Polyface Farms Joel Salatin may be one of the most well-known farmers on this planet. The self-described “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer” is famed for his counter-conventional animal husbandry wisdom, and is a prolific author who doles out scathing criticisms of Industrial factory farming methods and government involvement in food.
In this interview, Salatin addresses every facet of his “Christian Libertarian Environmentalist Capitalist Lunatic Farmer” description— answering 22 political, personal, general, and hypothetical questions from Karen Pendergrass.
1. How is the Judeo-Christian ethic employed on Polyface Farm, and how does it differ from other Christian beliefs about humans and their prospective roles on Earth?
Unfortunately, the Judeo-Christian ethic as articulated in Biblical writings has been wrested by many on the religious right into almost a militaristic, manipulative dominion mandate. With humankind at the pinnacle and virtually free—even encouraged—to change whatever can be changed, this view pay short shrift to the overriding theme of ancient scripture, which is one of loving stewardship, respect toward established creation patterns, and ultimate regeneration and redemption.
That the earth is not perfect is quite apparent. But when God created, He pronounced it all good and placed Adam and Eve in a garden of communion and choice. After the fall—sin—the earth changed. After the flood of Noah, recorded in Genesis chapter 6, it changed even more. What the radical environmentalists don’t understand is that in this changed state, every volcano, earthquake, flood, fire, tsunami, has not left the earth in its best condition. While the earth as created is resilient indeed, it is far from being as efficient at soil building and solar conversion into decomposable biomass as it could with some informed human participation.
While it is true that the story of human civilization generally maps a rape and pillage course, desertification and destruction are not inherent in the human-earth relationship. Why have humans been endowed with such a large brain and opposing thumbs? Is it to be the most efficient rapist and pillager of our ecological womb? Or could it just be that a benevolent, though holy, Creator has placed us here to caress, massage, and heal a creation reeling under post-Edenic fallen conditions?
I suggest that building redemption into the earth is our Judeo-Christian mandate. That means we study creation patterns and templates and we adhere to a healing and forgiving model. As farmers, then, we should be hydrating the land rather than depleting aquifers and rivers. We should be enhancing genetics rather than making them more fragile through routine vaccination and pharmaceuticals. We should be capturing and leveraging carbon rather than using it up and throwing it away. We should be building soil rather than destroying it. We should build complex relational symbiosis rather than mono-speciated outside-dependent systems.
Farming should nest gently into the landscape rather than dominating it. We should use less energy rather than more energy and food systems should be net producers of energy rather than net extractors. Our farmscapes should become aesthetically and aromatically sensually romantic places, where kindergarteners love to visit and play. They should welcome people of all ages rather than hide behind “No Trespassing” signs and hazardous materials suits. If the earth is anything, it’s a loving partner, not a subdued enemy. Ultimately, the physical creation is a visceral object lesson of divine and spiritual truth. That means we want farms that illustrate forgiveness, beauty, relationships, and vigor.
2. Can you give us an example of how corporate welfare programs and special concessions to big business hurt businesses like Polyface Farms?
Right now, under the Food Modernization Act, proposed rules will criminalize a farm having more than 3,000 chickens outside. The government-industrial food complex shares in a fraternity of ideas that demonize heritage genetics and production systems. Food safety laws for a long time have prejudiced innovative and small-scale producers and processors by codifying non-scalable paperwork and infrastructure. If spending $10,000 in time and expert counsel to fill out paperwork in order to comply with regulations can be spread over 1,000 chickens an hour, that’s doable. But if it is only spread over 1,000 chickens a year, that effectively destroys an entrepreneurial start-up. It’s one thing to demand a $2,000 thermometer for charcuterie if you’re making a tractor trailer load at a time; quite another if you’re making a 5-gallon bucket-full at a time.
My book Everything I Want to do is Illegal documents many of these things. Perhaps a couple more examples will help to see how broad government penetration in the marketplace is, and how such activity hurts innovative players. Polyface is a farm under workmen’s compensation rules. We must pay into the system based on worker earnings and job descriptions. But the risk actuarials are all based on industrial farms. When we designate “poultry” worker, for example, the historic risk is not predicated on pasturing where we just move little portable shelters around a field. They’re predicated on Tyson factory houses full of lung-destroying fecal particulate, lots of whirring fans and motors, and feed chains powered by yet more equipment.
The thing you have to understand is that every time, every time, every time the government regulates something, it always, always, always hurts the small players and helps the big players. Not only can the big players spread the regulatory compliance costs over more pounds or units, but they can also attend trade meetings to learn how to game the system and even donate large sums to politicians to buy deferential treatment. An innovative player often figures out how to get better results than the established protocol, but is unable to bring the innovation to market due to the onerous and obsolete regulations.
One additional story. Many years ago the chicken police tried to shut down our outdoor processing shed. At the same time, we had our chickens analyzed for exterior bacterial contamination at a certified laboratory. We sent samples from the supermarket at the same time so we’d know the comparisons. The government-sanctioned and USDA-licensed supermarket birds averaged 3,600 colony-forming units of bacteria per sample; ours average 133. Wouldn’t you think the food safety bureaucrats, upon seeing chicken 25 cleaner than their approved product would be interested in such a clean model? No. They wanted to put us out of business for having an open-air facility and no bathrooms or clothes-changing lockers. The government is not interested in truth. Giving bureaucrats more regulatory power does not change that axiom. Innovation is always sacrificed to preserve the status quo. Always. Always. Always.
