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Noted farmer speaks at ACFF

By Staff | Nov 6, 2009

Farmer Joel Salatin, a leader of the local food movement, is a featured speaker at the American Conservation Film Festival today. Photo courtesy of Acres USA

Tonight at 7 p.m. at the Frank Center the American Conservation Film Festival and the Shepherd Common Read program will present the local food movement films “Fresh” and “Food, Inc.”

Both films are acclaimed for exposing serious problems with the industrial food system and the brilliant solutions that the growing local food movement provides. Admission is free, but you’ll want to go early if you want a seat because the intermission speaker Joel Salatin the “ad hoc farmer face for the non-industrial farming movement” will attract fans and supporters from throughout the region.

Joel Salatin, a confident and charismatic third generation farmer who became known to many through Michael Pollan’s admiration of his work and ideas in “The Omnivore’s Delimma,” describes himself as “a Christian Libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer.” He is the recently retired farmer of Polyface “a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.” His son, Daniel, is now the farmer at Polyface.

While critics often picture celebrity farmers who advocate farming as a profitable economically sound enterprise as charlatans who make their actual income from lecturing and selling books about farming, Joel Salatin is undeniably the real deal.

Back in 1961, Joel’s father intentionally purchased 550 acres of the most rundown farmland he could find to prove that he could revive it by applying the natural farming techniques he had learned from his father. Under Joel and Joel’s son Daniel’s management, using these eco-ag techniques of pasture management that Salatin willingly shares with anyone who is interested, this farm, Polyface, has produced a net income of over one million dollars for the last several years through the “relationship marketing” of grass finished meats, such as chicken, beef, pork and rabbit to local families and restaurants.

Tonight won’t be Joel’s first visit to Jefferson County, of course. Back in the nineties he was a regular speaker at the annual Biodynamic Food and Farming Conferences. More recently, he was the kick off speaker for Fresh and Local CSA’s 2002 Local Food and Local Economy speaker series, which also featured Sally Fallon and Michael Shuman. With the Herculean help of Greg King, owner and chef of The Blue Moon Restaurant, we Ballietts of Fresh and Local CSA provided a meal from pastured eggs and bacon donated by Polyface to almost 200 attendees to Joel’s lecture at the War Memorial Building . The food was uncommonly delicious, and, as always the best advertisement for the validity of Joel’s philosophy.

Joel has written 6 books. His first, “Pastured Poultry Profits,” which is currently distributed by Chelsea Green, appeared in this area on a couple of dozen mimeographed sheets of copy paper in the early eighties. It contained all the facts a farmer needed to start producing “the best tasting chicken possible while building your pastures.” Unfortunately, when Family Friendly Farm on Gardener Lane put Joel’s ideas into practice here in Jefferson County to the delight of many families in the area who wanted clean, nutritious, flavorful chicken, they were promptly put out of business by the Jefferson County Zoning Commission. It’s illegal to butcher chickens on your farm in Jefferson County, even if you do it in an odorless, ecological fashion.

It is this sort of action by government that has inspired Joel’s most recent books, such as “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front,” which deals with the stuggles that small farms have with government regulations that place a burden of laws on small local farms because of dangers the globally distributed industrial food system has created.

I talked recently with Joel on these matters that are important to the health and well being of both citizens and farms.

Joel, you once told me that the only way to get credence in this country is to have a PhD or to write a book. You’ve written a pile of great books and your ideas have been adopted by thousands, if not millions, of farmers around the world. What has becoming a movie star given you access to?

SALATIN: I’ve become the ad hoc farmer face for the non-industrial farming movement. That means I’m enjoying being the crossover.

Because people tend to mingle and listen to like kinds of people (i.e. foodies with foodies, farmers with farmers, bikers with bikers, etc.) cross pollenators are crucial to move large numbers of people into new thinking. That’s why actors want different kinds of parts, so they avoid being stereotyped.

The fact that last night I spoke to 1,500 people at Belmont University in Nashville

about pastured livestock, dancing earthworms, stacking multi-speciated relationally-diversified pathogen confusing systems, and carbon sequestration through organic matter increases, is truly remarkable.

I feel unbelievably blessed to be speaking to non-farming groups, to be taking this message to people who will populate Fortune 500 companies and policy sessions. A few days ago Gov. Tim Kaine came to the farm for a private tour. I was able to explain to him that the industrial food system doesn’t scare me at all because they don’t wear badges and sidearms. I explained to him that his responsibility is to protect us from the annihilation agendas of the industrial foodists, and I told him many of us are depending on him to be the thin veil of protection to preserve food choice and heritage-based environmentally-enhancing food systems.

