Joel Salatin is the owner/ manager of Polyface Farms, a ‘beyond organic’ sustainable livestock operation in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that produces a variety of meat animals and eggs on 100 working acres. Prominently featured in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, Mr. Salatin and his family, as well as Polyface, have become living, working examples of how modern farming can work on a synergistic, symbiotic relationship with the earth while still being profitable and productive. I had the distinct honor of interviewing Mr. Salatin on his ventures, including his eighth book due out this October.
CW: Could you describe Polyface Farms to those of us who are not familiar with it, what you’re about and what the mission is of Polyface?
JS: Well, our mission is to develop emotionally, environmentally, and economically enhancing agricultural prototypes, and facilitate their duplication throughout the world. That is our mission statement. In very practical terms, what the farm is is a grass-based, multi-speciated livestock enterprise that choreographs a massaged relationship that is symbiotic and synergistic among many different species of animals.
CW: What is a typical day like in the Salatin household?
JS: What’s a typical day? Well, it’s very seasonal; so in the summer when we have everything out on pasture, we get up and do chores of course, and move a lot of critters, have breakfast; then we do whatever we need to do, other projects; then of course there’s chores in the evening where we gather eggs, take care of animals, move fences, all sorts of things; then there’s everything from building machinery and fences, to portable structures to build and maintain. A lot of time is just spent moving animals because that’s the critical thing that makes us functional - bring the animals on a fresh ‘salad bar’ every day.
CW: You emphatically call yourself a “grass farmer , because you know the entire cycle comes back to the soil and that’s the primary purpose of all of this. Your land self-fertilizes because of your intensive animal management, so my question is, is the ‘salad bar’ completely native? Is this something that resulted directly from treating the soil the way you do?
JS: Yes, we have not planted a seed in fifty years, and when we came to the farm, you could walk the whole farm without setting foot on a piece of vegetation, it was that bare. You’da thought we were growing thistles and briers for a crop! And now those are all gone, replaced by clovers, legumes, grasses, forbs and large areas the size of this room that were just scallops, giant saucer-shaped scallops of bare rock where all the sol had been washed off from twenty years of tillage, washed into the Chesapeake Bay; when we came just bare rock, today all have soil over them and growing grass, so in 50 years that degree of soil development has occurred.
CW: And what was the farm before your family purchased it? Do you know?
JS: It was just a piece of gullied eroded land.
CW: Was it because of poor agriculture, or was it just there?
JS: Oh yeah, it had been farmed, our house was built in 1750, so the land had been farmed for a long long time. And of course, you know, mules, horse and oxen didn’t fall over on hillsides; if you could walk on it you could plow it, but you know whereas today with tractors you wouldn’t want to take on ground that steep.
CW: My favorite term you have is “pigaerator” pork, and I was hoping you could define that for us. What do you mean by “pigaerator” pork?
JS: Sure! Pigaerator pork is two facets actually; years ago when we began putting the cows in a hayshed during the wintertime to protect their manure during the dormant season, to protect it from going into the groundwater, we began to build these woodrow compost piles, which you no doubt have seen. And the thought occurred to me, if we put corn in there and let it ferment in that bedding pack, what I call a ‘carbonaceous diaper’, that perhaps the pigs could do all that work for us, instead of us having to dig it out, double handle it, make a woodrow compost pile, and then spread it. And so we started doing that, and today now we make hundreds and hundreds of tons of compost by simply putting in corn in the bedding underneath the cows; the cows tramp out the oxygen so it’s anaerobic , it ferments, and then the pigs go in and seek the fermented corn. They aerate it - “pigaerate” it - add in oxygen , like aerobic dance; they are adding the oxygen to turn that ‘carbonaceous diaper’ from an anaerobic bedding pack to an aerobic compost pile with animals doing the work - no machinery, no petroleum, and actually almost no human labor either, ‘cause we don’t even have to steer the pigs, you know the pigs…
CW: They do what pigs do! (laugh)
JS: They do what pigs do! You know they all have a big sign on their foreheads that says “Will work for corn”! (laugh)
CW: Work smarter, not harder, right?
CW: So, we’ve heard you have a new book coming out , which will be your eighth book, is that correct?
JS: Yes, that is correct.
CW: Can you tell us a little bit about that book?
JS: The title is Folks, This Ain’t
CW: We know you’re a newly approved extern site for [culinary school]. What do you plan on offering to the externs? How do you feel it will increase their culinary education?
JS: Well, we were pushed into this by a student, who wanted to do an externship at our farm and so we went through the paperwork and stuff. The way it ended up was that he spent half the time at our farm and half the time at one of our flagship restaurants that our farm services. It wasn’t appropriate for him to just come and farm, that just wouldn’t have been appropriate, and so he spent half the time at the restaurant and half the time at the farm, and that’s the way it worked. It’s been three years maybe since he was there.
