Farming and Freedom: A conversation with Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin may be one of the most well-known farmers in the U.S.
His farm, Polyface, has become an iconic symbol of non-industrial food production. And Salatin has become the face of sustainable agriculture, largely due to his appearances in popular documentaries like "Food, Inc." and Michael Pollan's 2006 bestselling book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma."
But, despite his notoriety, Salatin's innovative agricultural practices are still far from the norm. Self-described as a "Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer," he is known for his often scathing criticism of factory farming, as well as his pushback against government regulations that make life difficult for small, family owned farms.
He is author of nine books, one of which is titled "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal."
Salatin, who will be in town on Aug. 26 to speak at the Food Freedom Fundraiser, kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about his farm and philosophies on farming, his celebrity, and his opinions on government regulation and the raw milk debate. Here's what he shared.
OnMilwaukee.com: When did you decide you wanted to be a farmer?
Joel Salatin: From my earliest memories I wanted to farm. I always loved growing things and living in a nest of abundance. To be surrounded by sufficiency and provision is a wonderful thing. I started with laying chickens when I was 10 years old and it went on from there.
OMC: Tell me a little bit about Polyface Farm.
JS: My parents bought the farm in 1961 and paid for it in 10 years by working in town: he an accountant and she a high school health and physical education teacher.
My grandfather was a charter subscriber to Rodale's Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine, so my dad grew up steeped in the ecological food production approach. As an economist, he added a sharp pencil to ecological thinking and that is one reason I'm as comfortable talking about business as the production. He understood the need for portable infrastructure, biological soil fertility, direct marketing, and management-intensive grazing on perennials.
OMC: What do you know about agriculture in Wisconsin? Where do you think we are on the spectrum of sustainability?
JS: I doubt that Wisconsin is far different than any other state in the U.S. The average age of the American farmer is nearly 60, and I'm sure that's the same in Wisconsin.
You can't have a sustainable farming system until that age drops to below 40. That means we have to fundamentally change the food and farming model in order to make farming attractive to young people. More profitability, more beauty, more emotional support--like from customers who know their farmers. I don't know any state that is making ecological progress. All are destroying the water and stinking up the air and cranking out nutrient-deficient food because it's grown with artificial chemicals. Wisconsin is not alone in this.
OMC: You describe Polyface Farm as "beyond organic." What does that mean?
JS: Techniques and improvement mentality. The government-owned organic program has two fatal flaws. First, the requirements sometimes deny ecological integrity.
The most egregious example is probably the requirement that compost be heated to more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That destroys bacteria and other life, reducing the effectiveness of the compost. Biodynamic adherents promote a 120 degree compost, which I believe is far superior.
Second, the requirements are minimalistic rather than maximalistic, or what I call improvement-centric. In other words, no incentive exists to exceed the minimums. It's a simple pass-fail system. In egg production, organics does not require chickens to be on pasture. Almost all organic eggs are in confinement houses without fresh air, sunshine, or pasture. To accept a label with such minimalist requirements would cheapen our own product.
By using the term beyond organic, we can help people understand the significant shortfalls and clever-speak of industrial organics.
Most organic beef is grain fed in a feedlot. Unacceptable.
This is why many studies comparing organic to regular do not show up the significant changes you might expect, and that damages the credibility of the whole movement.
To have organic certified ultra-pasteurized milk is a travesty. If you really want integrity food with full nutrition, you wouldn't pasteurize at all. The organic license is extremely narrow, and does speak to the wide variables in food production and processing. To assume that organic means it's good for you is incorrect. It might be better than the counterpart, but we should be in the business of promoting real food, not pseudo-food wrapped in an organic label.
OMC: You've become the face for sustainable farming. How do you feel about that?
JS: Humbled and grateful. It comes with a downside, the responsibility to keep my integrity intact. I'm besieged by people wanting me to endorse projects or participate on everything from boards of directors to reality TV. In the last two years, I think I've turned down nearly a dozen reality TV offers.
Of course, all of them promise you the moon--power, position, profits. To not be used by cheap
agendas is hard, because you want to believe everyone's motives are great. I've been burned a few times, and what happens is you become cynical and gun-shy. So I turn down every request to be on a board of directors. I turn down nearly all endorsement requests.
My Joel-ness is to remain unencumbered, to be free to speak my mind, and to be able to challenge without fearing that my financial or publicity backing will be compromised. I think people respond to authenticity, and that's what I want to be; but, it's not easy when so many are tugging at you to make them successful by promoting something.
I can't imagine what it must be like to be a real celebrity or powerful politician. What a nightmare.
The good part is that I know when I speak it has clout. So if I feel strongly about something and begin talking about it, the idea reaches far. That's cool and is why I choose my causes judiciously.
OMC: You'll be coming to Milwaukee for the Food Freedom Fundraiser on Aug. 26. What is it about the raw milk debate that speaks to you?
The raw milk debate represents the tip of the spear in the entire food freedom movement.
I think it contains numerous aspects:
First, how does regulatory bureaucracy ever recognize it is obsolete?
The raw milk movement recognizes that at the turn of the century, with urbanization preceding the hygiene, sanitation, refrigeration, indoor plumbing, etc., necessary to metabolize the concentration of people, breweries and dairies became complicit partners in a horrendously filthy urban cow confinement scheme.
Against this backdrop, dirty milk and the pathogens/diseases it carried became a problem. Not everywhere, of course, but some places. Concerned consumers asked for governmental oversight and received it. Pasteurization seemed an option and, as these things are wont to go, finally became the default requirement. At the same time, the Mayo Clinic developed a stellar reputation for healing by feeding its patients raw milk from pasture-fed cows.
