Joel Salatin doesn't look like a radical. With his clean-shaven bespectacled face and soft Virginia drawl he could be a teacher or a writer or a farmer. In fact, he is all three.
Salatin visited Vermont in August to speak at the Freedom and Unity Festival hosted by the Vermonters for Liberty at Magic Mountain. How this third-generation Shenandoah Valley farmer and author of eight books ended up traveling the country to speak about alternative farming and food systems to devoted fans inside and outside the slow food movement is part of a larger story about passion, conviction and stewardship. Basically, Salatin was slow food when slow food wasn't cool.
Slow food is something of an umbrella term for a number of agricultural and gastronomical trends, including organic produce, grass-fed meats, buying local, farmers' markets and more. The antithesis of fast food, slow food puts an emphasis on knowing what you're eating, how it was produced and who produced it. Preparing, enjoying and appreciating healthy and wholesome food is the natural by-product of this approach to food. Another, it is hoped, is better physical, mental and spiritual well-being.
As someone who has lived on farms his entire life - and whose grandfather was a charter subscriber to Rodales Organic Gardening and Farming magazine in 1948 Salatin is not exactly a newcomer to the ideas espoused in the slow food movement, but he delights in being the unexpected representative of people who some may affectionately dub "Granolas" or "Hippie Dippies." In fact, part of his mission seems to be to shatter stereotypes and cause people to question their assumptions.
First of all, there is his moniker - the Christian, libertarian, capitalist, environmentalist, lunatic farmer. This accurate yet seemingly oxymoronic self-description, Salatin said, was his way of having fun with the tension between how society would pigeonhole him and who he actually is. "You're an environmentalist farmer so you're supposed to be for increased taxes, vote Democrat, be for everything the NEA wants, a lover of unions, government regulation, that sort of thing, said Salatin. "As humans, we love to figure out in 10 seconds 'your box.'"
The real Salatin is an independent, home schooling, liberty-leaning Christian, he said, and his motivations and mindset are different. Take the "environmentalist" part of his epithet. It is actually strongly correlated to the Christian part.
"I am a Christian, I come from a Judeo-Christian ethic and my land stewardship ethic is not creation worship. It is Creator worship and stewardship for that Creator." He believes the way to interact with the environment with integrity is through humble participation rather than abandonment.
His faith also informs his capitalism - "I appreciate free markets and capitalism, but capitalism with no moral compass is no better an economic system than socialism or Nazism or communism or any other system" - and his politics, where he speaks of the need for exercising our freedoms within an ethical and moral framework.
As for the lunatic part, he smiles, that just comes naturally. Except for a brief stint as a newspaper reporter, Salatin has not known a life outside farming. He was born into it - both his grandfather and father were farmers - and they shaped his methods and his views. His father was a tinkerer who experimented with controlled grazing, grassland management and composting long before they became buzzwords in the environmental movement.
In his childhood Salatin managed a small flock of chickens and sold eggs to people at church. Eventually he joined two women at the local curb market, a holdover from the depression era and a precursor to todays farmers' markets. The market was held indoors year-round. Throughout his teen years Salatin was there at 6 a.m., 50 weeks a year.
Salatin returned to the family's farm after college with his bride Teresa, setting up a "penthouse apartment" in the farmhouse attic. He took an outside job at the local newspaper, drove a $50 car, and heated with firewood as the couple lived on $300 a month.
"If we didn't grow it, we didn't eat it," he said. Two years later they had saved enough to live for one year at this budget point and he returned to farming, fully expecting to have to seek outside employment after their 12-month experiment was up.
"As it worked out, we never went off the farm again," Salatin said. That was September 1982 when they made the break. Thirty-one years later, Polyface Farm is a thriving operation covering about 2,000 acres of land and employing 20 full-time team members. Salatin's son and daughter-in-law now oversee day-to-day operations, which include supplying food to 50 local restaurants, 10 retail outlets and 5,000 families through online sales and buying clubs.
"It's a pretty significant little business," Salatin said with a smile.
