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Sustainable farmer featured in 2 new films

By Maria Longley/staff

Augusta County farmer Joel Salatin has been preaching and practicing his gospel of environmental stewardship for more than two decades.

But for the charismatic and erudite beef, poultry and pork producer and his family, going against the grain of corporate agribusiness has been mostly a lonely road.

Then a little book called “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan came out three years ago.

These days, plenty of people still might see Salatin as “the lunatic farmer,” a tagline he proudly displays on a sign over a desk at Polyface Farm in Swoope. But plenty of people also are listening.

Salatin will be featured in two new documentaries: “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh.”

“I’m rubbin’ shoulders with some pretty cool folks,” said Salatin with a chuckle. “Four weeks ago, I turned down the ‘Martha Stewart Show.’ I had a scheduling conflict. They wanted me the next morning, but I had to fly out for another speaking engagement.”

Not one, but two

To Salatin, the notoriety is fine. But chief for him is gaining momentum for sustainable farming spurred by eye-opening revelations in books such as Pollan’s and Eric Schlosser’s “Fast-Food Nation,” about where the country’s food supply really comes from.

“It’s been amazing to watch the culture rise up to meet us,” he said. “We’ve gone from sucking hind tit, to now being avant garde.”

“Food, Inc.” is the larger of the two films, backed by the same production company behind the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth” starring environmental crusader Al Gore. The film explores the practices of the few corporations that control a majority of the American food industry, aided by the U.S Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration. The film, the producers say, provides plenty of evidence of profit being placed before consumer health and safety. It features co-producer Schlosser and Pollan as well as Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield.

If “Food, Inc.” is mostly the depressing exposé of where the food we eat really comes from, Ana Joanes’ “Fresh” could be the sequel, because it delves further into those who live the solutions.

Briefly a corporate lawyer, turned nonprofit founder, turned documentary filmmaker and social activist, Joanes felt compelled to film this, her second documentary, after feeling a great sense of helplessness about global climate change.

“It was a lot of doom and gloom,” she said. “It was making me so angry and hopeless.”

She learned about Polyface from Pollan’s book and visited in 2006 and 2007 to film.

As a filmmaker looking for compelling stories and storytellers, Salatin was the perfect combination of preacher and practitioner of what he espouses, she said.

“Joel in my movie kind of exemplifies sustainability,” she said. “I think people use the word sustainable, but don’t really know what it means. He just makes it so common sensical. There are other farmers who are practicing it, but Joel has this passion and energy. Joel also is very spiritual. I think he articulates the yearning in people to find purpose and meaning in our actions.”

When organic wasn’t cool

Salatin is a third-generation organic farmer, pointing out that his grandfather subscribed to Rodale’s Organic Farming and Gardening magazine 90 years ago.

It was his father who first employed grass-based animal husbandry on the land that would become Polyface. As Salatin gradually took it over from his parents, who bought the land in 1961, he added chickens and developed his portable chicken coop.

Salatin’s farming philosophy centers on the idea that all things revolve around healthy grass. He often says he’s raising grass, rather than animals, which thrive on a symbiotic cycle of chemical-free feeding on the pastures of the 550-acre property.

One aspect of that cycle are the cows and chickens. The cows move around to different fields — rather than being centrally corn fed as on industrial farms — feeding on pastures. Then the chickens are moved in with the portable coop where they’ll lay their eggs. They dig through cow dung and eat the protein-rich larvae while spreading around the droppings, which helps fertilize the fields.

“It’s earthworm-friendly grass management,” he said as he stood amid the clucking hum of hens on one of the fields.

In “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan devotes an entire section to describing how Salatin developed and operates environmentally sound meat production at his family’s Polyface Farm. In fact, Pollan writes that he really grew curious about Salatin when the farmer refused to send him meat products to sample for a New York Times story he was working on.

“I told him he had small farmers within a few hours drive where he lived,” Salatin said. “He was a little taken aback by that.”

Talk the Walk

A Bob Jones University graduate with a degree in English, the 52-year-old Salatin has always had a flair for the spoken and written word, having penned six books of his own, the latest of which is “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal.”

“I’ve always told stories,” he said. “I’m a gregarious storyteller-schmoozer.”

While a teenager growing up in Augusta County, Salatin spent Saturdays at what was known as the Staunton Curb Market selling rabbits, eggs, butter and chicken from his family’s farm. Saturday nights he’d be typing up obituaries and police reports at The News Leader, and even worked as a feature writer at the paper for about 18 months after graduating college, primarily covering, of course, agriculture.

Salatin now spends 100 days a year lecturing at colleges and to environmental groups around the country.

He said business has been great at Polyface, where his wife, Theresa; his son, Daniel; and Daniel’s wife, Sheri; run the farm with him along with full-time employee Matt Rales and a small troop of apprentices. The farm sells directly to consumers and restaurants.

But for all the national attention he’s getting, Salatin wants to remain focused on local change — and he wants every other community in the country to do the same.

“I want community in all its dimensions,” said Salatin, “I want to bring the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker back to the village.”

Not surprisingly, Salatin is still just fine with going against the grain — as long as he’s in harmony with the environment.

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