Joel Salatin is a 54-year-old, third-generation alternative farmer with a mission that goes far beyond egg and livestock production. He’s a visionary environmentalist, activist, lecturer, author of nine books and self-proclaimed “lunatic.” His Shenandoah Valley farm, Polyface, is widely regarded as a model for sustainability and has been featured in print and film, most notably in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the Academy Award–nominated documentary Food, Inc. His unconventional techniques for raising poultry, pigs and cows and tending to his land are modeled after symbiotic relationships found between animals and plants in nature. By practicing bio-mimicry, Salatin raises his animals entirely on pasture without the use of antibiotics or hormones. He also eschews the use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Salatin asserts that his methods are the best practices for sustainable farming and successful land stewardship, which, in turn, are the keys to fixing our food system and healing our planet.
Salatin’s books include how-to farming instruction, a memoir and food-focused social analysis. His latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal (Center Street Publishers, 2011) focuses on the history of the industrialized food system and steps we all can take to restore normalcy.
What is the number one thing urban Americans can do to increase food sustainability and security in their communities?
Get in the kitchen. Domestic culinary apathy has led to cultural faith in mega-corporate food entities to grow, process, package and deliver ready-to-eat material that won’t even rot. The ultimate food integrity priority is to break this stranglehold of food dependency by doing the acquisition, packaging, preparation and preserving in our own kitchens. When you start from scratch, you deny the food adulterators their agenda of opaqueness and dependency.
What is the number one thing urban Americans can do to reduce packaging waste in their communities? How about food waste?
Buying raw and eliminating the packaging is the best way [to reduce packaging waste]. This includes buying bulk in season and dehydrating or canning in reusable jars.
The best thing [to reduce food waste is]to acquire enough chickens to eat all your kitchen scraps. Historically, poultry filled the role of homestead garbage disposal, including blemished produce. A city in Belgium offered a program of giving three laying chickens per household to as many as wanted them and received 2,000 takers. In the first month of the program, the 6,000 hens reduced landfill waste by 100 tons. Imagine what that could do in New York City.
Explain why eating pastured beef, pork and poultry is actually beneficial to the environment.
Tillage [a process used in growing grain]destroys soil; perennials [such as grass]build soil. All soils have been built by perennials with periodic animal disturbance and then periods of rest. Animals on pasture move fertility from low areas to high areas. Fertility follows the gravitational pull downhill, and animals are nature’s only way to defy this fertility movement and spread it around. No ecosystem exists, anywhere, devoid of animals. If we mimic nature, the animals will exhibit a movement, disturbance, rest cycle that is both healing and hygienic.
Your farm, Polyface (the farm of many faces), is a multi-species farm. Why is it important to have multiple species on a single farm?
No mono-speciated ecological system exists. Multi-speciation captures the symbiosis and synergy that makes nature thrive. From a pathogen standpoint alone, multi-speciation provides a control mechanism. Almost all pathogens are species-specific, so rotating among species and creating complex proximities across species lines creates confused pathogens. And that’s a good thing.
You advocate eating from within one’s own “bioregion.” How would you define Central Florida’s bioregion?
Different people draw various-size circles around bioregions. We’ve defined ours as within four hours one way from the farm. That is close enough that people can drive out and get home in a day, which ensures transparency. I’m a big advocate of personal check-outs, and if you’re too far away to visit, not only do you deny yourself the satisfaction of knowing the farm and farmer, but you allow the farmer to exist in a hidden world where shortcuts are more tempting. While we certainly can’t all visit every food vendor we patronize, we should do far more than we are currently.
The average person will inevitably have to supplement locally sourced food with supermarket food at some point. What is the best strategy for making responsible choices in the supermarket?
Fair trade, organic, Weston A. Price Shopper’s Guide, numerous Web sites with rating systems. Find one that agrees with your values, and then patronize it.
That said, I do think most people give up too easily on the local food scene. Local food producers and marketers are all over and desperate for customers. Find them and patronize them. It’s time to realize that our collective eating and buying decisions create, every day, exactly the kind of food system and farmscapes we have. If we want to change it, we can’t all sit around and assume it’s someone else’s responsibility, or some government agency, or some politician’s agenda. We are what we are because we buy what we buy and do what we do. It’s that simple. Until that changes on a massive scale, we’ll continue to have what we have.
Where are we in the fight against the industrialized food system? Where do you see us 10 years from now?
The one thing I refuse to do is prophecy. I have no clue where we’ll be in 10 years. I can assure you that the entrenched environmentally destructive, animal-abusive, nutrient-deficient mechanical food system will not go down without a fight. While my side says the answer is carbon cycling, compost, multi-speciation, immuno-enhancement, localization and pasture-based systems, the current government-agri-industrial complex is dedicated to globalization, confinement animal factories, pharmaceuticals, transgenic modification, artificials, irradiation and petroleum.
From food safety laws to veggie-liability laws to criminalizing undercover photography, the government-corporate fraternity is fighting back. SWAT teams raiding food co-ops and food police harassing raw milk dairies and direct farm marketers, high regulated label requirements including nutritional information—all of these are proliferating in America, a type of domestic terrorism on the antidote to everything that is wrong in our food system. That is why it is paramount that every food-choice-loving American join the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund so that the right to eat will enjoy the same protection as the right to carry. The way the government-industrial system has demonized and criminalized heritage-based food systems, I shudder to think what will still be legal in 10 years. But they haven’t won … yet. And a vocal minority intends to make sure righteousness wins.