Gradually on-farm microscopes, somatic cell count testing, mastitis test strips, on-demand hot water, refrigeration (even on trucks, imagine that), stainless steel and a host of other technological advancements made it possible for even fairly large dairies and milk shipments to be clean and safe without cooking all the goodies out of the product through pasteurization. Only one problem--the mandatory pasteurization regulations and public perception about milk hazards persisted.
Arguably if the pasteurization option was necessary a century ago, it certainly is not today -- at least for pasture-based dairies who understand hygiene. How do you tell a paranoid public and a bloated bureaucracy that things have changed and their assumptions and laws are obsolete?
Second, who owns my body?
In America, we have the right to speak, worship, assemble -- even carry guns, but not the right to acquire the food of our choice from the source of our choice. If one right is more fundamental even than those listed above, it is the right to fuel my body with the substances I think it needs to energize it to speak, pray, and shoot. the only reason the founders of this great nation did not include food rights in the Bill of Rights was because they could not have conceived of a day when a person could not acquire a glass of milk or an oven-ready chicken from their neighbor farmer.
Ultimately, who owns my body is the question on the table and one our society must address. If I can't own my body, then I'm not responsible for its stewardship, its care, or anything about it. That's a fearsome view to carry around on a pair of legs.
Third, why does the government and by extension the society despise food freedom?
The notion that my ingestion choices must and should be regulated by bureaucrats has brought us to the strange place where it's perfectly fine for you to feed your kids McDonald's Happy Meals every day including multiple glasses of Coca-Cola, but it's hazardous to feed your kids raw milk, homemade pickles or Aunt Matilda's backyard- raised and butchered chicken.
The raw milk debate represents the entire spectrum of regulations that precludes innovative artisanal foods from accessing the marketplace at a reasonable cost. The perceived elitism of the local food movement has very little to do with inefficiencies and quite a lot to do with non-scalable food safety requirements. Compliance is cheap when you're big; expensive or prohibitive when you're small. The result is that the American public is arbitrarily and capriciously denied higher quality food choices, and that is downright evil. The government servants dedicated to policing food have become the de facto instruments to tyrannize better food and farming from occurring.
Ultimately you cannot have freedom to innovate with the risks of choice. Yes, dirty farmers exist. But unless you allow the risk of bad choices, you eliminate the opportunity of progressively positive choices. As long as the society believes the government is responsible for food safety, it will be unable to easily access the best foods available because what is sanctioned will pass through the orthodoxy test of the fraternal industrial/governmental food paradigm, and that food is not the most safe, nutrient dense, nor ecologically responsible.
OMC: What can we learn from Vernon Herschberger's story?
JS: What we learn from Vernon is that people still respond to righteous conviction. The food police told him he was wrong. The whole power of the state told him he was wrong. Like prophets throughout history, and heretics burned at the stake, he refused to concede his convictions and ultimately won the day.
Just for the record, even if he had not won, he still would have been right.
The tragedy of his case is that more people are not willing to go to the mat, to go to the stake, for what is convictionally right. That we have so many people who assume that when the government agent says so, it must be correct -- and then quickly genuflect in compliance -- is a sad commentary on the state of our once proud liberty-loving populace. That we are so soon cowed into submission does not reflect well for the tyrannous powers that exist in the minds of those who desire control.
We must all wake up and participate in the food system lest our grandchildren have no choice but irradiated genetically modified poison sprayed nutrient depleted adulterated reconstituted shelf life stabilized tasteless extruded dye-enhanced government-sanctioned pseudo-food.
OMC: What message will you be bringing to Milwaukee at this event?
JS: My message is to inspire people one and all in our great country to step into this food freedom fray with commitment and conviction.
We are in the midst of a food inquisition. Heretics like Vernon and many others are being sacrificed daily by the food orthodoxy police in the name of protecting the public. It's time to create a space for those of us who dare to believe cheese that will grow mold is superior to Velveeta in a tube.
It's time that those of us who represent indigenous wisdom and heritage food choice be allowed to opt out of government-approved fare. Ever since the government told us what to eat by publishing the food pyramid in the 1970s we've seen an accelerating decline in health, a cheapening of the food system, and 700 riparian dead zones as collateral damage of an ecologically devastating farming program. It should give us all pause that if the government had never told us what to eat, we would be a far healthier society.
As a result, we desperately need an alternative food system. We need it to show the way out of our morass. Every food recall, from pathogens to deficiency, has an antidote. Some of us know what that antidote is. For the sake of our society's future health, the antidote must be allowed to access the market. Indeed, diversity must be preserved so that innovative prototypes may be tried, perfected, and then utilized on a scale large enough to turn back the ecological and health erosion the current system encourages.
Giving space for an alternative food choice to flourish insures that the cures and antidotes for our current debilitated and pathogen-laden government-approved food system can indeed come to the marketplace.
OMC: Is there anything you're particularly looking forward to doing while you're here?
JS: I always like cheese curds when I come to Wisconsin -- that's something unique to that region. I've never seen them anywhere else, except maybe the Netherlands.
And I always enjoy seeing people and renewing acquaintances among my tribe. I wish I could stay longer, but I have a brimming calendar so I'll drop in and see and learn all I can, encourage as much as I can, and relish the event.
Tickets for the Food Freedom Fundraiser can be purchased online at pabsttheater.org or at The Pabst Theater box office at 144 E. Wells St.
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