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.

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

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.

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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.

What Americans do to pigs, chickens, and cows speaks ill of the nation’s moral health, he says. “A culture that views its life from such a manipulative, disrespectful stance will soon view its citizens the same way and other cultures the same way. It’s how we respect the least of these that creates a moral-ethical framework.”

Don’t be confused: Salatin is no crunchy-granola transplant to Appalachia. He graduated from archconservative Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., with a degree in English. While he appreciates the “bearded, beaded, braless, Woodstock revolution” set who make up the bulwark of environmentally conscious farming, he’s delighted that half of those coming to visit his farm nowadays are involved in the home-school movement.

It’s this broad appeal that makes Salatin unique, says Teresa Heinz, the American philanthropist whose foundation recently awarded him a $100,000 award for his work.
“Salatin is a person who is accessible conceptually and conceptually acceptable to a huge number of people – not just the Massachusetts guys, but people from anywhere,” Ms. Heinz says.

What breaks Salatin’s heart is that the rest of the religious right has been largely uninterested in picking up the banner of environmental stewardship.

“I think the whole religious right community should be very apologetic and repentant that we – who should have carried the banner of Earth stewardship – got co-opted on that message,” he says.

But his position as a darling of the environmental left but with increasing cachet and respect from the religious right may make him the catalyst in bringing the two groups together.

“Buying food as a community is a very fundamental Christian value. It’s a value of many religions, and it’s a value of the liberal community as well,” says David Evans, who owns Marin Sun Farms, 40 miles north of San Francisco. “I like to believe that around food production is where we can become more politically neutral. Everyone should be around the table on these issues.”

Like Salatin, Mr. Evans refuses to sell his products beyond a roughly four-hour drive from his farm. By following Salatin’s model of marketing directly to local restaurants, farmers’ markets, and grocers, Evans has tapped into a community-based form of economic growth.

“We were growing at 50 to 100 percent a year for the last 10 years,” Evans says, adding that sales between June 2008 and August 2009 increased by 100 percent. “It’s easy to adopt [Salatin’s] practices because he has proven results.”

In partnerships with local ranchers, Marin Sun Farms grosses roughly $3 million per year by selling to three public school districts, 49 restaurants, and Stanford University’s dining services, among others. Salatin, by comparison, sells to roughly 2,000 families through local “buying clubs” and about 50 restaurants, including a Chipotle franchise in Charlottesville, Va.

While farmers are often quick to grasp Salatin’s agricultural practices, persuading them to adopt the marketing portion of his program is much more difficult.

“They assume they can just sit out on the tractor seat and till the crop and not have to deal with the people,” says Galen Bontrager, a former apprentice at Polyface Farms who now runs a small, Salatin-inspired farm in Iowa.

Moreover, Mr. Bontrager says, farmers have become so used to relying on those outside agriculture for guidance on their farms that they’ve lost their initiative.
This is part of the reason Salatin spends nearly half his time preaching his agricultural evangelism from coast to coast. By all accounts, his presentations are barnburners.

“Hearing him talk is like going to a revival meeting,” says Jo Robinson, a journalist and founder of eatwild.com, a clearinghouse for information on pasture-raised animals.
People come away from his meetings, saying, “ ‘I’m going to do everything he’s doing!’ ” she adds. “He takes people who have never been farmers and inspires them to become farmers.”

But the big question is, Can this sort of small-scale, environmentally sustainable farming really feed the world?

Salatin answers with a resounding yes, even though ecoconscious farming currently accounts for less than 5 percent of American food production. And that’s after what he estimates is a quadrupling of the number of environmentally friendly farms in the past five years.

“Not only can we feed the world, we’re the only system that can feed the world,” Salatin declares. “What’s happening is that the current industrial system is beginning to break down.”

Still, Polyface Farms faces an ethical limit when it comes to producing food: By promising personal connections with the purchasers of Polyface products, the business can grow only so large.

“His model is not scalable in terms of getting bigger and bigger. That defeats what he’s doing,” Ms. Robinson says. “It can be multiplied – there can be many people that do what he does. There are people who are scaling up so that they can sell to restaurant chains and Whole Foods, and he’s not a part of that.”

If Salatin’s model is going to be more than a footnote to American agricultural history, many more farmers will need to attempt his delicate balance: growing big and savvy enough to make a decent profit while staying small enough to remain part of the community. Until then, Salatin and his devotees hope to find converts in more and more farmers’ markets, local restaurants, and buying clubs.

“We know that the best-tasting stuff and the most integrity is found by buying right from the farmer you know,” Evans says. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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