3. Should Congress impose an outright ban on GMO foods or push for mandatory labeling, or would passing such regulations violate laissez-faire capitalism?
Any time we assume that the only remediation to a problem is more government regulation, we show a profound lack of creativity. Let’s look at the GMO problem from a totally different angle.
If my neighbor owned a bull, and that bull came through the boundary fence and trampled my flower garden, I could call the district attorney and the government would hold that trespassing neighbor liable for damages on my property. This is the essence of trespass and nuisance law. Today, Monsanto owns bulls—patented GMOs—in the form of brand new life forms, or beings. These beings are inherently promiscuous and do not respect property boundaries. The first time one of their “bulls” trespassed onto a neighbor’s property and created beings the neighbor didn’t want, the district attorney (aka government) should have charged Monsanto with trespass. Period. End of story.
But we now live in such a convoluted non-jurisprudence era that not only is Monsanto not liable for a sexual orgy their beings performed on a neighbor’s property, but the neighbor must pay Monsanto for the privilege of their “bull” trampling the neighbor’s flower garden. It’s obscene and evil. If all the effort currently put into yet another government regulation, with more police power, more espionage efforts, more bureaucrats bought and paid for by Monsanto, were instead put into enforcing basic trespass law and encroachment liability, GMOs wouldn’t even exist. The fact is that they can’t be kept home. If I invent something that must hit you in the nose in order to function, it shouldn’t be long before basic encroachment doctrines make it too difficult for my nose-thumping invention to come to market. Most people don’t like their noses thumped.
That’s one line of reasoning. Here’s another. You don’t have to buy GMOs. You can buy from farmers you know who don’t use them—like Polyface. You can buy organic. Nobody is holding a gun to anybody’s face demanding that they buy GMOs. Just opt out. Why do we feel so helpless? Why must our first cry of foul send us running to a federal government bureaucrat to make all things right? It’s wasted effort and ends up expanding the heavy hand of food police. Every time we ask for a government solution in the marketplace, the big guys get badder and the little guys take it on the chin.
Each of us only has so much money and time to involve ourselves in remediating society’s problems. If all the effort for labeling and more bureaucracy went into expanding local buying, domestic culinary arts, and food awareness we’d be a lot farther ahead without the frustration of politics and yet another over-reaching agency. I have several more angles, but these two are enough for starters.
4. How do big agribusiness companies, like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, disproportionately exert influence over agricultural policy?
Many folks have seen the documentary Food Inc. To me, the most powerful moment in the movie is toward the end when it shows the revolving door between industry people and regulatory people. Perhaps the most egregious one right now is President Obama’s appointment as food czar: Michael Taylor, the attorney who for 10 years shepherded Monsanto’s GMO efforts and brought that diabolical outrage to the neighborhood near you. Is it any wonder he doesn’t want outdoor poultry? He wants every animal vaccinated. He wants food irradiated. He wants factory farming and anything else that insults nature’s templates.
These big companies wine and dine politicians and buy concessions, either outright like grain subsidies or more subtly, like putting their players into the regulatory process. This kind of big government/big business cronyism is axiomatic throughout the regulatory process. Look how hard it is to build a house using unconventional techniques. Because innovation always strikes at the assumptions of the status quo, government manipulation of the marketplace—and that’s what regulations are—always stifles creativity.
Of course, innovators and entrepreneurs are notoriously unorganized, and generally don’t want any governmental manipulations of their innovative businesses. The big players consistently want protection from innovation; therefore they bend regulations to benefit themselves at the expense of smaller competitors.
5. Was the 2012/2013 Federal Farm Bill an improvement from past farm bills, or was it just a reflection of the monumental failures in US policymaking systems?
I don’t care a lick about the Farm Bill. We shouldn’t have one. And we shouldn’t have a USDA, or an FDA for that matter. Most of politics is arguing over things that shouldn’t be governmental issues anyway. I pretty much stay disengaged from the farm bill because I don’t participate in it; I don’t want violence used to give me someone else’s money (try not paying your taxes and see who gets violent); all I want is to be left alone to practice consensual commerce with my own tribe.
Michelle Obama’s organic garden on the White House lawn is nothing. Her husband put Michael Taylor, the Monsanto attorney who shepherded GMOs into the world, into the “Food Czar” position at the Food and Drug Administration. I guarantee you he will not promote unvaccinated, unmedicated grass-finished beef, compost grown tomatoes, or Aunt Matilda’s home-made sweet pickles. His orthodoxy does not allow for such innovations.
The people who think the government needs to participate in America’s food system need to understand that it was the government that promoted chemical fertilizers and pooh-poohed compost (no pun intended), who said that manure was not even worth hauling to the field, that developed and encouraged DDT use to cure all bugs, that subsidizes high fructose corn syrup, that promotes mandatory irradiation, that told us with the food pyramid in 1979 that the foundational pillar of a healthy diet was grain-based carbohydrates.
