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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Life as a Lunatic: Polyface Farms’ Joel Salatin Talks to Seedstock

October 20, 2014 |

Joel Salatin. Image courtesy of Joel Salatin.

Joel Salatin. Image courtesy of Joel Salatin.

“Conventional-farmers call us bioterrorists,” says Joel Salatin of the much heralded Polyface Farm.

“They are literally scared to death that one of our unvaccinated animals is going to get sick and then bring a disease to the area and shut down everybody’s farming and destroy the planet’s food supply. They would like us to pack up and leave. I could either respond with viciousness, depression, frustration and you know, ulcers or whatever, or I can just have fun with it. I decided to have fun with it.”

Joel Salatin is a holistic farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and an iconic figure in the sustainable food movement. Salatin practices a healing-the-land approach to farming in the face of much criticism from both traditional and sustainable agriculture advocates. Salatin self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a “lunatic” and is rather proud of it. A wordsmith and wise meat producer, Salatin offers perspective on all things farmer related.

“We farmers, we consume all this drivel from farm publications telling us how special we are and you know if we didn’t grow food the world wouldn’t eat; hug your farmer and all this jazz,” says Salatin.” I think often that farmers feel like the world owes us a living because we produce the food and we think for some reason we’re so special we’re immune to the most foundational kind of business logistics and principles that make businesses success or fail and we’re not. We need to think about those things too.”

Saltin advises new farmers to make smart choices in where they get information from and how much debt they choose to take on. He especially advises all farmers that want to have a successful profitable farm to know how long each farm task takes.

“We know you ought to be able to move a shelter in 60 seconds and gut a chicken in 30 seconds and put away 30 dozen eggs in 20 minutes . We have all these benchmarks that we’ve set up over the years so that all of our interns and apprentices have a goal to shoot for. You’ve got to be efficient,” says Salatin.

Integrated farming and realization of scale is forefront in the Polyface method. After cattle work their way across a grassy meadow, Salatin and his team move the chickens onto the same patch of ground to pick through the manure and fertilize the fields. Cows forage for plants, chickens live on scraps and the waste of cows and a seed hasn’t been planted on the farm in over fifty years. Animals are rotated on the land to ensure they eat fresh food and ponds are created to supplement water supplies. Compost is produced on site by deep bed wintering of animals. For Salatin, the need for much of the modern farming practices and regulations are rendered null and void by allowing the farm animals to bask in their natural habitat and habits.

“We actually believe there are participatory things that we can do with nature to fundamentally change the productivity and the resilience of our landscape. We want to be actively involved in that resilience as opposed to simply taking what you can for as long as you can,” says Salatin. “We see a people-centric farm. We want a farming system that actually brings more people to farms than fewer people to farms.”

Although generally happy with his Virginian community, Salatin is very aware of the contrast between his farm and the farming operations of his neighbors.  “We don’t use a vet maybe once every three years. The average farmer here uses a vet routinely. We assume if something does get sick it’s our fault, it’s something we did. It’s not because we didn’t use the right pharmaceutical concoction,” says Salatin. “Yep, okay I’m a lunatic; it’s cool. I don’t have to be depressed all the time. I can make my prices as a price maker instead of a price taker. I don’t have to spend all day wondering which drugs my animals are immune to because I’ve used so many of them. All these things other people do we don’t and we just think it’s fantastic.”

Salatin advises anyone delving into his writing career to begin with his acclaimed book “The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer” which he feels best sums up his reasoning and approach to farming.

“I wrote this book so it could be given to somebody so that they could see why we do what we do and that there is indeed a really significant quantifiable difference both of philosophy and practical logistics,” says Salatin.

Transparency through farm tours, butchering demonstrations and a general air of frank openness has served Salatin’s farm well over the years. As well as beef and poultry, Polyface, Inc. grows pigs, rabbits, turkeys and eggs. They sell to fifty area restaurants and 5,000 local families through their buying clubs and direct farm sales. They are no advertising budgets and no desire to expand past the local region. For Salatin, morals and scale go a long way to creating a strong customer base and reliable revenue stream.

Unlike many other sustainability advocates, Salatin views federal government regulation as an obstacle to success rather than a burgeoning support system. “I realized I could milk ten cows and sell the milk at retail price and make a comfortable living on the farm. But there was a problem. It was illegal. A bureaucrat somewhere decided that raw milk should not be legal to sell and I have never gotten over that,” says Salatin.”It’s one reason why I have such a hard time being political. The whole thing just seems so shallow. I’d rather milk cows and sell milk. Just leave me alone.”

A multi-generational debt-free family farm producing both quality sustainable products and a steady profit exists in Virginia today. Joel Salatin proves daily that farmers who aren’t willing to compromise, offer transparency to their customers and approach farming with a compassionate understanding of nature’s system can survive and even thrive in a world where agricultural is often viewed as a tenuous career choice and the food system remains in a state of flux.

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