High Priest of the Pasture
By TODD S. PURDUM
New York Times Magazine
Published: May 1, 2005
The little dirt road is called Pure Meadows Lane, and to follow it across the slatted wooden cattle guard over the Middle River and into the 550 acres of Polyface farm in Swoope, Va., is to enter a peaceable kingdom, out of time and up-to-date. The oldest wing of the snug white clapboard farmhouse up ahead was built in 1750, and Polyface is just a newfangled name for an idea so old-fashioned as to be revolutionary. In fact, the man who owns and runs this farm may well be Virginia's most multifaceted agrarian since Thomas Jefferson. The big sign above his thrumming computer and cluttered desk reads, ''Joel Salatin: Lunatic Farmer,'' but he is crazy like a fox.
For 44 years on the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley, three generations of Salatins (of which he's the middle) have raised grass-fed livestock on rough and hilly land without recourse to an ounce of chemical fertilizer or a fistful of seed, in close touch with the soil, the seasons and themselves, using methods meant to mimic nature. The result is lush fields of unusual greenness -- even in the sodden melting snow of a late winter morning -- and pork, eggs and poultry of uncommon cleanliness and indescribably good taste.
Along the way, Salatin, a 47-year-old onetime newspaper reporter who calls himself a ''Christian libertarian environmental capitalist,'' has become, in many ways, the high priest of the pasture. He is one of the natural-food movement's most prolific authors, having written numerous articles and five popular how-to books with titles like ''Family Friendly Farming''; his latest is ''Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer's Guide to Farm Friendly Food'' (Polyface, 2004). He has inspired scores of family farmers to adopt his techniques for raising beef, pork and poultry and attracted admiring visitors from around the world. His services as a motivational speaker and educator are in high demand wherever organic farmers and foodies gather to talk shop, from the University of California at Berkeley to the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.
In his wide, webbed suspenders and used service-station shirt, Salatin is part Louis Bromfield and part John the Baptist. And like Bromfield, the mid-20th-century novelist and farmer who was bold enough to doubt ''that the impulse of our time toward regimentation, centralization, mechanization and industrialism necessarily represented progress,'' he is a rebel -- and an evangelist -- at heart. He is also a red-blooded, robust rebuttal to the notion that the sustainable-food movement is a preoccupation of a pampered and unrealistic elite. Nothing could be further from his business philosophy or personal life. With his wife, Teresa, 47; their children, Daniel, 23, and Rachel, 18; daughter-in-law, Sheri, 25; baby grandson, Travis; and Joel's 81-year-old mother, Lucille, Salatin inhabits an ecosystem straight out of Ecclesiastes: there is a season and a time to every purpose. Nothing is wasted. Everything matters, and everyone works, including the four trusty barn cats, diligent mousers all. The farm is pretty, but not precious, and Salatin has mud on his boots and dirt on his hands, ''the happiest of men,'' as Bromfield wrote, ''for he inhabits a world that is full of wonder and excitement over which he rules as a small god.''
Salatin's own description of his mission is at once humble and grand. ''We don't aspire to an empire,'' he said over a lunch of Teresa's hearty soup (made from their frozen beef chuck) in their knotty-pine kitchen, where a log the size of a small child was ablaze in the big fireplace. ''What we aspire to is to have the best food available.'' And by all evidence, they are succeeding. Their approach is deceptively simple, relying on age-old precepts of organic agriculture, up-to-the-minute technology and, most of all, Salatin's ingenuity. He eschews the government's seal of approval, because he distrusts the bureaucracy and disdains the large-scale officially ''organic'' farms that he said have ''compromised the movement's values'' in favor of mass production. He describes his methods as ''beyond organic'' and has pioneered techniques that admiring colleagues and competitors describe as above reproach.
''He's not following anybody's blueprint,'' said Jo Robinson, an expert on the advantages of raising grass-fed livestock, the principal writer for eatwild.com and the author of ''Pasture Perfect: The Far-Reaching Benefits of Choosing Meat, Eggs and Dairy Products From Grass-Fed Animals'' (Vashon Island Press, 2004). ''He's not going back to the old model. There's nothing in county extension or old-fashioned ag science that really informs him. He is just looking totally afresh at how to maximize production in an integrated system on a holistic farm. He's just totally innovative.''
Salatin's secret is the grass, and it is in the pasture that everything begins and ends. He believes that every square yard of sward should contain at least 40 varieties of plants, and he calls his fields a ''salad bar,'' a riot of fescues and clovers and earthworms churning the soil. Cattle graze freely on a patch of this super-rich pasture, held in by an electrified wire. Every day or so, they are moved to a new patch, and a succession of chickens (or turkeys, in season) are moved into the plot that the cows just left. Both laying chickens and broilers -- raised for their meat -- have portable shelters for shade and are protected from predators by portable webbed polyethylene fencing interlaced with electrified wire. Buried, pond-fed plastic pipes channel pressurized water, virtually anywhere, on demand. The chickens dig through fresh cowpatties for nutritious grubs and worms, and then scratch the manure into the dirt, aerating the soil and creating compost, so the cycle of growth can begin all over again.