The food pyramid, you may recall, made no distinction between Twinkies, Cocoa-Puffs and Pop-Tarts versus fresh-sprouted quionoa bread. The government promoted feeding dead cows to cows and gave us bovine spongiform encephalopathy—mad cow. Why would anyone in their right mind want to give the government any authority in our foodscape? And don’t tell me “if we just had better people in there all would be well.” Enough already. Ever since the constitution-hater Abraham Lincoln started the US Dept. of Agriculture, the official bureaucracy has steadily and surely promoted a system that reduces nutrition, soil, and viable farming. Why would we want to give such a fundamentally flawed system any more power or another day of violence-acquired tax dollars?
6. How do you feel about child labor regulations?
Child labor regulations preclude and criminalize the historical multi-generational interaction and meaningful work done by young people preparatory to becoming productive members of adult society. While I don’t like exploitation, I’m not ready to concede that over-worked children are worse than over-pampered children. One is surely as detrimental as the other. Because exploitation is such a subjective idea, the government has no business intruding. The problem with regulations is that they grow the bureaucracy, which in turn cranks out additional maladies to correct with additional subjective rules that over time become more and more foolish.
For example, our society has no deemed it perfectly safe to put a 16-year-old behind the wheel of 3,000 pounds of steel hurtling 70 miles per hour down the road, but considers it criminally unsafe to put an 8-ounce cordless screwdriver in the hands of that same 16-year-old. Or have that 16-year-old push the “On” button of a blender in a kitchen. As a result, we have a generation of bored, childish young people prowling the streets at night getting into mischief and wondering if they are worth anything. This is an epidemic, and a blight on our culture. We should be encouraging pre-teens to start businesses and engage in gainful employment as early as they desire, rather than stifling the primal instinct of children to desire to grow up to be adults. Only messed up children want to keep acting like children.
7. How is the local food front a war zone?
Regulations are not scalable. Food safety regulations and licensing requirements scale up very well but do not scale down. This puts an unfair burden on smaller outfits. As the FDA rolls out its host of new regulations under the Food Modernization Act, even its own bureaucrats are talking about thousands of dollars in compliance, even for tiny cottage or home-scale food artisans. This effectively destroys imbedded, neighbor-scaled local food systems.
But food safety issues are just one. An equal issue is zoning. Fauquier County officials last year fined Martha Boneta, a farmer in the county, some $5,000 for hosting eight 10-year-olds for a birthday party without obtaining a license. In fact, county officials have decided that Bible studies should be licensed as well. They don’t want public interaction or commerce occurring on farms. York County, Virginia, is planning discontinue land use taxation, a fairness doctrine that recognizes farmland as inexpensive to govern. Cows, sows, and plows do not need schools, jails, and Medicaid. The result will be farmland taxed out of existence, which is exactly what happened in New York State 20 years ago and has now created 3.1 million acres of abandoned farmland, according to a recent 2-year study by Cornell.
It’s illegal for our farm to have a woodworking shop. We’re zoned agricultural, and woodworking—even a single artisan in a shop no larger than a garage—is considered manufacturing and therefore incompatible with farming. Ditto commercial kitchens. Ditto slaughterhouses. Ditto intern housing or hospitality buildings for overnight paying guests. Ditto educational seminars or school tours. That’s recreation, an illegal use in agricultural zones. This segregated economy destroys decentralized and democratized grass-roots opportunity. Instead, it limits farming to raw commodity production, like colonialism, to be exported to centralized and powerful processing and marketing interests elsewhere. In an industrial economy that may seem or sound efficient. In an information-based or regenerative economy, integrated and networked collaborative arrangements are more efficient. Interestingly, that is what was efficient in tribal arrangements throughout history—craftsmen and artisans—the iconic butcher, baker, and candlestick maker—were imbedded in residential, production, and multi-use communities.
Homeowners’ associations that preclude sales force inefficiency in home delivery systems. If a dozen families in that community want to buy from a farmer, that farmer’s delivery vehicle must go to each house instead of those dozen families converging on one home for the drop-off.
Finally, a word about urban food deserts to help drive the point home. What if a savvy culinary entrepreneur in a food desert turned a vacant lot into a garden, including aquaponics, rabbits, and chickens? Then this single mom of 4 children, let’s say, harvests the bounty and using her kitchen turns the production in quiche, heavy stews, and pot pies to sell to folks living in the same apartment complex. She wouldn’t have the first quiche out of the oven before half a dozen bureaucrats descended on her humble abode demanding businesses licenses, building permits, food safety licenses, occupational safety credentials and whatever else could be required in an opaque, segregated system. That such an opportunity is denied in these urban food deserts helps reveal that the real elitists in our culture are not the libertarians who propose such solutions, but the liberals who deny such liberty. More freedom almost never creates problems. More tyranny and government oversight has created far more problems than too much liberty.
