I didn’t have much of a choice about meeting Joel Salatin.
I’d been working on an article about the cattle industry, when I heard about this farmer in Virginia who was raising terrific grass-finished beef. So I phoned him, identified myself as a writer from the New York Times Magazine, and after we’d chatted a bit about the horrors of industrial meat, I asked if I could try one of his steaks.
“Sure, come on by the farm any time.”
I explained that I lived in Connecticut, so maybe instead he could ship me a rib eye or two?
“Sorry, but we only sell locally.”
I interpreted this to mean he wasn’t set up for shipping, so I offered to give him my Fed Ex account number.
“No, I don’t think you understand. We have a policy here of never shipping food more than fifty miles from the farm. I have a problem with Fed-Exing meat clear across the country. If you want to try one of our steaks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to come down to Swoope.”
I realized then and there that Joel Salatin was a man dead serious about his principles, and that there was no principle as dear to him as local food. Local trumped a host of other good words about food, including organic, sustainable, free-range, humanely raised, pesticide-free, whatever.
If we are really serious about overturning our industrial food chain, he believes, we have to start by turning our backs on Wal-Mart and Federal Express, and buying directly from farmers we trusted. What’s more, we cannot delegate the crucial work of determining which farmers deserved our trust, not to the USDA, not to certifiers, not even to writers from the New York Times . Buy “farm friendly food” from local people you trust, and almost all the problems of the industrial food system—its unconscionable cost in energy, public health, environmental degradation, and the deterioration of work and community—will pretty much take care of themselves. That at least is Joel Salatin’s message in Holy Cows and Hog Heaven , the manifesto you hold in your hands.
Why should local—rather than, say, organic—be the linchpin to this revolution? Because a farmer dependant on a local market is far more likely to raise a variety of crops, rather than specialize in the one or two plants or animals that the national market demands. That system wants all its apples from Washington State, all its lettuce from California (and make that Iceberg, please), and its corn from Iowa. Well it turns out the people who live in Iowa can only eat so much corn and soybeans; if Iowans were eating locally, rather than from the supermarket, their farmers would soon learn how to grow a few other things besides. And as soon as they gave up their monocultures of corn and soy, they would quickly discover they could also give up on their pesticides and chemical fertilizers, because a diversified farm will produce its own fertility and its own pest control.
Almost all of the problems of our industrial food system flow from the original sin of monoculture. Monoculture may be a powerful industrial idea—it produces economies of scale and all sorts of other efficiencies—but it runs counter to the way nature works, which nothing in this world can do indefinitely. Insect resistance, agricultural pollution, food-borne illness, and antibiotic resistance are what happen when the logic of monoculture runs up against the logic of nature. Monoculture can’t survive this encounter without one industrial Band-Aid after another—beginning with chemicals and ending (well, one can hope) with genetically modified crops and irradiation. The answer to the problems of monoculture is polyculture, and, to get back to where we started, the way to support polyculture is by buying food from local farms that practice it.
Eventually I made it down to Swoope to score my steak and visit Polyface Farm. This was like no other farm I’d ever set foot on—indeed, to call it a farm scarcely does justice to the intricate dance of species that Joel Salatin is choreographing on his 500 beautiful acres. I found not only cattle but also chickens and pigs, rabbits and sheep and turkeys participating in a dance of symbiosis that unfolded on a verdant stage of grass. In fact if you ask him, Joel will tell you he’s not a cattle rancher or a chicken farmer but a “grass farmer,” for the whole enterprise depends on the diminutive polyculture of plants and animals resident in every square foot of pasture—the fescues and clovers and earthworms that make the meals for the cattle which in turn feed the chickens and pigs which in turn feed the pastures that feed the cattle.
Joel will tell you that his most profitable crop is his chicken—more broilers and eggs! is what the marketplace is loudly telling him to do. But if Joel were to listen to the siren song of monoculture, were he to get into chickens big time, the whole self-sustaining system that is Polyface Farm would swiftly break down. The pastures can only absorb so much chicken manure, and if the chickens no longer got to dine on the fat grubs in the cow patties, their eggs and meat would no longer taste as good as they do. Everything’s connected, and everything depends on finding its proper scale.
Joel’s deep understanding and practice of the principles are why he is one of the most creative, productive and sustainable farmers working in America today. He is also one of the most influential farmers in America, because he can explain with unusual clarity (and even humor) how these principles connect to other principles—how decisions about the way we eat determines not only the biology in a square foot of pasture, but also whether or not that square foot of plant earth will remain in pasture or succumb to suburban lawn or driveway asphalt. For conservation is another compelling argument for local food: it is the surest way to preserve the rural landscape we profess to love but that, meal by meal, bite by bite, we are dooming. Suburban sprawl is about how we eat too. It’s all connected.
What I think is most important about Joel’s farming and his writing is that he not only makes those vital connections vivid, but gives us non-farmers—the eaters of the world—a sense of our awesome power to do something about them. His message is that we eaters can change the world, one meal at a time.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always hated thinking of myself as “a consumer.” What a dumb beast that character is, looking out for number one, prowling the supermarket aisle for the best deal, using up the world to gratify his desires. So much in modern life conspires to make this character our primary identity, reducing us to homo consumericus. I’m not just talking about the advertisers and marketers, who encourage us to define ourselves by the car we drive, but even the President, who tells us the best way we can help our country in these troubled times is to go down to the mall and keep shopping.
With this book, Joel Salatin proposes a radically different vision of what it means to be a consumer, one that brims with hope and possibility and power. His proposition is that we consumers are in fact creators, and that our simplest everyday food-buying decisions represent one of the most important and influential votes we can cast. Shop and Wal-Mart or McDonald’s and you support an industrial food chain that connects you to a monoculture of corn somewhere in Iowa, not to mention to Monsanto and Dupont, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and arguably even the war in the other Gulf. It’s all connected.
There’s a lot about modern civilization we may be powerless to change, but the food system is different: it is uniquely sensitive to our buying decisions. You can make a very different choice, choose to connect to something else: to that square foot of pasture in the farm down the road, to the grass that the feeds the cattle that feeds the chickens that feed you and, but the way, taste so incredibly good. That’s another thing about food that is different: It turns out we can have our cake and eat it too, for the right food choice—the most ethical, the most humane, the most sustainable—happens also to be the freshest and tastiest.
Who ever said there’s no free lunch?