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Cultivating Freedom

Joel Salatin practices ethical animal husbandry— no thanks to the feds.

Joel Salatin calls Abraham Lincoln our “worst president”—because he created the United States Department of Agriculture. “There is not another agency that has been so successful at annihilating its own constituency,” he says.

Since his star turn in Michael Pollan’s bestselling Omnivore’s Dilemma, Salatin has become a celebrity of the local-food movement. Pollan’s book recounts a week spent at Polyface Farm, Salatin’s 500-acre plot outside Staunton, Virginia.

Despite his friendship with the Berkeley-based Pollan and identification with a movement primarily birthed of the Left, however, Salatin is unabashed about his conservative perspective. He calls himself a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist lunatic.”

At Polyface Farm, the owner jokes, the primary crop is grass. In gently rolling fields, set against a postcard backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains, Salatin raises grass-fed “salad bar beef,” pastured poultry and eggs, and free-foraging pigs. The last were featured in a “Nightline” report about Salatin’s most famous customer, the fast-food chain Chipotle, which buys most of its pork from organic farms.

Salatin has become accustomed to media coverage. An offer to star in a TV series sits open on his desk, and last summer Polyface was a central tableau of the documentary “Food, Inc.,” which cast a critical eye over the industrial food system. The film’s message was opaque, giving equal time to large-scale USDA-certified organic producers, mothers calling for more federal oversight, and anti-regulation, small-scale farmers represented by Salatin. While undoubtedly the most entertaining of the bunch, he is aware that he couldn’t win over all viewers, many of whom probably came away with the message that government intervention is the solution. “Our biggest fear is that ‘Food, Inc.’ will move heavy-handed food-safety regulations forward,” he admits.

Salatin is no stranger to skirmishes with state and federal regulators. In his self-published book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, he recounts, in epic fashion, battles over his on-site processing of poultry. Polyface chickens, which draw rave reviews and customers from hundreds of miles away, are washed and prepared for sale in an open-air environment that regulators found to be unsanitary. After a protracted fight with the bureaucracy and some assistance from local politicians, Salatin was able to retain his farm’s exemption from the regulations, which he insists are only appropriate for multinational corporations.

Because he refuses to abide by USDA rules for federal “organic” certification—Salatin calls it the “O-word”—Polyface relies on word-of-mouth and an open-door policy to encourage transparency, confident that this will draw customers genuinely concerned about the origin of their food and the method by which it comes to their tables. Polyface, unlike Big Agribusiness, sees showing people around the farm as part of its mission. At a recent open house, Salatin reports that 1,600 people showed up from over two dozen states.

He wants to create an “NRA for local food” and has helped start a small-farm legal defense fund with a hotline that farmers can call for advice when hostile regulators come knocking. Consumers should understand that “if the government has a right to get between your lips and your stomach,” he says, all the other freedoms, especially “to shoot, pray, and preach,” are diminished. He endorses private, voluntary certification organizations modeled on Consumer Reports and says he would be happy to submit to and pay for a third-party referee with standards appropriate to small-scale farming.

The government’s monopoly on meat regulation began in 1906, when in response to public panic resulting from the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Teddy Roosevelt signed legislation mandating federal meat inspections. Today, Salatin claims that agricultural regulation favors multinational corporations such as ConAgra and Monsanto because the science that supports the USDA regulatory framework is paid for by these corporations, which give large grants to leading agricultural academics. “The research coming out of the land-grant universities is a mouthpiece for the corporations,” says Salatin, who argues that conventional models don’t account for energy consumption: “We can produce more per acre on a fifth of the fuel as the industrial food system.”

Agriculture-school faculty who visit Polyface tell Salatin that they are “glad to prove the veracity of [his] model,” but immediately ask him, “How much money can you give us to do the research?” For Salatin, this is evidence that, in the end, the bottom line drives the research agenda. “I don’t have money. Monsanto has money,” he says. He is convinced that industrial agriculture pays for science that is biased toward “bigger, faster, better, cheaper” and ignores unintended costs, particularly damage to the land and human health.

Salatin points out that when science goes wrong, the consequences are sweeping. Always with us is the “propensity for human evil. … The question is not whether we can eliminate it, but whether we centralize it or decentralize it. … If I run a dirty ship here, I’m only affecting a few customers. What happens when the USDA determines that feeding dead cows to cows is the new science-based technique? Mad Cow.”

Much as he resists the federal regulatory apparatus, Salatin is skeptical of unqualified celebration of the market, insisting that the status quo, especially when it comes to agriculture, “is not a spontaneous order.” He notes, “The butcher, baker, and candlestick maker have been around a lot longer than supermarkets and Wal-Mart.” Regulation that favors industrial farming has warped our sense of what Salatin describes as “appropriate scale.”

He wants a big-tent local-food movement. While two decades ago, most customers at his farm store were “liberal, hippie, tree-hugger types,” he now estimates that an even number are traditional and libertarian conservatives. Surveying his customer parking lot, Salatin says, “It’s absolutely typical to have three Obama bumper stickers alongside three that say, ‘Abortion stops a beating heart.’” He is encouraged by the movement’s broad appeal, but laments that he cannot convince more of his fellow churchgoers not to “stop for happy meals on the way home from the pro-life rally.”