Right now, our country does not have a viable local food system. Between the time in the 1940s when it still existed, and today, we have lost the knowledge, infrastructure, and integrated commerce that made it viable. Re-implementing all of these facets is a huge undertaking, and no less revolutionary than the experiment we now call industrial food. Re-introducing chickens with bones to the American kitchen is as revolutionary is extricating chickens with bones from the American kitchen. Re-discovering scratch cooking and the domestic larder will be as big a disruption in modern society as discovering TV dinners and supermarkets. The local food scene is where this cosmic shaking occurs and therefore where the war zone really is.
8. How important is decentralization to a food system’s integrity?
Decentralization is the foundation of an integrity food system. The more centralized, the more opaque, powerful, and untrustworthy the players. Integrity flows from accountability, which flows from transparency. Centralized mega-players inherently hide behind obscurity and use cleverspeak to confuse people. Organic free-range chickens are housed in confinement facilities with a 3-foot porch that just a few chickens step onto in a day. Purposely obfuscating terminology and spreading untruths is far easier when check-in stations, no trespassing signs, and security personnel stand between customers and product.
On our farm, we have a 24/7/365 open door policy for anyone in the world to come at anytime to see anything anywhere unannounced. That’s our commitment to transparency. Try doing that at any industrial-scaled business. We don’t have trade secrets or patented life forms. It’s all open sourced and freely accessed. We call this “Customer Certified.” Decentralization is at the heart of freedom and liberty. Centralized economies, centralized regulations, centralized bureaucracy, centralized justice—it all moves toward tyranny because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely (can’t remember who said that, but it’s good and fits).
9. In your idea of a utopian world, is there a complete separation of food and state, or does some regulatory body need to remain intact?
In my perfect world, no food laws would exist. None whatsoever. Let’s go back to basics. Demanding government intervention assumes that people do not respond to the market place. In a free market—and make no mistake, the U.S. has not had a free market for more than a century, and arguably never (remember the Whiskey Rebellion)—consenting buyers take responsibility for what they purchase. When buyers accept responsibility, they take great interest in educating themselves about the products.
When the government stamps “Approved” on a product, it immediately takes the responsibility off the buyer and creates ignorance. Government approval or licensing creates ignorant consumers, regardless of the commodity being purchased.
I can hear the backlash: “What about Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906? Things were terrible then.” I would answer yes, but within 6 months of his book being published, the big meat processors saw sales fall off nearly 50 percent. It was the single largest market correction back to local the country had ever seen. Desperate to regain their market, the big packers appealed to Teddy Roosevelt for relief: a government approval stamp. Being a Socialist, Roosevelt gave them the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) which has chipped away and chipped away at the local food system until today it’s almost non-existent. Absent the FSIS, this country would see an explosion of local food entrepreneurship that would topple supermarkets and the entire industrial food industry. But the FSIS has now become the de-factor protector of everything industrial-scaled, and every regulation, every license, is offered through the industrial mindset.
One of the most chilling things I’ve ever heard from a government agent was in a Congressional hearing (I was one of the testifiers) when the head of the FSIS said his agency was far more “efficient” because most of the small abattoirs were now out of business. He proceeded to explain that the bigger the facility, the more pounds of product his inspectors could see in an hour. In small facilities—by inference, extremely inefficient—his inspectors simply couldn’t get the throughput per hour. Why did it take me so long to realize that industrial-strength processing calls for industrial-strength inspectors? Why was it surprising that an industry that measures efficiency in pounds of product per person-hour would be regulated by an agency that measured success by pounds of product per inspector-hour? To hear it laid out so clearly and matter-of-factly shook even me. Unbelievable.
To assume that bureaucrats are more efficacious at remediating filthy food than informed, responsible, irritated buyers is silly. I think we could argue that the food regulations in our country occurred as a direct result of industrialization. With industrialization came opaqueness, adulteration, and ignorance. Today, however, local food artisans re-create transparency, fidelity, and information. With accountability and information dissemination at unprecedented levels through social media and the internet, I would argue that industrial-paradigm regulations are as archaic and obsolete as Velveeta cheese. If the government protectors of the industrial food system were removed, the whole food system would shake down to its historic normalcy: transparent, heritage-based, and informed.
To those who still can’t buy the no-regulations idea, I propose a hybrid: at least allow those of us who, as consenting adults, want to opt out of the industrial system, to be free to do so. If we’d rather live in teepees, heal with medicinal plants, and conduct meetings using talking sticks and chiefs, why does that harm the folks who prefer brick and mortar, blood-letting, and Robert’s Rules of Order? Why must the non-conformists be summarily rounded up, hunted down, and marched to reservations? How a society treats its unorthodox determines whether it is a tyranny or free society.
Only anemic, paranoid, timid societies fear the weirdos. Strong, virulent, empowered societies aren’t afraid of a few weirdos. I suggest that we have an amendment to the constitution, a Food Emancipation Proclamation, that would guarantee every citizen, as a civil right, the freedom to purchase the food of his choice. It would also give producers the freedom to sell anything to anyone who voluntarily chose to purchase said food. That way you have a two-tier system. For those afraid of food choice, they can get the government-approved chlorine-bathed irradiated genetically modified cardboard-tasting pseudo-food. For those of us in the tribe desiring heritage-based, nutrient dense, genetically-pure living tasty food, we can acquire it easily, in liberty. As Sally Fallon, founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation says, pretty soon our tribe will be the only one with enough sperm count to pro-create and we’ll take over the world buy default.
