By Michael Pollan
May/June 2006 Issue
An evangelical Virginia farmer says a revolution against industrial agriculture is just down the road.
I might never have found my way to Polyface Farm if Joel Salatin hadn’t refused to FedEx me one of his chickens.
I’d heard a lot about the quality of the meat raised on his “beyond organic” farm, and was eager to sample some. Salatin and his family raise a half-dozen different species (grass-fed beef, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rabbits) in an intricate rotation that has made his 550 hilly acres of pasture and woods in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley one of the most productive and sustainable small farms in America. But when I telephoned Joel to ask him to send me a broiler, he said he couldn’t do that. I figured he meant he wasn’t set up for shipping, so I offered to have an overnight delivery service come pick it up.
“No, I don’t think you understand. I don’t believe it’s sustainable - ‘organic,’ if you will - to FedEx meat all around the country,” Joel told me. “I’m afraid if you want to try one of our chickens, you’re going to have to drive down here to pick it up.”
This man was serious. He went on to explain that Polyface does not ship long distance, does not sell to supermarkets, and does not wholesale its food. All of the meat and eggs that Polyface produces is eaten within a few dozen miles or, at the most, half a day’s drive of the farm - within the farm’s “foodshed.” At first I assumed Joel’s motive for keeping his food chain so short was strictly environmental - to save on the prodigious quantities of fossil fuel Americans burn moving their food around the country and, increasingly today, the world. (The typical fruit or vegetable on an American’s plate travels some 1,500 miles to get there, and is frequently better traveled and more worldly than its eater.) But after taking Joel up on his offer to drive down to Swoope, Virginia, to pick up a chicken, I picked up a great deal more - about the renaissance of local food systems, and the values they support, values that go far beyond the ones a food buyer supports when he or she buys organic in the supermarket. It turns out that Joel Salatin, and the local food movement he’s become an influential part of, is out to save a whole lot more than energy.
In Joel’s view, the reformation of our food economy begins with people going to the trouble and expense of buying directly from farmers they know - “relationship marketing,” the approach he urges in his recent book, Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm Friendly Food. Joel believes that the only meaningful guarantee of integrity is when buyers and sellers can look one another in the eye, something few of us ever take the trouble to do. “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?”
Joel, who describes himself as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer,” speaks of his farming as his “ministry,” and certainly his 1,000 or so regular customers hear plenty of preaching. Each spring he sends out a long, feisty, single-spaced letter that could convince even a fast-food junkie that buying a pastured broiler from Polyface Farm qualifies as an act of social, environmental, nutritional, and political redemption.
“Greetings from the non-bar code people,” began one recent missive, before launching into a high-flying jeremiad against our disconnected “multi-national global corporate techno-glitzy food system” with its “industrial fecal factory concentration camp farms.” (The dangerous pileup of modifiers is a hallmark of Joel’s rhetorical style.) Like any good jeremiad, this one eventually transits from despair to hope, noting that the “yearning in the human soul to smell a flower, pet a pig and enjoy food with a face is stronger now than anytime in history,” before moving into a matter-of-fact discussion of this year’s prices and the paramount importance of sending in your order blanks and showing up to collect your chickens on time.
I met several of Polyface’s parishioners on a Thursday in June as they came to collect the fresh chickens they’d reserved. It was a remarkably diverse group of people: a schoolteacher, several retirees, a young mom with her towheaded twins, a mechanic, an opera singer, a furniture maker, a woman who worked in a metal fabrication plant in Staunton. They were paying a premium over supermarket prices for Polyface food, and in many cases driving more than an hour over a daunting (though gorgeous) tangle of county roads to come get it. But no one would ever mistake these people for the well-heeled, urban foodies generally thought to comprise the market for organic or artisanal food. There was plenty of polyester in this crowd and a lot more Chevrolets than Volvos in the parking lot.
So what exactly had they come all the way out here to the farm to buy? Here are some of the comments I collected: …