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Joel Salatin is a farmer
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Joel Salatin is a farmer
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"We don't control nature that cutely, and to think that we do is arrogant beyond belief."
1 April 2011

Joel Salatin is a farmer

Interview by Patrick Pittman
Photography by Adam Haddrick

Patrick Pittman on Joel Salatin...

The heavens are threatening to open over Woodend. Hundreds of farmers have made the pilgrimage to Taranaki Farm to sit in a tin-shed lecture theatre and receive the dangerous ideas of a self-described lunatic. That lunatic, armed only with the pens in his shirt pocket, is Joel Salatin, an unassuming radical and possibly the world’s most famous farmer.


Like many of the people on this farm, I first came across Joel in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s mega-bestseller about the realities of modern food production. Pollan paints Salatin as a maverick agricultural auteur whose methods push way beyond organic. Out here in the shadow of Mount Macedon, not far from Hanging Rock, he’s a long way from his Virginia home, where he has labored for 30 years on the farm he inherited from his parents.

If you want to buy food from Polyface Farms, you’ll have to make your own way to the Shenandoah Valley. Joel doesn’t deliver anywhere, not even to markets. Buying clubs have sprung up in the areas around to make it practical for his devotees to buy his meats, raised in stubbornly old-fashioned ways that have somehow, along the way, become radical.

This is his last day at Taranaki. After this interview we will wander around the vast property, drenched from one of the first big storms of the Victorian summer. He will dispense deeply technical advice to the devoted few that remain and hang on his every word.

He will attempt to mend a buzzing electric fence with a handy twig, shooing away the curious pigs that come too close to the shorted wire.

For now, I’m sitting with Joel on a fallen log, as the chickens and farm dogs of Taranaki go about their business around us. In the field just over the hill, the cows are huddling in the corner of their movable pasture, waiting for the storm to break.

This story originally ran in issue #27 of Dumbo Feather

PATRICK PITTMAN: The Omnivore’s Dilemma describes the way you do your work quite beautifully. In the way the animals work, the way the land works and the way you orchestrate it all into one cohesive expression, Michael Pollan sees your farm as a dance.

JOEL SALATIN: Oh yeah, sure. We view it as a choreography. I talk about how we’re creating a ballet of relationships in the pasture. First of all, the cows are on the pasture and we’re moving them every single day to a new paddock. This makes the grass dance, because it allows the grass to have a rest period long enough to re-accumulate all of the energy that was expended in sending forth the original shoots. It sequesters all the carbon down in the ground because of the root structure that prunes off to create balletic symmetry at the soil horizon.

If we think about biomass as a solar collector, the herbivore is what restarts that solar collection panel. Without that, the biomass just gets old, dies, falls over, and sends carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Behind the cows come the eggmobiles, and the eggmobiles follow the cows like the birds follow herbivores in nature-the egret on the rhino’s nose, the birds that follow the wildebeests in the Serengeti. The whole idea is that the birds then sanitise behind the herbivores and scratch through the cow patties, eat out the fly larvae, spread the cow pats into the soil service, and so there’s that dance going on. A lot of people say ‘what drives you?’ I say I’m excited about getting up every day, because there aren’t very many people that can make this many beings happy. The pigs, of course, they’re in pasture and we move them every couple of days to a new area. They’ve got a new salad bar to be on, a new place to explore and discover, and of course this exercise, fresh air and sunshine makes their meat completely different to normal, factory-raised pork.

These don’t sound like new ideas. They sound like the oldest dance in the world. How did feeding grass to a cow become a radical idea?

I know! That is an amazing thing. It was a confluence of a lot of things. The first is that it’s easier the other way. You don’t have to look at growth patterns, you don’t have to look at the weather. You just push the button on the grain bin and there you have it. Number two is that, at least in the US, there are major subsidies for growing corn. Not for growing grass, not for growing peaches or apples, but for growing corn. That creates an artificially low price and a competitive advantage over other traditional feed sources that are not subsidised.

This story originally ran in issue #27 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #27 of Dumbo Feather

Cheap energy has masked the true cost of grain production worldwide. In cultures where energy is expensive, they tend to be less grain- and perennial herbivore-oriented.