10. The number of farmers nationwide is dwindling steadily in tandem with a marked strengthening of a centralized food system. However, it seems as though there is an emergence of first-generation farmers who are coming from concrete cities. Why do you suppose this is? What advice would you give to these new farmers?
Our culture has marginalized farmers for a long time. Stereotyped as the red neck hillbilly tobacco-spitting trip-over-the-transmission-in-the-front-yard D students, farmers are now the dregs of society. Young people are not attracted to societal dregs. Many times our interns have conflict with their parents because the parents are embarrassed that one of their offspring has an interest in such a degrading vocation as farming. Most farmers don’t even want their children to farm—they want a better life for their progeny.
Ask yourself: would you be delighted to see your farmers’ market farmers driving a Mercedez Benz? Or would you consider that inappropriate? Would a farmer driving a Mercedez be charging you too much for food? You see, our culture is where it is not because of what someone else has done to us, but because of what we’ve done to ourselves. We are not victims; we’re the problem. The day suburbanites and urbanites desire to see wealthy farmers is the day food quality will increase and environmental stewardship on our farms finally merits examination.
We will have better and more farmers when food is not an afterthought; when the family table is not an obsolete cultural history lesson. The local food tsunami is indeed attracting many young people to farming, and that’s a good thing. These urban young people do not have unpleasant childhood farming memories to taint their thinking.
The most important advice I can give to them is to get experience. You will never know if your fantasy is realistic until you pick up a shovel or butcher an animal. Do not assume that since dummies farm, any old dummy can farm. True, any old dummy can farm poorly. Any old dummy can sign a contract with Tyson. But it takes extraordinary awareness, savvy, and experience to be a successful entrepreneurial farmer. Get an internship on a farm and get some experience.
The other piece of advice concerns character. While I am thrilled that so many young people now are interested in becoming farmers, I am equally frustrated by how few have the character to turn this fantasy into reality. Do you have what it takes? What will make you quit? Will you do whatever duty demands to be successful? Unfortunately, this generation has been coddled. They’ve grown up without chores, without consequences, and without a stern dose of raw competition. They’ve been told they’re special, they’re victims, they’re smarter, or whatever. This has led to an inordinate dependency on self-fulfillment rather than gratitude and duty. Farming is not all roses and dancing calves. It’s a lot of weed pulling, poop shoveling, and water carrying.
This is why an internship is so important. If you fail to thrive in an internship, you’ll certainly fail to thrive when you have your own operation. Always start small, with something you like, corresponding with cheerleaders.
11. Sustainability may be defined as the perfect mixture of economic vitality, ecological integrity, and social equity. Do you believe you have achieved that happy medium at Polyface Farms?
I don’t know if we’re sustainable at Polyface or not, but from all we can see, at least we’ll be the last ones standing when everything goes kaput, and that offers a bit of consolation in its own rite. Hopefully, by the time the last guy is standing, society will innovate or change enough to keep the last guy up.
Balance is an interesting word because in my experience, we’re never balanced. We’re always a bit off plumb; the pendulum never sits in the middle. It’s always a bit to one side, and when we see it to one side far enough, that’s when we begin correcting. Usually we over-correct and that sets up the next swing.
Some people think we’re workaholics. Some people think we’re miserly. Others think what we’ve done is impossible. The point is that balance is quite subjective, so I don’t know if we have it or not. We try to do what fits for us, and that means waking every morning knowing our future is not up to someone else; it’s not up to a government program or paycheck; and the jackals are always circling. I like Eliot Coleman’s take on life: Every morning the antelope wakes up and hopes he can outrun the lion; every morning the lion wakes up and hopes he can outrun the antelope.
12. Do you believe that vegetarian and vegan diets promote food decentralization, or foster centralization? With your knowledge, do you believe that vegan/vegetarian dietary disciplines have the ability to “Save the Planet” as they profess they can?
I don’t think vegan is any more decentralized than non-vegan. Centralization has much more to do with government regulation and domestic culinary abdication than choice of diet. Beef feedlots are certainly no more or less centralized than square miles of corn and soybeans. I don’t see anything about veganism that makes it less centralized, unless you think gardens are easier to do in small spaces than animals. But even in that, I vehemently disagree.
If we took all the cats, dogs, gerbils, fish bowls—you get the idea—and converted those to small domestic poultry and livestock like rabbits, it would certainly not take any more land or time or equipment and would return tremendous dietary nutrition. Picking up dog flops and putting in the trash to go to the landfill is certainly far more environmentally-destructive than feeding 10 chickens (the average American dog eats and poops as much as 11 chickens) and using their wonderful manure as side dressing on flowers or as a base for compost in the garden. Processed food, including take-out and fast food—are the two primary drivers are centralized food systems. The other is government regulations, which we’ve already addressed.