A common criticism of the Polyface model is that because people have to commute individually to your farm in order to buy directly from you, you are creating a carbon foot print greater than the conventional farms that you criticize. How do you plead?

SALATIN: On-farm sales account for about 25 percent of our sales; restaurants 30 percent, and metropolitan buying clubs 45 percent. We deliver to the MBCs a large volume per trip to create economies of scale. And we collaborate with other nearby farmers since we’re not bound by

farmer’s market rules or politics, creating piggy-back distribution for them. As for the on-farm sales, most of those are people who come only once or twice a year and get large volumes. They aren’t coming all the time. And beyond that, most of them are coming to see the farm, spend an hour or two walking around, soaking in the aesthetic aromatic sensually romantic nuances of their food relationship.

That has to be as beneficial as a movie and vacation.

How do you stand with the statement that, due to scale, imported foods are more eco-friendly than local foods?

SALATIN: The only reason local foods do not enjoy the scale of global industrial food systems is because capricious, malicious food police inordinately prejudice community-imbedded, neighborhood scaled food entrepreneurs from accessing our friends with better food.

In addition, subsidies create price prejudice against local food. If we had a food emancipation proclamation to free up local food entrepreneurs and quit subsidizing the industrial food empires, local food would not only scale up, but drop precipitously in price.

Included in the subsidy is the fact that we are willing to go to war to keep cheap fuels so transportation can appear cheaper than it is. Bottom line, everything in modern America is stacked against functional local food systems. If these structural barriers were removed, local food would run circles around all the alternatives.

Can small farms feed the world?

SALATIN: Not only can they, they are the only thing that will. When scientists compare production, they practice selective data gathering to prove an agenda. For example, indigenous rice production in Vietnam includes fish in the paddies to eat algae and snails, ducks to eat weeds and in turn provide meat and eggs, rice, and around the edges, bok choy, arugula and other edible greens.

Enter genetically modified golden rice, grown with herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Lots of rice. Toxic water, so no fish, no ducks, no eggs. Herbicides, so no edible greens around the edges. No way in a million years can the GMO rice approximate the food production of the multi-speciated symbiotic indigenous system. But if all you measure is rice production, the single

species, petroleum-based system appears to be more productive. The fact is that single-species petroleum-based systems can never ever compete on production per arable yard with heavily diversified, integated, multi-speciated synergistic systems.

Why did you start VICFA (Virginia Independent Consumer and Farmer Association) and what has VICFA accomplished, in your perception, since it’s inception?

SALATIN: I helped start VICFA after numerous run-ins with the state food police who for decades have tried to shut down our farm. And they harass other farmers too, many of whom are not as aggressive as I am. I knew that if we native farmers (like native Americans) were going to survive, we needed political clout. To require me to have a $50,000 building that is prohibited in an agricultural zone just to dress a chicken for my neighbor has nothing to do with safety. It’s all about politics. I envisioned a food NRA (National Rifle Association) to secure freedoms that are under consistent assault by the bureaucrat lackeys of the industrial food system and their

own paranoia, like germ theory. The only reason we don’t have a food NRA is because our culture did not value food like it valued guns.

Perhaps with Type II diabetes, food borne illnesses, and obesity someone will eventually connect the dots between health and food. Since its inception, VICFA has offered a support group for eaters and farmers who want to do patronize each other without the food police being involved. Specific freedoms it has lobbied and preserved: to eat the butter from your own milk cow; to have chickens on your own farm; to process and sell baked items, jams, and jellies from your own home without government licensing.

You recently received a much deserved Heinz Award for $100,000. At the time, someone asked you how you were going to spend it and you quipped “It will all be spent locally.” How are you going to spend it?

SALATIN: Locally. Not at Wal-Mart. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. Ha!

“Why have you chosen to not have Polyface Farm certified organic by the USDA?”

SALATIN: We don’t participate in any government programs. To ask the USDA to steward a movement it spurned for decades is intellectual schizophrenia. And I am not psychotic.

As a “crossover” who has the opportunity to meet and talk with various groups of

people, what are two issues do you think citizens should organize around to “effect change.”

SALATIN: The first would be domestic culinary skills. Unless people rediscover their own kitchens and begin spending time in them again, the highly processed, subsidized, nutrient depleted industrial food system will continue expanding. If beyond organic farming and local food are to gain ground (pun intended), people have to cook from scratch, can, freeze, and bring

raw foods preparation and storage back home. This also happens to be the key to eating royalty food at pauper prices.