CW: As an entrepreneur you are constantly trying to add value to your output. Do you feel having culinary externs on your farm adds value to Polyface Farms?
JS: Adds value? I think it would if we could get them into a kitchen! Where we would really be able to leverage; in fact the one that was there we offered him, we said hey you come and put in a kitchen, help hook up a kitchen with us either onsite or offsite, and you could take our cracked and pullet eggs and turn them into quiche and noodles, and you could take our chicken backs and necks, we could even take fat and we could make lard, we could do stock, we could make soups, there are lots and lots of things we could offer that we don’t right now, if we had that kind of culinary expertise.
CW: Let me rephrase that, because have you ever considered having students “value-add” to your products; instead of just selling a pork belly, having a culinary student who has familiar technique cure it to, say, pancetta, and sell it that way as a higher value product, or make cheese from your cows?
JS: Well, sure, I think of that all the time, but you can’t do everything that’s worth doing immediately. And so I guess from my perspective, with the right alignment of things, when the student’s ready the teacher will appear. So I am in favor of all… man, listen, if I had a million dollars in my pocket today, I would start a commercial kitchen-slash-diner-slash-year round local market in Staunton tomorrow! You know, my family’s tired of hearing me talk about it! But we don’t have the person! It’s all about the person. You get the people right, and you can move the world, and there’s no reason in moving forward until you have the people.
CW: Mr. Salatin, your enterprise was featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was published in 2006. So what new ‘faces’ have shown up at Polyface since Michael Pollan visited you? Or has anything not turned out the way you planned on it?
JS: Well, I would say that the biggest thing has been that it’s certainly ramped our public image, it certainly gave us a sense of credibility and notoriety, not only in the foodie movement but in general, and so that has been interesting and good. Beyond that though, it has definitely put pressure on our hospitality. I love people, but you can get too much of a good thing; you know we do live there, and so we’ve frankly had to wrestle some with the courtesy, hospitality, family life issues that the crush of people has created. But we still maintain our 24/7 open door policy; anyone can come anytime from anywhere to see everything unannounced, and I don’t know of another farm in the world that is that transparent.
CW: Me neither! Even my CSA doesn’t let me show up any time of day! So, now I’m gonna ask the hard questions. If I may quote you, you have said “the best ecology is also the best economy”; you demonstrate this on your farm in a small scale. Are you actively involved in trying to change economic policy in this country, and do you believe your model is feasible on a large scale in a country like ours where everyone “has it your way”? Do you believe Americans are ready to work again for their food?
JS: Well … that’s a series of questions! The first question is, is it feasible? If the question is, can our system feed the world, let’s just deal with that one first. The answer is, absolutely, our system can feed the world. Our system is more productive per acre, per square yard than any other livestock farm anywhere. The thing you have to remember is, when you see those ‘efficient’ confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), those Tyson chicken outfits, those confinement areas, what the camera doesn’t show you is the square miles of grain somewhere that is being trucked in and all the manure that is being trucked, they don’t show you all the acreage those supposedly efficient industrial models are dependent on so that they can rise as a monolith out of the ground somewhere to awe people...”Wow, that’s an amazing production!” , so it doesn’t take one more bit of land to produce things the way we do than the way industry does. It’s just in our system, it’s decentralized as opposed to centralized. The advantage that our system offers is that it’s inherently less pathogenic, and so while it may take more people on the land to produce it our way, it doesn’t take as many people doing the cleanup of the toxicity and pathogenicity that that system creates. So that the actual, labor thing becomes a wash, because you either have abuse and cleaner-uppers who come behind the people, you can understand this … you either have a clean kitchen with very little cleanup or you run a dirty kitchen with a lot of cleanup. The fact is that the labor for both of those is about the same; the difference is the risk of running a dirty kitchen is much higher, the risk in a lot of things: people slipping on spilled food, to a food borne illness, so you might as well keep it clean. That’s my position, you might as well keep it clean to start with. Now the question is then, are Americans ready for this? I would say no, to the extent that McDonald’s is still posting profits. When McDonald’s starts to file bankruptcy, then we’ll know Americans ready for this. But, just because the average person isn’t ready to eat with integrity, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, and doesn’t mean that those of us who get it shouldn‘t press that envelope. And there’s no question that we’re undergoing a tsunami of local food interest, I call it a tsunami of local food interest: it’s everywhere. And so continuing that tsunami is something that I’m committed to, that I hope a lot of other people are committed to, continuing it so that it finally does in fact overwhelm the beachheads of Monsanto, Ciba Geige, Taco Bell, whatever, but those are still pretty intense beachheads, I’m using the metaphor .
CW: I grew up close to Ciba Geige, so I take that very personally, because that’s a Superfund site now and there’s cancers arising in our area that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. It’s horrifying.
JS: Yeah, absolutely.
CW: You’re an unabashedly Christian conservative man. How do you reconcile the fact that the vast majority of Christians like yourself support conservative right-wing politics that encourage big business and big monocultures of farming?