Now to the veganism “saving the planet” concept. Because most vegans are on a physically degenerative trajectory, if eliminating humans is the path to saving the planet, I suppose you could make an argument that veganism does indeed save the planet since it rids the earth of humans. But I don’t think the earth was meant to exist without humans; in fact, I think humans heal the earth better than anything—they also destroy the earth better than anything. Most of the time really good stuff has a really bad counterpart—like sex and wine.
Anyone wondering about the role of herbivores in nature needs to see Allan Savory’s stellar performance on TED talks. It explains what I’m going to encapsulate. Listen carefully. The earth’s ecology works like this: the sun sends energy captured by plants through photosynthesis. The most efficient plants are grasses; second are bushes and shrubs; third are trees. The reason the deepest and best soils in the world are not in forests is because grasses sequester carbon faster, build biomass faster, and ultimately build soil faster than any other plant. Herbivores prune grass as it approaches senescence in order to restart the fast biomass accumulation cycle.
The reason all antiquity diets began with either seafood or herbivores (including dairy) was because those options provided the most nutrient dense foods without tillage. Annuals require tillage, or some sort of intensive soil manipulation to keep the perennials at bay. When tillage was crude and energy expensive, grains and annuals were expensive.
In a time of soil erosion, chemical depletion, and energy uncertainty, I suggest that returning to this historically normal foundation for nutrient density through perennials and herbivores is the path of landscape—even foodscape—remediation. On our farm, we practice the holistic management concepts espoused by Allan Savory. These concepts, demonstrated on millions of acres around the world, build soil, restart springs and streams, encourage wildlife, and yield the highest dietary nutritional options available. This is heritage-based bio-mimicry on a grand scale.
To the vegan who thinks it’s sinful to eat animals, that’s a religion and I can’t change that. Just realize that everything is eating and being eaten; if you don’t believe that, go lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. You cannot have life without sacrifice, whether it’s a dead carrot or a dead pig.
Annuals deplete soil equity; perennials encourage it. Veganism completely depends on annuals rather than perennials, and therefore is an inherently ecologically-debilitating system.
13. Why do you describe yourself as a lunatic?
The idea of using lunatic to describe me was a humorous way to respond to my detractors who do indeed think I’m crazy. All my life, I’ve done the opposite of cultural expectations. As an honors student, I wanted to be a farmer. Drove my teachers and professors crazy: “he’s throwing away his life,” they said.
Our family settled on the most worn out rock pile in the Shenandoah Valley to farm. “You should buy good land,” conventional wisdom says. “We can heal it,” Dad said.
He asked for advice on how to make the farm pay: “Plant corn, build silos, pour on fertilizers, and graze the forests.” Dad said all that was poppycock and did exactly the opposite: we’ve never planted a seed, used no chemical fertilizers, built no silos, and fenced out the forest so the cows couldn’t go there. And that has made all the difference. Our neighbors who followed that advice, of course, are bankrupt, working in town, or out of farming for the most part.
“You live on a dirt road, far away from urban centers: you can’t market from there. Nobody will drive out that far,” the experts agreed. We offered pastured poultry, salad bar beef, pigaerator pork by order only a couple of times a year, must come to the farm to get it. Guess what? When it’s this good, they come.
USDA wisdom assumes that sickness in animals indicates pharmaceutical disadvantages. Most farmers think if something is sick or diseased they just aren’t using the correct drug concoction. We think the weakness indicates something wrong with our management, the animal’s diet, or our genetic selection. Sickness is always something we did wrong, and the “wrongness” has nothing to do with drugs. The industry says all animals should be vaccinated. Why? That just masks genetic weaknesses.
The USDA wants all animals locked up in factories. We think Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are the most efficient way to breed disease, pathogens, and toxins ever invented. Out in the fresh air with exercise, sunshine, and fresh salad bar makes happy, healthy animals that translate into nutrient-dense, and nutrient-balanced nourishment.
We think large abattoirs are horrible places. The FDA and USDA think they’re wonderful because no sunshine can enter, workers get repetitive motion disorder, executioners go berserk, and chlorine mist can sterilize poop better—what’s there not to love? Such a system fills hospitals, patronizes chemical companies, uses more energy and therefore keeps Gross Domestic Product high. Indeed, it keeps Wall Street perking right along. To think otherwise is sheer lunacy. For more on this, please read my soul book: THE SHEER ECSTASY OF BEING A LUNATIC FARMER.
14. What do you feel has been your biggest personal accomplishment?
The biggest personal accomplishment is seeing our son take over day-to-day operations on the farm and our daughter continue to be interested and involved—she does my power points and has her own gift card and Polyface coloring book businesses. Ultimately if the family dislikes my vision, it’s not regenerative.
The next biggest is simply seeing the increased solar energy we’re metabolizing into decomposable biomass. Soil building, in short. Earthworm proliferation. Water control, reducing flooding and giving water in droughts. The basic redemptive work on the landscape. Remembering that as a child we couldn’t support 20 cows on this farm. Now we support 125 with no more rain and no more sunshine—simply by healing the soil and encouraging organic matter.
The third biggest is germinating young farmers through our intern program and around the world with my speaking and writing—inspiring people to do things that the greater culture thinks is lunacy but turns out to be practical and successful. This is changing the landscape one acre and one eater at a time.
