a new appreciation for the fear felt by the average farmer, who hasn’t read about innovative farming practices and who goes to the seminars sponsored by the government or agribusiness giant Monsanto and has been fed their lines.
Frisch: Some of the small-scale and organic farmers I know hesitate to distinguish themselves from conventional farmers and agribusiness. There’s a taboo against “dividing” farmers or even discussing the dangers of genetically modified organisms [GMOs], pesticides, or artificial growth hormones. Has raising these issues in a rural area with a strong farming base put you in an unpopular position?
Salatin: If you interviewed our neighboring farmers, you would find we’re Typhoid Mary. Korean television did a documentary on us last year, and one neighbor was in it, saying you simply cannot put cows out in a field like this. Another farmer called me once to chide me for not vaccinating my animals. He told me I’m what’s wrong with this country.
I believe these farmers have a real fear. They really believe that the unvaccinated, wildlife-cavorting negligence of Polyface Farm threatens their survival.
But not all our neighbors think this. One stopped by last fall for the first time and said, “I know what people are saying about you, but I think you’re pretty clever, and I’d like you to help me get started.” And this was after he’d watched us for thirty years.
I spoke at the local chamber of commerce once on agritourism and made a brief point that people aren’t coming to see Tyson chicken houses; they’re coming to see pastoral landscapes. This one farmer reamed me. “Every time you open your mouth,” he said, “you demonize what I do. I’m just trying to make a living growing chickens.”
But I believe there is a right way and a wrong way, and I am willing to say it. Factory chicken farms are ecologically, nutritionally, and economically unsound. They’re a blight on the landscape. As a libertarian I believe others have a right to operate those chicken houses. But the only reason those operations exist in the first place is because of subsidies and externalization of economic, social, and ecological costs, which I don’t support.
The regulatory prejudice against small businesses in this country is profound. Our farm is going through a workers’-comp audit right now, and it has cost us thousands of dollars. When people ask why food from Polyface Farm is so expensive, I tell them it’s because it costs us four hundred dollars to do what it costs Iowa Beef Processors [IBP] fifty dollars to do. Why is that? Because the regulations are not scalable. And that is corporate welfare. If we do a five-hundred-dollar lab test, we have to spread that cost over just a few animals. When IBP does that test, they spread it over ten thousand.
The answer to food-safety problems isn’t more federal manipulation of the marketplace, because the big players have the money and influence to wrest concessions from the regulators.
Frisch: What happens if the noose tightens and more practices on your farm become illegal?
Salatin: That’s a real possibility. That’s why I’m writing books, to try to get more people to do it, so that it’s politically untenable to make these practices illegal.
We haven’t lost all the battles. Fifteen years ago the American Medical Association tried to get the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] to make all vitamin pills available only by prescription. Fortunately enough people were already taking vitamins, and that was prevented. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, when home schooling was in its infancy, parents who practiced it were being taken to jail for truancy violations. The educational elitists were running front-page articles saying if we allowed this antisocial practice to continue, we wouldn’t be able to build enough jails and psychiatric wards to house these maladjusted, unsocialized children. Here we are thirty years later, and whether or not you like home schooling, it’s legal and socially acceptable.
I am optimistic, though it might be a long haul. At least now there’s the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which Polyface has used three times in two years. It’s modeled after the Home School Legal Defense Association.
And yet the government’s food police are becoming more belligerent. A judge in Wisconsin just ruled that it’s illegal to drink raw milk from your own cow. His ruling suggests that no American has the right to eat anything the government has not licensed. That includes food grown in your garden.
But you know what? It’s always darkest before the dawn. These cases are so outrageous that people are beginning to wake up. What we’re seeing is a gradual increase in awareness, abetted by popular books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. As the U.S. government becomes more outlandish in its responses to small, ecological farming, it will wake up more and more people.
Frisch: What sorts of government subsidies prop up the industrial food system?