In cultures that have artificially pushed the price of grain low, the cost of tillage, planting, weed control, harvesting, drying, storing, distributing, all of those high energy requirements, is kept artificially low, and prejudices the society towards an annuals-based production model as opposed to a perennials-based model.

When you’re working with the animals in this dance, how do you learn their steps? Does it take a life spent with them to understand their needs?

I don’t know if it takes a lifetime. We learn things every day and we’re constantly refining our infrastructure. Of course, technology has given us some wonderful tools that we didn’t have in grandpa’s day. When people come to the farm, they say “oh, wow, this looks like Grandpa’s farm!” I say that it doesn’t. Grandpa would have given his eye teeth for the stuff that we have.

You’re not afraid of technology?

Absolutely not. We want to use technology. Microchip energisers with electric fence pulses, polyethylene netting that keeps out black bears, coyotes and wolves from the chickens, and keeps the chickens in, and 150 feet of it only weighs 12 pounds. One person can take it up and put it down in 10 minutes. That’s unprecedented in the history of civilisation. The question that we ask is: what allows the animal to fully express its animalness? What allows the chicken to fully express her chickenness, the pig its pigness, the tomato its tomatoness? What we want do is provide a habitat that allows that full physiological, phenotypical expression to reach its ecstasy. Let’s take the herbivore. If we look at them in nature, we notice they’re constantly moving, they don’t stay in the same place, they’re clumped up in a group for predator protection, and they’re mowing. They’re eating forage. They’re not eating grain, they’re not eating dead cows, they’re not eating chicken manure, they’re eating forage. So you take those things—the moving, mobbing and mowing—as a template and you say, okay, on this commercial, domestic production model, how can we most closely approximate those natural patterns? You can’t completely mimic every single one. In nature, obviously birds don’t lay except when they’re hatching babies, so the unnaturalness of a domesticated chicken, selected over centuries for egg production without fertilisation, we can argue that’s unnatural, but that’s the trade-off with domestication, civilisation and agriculture.

You proudly call yourself the lunatic farmer, you have a book called Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. What is it that makes what you do so radical, or so… nuts?

Hahaha, nuts! At the outset, you have to understand that if what we do became normal, again, it would completely invert the power, position, prestige and profit of the entire world’s food system. That’s pretty revolutionary when you think of it. That’s pretty radical.To be sure, there’s a lot of inertia in universities, in corporations, in government programmes, in the thinking of the peasants on the landscape, in the industrial model that the world embraces right now. Some people, who are my friends, think that there’s this great conspiracy, that there’s this industrial food system that’s conspiring.

I don’t call it a conspiracy, I call it a fraternity of ideas. They’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid from the same place.

I think they’re well-intentioned, but I actually do believe that most people in the industrial food system think that if I am allowed to continue to survive, I jeopardise the world’s food system. They think that if my pastured chickens, without vaccinations and medications, are out in the pasture, consorting with red-wing blackbirds and such, they’ll spread my diseases to the science-based confinement poultry houses and threaten the planet’s food supply.

But how does what you do, and your process, how does that scale to become the world’s food supply? How can it possibly effectively replace the industrial scale of agriculture?

Pretty easily, actually. Let’s stay with the chicken house for a minute. Look at the big confinement factory chicken house—the corporate people are standing there and the farmer is saying “look at the efficiency of this, the amount of chickens we’re producing in this one little spot, the economies of scale, this is how you feed the world.” What you don’t see, what the camera doesn’t see, are the hundreds of acres of grain required to go into that house to feed those animals. Then there are the major pollution and waste and excrement problems of having all those animals confined in one space. If we take all of those animals out, and put them out here on pasture, and give them a much better life, allow them to have fresh air, exercise and sunshine, it doesn’t take one more ounce of feed to feed them out on pasture as it does on those houses, and they spread their own manure. Everything that’s a liability in that system becomes a blessing in this system.

So you find the land for your animals by freeing up those feed sites?