In winter, the approach is, if anything, even more ingenious. Cattle are sheltered in open-sided barns -- with hand-hewn log poles and timbers milled from the Salatins' oak trees. They rest on a thick bed of straw and are fed hay in V-shaped troughs designed by Joel to be raised and lowered on ropes and pulleys. Every couple of days, fresh straw is tossed onto the barn floor, where the cattle each deposit an average of 50 pounds of manure and urine a day, and the feed troughs are raised to keep pace with the rising straw on the floor. As the pile gets higher, sawdust, wood chips and whole shelled corn are mixed in. The result is a sweetly decomposing heap that gives off heat to keep the cattle warm and no odor worse than the pleasant dampness of a breast-fed baby's diaper. Then the cows are turned out, and the pigs (which in summer forage freely on the pasture's wooded hillsides and are moved around with more electric fencing) come in, rooting around through the layers of straw for the nuggets of fermenting corn. Voila: more aerated compost to be spread over the pasture when spring comes. Joel calls these living machines his ''pig-aerators'' and proudly notes that, unlike most farm equipment, which depreciates, rusts and costs money to repair or replace, they actually appreciate, get fatter and bring a fine price at slaughter, while doing work for which only their own internal-combustion engine is needed.
All over the farm, some version or another of this system prevails. When Daniel Salatin was 8, he decided he wanted to raise rabbits. He got a book and went to work, while Joel devised a plan for waist-high cages, suspended over the dirt floor of the airy, sunlit, Quonset-style structures where the egg-laying chickens are raised in winter. The rabbit droppings, notoriously high in noxious ammonia, fall onto the straw, where hundred of chickens pick through them and scratch them into -- what else? -- harmless compost. There is a cacophony of clucking and scratching and pecking, but only the soft scent of feathers and fur. ''You don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water,'' Salatin said simply. ''There's a big difference between industrializing production of tractors and industrializing production of food. We like technology, but we really like technology that allows us to do better what nature does itself.''
That philosophy has made Salatin ''sort of the high prophet of sustainable family farming,'' said Fred Walters, the editor of AcresUSA, the nation's oldest monthly magazine on sustainable agriculture, who has often published Salatin's articles. ''I like that he aims for low-tech, simple systems. While conventional agriculture is trying to make agriculture a factory or a physical system, in the end it's a biological system: there's life involved. Joel recognizes the life behind the system. And in doing so, he's created a model that can save the family farm, where people don't have to have thousands of acres and millions of dollars of debt.''
If anyone knows how hard it is to make a go of family farming, it's Salatin. His grandfather, an avid backyard gardener and beekeeper in Indiana, was an early devotee of J.I. Rodale, the founder of regenerative organic gardening. In 1961, Salatin's parents bought the land that would become Polyface after losing a farm they had started in Venezuela to political turmoil there. They began raising cattle using organic methods, but decided that, at least until the mortgage was paid off, they could not make a living on the farm, so Joel's father worked as an accountant for other farmers while his mother taught high school physical education.
In high school, Joel began his own business raising chickens. He and Teresa, who grew up on a nearby farm, were sweethearts and went off to Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist Christian school in South Carolina, where she majored in home economics and he in English. They married in 1980, but Joel said: ''I didn't really see a way to make a living on the farm. I always loved writing. I was the guy who won the D.A.R. essay contest and things like that, and it was the era of Watergate, and I decided I would be the next Woodward and Bernstein, and then retire to the farm.''
So he took a job in Staunton, eight miles from home, at The News Leader (''The Daily Misprint,'' he calls it now), and Teresa worked in a fabric store. But he grew tired of having his stories spiked when they offended the local powers that be and decided to try farming full time. Joel and Teresa lived in an apartment in the attic of his parents' farmhouse on $300 a month. They had a $50 car and produced their own meat, milk and butter on the farm. Teresa canned applesauce and made bread. They bought their clothes in thrift stores and spent perhaps $50 a week on groceries, mostly for things like shampoo and detergent. ''I always said if I could figure out a way to grow Kleenex and toilet paper on trees, we could pull the plug on society,'' Joel said. When the children came, Teresa schooled them at home, at small desks in the upstairs hallway, and Joel's parents moved into a mobile home a few yards away, where his widowed mother still lives. At 19, Daniel became the president of the state chapter of 4-H, and last year he built his own house, with lumber from the farm and some help from neighbors, on the hillside above his parents' home. Rachel is now at the local community college, interested in culinary training and interior design.
Year by year, as Joel improvised his novel techniques and Teresa kept the books, the farm began to prosper. Now it harvests 30,000 dozen eggs, 10,000 to 12,000 broilers, 100 head of cattle, 250 hogs, 800 turkeys and 600 rabbits a year -- as well as a smattering of blackberries, grapes, vegetables and tree fruit mostly for home use. For some years, it has been classified as a commercial farm under the United States Agriculture Department's definition, meaning its gross annual sales exceed $250,000 (Polyface grosses $350,000). The average net income for such farms nationwide is $156,324, and Salatin said Polyface's runs about that, which he said is proof positive that sustainable farming is not some rarefied niche business serving elite consumers but a viable way to keep family farms together while producing healthy food in harmony with the environment.