So is his writing career. As the farm became more and more successful, many were asking Salatin about his methods and he started producing pamphlets and then manuals on topics like pastured chickens and non-grain fed beef. Next there were magazine articles, books - he has authored eight on topics ranging from farming to marketing to culture - and speaking engagements. Almost by accident, Salatin became a rock star in the emerging world of alternative farming and thoughtful eating. "It's a testimony to the tragedy of our day that there are so few really profitable, enthusiastic farmers that we became an anomaly," Salatin said of his popularity.
That popularity soared when his farming operation was featured prominently in Michael Pollans book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Pollan had heard about the quality of Polyface meats and had asked Salatin to send him a chicken - Salatin refused. Not because he was not set up for shipping, as Pollan thought, but because shipping food around the country flies in the face of his "buy and eat local ethic." First Pollan was offended, then intrigued, and made the trip to Polyface.
"The world still stands up and salutes conviction," Salatin noted. And it still appreciates good food, possibly even more today than in the recent past. As more people are buying their food from directly from people who produce it, as Salatin believes they should, they are finding superior taste and nutrition. Add to those elements the more environmentally sustainable methods of farming used by alternative farmers and you have a virtually unbeatable combination.
Until you consider price. Pastured chicken eggs, compost-fertilized tomatoes and their fellow locally and ethically produced foods cost more, sometimes much more, than those in the local supermarkets. Salatin says there are many reasons for this, including the more labor intense methods of farming with ecological integrity, the myriad government regulations small producers come up against on their route from farm to market and the many hidden costs in "cheap food," that are borne by taxpayers. Still, Salatin says, many are coming around to the idea that good food is worth paying more for.
Those who aren't convinced, he said, need to look around their homes and see where theyre putting their money. In order to be credible, he said, "We're not going to see tobacco, alcohol or soda. We're not going to see take-out, were not going to see any fast food, were not going to see golf clubs, Caribbean cruise (brochures) . . . "The list goes on. Salatin does not exempt low-income families from such financial self-examination.
"I'm not into the victimhood mentality," he said. "Show me the home that doesnt have a TV, a cell phone and soda and then well talk." In other words, Salatin thinks we need to get our priorities straight.
"We, as Americans, are far more interested in the soccer game and the latest belly-button piercing in Hollywood celebrity culture than we are in whats going to become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones at 6 o'clock, Salatin said.
As much as Salatin seeks to persuade Americans to make better food choices, he draws the line at force. That we own our bodies is a basic tenet of his belief system so state and federal laws which increasingly try to control what people can and cannot put in their own bodies concern him deeply.
"We have a suffocating inquisition of orthodoxy that is describing what is risky life behavior, he said. This codified canon, which Salatin considers one of the major threats to the growth of alternative food systems, allows Mountain Dew but regulates raw milk and is increasingly enforced by armed food police from the USDA, FDA and other food agencies, he said.
What also concerns Salatin is the malevolent, government-subsidized competition small and local American food producers and consumers are up against. He worries pushback from big food will increase as the slow food movement expands.
"From slow food to local food to farmers' markets to CSAs (community sustained agriculture) to on-farm shopping to virtual farmers' markets we are capturing more and more market share as people are opting out of (food giant) Monsanto and Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken, he said. As the alternative food market share grows, Salatin said, look for its principles and practices to be marginalized, demonized and even criminalized.
So what's a budding localvore to do? Salatin urges everyone to turn off their televisions (he doesn't own one), put down their celebrity gossip magazines (he's not a fan of pop culture) and tweak the establishment by participating in your local alternative food choice system.
"That means you look for your community's 'food treasures,' he said. Every community is surrounded by wonderful food producers animals, plants, baked items, herbal choices there's a cornucopia of things surrounding every community."
For a year, he suggests, take the time and money you would invest in more fleeting pleasures and instead spend it seeking out and supporting local food sources.
"Many of these small, entrepreneurial operations are desperate for just 10 more customers. Then they can quit their off-farm job or their Dilbert cubicle job and become full-time farmers," Salatin said. "The power is in your hands to enable and empower the people working to create and provide a secure local food system.
"That is the way we create, one bite at a time, the world our children will inherit."
Audrey Pietrucha is a Banner columnist and is a member of Vermonters for Liberty.