Absolutely. There’s no reason why the animals can’t eat on the same ground that produced their feed, or on ground that would currently be receiving their manure. The point is that there is plenty of land for all of the animals that are currently in confinement operations to be divested, decentralised, spread out, diversified, on the landscape, and all of the confinement factories could be shut down, without requiring one more acre of total land. Are you with me? They’re eating the same out here, even if we say they’re not picking up any from the pasture, even if we say the pasture doesn’t give them anything, they’re not eating any more grain out here than they do in the house, the only difference is that here they’re spread out and they’re getting fresh air, sunshine, and of course grass. The manure becomes a blessing instead of a problem. If I could just move one more step forward, in the US we have 35 million acres of lawn. In 1946, almost 50% of all produce in America was grown in back- yard gardens. That’s not that long ago. We have 35 million acres of lawn, and 36 million acres housing and feeding recreational horses. And I haven’t even gotten to golf courses yet. As you start looking at it on this scale, we have so much vacant land it’s unbelievable.

What do you think about the new ideas coming into urban planning and imagination about vertical farming, building structures that will move our agriculture upwards rather than across, as we need to sustain larger populations?

You know what? I think most of those structures are pie-in-the-sky. I think to grow things without soil, to grow things without wind and air isn’t realistic. In real-life situations, greenhouses typically have problems in three or four years, unless you have really significant cycles. These sci-fi things I’ve seen with high-rise greenhouse buildings and hydroponics and all of that we don’t control nature that cutely, and to think that we do is arrogance beyond belief. I think the guys that are designing those systems have spent too much time playing video games.

I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m such an advocate of gardening for children. When you spend all your life just playing video games, and you have your car race, and your car wrecks, you wait 10 seconds and the machine gives you a new one. You have your battle and the good guys are fighting the bad guy, and your good guy icon gets killed, you wait another 10 seconds, and the machine gives you a new one. But that’s not the way life is. You go out and wreck your car, you don’t sit by the side of the road for 10 seconds and get a new one. If somebody near to you dies, you don’t wait 10 seconds and they resurrect. I think there’s something about gardening and raising food for children that creates an awe, a mystery and a respect for the death and regenerative cycles of nature, and to the reality and the finality and responsibility of life, that young people coming—full of hubris—to ecology need to learn.

Let’s look at the question of scale from the side of consumption. The last study of nutrition in this country that I know of was 15 years ago, and it said that 5% of the respondent adults had, at some stage in the last year, not had enough money to feed their family a meal. If that’s the situation we’re facing at lower income levels, and if the food that is affordable is the nutritionally empty junk that leads to malnutrition—the quick food, the fast food, the food that can be bought for a dollar because of subsidies—how do you get your food, and food produced with your philosophies of production, into the mouths and stomachs of those people who need it the most?

A couple of responses. First of all, a very politically incorrect one. I would guess that many, many, many of the people in that statistic are drinking soda, alcohol, using tobacco, and spending their money on foolish things. They don’t need more money, they need budgeting, and I know this is very politically incorrect to say, but the fact is that many of the poor don’t need a hand-out, they need discipline. I’m not saying that they don’t have problems, but what I am suggesting is that the issue is not food production, it is food distribution, it is other things. Half the human-consumable food in the world spoils before it ever gets to a plate, because of long-term inventory spoilage, blemishing, sell-by, use-by, best-by confusion, and all sorts of other problems. That being said, what are the primary impediments to being able to get this food to, if we’re taking a broad brush, the impoverished? The largest impediments of course are that the food safety laws, the food regulations, I call them the food police, will not allow ready access of food entrepreneurism into communities. That even includes a commercial kitchen in a residential zone—we can’t have a business here because this is where houses are. If Aunt Matilda could make pickles in her sink and sell them next door without the intrusion of a bunch of food police, you can bet that the price of artisanally produced, high-quality pickles would drop to the floor. In fact, our side would spin circles around the industrial side, which enjoys corporate welfarism, subsidies and the economic benefit of scale in food police requirement and capricious regulations that are not achievable for small-scale producers. I’ve met tonnes of people already in New Zealand and Australia on this trip that are poised, they are ready, to do home-baked quiche, and pastured poultry, and all these things, but it’s illegal.