Economically disadvantaged families on government assistance should be the first to spend more time in their kitchens.

Turn the TV off, cancel the Walt Disney vacation, and localize your recreation and info-tainment.

The second is to legalized drugs. This is the first step in getting the government out of our mouths. Unless and until we as a culture realize that what a person ingests is not the sheriff’s business, we will never enjoy freedom of food choice. Food will continue to be authorized by government sanction, and that list of approved foods will be written by monied interests

whose agenda does not include your health. Their agenda includes filling up hospitals and pharmacies.

As I’ve chipped away at this food safety hurdle and regulations that inordinately prejudice small outfits, I have realized that the tipping point in the whole discussion is the notion that the government has the right to come between my lips and throat. That is an invasion of privacy we cannot abide.

There seems to be a real interest in young people to “get into farming” however, obtaining land is huge obstacle. Can you suggest any economic models that could support young people starting out.

SALATIN: Rent. More and more land is now owned by people and interests who have no clue about farming or land management.

We need to understand that in our culture right now, farming is not about production; it is about greenspace. Pretty greenspace. If you know how to create an aesthetically and aromatically pleasing landscape, you can get cheap land.

Piedmont Environmental Council did their first huge leasing seminar last year and actually used the term “tenure.” A European term, it invokes 99-year leases, which are commonplace worldwide. I know a farmer in China who has a 99-year lease on 1,000 acres for $50 per year. The folks who think they are doing the world a big favor by encumbering their land with conservation easements need to realize that without farmers to beautify that landscape, all we have is another forested wilderness area. People don’t travel to Europe to see the forest; they go to see the agricultural mosaic.

At a recent talk you said, “We are the new Native Americans” What do you mean by that?

SALATIN: The heritage-based food movement is holding on to nutrient density, vibrant earthworms, enhanced immunity, respect for the pigness of the pig, sacredness and nobility toward land and food. Wall-Street and the culture as a whole appreciates none of these things. Indeed, these heritage-based values never appear on business plans or balance sheets; and yet breathable air, growing soil, and drinkable water are far more valuable than stocks or financial portfolios.

The greater culture, however, is all out war against such an imbedded, indigenous, transparent food system. We are being demonized, marginalized, and criminalized systematically to protect industrial food’s market share.

Would you describe yourself as an optimist?

SALATIN: Oh yes, a hopeless optimist. Not about where the world is heading, but instead what you and I can do to create a different outcome for ourselves. GMO pollen drift, growing government intrusion, energy issues–all of us need to opt out of the system that encourages these problems. If enough of us do, we may see change.

How do you feel that the work of sustainable farmers fits in with the (for lack of a better word) practices fits into the health care crisis in this country?

SALATIN: In my view, the health care crisis is twofold:

1. Government intrusion. To blame the free market for our current health care problems is like saying industrial food has occurred because of free markets. We have not had anything close to a free market in food for a century. And the meddling really began with … Abraham Lincoln, who decided to give us a USDA, which has been the voice of farmer extermination ever since. If I wanted to build a medical facility that dispensed snake oil, why is it anyone’s business to tell my constituents that they are too stupid to figure out they are being duped?

If I can’t have autonomy over my own body and my own care, I’m not very free. The problems we have are because of government intrusion, so increasing government intrusion certainly will not help. Some 32 years ago Jimmy Carter started the Department of Energy to wean America away from Middle Eastern oil. It’s now a $30 billion agency with 16,000 employees. Clearly, 32 years of government intrusion in the energy industry has resulted in much less dependence on foreign oil. When will people quit putting their faith in the government?

2. Lifestyle. And this is where sustainable farmers fit in. And it’s why I don’t sign petitions from the organic industry to get more government funding for sustainable agriculture. The reason dishonest food is cheaper than honest food is because subsidies and other industry sweetheart deals create price prejudice against honest food. Seeing this history, then, why would anyone want to continue subsidies for anything? Sustainable farmers by and large are completely outside the government system, although too many are wanting to re-enter it. Growing less pathogenic food, more nutrient dense food, and less processed food are all key elements of a healthy populace.

What are your thoughts on how someone who is new to the local foods movement might get more involved with food and farming?

SALATIN: Discover your kitchen. Cook one home-cooked from-scratch meal this week and have everyone in the family sit down and enjoy it, without the TV blaring in the background, and have each person research the origins of each menu item and tell everyone else about it.