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Joel Salatin advocates a better way to raise food

Farmer/lecturer Joel Salatin champions 'moral farming' as a better way to raise food. 'What is a moral way to raise a chicken?' he asks.

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor. / November 24, 2009

Farmer, author, and lecturer Joel Salatin on Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley. His approach is a mix of environmentalism, Christian values, and savvy.

Virginia Montet/AFP/NEWSCOM


Meet the best, loudest (and only) Christian-libertarian-capitalist-environmentalist-lunatic farmer on the face of planet Earth.

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Joel Salatin, self-professed owner of that lengthy honorific, has a personality bigger than the Grain Belt and a genius for farming that has made him a glib, brilliant prophet to a growing movement of back-to-nature farmers from California to Swoope, Va. (pop. 1,326), where his 550-acre Polyface Farm rests at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mr. Salatin’s agricultural preaching has influenced food author and journalist Michael Pollan (“Omnivore’s Dilemma”) and earned him a prominent spot in the documentary “Food, Inc.,” making waves worldwide.

What makes Salatin so powerful on the farming scene is a unique mix of ingenuity, faith, and business savvy.

Whether making farming lectures feel like religious revivals or handling customers’ questions at the family store, it’s this blend of agricultural potency and inspirational vision that enables him to gross roughly $2 million annually and stand at the front of a growing community of farmers that may look like quintessential American rustics but whose techniques are anything but traditional.

On a foundation of Christian principles, Salatin has built a farming ecosystem where cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits interact ecologically in a way that goes beyond conservation.

“What we’re looking at is God’s design, nature’s template, and using that as a pattern to cut around and lay it down on a domestic model to duplicate that pattern that we see in nature,” Salatin says.

What that means for Polyface in practical terms is that the cattle graze different areas of pasture every day. Then chickens pick through the same fields, eating bugs and spreading cow manure before clucking back to mobile coops.

The farm’s pigs generate fertilizer by rooting around the floor of the barn, lured by sweet corn into aerating the mix of hay, cow manure, and wood chips. The finished compost is spread on fields. This process not only takes almost nothing out of the environment, it puts nutrients back in.

“We believe that the farm should be building ‘forgiveness’ into the ecosystem,” Salatin says. “What does that mean? That a more forgiving ecosystem is one that can better handle drought, flood, disease, pestilence.”

Salatin concedes that when his father bought the farm in 1962, the family’s initial emphasis on sustainable farming had more to do with environmental concerns than faith convictions. But as the business evolved, Salatin began to see himself situated at a unique place in America’s moral conversation.

“We should at least be asking, Is there a righteous way to farm and an unrighteous way to farm? ... The first goal is to at least get people to appreciate that how we farm is a moral question,” he says. “Once you get to that point, then you can actually discuss: What is a moral farm? What is a moral way to raise a chicken?”

How farm animals are treated on the majority of farms today dismays Salatin.