15. If you had a microphone that could reach the heart and soul of everyone living on this planet, what would you say into it?
You and I have the distinct blessing and responsibility of being able to participate in earth’s redemption. I know that the story of civilization following a path of human pillaging, destruction, and rape. Let’s declare that chapter done. I repent for all my ancestors have destroyed. Let’s resolve to regenerate, to give restitution. This new path is not up to someone else; not up to those guys over there. Quit pointing fingers and look in the mirror. What can I do, what can you do, today, to rectify the evil we’ve wrought?
Just like today is the summation of billions of individual decisions (stop at McDonald’s or plan for leftovers so I have food in my lunch cooler?) we’ve made prior to today. Tomorrow will be the summation of the billions of decisions we make between now and then. If I could snap my fingers and make all food really nutrient dense, all bodies physically fit, and all soil rich and fertile without anybody else having to do anything, that would be wonderful. But that’s not the way it works. It works when you and I and you and you and us decide to participate in this great healing. It’s not up to the government, non-profits, or the rich.
You can forego the golf game to can some tomatoes. You can forego the Disney vacation to plant a garden—or harvest a garden. You can forego Netflix to go visit your farmer and build a relationship with your ecological umbilical. You can forego the kids’ soccer game to pick up the raw milk and eggs at the farmers’ drop point. It ultimately comes down to values and priorities. Yes, I know the Kardashians are crazily interesting, but so is what’s going to become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone in a couple of hours. Our privilege to participate is a choice we exercise. And that’s the most important exercise of all.
16. Of all of the books you’ve authored, which were you the most passionate about writing?
The most passionate one was EVERYTHING I WANT TO DO IS ILLEGAL because it addresses an issue that almost nobody in our culture understands. The ability to express personhood through how we interact with each other is a sacred, inalienable right. Whether it’s minimum wage laws, food safety regulations, intern housing requirements, building inspections—you name it—if we don’t preserve an opt-out possibility for the unorthodox, we deny ourselves and future generations the innovation that will solve our current problems.
Government regulations, euphemistically called “oversight”, codify orthodoxy. The unintended consequence of codifying wage, food, housing, and infrastructure orthodoxy is that it marginalizes, demonizes, and criminalizes the creative fringes. If you must walk a certain way, carry a certain drum, and beat a certain rhythm, how can anyone walk to the beat of a different drummer?
I find it fascinating that our country generally loves rebels. If they’re in Egypt or Syria or Chechnya or Malaysia, we just love to align ourselves with rebels. But if we have rebels in our own country, we sent SWAT teams to raid their freezers, dump their milk, and landfill grass-finished beef. The government-industrial fraternity is waging an inquisition on the free exercise of free will. These credentialed folks who wield guns via their enforcers have decided that Pop-Tarts and Cheerios are safe and should even be subsidized, but raw milk, compost grown tomatoes and Aunt Matilda’s home-canned sweet pickles are hazardous substances.
Now we have Obama and his henchmen deciding that 3,001 chickens on a farm pasture should be criminalized. Every farmer’s market tomato needs a licensed Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point plan (HACCP), with compliance enforced by guns and without recourse to due process.
Many people think I’m too harsh on the government, but it’s the government that wields the power. Monsanto has no power except through the government. Tyson has no power except through the government. The Retail Food Manufacturer’s Association and McDonald’s don’t have any power except through the government. it’s the government’s job, in a free society, to protect the powerless from the powerful. It’s the government’s job to protect my ability to utilize my personhood and my property (to be secure in our effects) without interference—unless my use extends to my neighbor’s nose. But because we have government meddling in every facet of life, we have fraternal collusion between the powerful and the government to destroy the powerless. Our police state stands ready to enforce the inquisition on any poor heretic to would dare go against the orthodoxy by selling raw milk to a neighbor or refusing to vaccinate his chickens, or put 3,001 chickens out on pasture.
The foodie and wellness movement grew out of the environmental movement, which grew out of a “government needs to stop these abuses” mindset. The thinking was that it took a bigger-than-industry club to bring industry under control; hence, the only remedy for industrial-business abuse was the strong arm of the government. In a day of early industrialism, that may have been the case. But I would argue a much more efficacious control exists: the power of the marketplace. When angry customer unleash their boycotts on business perpetrators, it remediates far faster, more efficiently, and more precisely than a bureaucracy. It’s called libertarian justice, and it’s the best justice out there. And it’s cheap. All it requires is personal interest and involvement. That’s easy to get when bureaucrats aren’t there to be bought off by the status-quo to pooh-pooh heretics.
When people tell me the abuses we currently see, whether it was oil floating on rivers in the 1960s or dead children from camphylobacter ingestion, are due to free markets, they couldn’t be more wrong. We haven’t had free markets for a long time. Maybe we’ve never had them. But in true free markets, the innovative competition is always challenging the assumptions of the orthodoxy, knocking on its door with creative alternatives. The only reason, the only reason—may I say it again?—the only reason, our food in this country is so deplorable is because our food orthodoxy is abysmally codified by the grain-industrial-regulator-bureaucracy-credentialed-university fraternity. If I could have a an abattoir on my farm without a SWAT team descending to tell me it’s illegal, or cure bacon without the same, or make beef stew without the same—if you and I could conduct freedom to contract as consenting adults without a host of bureaucratic gun-toting intervention, farms like ours would topple the agri-industrial complex in a heart beat. And our system wouldn’t require militarization around the world to prop up.