Salatin: The most obvious is the farm bill’s price-support systems for wheat, corn, rice, sugar, soybeans, and cotton, which create price prejudices against any other items farmers might want to grow. Beyond that are rules defining what is acceptable in the marketplace and what insurance underwriters will allow for product liability. These protocols do not recognize compost as a form of waste management; they recognize slurry lagoons [ponds constructed to hold animal waste mixed with water]. They do not recognize pastured poultry; they promote enclosed chicken houses. They do not recognize living systems around produce farms; they allow only sterilized environments devoid of wildlife and landscape diversity, a virtual scorched-earth policy.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service measures its efficiency by the number of pounds of food its inspectors oversee per hour. This is a direct prejudice against smaller businesses, which generally produce less food per hour, effectively acting as a subsidy to large corporate entities. As another example of bias against small farms, the proposed National Animal Identification System that the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] wants to make mandatory is not expensive for Tyson chicken houses, which are required to buy only one two-dollar microchip per chicken house, but for a small producer of pastured poultry, who must buy a microchip for each chicken, it’s a potentially devastating expense.
On my farm we ask, “What is the essence of the pig? . . . The only question our culture asks is how can we grow it faster, bigger, cheaper. That isn’t noble. That isn’t sacred.
Frisch: Wouldn’t subsidizing smaller, ecological farmers level the playing field or even tilt it in the direction you’d like to see it go?
Salatin: The USDA is not fond of small farmers. President Obama installed Michael Taylor, a former vice-president and chief lobbyist of Monsanto, which brought GMOs to the world, as czar of the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act. What kind of food do you think Taylor will encourage?
I refuse to participate in government programs. They’re artificially priced, and many of the practices are not sustainable. What would level the playing field the fastest and most equitably would be to get the government out of the business of picking winners and losers in the first place. Every time the government meddles in the marketplace, it skews the outcome in favor of the largest players in the system.
Why can’t people have faith in something other than the government? Why does the mentality persist that the government is good and people are bad? We cannot have a no-risk system, so the question is where to concentrate the risk. I’d rather concentrate it in personal freedom than in top-down manipulation.
Referring to your earlier example: if that single mother who can’t afford to eat well could grow chickens and rabbits in the backyard with her children and make potpies and sell them to other people in the neighborhood, she could revolutionize her life and livelihood. But if she tried to do that today, she’d have ten bureaucrats on her doorstep before the end of the day, from zoning officials to building inspectors to food inspectors, telling her she was a criminal. The real elitists in our culture are the ones who deny this lady the chance to help herself and instead keep her mired in her situation.
Frisch: What is the market solution for this? How can we make progress without government oversight? Won’t big businesses simply continue their “race to the bottom,” whatever the external costs may be?
Salatin: The assumption is that the free market has produced our current state of affairs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Arguably we’ve never had a free market in this country, but we certainly haven’t had one since Abraham Lincoln’s administration gave us the USDA. The truth is that we’ve had government manipulation of the food market for a very long time.
Another of Joel Arthur Barker’s axioms says that all paradigms grow to the point of inefficiency. Innovation from the bottom is always nipping at the heels of the overriding paradigm, which eventually topples because of its own rigidity and bureaucratic size. Innovation starts embryonically and prototypically, never large and fully developed.
I travel all over the world, and everywhere I go I meet thousands of farmers and food entrepreneurs ready and willing to take over their local market. But they are denied market access due to the licensing and regulatory climate foisted upon them by well-meaning citizens who think the only way to control big business is to regulate it. In our lifetime the government has bailed out many big businesses. Had those big businesses been allowed to collapse, it would have freed up countless investment monies and unleashed thousands of entrepreneurs on the marketplace.
The government won’t allow a farmer to have interns; or to build a second home on the property for the next generation, due to green-space and zoning easements; or to have a woodworking shop, because that’s manufacturing; or to sell eggs without a license and infrastructure that costs one hundred thousand dollars. The impediments to entering the market are so huge that our country has literally thousands of food entrepreneurs whose dreams cannot be birthed.
If farmers like me could truly access our communities with natural, home-based food, we would topple Walmart and Tyson tomorrow. Monsanto wouldn’t have a prayer. Ultimately the question comes down to what is more efficacious in reining in the big guys: top-down regulations administered by bureaucrats who came directly from the industries they regulate, or bottom-up freedom? We have not tried the latter in a very long time.
Our socialized culture has lost faith in individuals, in their neighbors, and in community self-governance. When a township like Sedgwick, Maine, enacts a food-sovereignty bill and tells the federal food police to butt out of food relationships among consenting adults, the federal agents and their state lackeys descend and criminalize the township for daring to support individual freedom. The real terrorism in the world is being visited upon the American people by their own government, at the behest of timid citizens with a victim mentality who think giving up their freedom will buy security. It never has, and it never will.