A lot of my vegetarian friends have opted out of the industrial meat-production-and-consumption system for a lot of the reasons we’ve been talking about. When I put forward a position that eating meat ethically, and with consideration for the wellbeing of the animals, can be a much more effective and sustainable way to attack the status quo, the response is that the consumption habits of one person don’t mean anything to a system so devoid of soul. Do we really get any kind of vote with our individual choices in consumption?

Oh, oh, absolutely. In fact I would suggest that the act of eating is one of the most empowering ecological acts you can undertake. On our little cooler bags, we have written “healing the planet one bite at a time”. I’m not saying you can never have a Coke or a Snickers bar. What I’m suggesting is, at the end of the week, when we look back on our food choices, which system did we feed? Did we feed one that builds soil, or did we feed one that reduces soil? Did we feed one that stimulates the hydrologic cycles and puts more water up on the land, or did we use one that drains water, drains aquifers and creates desertification? Abused animals, unabused animals. Respect workers, not respect workers. You can go on down this whole litany of things, there are certainly plenty of them, but which system did we patronise? The beauty of this to me is that we don’t have to wait until there’s an election, until there’s a bill in parliament, we can register that vote every single day, on our own volition, by the kind of food choices we make.

We don’t control nature that cutely, and to think that we do is arrogance beyond belief. I think the guys that are designing those systems have spent too much time playing video games.
Joel Salatin

You inherited Polyface Farms from your father. How did it come into the family?

Well, Dad and Mom just bought the farm in 1961. You’ve got to realise the land prices were completely different than they are today. At that time, land was still affordable, we hadn’t had the dot com revolution to inject all this artificial wealth into the economy that then created a glut of demand for residential estate. Anyway, Dad and Mom bought the farm in 1961 and worked out to pay for it. Dad was very much a visionary, he got into this grass-based stuff, direct marketing, portable infrastructure. I started with chickens when I was 10, sold them to customers in the area, a couple of schools, a couple of restaurants, and at the local kerb market, which was the precursor of today’s farmers’ market. So I had my roots there, and did it all through teenage years, high school, and then came back to the farm full time September 24, 1982. Basically, Dad and Mom said “here’s the land, see if you can make a business on it”. Theresa and I have been working at it ever since.

Did you think that you were going to end up back on the farm running it before that, that it was what you wanted to be doing?

Absolutely. I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. From my earliest memory I wanted to be a farmer. But I was under the illusion, like so many, that in order to be there I would have to have an outside source of income. I had a gift of speaking and writing so I figured I’d go out and write a bestseller or two and then hopefully retire to the farm. Hopefully that would be before I was too old to enjoy it. I worked out for a year and a half as a journalist. Theresa and I saved up enough money by living in the farmhouse, we made an apartment in there, it was probably illegal, but anyway, we did it. By living in that apartment without a mortgage, we were able to live very cheaply. We grew all of our own food—

we always said if we could figure out how to grow toilet paper and Kleenex, we could have pulled the plug on society.

We had our own firewood for fuel, we had our own food, we bought clothes at the second-hand store, we drove a $50 car. We lived cheaply, on $3500 a year, which was unheard of, but we were able to save enough money that I was able to leave the newspaper. We figured we could live for one year, and then we’d run through our savings, and then I’d go back to work, but the progress we would make by me being there full time for a year would maybe shorten the time away from 10 years to five years, or 15 years to 10, or whatever. As it turned out, I never went back to work.

So in that year, it just all clicked?

Yeah, well, you know, suddenly I was home for every calf that was birthed. Timing is so important in horticulture, and I was there to do everything in a timely way. That reduced slippage, it reduced loss. Of course, we were able to grow everything that we ate by being there full-time. I went from a tank of gas in the car once a week to a tank of gas once every six weeks, because we didn’t drive anywhere. I didn’t have to have good clothes anymore, I could wear rags. A lot of living expenses are just in living this high-paced lifestyle we have. If you don’t have to drive to work, if you don’t have to buy good clothes, and you grow all your own food, and you have all your own fuel, and you don’t have any housing expense, what do you need? There’s not much more.