JS: All I can say about that is, that it is a complete misapplication of biblical principle which puts humans in charge of this Creation. But we’re in charge of it to nurture it, to massage it, to caretake it, not to manipulate, to dominion, to disrespect, and that’s where I part company. So how do I rectify that? Well I rectify it simply by saying, they’re wrong! And they have gone, the vast majority of the religious right has adopted the St. Augustinian idea of duality (now I’m getting a little beyond you here!) where physical is evil and spirit is good. So we divorce those two in our minds and say, let’s talk about doctrine over here , lets t talk about catechizing our systematic theology, but that doesn’t really have any impact on how we actually live day to day. And I’m saying NO, its all system, it’s all sacred, it’s all one, it’s all wrapped up . You can’t divorce the physical from the spiritual from the mental form the emotional just like you can’t divorce the economy from the ecology. You know a nation that destroys its ecology will tank economically, and in fact that’s part of what we’re seeing. In fact a nation that eats junk food can never have a healthcare plan that keeps the population, it will always have a burdensome unfinanceable health care plan when it eats junk food. It’s all related, it’s all one, and so, that’s where I part company with those folks, and in fact I think you’d enjoy knowing that I am doing a lot, believe it or not, of speaking just in the last three years on Christian environmental ethics. I just spoke in Berkeley, CA at a big Presbyterian church three weeks ago (on) Christian environmental ethics, and I’m very excited that there are people in the religious right who are starting to connect those dots and realizing that Creation stewardship does not mean that you’re now worshipping Creation, that it’s a mandate from the Creator, to nurture and massage the Creation.
CW: Where do you see God on your farm?
JS: Everywhere. Our farm, everyday, I pray, let me run this as if I’m Your ambassador, I wanna run this as if You were here in person doing it. Let my hands be your hands, let my feet be your feet, and let it honor and glorify the majesty and awesomeness of God’s design. So I’m not about going in and…look, when the USDA, forty years ago, started promoting feeding dead cows to cows, our family, they were taking us to free dinners and state suppers, to teach us this “new science”. Our family did not endorse that, not because we didn’t like the USDA, not because it was being promoted by the government, not because we were anti-science, not because we were Luddites, but because we looked around in nature and said, where is the pattern? Where is the template in which herbivores eat carrion? Can we find it? NO! It doesn’t exist. And so on that basis alone, you know we didn’t know it was going to give us bovine spongiform encephalitis forty years ago, but on that basis alone, we said, this does not honor the order of Creation. We don’t do it, and now 40 years later…
CW: We’re seeing all the backlash.
JS: Absolutely. There’s this big collective “OOPS. Maybe we shouldn’t oughta done that!” (laugh) And that’s a huge wakeup call, 'cause normally things that assault God’s order, the result of those things… it’s a Slinky effect, it doesn’t manifest itself immediately, there’s a time. I think that it’s fascinating that there were 14 years between the introduction of DDT and the first truly official double-blind scientific study showing the relation between DDT and the decline of bald eagles. The infertile frogs, the amphibian population - that was huge!- the three-legged salamanders… that was fourteen years. (The year) 2010 was fourteen years from the introduction of the first transgenic modified organisms. This year alone we have 67 studies coming in from around the world showing the devastating results of transgenic modification. There’s a lag! And so, that’s why when I speak at liberal arts universities, I say, it is the values system, it is the world view, the paradigm, the philosophy that creates an ethical moral hedge around the cleverness of amoral science. Because we’re clever. We can invent things that we can’t spiritually, emotionally, physically, or ecologically metabolize. And so we better have a protective hedge around our own cleverness lest we, as my Dad used to say, overrun our own headlights. And see, we need that. And of course all the liberal arts professors go ”YEAH! This is great! That’s why we read classics, that’s why we read thinkers, who were asking the question “Why? Why? Why?” In our culture, our Greco-Roman-Western-reductionist –disconnected-compartmentalized-systematized-fragmentized-parts-oriented culture, we only ask the question “How?”. And if we can do it, that’s cool. And I think there’s more to life than just “How?”. It’s more than, “Can we?” It’s, “Should we?”
CW: My final question: if you could sum up your purpose in the ‘Big Picture’, what would that be?
JS: Well, my purpose is to be the minister of agriculture during the millennium ! (laugh)
CW: Okay! (laugh)
JS: My real goal is to receive “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”. And so we want to live every day in a sense of awe and sacredness that there are right ways, there are wrong ways, there are healing ways, and there are sickening ways to do everything, from setting a table, to running a kitchen, to investing our money. There are ways that bring healing and ways that bring sickness, and we need to appreciate that our whole life should be a non-compartmentalized whole in bringing healing to our relationships, our physical universe, the people we serve, and the people that we love.
For more on Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms, visit their website at www.polyfacefarms.com.