17. What can the Paleo Movement at large do to support your mission?
1. Get in your kitchen. Get food as close to its source as possible and prepare, process, package, and preserve it yourself without any middlemen. Hunt it down and skin it out—yourself.
2. Vote libertarian—don’t ask for more government, bigger government, regulations, or any more police state tyranny. Realize that you and your tribe have the power and you don’t need to be giving it over to bureaucrats to dispense to cronies who wine and dine them at white table cloth galas.
3. Get informed. Read eclectically. Put down People and pick up ACRES USA. Put down the remote and pick up FOLKS, THIS AIN’T NORMAL. How’s that for shameless promotion—ha!
18. What do you think would happen if everyone in the United States boycotted fast food chains tomorrow?
They would laugh. But if we did it for two days, they would cry. By the third day, they would demand government protection. By the fourth day, they would beg for forgiveness. By the fifth day, they’d face bankruptcy. By the sixth day, we’d have a new food system. It took God 6 days to create the world. In 6 days, we could make the food system back like it was meant to be. No government action, no litigation, no courtrooms, no jet fuel, no lobbyists. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout. Bring it on.
19. What do you think would happen if the common American species of corn (Zea mays) or soy (Glycine max) were to become infected by a pestilential disease, suffered an infestation from insecticide-impervious grasshoppers, or suffered a drought like the one seen in the Dust Bowl Era? How would that impact the environment and economy?
Actually this is not far fetched, as non-diverse as our genetic base is. Here’s the long and short. If we quit feeding herbivores grain, we would only need about 45 percent of what is currently produced. If we ran pigs in the forest using high tech electric fencing and polyethylene water pipe, we could reduce grain needs by another 15 percent. If we feed all the edible food scraps and wastes to chickens like our ancestors did, we’d reduce grain needs by another 15 percent. That’s 75 percent reduction in grain.
All of that change could happen very fast—within a couple of years, without any reduction in total production. That change would put us on a path to recovery because grain could be planted as part of a multi-species and multi-cropping rotation that would stop whatever problem had caused the disaster in the first place. On the way to such a healing and sensible system, energy needs would drop by 40 percent and if we added localization, we would see vibrant economies and even less energy use.
20. If there was a push for federal protection of the small-scale farming industry through subsidies or other price supports the way they current subsidize grain and legume monoculture monopolies, would you be opposed to it?
I oppose any growth in government meddling in the market. Period. The reason we’re in such a mess is due to government meddling. We’ve tried that. We haven’t tried putting faith in individuals, democratizing power, and letting people exercise their free will. At least, we haven’t exercised that for a long, long time. I think Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. Government protectionism, fraternization, and concessionizing got us where we are; it is the nature of the beast. To say that we’ll get something better if we just put better people in begs the question: how do you insure that your people will be better than what’s in there? Did we ever have good people, and if we did, when did they go bad? When we gave them more power? When they quit wearing wigs? The reason our founders gave us an extremely limited federal government was because these wise heads knew that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The grand American experiment was all about putting in the power in the hands of the people who would limit the role of government. In the cycle of history, that system made us rich, wealth corrupted us and turned us into wimps, wimps made us victims, victims made us dependent, and now we’re just a bunch of babies looking for another government nipple to nurse. Enough already.
The most tragic part of this is that now the dependents outnumber the independents to the point that a few of us working and busting our tails are held hostage by the gimme-gimmes, or parasites. Nothing is free. Someone has to pay for it. To demand charity, subsidy, or any other noble-sounding thing through the mechanism of violence (try not paying your taxes and see who gets violent) adulterates the whole benevolent scheme.
21. If USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asked for your help to devise a marketing scheme to glorify small-scale farming to draw new farmers, despite the fact that his real intent may be to simply bolster military enlistments, would you be amenable to it?
I don’t trust anything from Vilsack or the USDA. That outfit has been demonizing truth for decades. If they had their way, Polyface would not exist. I don’t have time to fool with their chicanery. They have an agenda that as evil for this civilization and the sooner they get neutered the better. Yes, there is a time for anger. We’ve been gentle long enough, giving the benefit of the doubt, trying to play on the team. Forget it. The team is heading the wrong way and destroying the earth, our food, and our freedoms. I think the most important thing I can do to draw new farmers is to show them, by example, how to do it. If I’m sitting eating GMO-wheat cake with Vilsack, I’m not doing my best with my leadership example. He’s going one way and I’m going the other. Good riddance.
I’m so excited about where Polyface Farms and others like us are going I can hardly sleep at night. We have the coolest infrastructure, the best understanding, the greatest patrons and team players. I don’t have time to be pulled off my righteous and successful game plan.
Here’s to a wonderful future.
For more information about Joel Salatin including events, books, apprenticeships, seminars, farm, and more—visit his website here.