When you’re living that life, does it feel to you like you’re being an activist?

Absolutely. Oh, we absolutely realise that this is an absolutely revolutionary thing to do in the world. If everybody lived like us, if what we did became normal, it’s hard to believe the large structures of the world… for one thing, we don’t even have a TV, so there wouldn’t even be a Hollywood. Imagine a world without celebrity worship. There wouldn’t be fast food—imagine a world without Taco Bell, McDonald’s and KFC. This is revolutionary, this is huge. But imagine a world where, instead of food being inventoried in warehouses a thousand miles away from production for months before being utilised and manipulated and agitated and prostituted and adulterated before it’s used, imagine all that food being grown in backyard gardens, and housed in peoples’ pantries in their canning jars, or I think you call it, you don’t call it canning, you call it…

Mason jars? Jug…


You make it all sound so easy. Isn’t farming all about debt traps and the struggle and the strife and working the land until your fingers bleed? I see you talking about farming with such a rare joy. Shouldn’t it be hard?

Well, sure it’s hard! But so is going up and working hard for the man. But it’s a different kind of hardness. Like I said, very few people get to get up in the morning like me and make this many beings happy. Whether those are tomato beings or cow beings or chicken beings, to make these many things happy, to nurture, massage. I think perhaps I’d like to share a story here. One of our apprentices, who came to us at 30-years-old, as sharp as a tack, he was a software engineer for Bank of America or one of the big banking institutions in New York City. He was a sharp, sharp fellow, who just got fed up with it one day and said, man, I gotta go out and breathe some air and see some trees. He went on the computer, found us and came and did a one-year apprenticeship. About halfway through it, we were building a portable shelter for chickens, we called it the Millennium Feathernet, and all the interns and apprentices were working on this, nailing cutting boards, putting the roof on. It took them about two days and they got it done. At the end of the two days, he came in for dinner, he got real quiet, his lips started trembling. He was so moved with this. He said, “You know, when I was working at my cubicle doing the software thing, I could never touch what I made. I made spreadsheets, I made stuff on a computer, I made stuff that went into cyberspace, and the members of my team, one was in Thailand, one was in Hong Kong, one was in London. And we designed virtual spreadsheets and financial papers and all this stuff. At the end of the day you push a button and the screen goes blank and it goes into cyberspace.” He said, “Today, my team, I could touch them, I could feel them. We could hug, we could talk. We bantered, we communed, we hammered, we built, we listened to each other, and we built this thing that at the end of the day, I could touch, I could feel, it became an extension”. He started to break down, and I mean I am too just now talking about it, the strength and the power of doing something physical and real and visceral that is an extension of my being, and not just nebulous and out there for the man somewhere, is powerful, powerful stuff.

Most people think there ain’t no money in farming. But that’s why we farm differently.

And there are systems of pasture-based portable infrastructure, direct marketed carbon-sequestered hydrologic-cycled forgiving systems that are far more enjoyable, rewarding and profitable, both ecologically, emotionally and economically, than most systems.

When you run the kinds of workshops you’re doing at here at Taranaki, you must get farmers coming to you that are in a different situation. Their land does belong to the companies. They’re on razor thin margins, they’re hardly making anything, they’re just keeping away from the breadline. They want to be doing what you’re doing but debt owns them. What do you say to those farmers when they come to you?

Those are hard ones. First of all, my heart breaks for them. I’m so glad that I come from a lineage of parents and grandparents who lived a little below their means instead of living a little above their means. The fact is, there’s no easy answer. We haven’t gotten where we are overnight, and if you’re in a pickle, you can’t get out of it overnight. The bigger the operation, the harder it is—it’s a lot easier to turn a speedboat than it is an aircraft carrier. And so I wish that I could protect people from the disturbance that will be necessary from, as Einstein described it, the destruction that’s necessary before construction must happen. I wish I could hug every one of them and protect them from that. The fact is, I can’t. Nobody can.

