Joel Salatin is a self-described environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer, or as the New York Times calls him, “the high priest of the pasture.” You may remember him from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he was profiled at length by Michael Pollan. Salatin’s innovative farming system—where the animals live according to their “ness,” the earth is used for symbiosis, and happiness and health is key—has gained attention from around the country, and he travels in the winter giving lectures and demonstrations. He is the author of a number of books including Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, You Can Farm, Pastured Poultry Profit$, and Family Friendly Farming. I talked to Joel Salatin about how he got started farming, his appearance in the new film Food, Inc., the government’s role in farm politics, and his ideas on the future of food. Suffice it to say, it’s not as simple as conventional vs. organic.
Joel Salatin: From my earliest memories, I loved the farm. My grandfather was a charter subscriber to Rodale‘s Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine and had a huge, well kept garden with an octagonal chicken house in the corner. My great uncle raised chickens commercially and some of my fondest childhood memories are of seeing his thousands of chickens out on the field. He began building confinement houses too, and those were stinky. Dad had the same farming bug, but he was an incredible innovator and right when he was poised to be a successful farmer in Venezuela, it was snatched away from him during political upheavals and I don’t think he ever really recovered, since he was 40 at the time. But he and Mom returned to the states with their little children (I was 4) and started over. As an accountant, Dad saw the vicious treadmill farmers were on, even in 1961, with chemicals and practices that encouraged disease. He immediately found grass farming, controlled grazing, composting, portable structures, and all the basic principles that undergird our farm today. I am only an extension of having gone down a very different path than most farmers, and I thank my roots for that. So I don’t have a modern conversion story–I’m as lunatic as Dad was, except he and Mom gave Teresa and I a head start with raw land, good philosophy, and a can-do spirit in a fairly politically stable environment.
I inherited Mom’s verbal skills, and participated in forensics and essay contests in elementary school–and won every essay contest I ever entered. I would write stories for fun and had a theatrical flare–played lead in the high school drama presentations. The point is that combining my dramatic and verbal charisma with completely innovative farming practices (at least innovative to what was practiced at the time) created a highly marketable product surrounded by a warm, fuzzy story. Throughout high school I peddled my eggs, had a vendor stand at the local curb market, precursor to today’s farmers’ markets, and competed in 4-H contests and interscholastic debate. All I wanted to do was farm, but like so many aspiring wanna-be young farmers, I couldn’t see how to make a living on the farm–at least enough to support a family and live more than at a subsistence level. The only real way in, it appeared, was to milk a few cows and sell the milk, but that was illegal. And I don’t think I’ve forgiven the government yet for denying me that early farming entry point.
But as it turned out, Teresa’s frugality and my tenacity (or foolhardiness) created a way to be on the farm full time for one year. I quit the off farm newspaper reporter job and came home Sept. 24, 1982, fully expecting to go back off-farm for another cash accumulation stint, but I never had to. It was tight, but wonderful. My marketing savvy (which is really another name for theatrical skills) paid off as we began selling direct to consumers, bypassing the middleman and getting retail sales prices. The grass-based, portable infrastructure, compost nutrient cycling, and Aha! dining experiences worked. Within four years we knew we could make it. Within seven years, journalists began to discover us. And the rest is history. I have been incredibly blessed to be able to combine this love of calloused hands with dramatic and verbal skills. And that is why I promote direct marketing. Too often parents whose children express an interest in farming squelch it because they envision dirt, dust, poverty, and hermit living. But great stories come out of great farming.
Read the entire article from TreeHugger.com here.