Joel Salatin is a walking oxymoron: a celebrity farmer. Profiled by author Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma and featured at length in Robert Kenner's film Food, Inc., this Virginia farmer found himself in the very public role of chemical-free farming pioneer and advocate for getting your hands dirty in the garden and the kitchen. We caught up with Salatin on the road in advance of his one-night lecture and local-food dinner at the Roosevelt in Ybor City tomorrow to ask him about farming, cooking and the horrors of our industrial food system.
How have your lectures changed over the years as more people have become aware of the downside of industrial agriculture?
Twenty years ago all of my speaking was to farm groups about pastured poultry and controlled grazing with cattle. As what I call the local-food tsunami continues to increase, I've seen two things. There's a tremendous backlash from the industrial agriculture world, manifesting in everything from the demonization of local food to an incredible array of new regulations, from food safety issues to animal identification. The second one is the profound ignorance of the average consumer, who actually believes more governmental involvement can create safer food. The fact is that the bureaucratic industrial food complex is absolutely militant about concentrated animal feeding and chemically based food.
In your opinion, how did our food system go so awry?
With chemical fertilizers, we've created a short-term shortcut. Fifty years ago my dad saw the chemical fertilizer tillage approach as being a dead end. The first reason is erosion. The No. 1 way to destroy soil is tillage. Pre-1940s crop rotation included three or four years of perennials (annuals deplete soil and perennials build soil). We've been able to kid ourselves into thinking that those rotations are no longer necessary.
And with animals, it happened when people decided food was primarily mechanical, that living beings are primarily mechanical. Rather than that there is something sacred to honor about the pigness of the pig.
What does that mean, the "pigness of the pig"?
What that means is that a pig is going to be fulfilled in its greatest niche as a being if it is respected for its essence. A pig has a plow on the end of its nose because it does meaningful work with it. It is built to dig and create soil disturbance, something it can't do in a concentrated feeding environment. The omnivore has historically been a salvage operation for food scraps around the homestead. Now we lock all those pigs and chickens up in confinement concentration camps.
What do you say to people who claim that sustainably raised animals and organic, local produce are luxuries, and that this preoccupation is elitist?
Why is it that, of everything out there about which we say "you get what you pay for," we don't include food? We don't have a love affair with cheap concert tickets or cheap retirement programs. Why food? But it doesn't have to be expensive. I would suggest that if you get in your kitchen and cook for yourself, you can eat like kings for a very low cost.
And [at Polyface Farms] we are not externalizing any of the costs of our food. The mechanical food system externalizes a lot of costs like obesity or Type 2 diabetes. The food system right now and the safety regulations in place are prejudicial against smaller-scale operations. It's economic apartheid. The local system cannot compete with the global system. The impediments are so high.
This sounds very pessimistic. Are you pessimistic about the future of farming?
I'm incredibly optimistic about what individuals can do. We have technology that our grandparents would have given their eye teeth for. We are living in such an exciting time. We've never been able to heal the earth faster than we can now . . . but, also, we've never been able to destroy the earth faster than we can right now.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.