And there is no magic bullet. But, there have been enough people, I can tell you this for sure. The answer is not continuing to go in the wrong direction. The sooner you turn around—and I mean turn around, I don’t mean just slow down in the wrong direction—the more realistic it will be. There are lots and lots and lots of alternative practitioners and thinkers who have turned their ship around, and these folks need to start seeking counsel from people who have done that, not from government agents, bureaucrats or so-called experts in the industry who are continuing to make money off of extracting rural wealth and centring it in urban centres. The teacher is responsible for what he teaches, but the student is also responsible for the teacher he chooses to listen to.

Do you see the results? Do you see them making changes after they’ve seen what you do?

Absolutely, there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that have made huge changes. I get letters from them, emails, I meet them in workshops like this, I mean I just had a couple of families say that if it wouldn’t have been for me, they wouldn’t be farming. I can’t tell you how gratifying that is. It’s better than money, it’s better than anything. The fact is these systems work, because they work with nature instead of against nature, they work with people instead of against people, they work with your heart and your passion, rather than prostituting your heart and passion for somebody else. All this wonderful energy that’s out here to tap into, it all works in this system, so once they make that world-view jump, then it’s just a matter of execution. You’ve just got to figure out your weak links in your execution and go.

I wish that I could protect people from the disturbance that will be necessary from, as Einstein described it, the destruction that’s necessary before construction must happen. I wish I could hug every one of them and protect them from that. The fact is, I can’t. Nobody can.
Joel Salatin

The first time I saw this wave coming was when Eric Schlosser put out Fast Food Nation, and that blew a lot of people’s minds at the time.

Oh yeah, it was major.

Since them, it seems to have been a growing wave.

It’s a tsunami, let me tell you.

Does it feel like that, when you’re in the middle of it?

Oh it does, it does, it’s a tsunami. The important thing to realise though is that, as this movement grows, and it’s extremely small, don’t kid yourself.

It’s a small tsunami…

It’s a growing movement, but we’re still only 2% of the food system. That ain’t much, but as it grows and the powers that be recognise the new world that we would create, there is a tremendous and a growing backlash. For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, as we have created this movement, this action, there’s an increasingly militant reaction against us. For example, to brand me a bioterrorist because my chickens threaten the science-based Tyson chicken factory, and so these folks can go and sit in their pew and take the sacraments and be very righteously pleased with themselves that they are saving the world from the calamity that would come if my system became normal. And it’s important for me, and for all of us in this movement to appreciate. I don’t think it’s helpful for people like me to just brand those folks as conspiracists, not at all.

There’s a scene in Food Inc., a film which featured your work in some depth, in which a person walking around an organic fair points out all of the organic companies that are owned by Coke, by Nestle, and so forth. How does that increasing co-option of the slow and the organic by the very multinationals you set out to replace make you feel?

I don’t think the industrial food system wants to embrace what we do, but they’re always looking to tap into a scheme to make some more money, and of course it scares me to death. It subjects these good clean food systems to the thinking of Wall Street-ification, and Wall Street-ification and empire building have no conscience and no morality. The only morality is money. Any system that is predicated on that, on only stockholders and shares, will have an exploitative agenda. It will never take a long-range view.

It’s not capitalism, I mean, goodness, plenty of indigenous tribes in the world exploited the landscape. This idea that they were all pristine ecologists is a joke. The advantage was that they didn’t have the tools and the infrastructure to destroy it any faster, but there were in fact tribes that were very ecologically minded, with a long-term view, and ones that were exploitative. People are the same. It doesn’t matter whether it’s communism, capitalism, socialism, tribalism or oligarchism or whatever, royalty, it doesn’t matter. That’s why I don’t make a big deal about political systems. What I’m trying to do is get the individual stewards of the land, and individual eaters, with the power of one, to make these decisions, and the power of one plus one plus one plus one is what changes the world.


Patrick Pittman

Patrick is a writer, editor, broadcaster, former editor of Dumbo Feather and one-time nightshift carer of a supercomputer. More at patrickpittman.com

Photography by Adam Haddrick

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