Patrick Martins, the president and a co-founder of Heritage Foods USA, an online market clearinghouse for heirloom and artisanal foods, said Salatin has succeeded in part because he is unusually articulate but mostly because he can back up his compelling talk with simple methods, low overhead and equipment costs and indisputable results: ''He is a real beacon for farmers all over the place, and yet it comes from how successful he is on the most local of levels.''
Organic farming accounts for less than 1 percent of the country's agricultural output, or $393 million in sales of the total $207 billion in 2002, the last year for which comparative data is available. Of 2.1 million farmers, just 12,000 were making certified organic products. But Keith J. Collins, the Agriculture Department's longtime chief economist, said the sector is growing fast. ''A lot of people doing what this guy's doing are doing something that adds value in terms of what some consumers want,'' he said. ''Maybe it's quality in taste, maybe it's quality in the way it's produced. How much bigger can this become in American agriculture? I don't really know the answer. I think there's certainly a lot of scope for it to grow.''
The Salatins work hard to keep prices more like a supermarket's than a specialty store's by cutting out middlemen wherever possible and eliminating anything that smacks of fancy packaging. Many customers buy directly from the no-frills on-farm sales office, where a giant walk-in freezer holds the inventory. A perfect six-pound chicken; a dozen bright-orange-yolked eggs; a 2.5 pound bone-in pork roast; a pound of sweet Italian sausage; a pound of chicken livers; and two New York strips all cost just under $50 on my recent visit. Restaurant accounts are served by a wholesaler, and every six to eight weeks, a Salatin delivery van takes food to seven ''buying clubs'' in Virginia and Maryland, where neighbors come with coolers to pick up their custom orders. The Salatins ship nothing by mail, both because it would be too complicated and because they want customers elsewhere to patronize their local farmers.
Elaine Lindholm, the communications director for the Virginia Agriculture Department, with which Salatin has tangled repeatedly, seemed to go out of her way to avoid provoking him, saying, ''He provides a very valuable service.'' But she added: ''His is a specialty-niche market. Not everyone could do it. Not everyone would want to do it.''
The Salatins see such talk as defeatist. But they concede that many of their own neighbors share that view, though they make no better or steadier income. ''They think we're nuts but try to get along with us,'' Teresa said.
Salatin himself makes no secret of his feelings about the agribusiness bureaucracy: he hates it. A favorite line is, ''Everything I want to do is illegal,'' and he will readily regale a visitor with tales of his travails in keeping the right to process his own chickens in an immaculate, open-air backyard operation (Virginia argued that it was ''inherently unsanitary'' because it didn't have walls). He bemoans the fact that federal meat-processing regulations force him to send his cattle and hogs to commercial locker-plants and thus surrender control over the final stage of a process throughout which he has tended them with such care. (He thinks the government should allow mobile abattoirs that could do on-farm slaughtering for small-scale operations.) At a time when homeland-security experts warn of the vulnerabilities of a food-supply system based on large-scale production, centralized processing and long-distance transportation, he complains that politicians of both parties call for only ''more centralization.''
''Not only is there not government support for what we do,'' he said, ''there is a profound antagonism at every level for what we do.''
Salatin is not easy to pigeonhole. He speaks with equal contempt of the early American settlers' disregard for Native American agriculture and modern ''gene splicing, irradiation and all sorts of things we don't understand.'' He sprinkles his book with the wisdom of motivational gurus like Stephen Covey and Zig Ziglar and sensible child-rearing advice about the painful dangers of ''fussy dads,'' who drive their children from their farms (and from their arms). He concedes that his views are too Christian for some liberals, too environmentalist for many conservatives, too libertarian for conformists. He greets his hogs with a tender ''Hey, piggles,'' and confesses to an occasional pang when it comes time to kill an especially kindly old cow, but he speaks of the cycles of life in terms that any Eastern mystic might understand. Just as agriculture was the last occupation to enter the industrial age, Salatin believes it will be the last to leave it, and not without a fight. ''I would love to sit down on Oprah Winfrey or Tim Russert, across from Don Tyson, and ask him whether it matters if a chicken can express her chickenness!'' he exclaimed at one point.
Teresa interrupted with a dry ''Of course not!'' but Joel continued, undeterred. ''Because as soon as you posit any moral constraints, then you have to be able to articulate them.''
Salatin has no trouble articulating the Joelness of Joel. ''I see myself today as Sitting Bull,'' he said, ''trying to bring a voice of Easternism, holism, community-based thinking to a very Western culture. If we fail to appreciate the soul that Easternism gives us, then what we have is a disconnected, Greco-Roman, Western, egocentric, compartmentalized, reductionist, fragmented, linear thought process that counts on cleverness. Now, how's that for a mouthful?''
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company