He is often surprised at his reception when he speaks at places like UC Berkeley, where he was prepared for hisses, but received a standing ovation. He was impressed by student-maintained vegetable gardens adjacent to the dormitories.

In his own days at Bob Jones University, where Salatin was an undergraduate in the late 1970s, students would have considered gardening menial. The natural-food movement was seen as so central to the countercultural Left by Bob Jones’s evangelical leaders that students were told to avoid “the food cult.”

Salatin, who grew up going to natural- food stores, found this hostility from the Right troubling. Today, he is delighted that so many conservatives have joined what he calls the “heritage food movement.” (He chuckles, admitting that this is a subtle “slam” at the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks that he claims are in bed with agribusiness.) As for Bob Jones, it has evidently changed its outlook. The university recently honored Salatin as “alumnus of the year.”

For all his dialogue with the Left and criticism of the institutional Right, Salatin is enthusiastic about Republican Ron Paul, though he wanted the Texas congressman to run as an independent in 2008. Salatin rejects most right-wing talk-show hosts. He accuses Rush Limbaugh, in particular, of being dismissive of the local food-movement. But Salatin has kind words for Glenn Beck, whom he praises as both “agendaless” and “truth-seeking.” He points to Beck’s criticism of the USDA and attention to how so-called food-safety regulations threaten small farmers.

He sees himself not as an ideologue, but as a modern farmer reined in by a few first principles. Some charge that small-scale farming is nothing but nostalgia, but Salatin is no Luddite. He uses e-mail and maintains an extensive website and blog. He’s enthusiastic about some new farming equipment but believes agricultural technology must be guided by a moral sense that accounts for both the dignity of the animal and the human consumer. He is persuaded by the arguments of Matthew Scully, a prominent GOP speechwriter who brought animal welfare to the attention of many on the Right, and suggests that Scully’s Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy be “required reading in all Christian colleges.”

Salatin’s public lectures are peppered with his own references to metaphysics: he’s not afraid to argue that industrial farming has forgotten the “pigness of the pig.” And he doesn’t shy away from connecting American agriculture to our interventionist foreign policy, stating in “Food, Inc.” that “a society that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure … to be manipulated … is just as likely to view other cultures with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling-type mentality.” Moreover, agribusiness, like so many sectors of the economy, is dependent on the foreign oil that keeps America entangled in the Middle East: “We’re fighting a war on the other side of the side of the world to maintain cheap oil so we can maintain an energy-intensive industrial food system,” he says.

Having long referred to his activism as a “ministry,” Salatin also trains new missionaries. With seven summer interns and three year-long apprentices, this small tract in Virginia is a sort of seminary, with trainees living and taking meals together. Salatin admits that he preaches to his on-sight followers, occasionally reading passages from his favorite books over dinner. Most of these young people have no farming background and have never lived in rural areas. They come to him, Salatin is convinced, because they are looking for a “noble vocation”—to “do something sacred with their lives, hang the money.”

The ministry is a family enterprise. Salatin’s 28-year-old son Daniel is now the third generation to farm this patch of the Blue Ridge. The traditional conservative emphases on the importance of place and family clearly resonate with Salatin. He suggests that most solutions start at home. Instead of calling your congressman for more regulation, as a postscript to “Food, Inc.” instructs, he recommends “cook[ing] your own meal from your home-grown garden.”

Salatin’s own home-based business has been wildly successful. Polyface products are so highly regarded that he no longer needs to sell at farmers’ markets. Instead, most of his consumer sales come from visitors—many admit to driving hundreds of miles to buy from Polyface—and cooperative buying clubs in the Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia metro areas.

Unlike other online purveyors of grass-fed beef and poultry, most of whom ship nationwide, it’s difficult to taste Salatin’s products unless you live within a day’s drive of Polyface. The farm’s website says, “We do not ship anything anywhere. We encourage folks to find their local producers and patronize them.” In the preface to Salatin’s book Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, Pollan explains that he first thought there might be something more to this farmer when Salatin refused to FedEx his products to Pollan’s home in California.

Salatin is convinced that this air of authenticity gives him broad appeal. He is not an armchair intellectual who pontificates from a plush think-tank office. He spoke with TAC at a picnic table on the lawn of the farmhouse, clad in his trademark suspenders and straw hat, dirt under his fingernails from working the fields. Most of his writing is relegated to the winter, when Polyface shuts to visitors and Salatin retreats to his Macintosh to compose his manifestos. He says that at least one of his half-dozen self-published monographs has sold in the tens of thousands, and he plans to write another this winter, with the provisional title The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.

Though not without a sense of humor, Joel Salatin is on a deeply serious mission. The unholy alliance of Big Agribusiness and Big Government, which is “so prejudicial against grassroots innovation,” is no less than “evil.” So as long as people are listening, this lunatic farmer will keep shouting. Watch out, USDA.  


Lewis McCrary is a doctoral student at Georgetown University and a former editorial assistant at TAC.

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