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On a mission to heal the land: Joel Salatin sows the seeds for food integrity

The article  below appeared originally online at The Vancouver Sun about Joel Salatin. Make sure to check out his newest book The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.

It would be tough to find a more eloquent spokesperson for good dirt. Then again, American farmer and activist Joel Salatin has had a fair bit of practice at field work.

Part of a three-generation farm family, Salatin gained a high profile when he became a major character in Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and again in the documentary film, Food Inc. The colourful character and popular speaker (a self-described Christian-libertarian-environmental-capitalist) has also written books of his own, including Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyers Guide to Farm Friendly Food, and Everything I Want to Do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. His mission is to promote an environmentally sustainable and healthy approach to raising the food we eat, and to do it close to home.

When Salatin comes to Edmonton on June 30th to speak to the Canadian College and University Food Services Association (CCUFSA) at the Fantasyland Hotel, he’ll be spreading his message, which emphasizes the need to move away from large-scale, industrial farming and ranching, and toward a model that’s smaller in scale, and rooted in local.

And local starts with good dirt.

“Our mission is healing the land, that’s our number 1 objective,” says Salatin in a phone conversation from his home in Swoope, Virginia, where he has a 550-acre farm called Polyface (because it’s populated by people, and cows, and chickens — all creatures with faces).

“Healing the land means that we use systems that are generally more perennially based, with perennial plants as opposed to annuals, and we move our animals around as they do in nature, rather than keeping them stationary …

“We’re building soil instead of depleting soil, and we’re building resiliency into the landscape.”

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Pollan pointed to Salatin as an example of something in between the huge industrial food model that dominates North American food production, characterized by factory farms and feedlots, and hunting and gathering your own food, which is not terribly practical for most of us. Polyface is not a tiny, organic affair, but rather annually produces some some 30,000 dozen eggs, 10,000 to 12,000 broilers, 400 head of cattle, 250 hogs, 80 turkeys and 600 rabbits a year, plus thousands of dollars worth of vegetables and fruits — the latter often for use in Salatin’s own home. There is also a lumberyard.

According to Salatin, his net income is “extremely good.” His production model is viable, and he’s happy to share his experience and knowledge. But as important as a reasonable income to Salatin is this: the Polyface template contributes to the health of his local community by spreading the word about sustainability and accountability, and by cultivating a “light” environmental footprint.

The 54-year-old farmer refuses to ship his food; people come to the farm or organize buying collectives to purchase his products. He may deliver to one of the 50 or so nearby chefs or 100 retail outlets who call him a supplier.

Salatin believes there is value in local, for many reasons.

“We direct market everything, believing that direct interface, the short chain of custody on food, is a positive thing to create integrity in the whole chain of accountability,” he notes. “Every farm obviously can’t do that. But essentially, the less middle we have between the field and fork, the more integrity there will be in the food.”

That food integrity begins with Salatin’s farming practice, rooted in something he called “bio-mimicry,” or the mimicking of natural, grazing patterns used by animals throughout millenia.

“Nobody hauled out a hay wagon to feed buffalo, they moved,” he says by way of explanation.

Salatin plants nutritious forage for his cattle in his fields, and when they have eaten all a particular field can provide, he moves them to another area, herded tightly with portable electric fencing. Once the cows move to another location, Salatin brings his chickens (in an Eggmobile, or portable henhouse) onto the same piece of grass where the birds are fed local grain, but spend their days pecking and scratching through the cattle droppings, eating lots of yummy bugs. Pigs are also raised on pastures first inhabited by cows. The cow bedding gets mixed with hay, corn and wood chips, and then when the pigs come in, they mix things up while rooting for the corn. Natural fermentation occurs, and good compost is created, enriching the soil.

Salatin stresses that he’s not an organic farmer, but rather one interested in “building resiliency” into the landscape. His website ( says the business he runs with his family, including wifeTeresa and son Daniel, “arguably represents America’s premier non-industrial food production oasis.” He’s not against technology, using it extensively to pipe water through his property to feed animals as he moves them around.

Salatin says big progress has been made by the local food movement in recent years.

“I’m just one voice among others,” he says. “For every supermarket that starts, there are five CSAs (community supported agriculture) and three farmers’ markets. Every time the industrial food system has another recall, or is in the news for Type 2 diabetes, or obesity, it encourages another group of people to jump ship, if you will. As the industrial food system cuts more corners and gets worse, and as more people wake up to that fact … there is an absolute tsunami of local food interest and it’s exciting.”

He does hope that the people in his Edmonton audience — who work in institutional food settings relying heavily on the industrial food model — will take away one message from his talk here at the end of the month. Don’t believe that there is nothing you can do, just because you work for a big organization. Don’t be defeated by an industrial food model that keeps grocery stores brimming with strawberries in February. There is another way, and it’s not crazy to believe in it.

“Come alongside the producer as a collaborator, as a team member,” he says, always focusing on the positive. “Don’t be part of the problem. Be part of the solution.”

Even big institutions can look at ways to use a whole animal, or can think about being more flexible about uniform size when purchasing chicken breasts from producers.

“Just as we producers have stepped out of our box and are willing to talk to patrons, we’re asking institutional patrons to step out of their box and start experimenting with more parts of the animal, or with salvage-type recipes that used blemished (vegetables) or number twos, and to simply do more in-house food prep, and not ask for everything eat-ready.

“My whole deal is to encourage … folks to become pit bulls for integrity food. Stay with it. Because if we don’t push, our heritage, our locally based foods, are going to be pushed out of the system.”

There are still some day-rate conference tickets available for those who would like to hear Joel Salatin speak on June 30th at the Fantasyland Hotel. For information, go to the CCUFSA website at, or call Kathryn Howden at 780-471-8553. [email protected]

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