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Joel Salatin Advocates a Better Way to Raise Food

Farmer Champions 'Moral Farming' as a Better Way to Raise Food

By David Grant | ABC News

Meet the best, loudest (and only) Christian-libertarian-capitalist-environmentalist-lunatic farmer on the face of planet Earth.

Photo: Joel Salatin advocates a better way to raise food: Farmer/lecturer Joel Salatin champions 'moral farming' as a better way to raise food. 'What is a moral way to raise a chicken?' he asks.
Joel Salatin on his "Polyface Farm" in Swoope, Virginia, near Staunton, in the Shenandoah Valley. Salatin is a farmer, an author and a lecturer. He is using unconventional organic methods to raise cattle, pigs, poultry and turkeys. (Virginie Montet/AFP/Getty Images)

Joel Salatin, self-professed owner of that lengthy honorific, has a personality bigger than the Grain Belt and a genius for farming that has made him a glib, brilliant prophet to a growing movement of back-to-nature farmers from California to Swoope, Va. (pop. 1,326), where his 550-acre Polyface Farm rests at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mr. Salatin's agricultural preaching has influenced food author and journalist Michael Pollan ("Omnivore's Dilemma") and earned him a prominent spot in the documentary "Food, Inc.," making waves worldwide.

What makes Salatin so powerful on the farming scene is a unique mix of ingenuity, faith, and business savvy.

Whether making farming lectures feel like religious revivals or handling customers' questions at the family store, it's this blend of agricultural potency and inspirational vision that enables him to gross roughly $2 million annually and stand at the front of a growing community of farmers that may look like quintessential American rustics but whose techniques are anything but traditional.

Farming Ecosystem Built on Christian Principles

On a foundation of Christian principles, Salatin has built a farming ecosystem where cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits interact ecologically in a way that goes beyond conservation.

"What we're looking at is God's design, nature's template, and using that as a pattern to cut around and lay it down on a domestic model to duplicate that pattern that we see in nature," Salatin says.

What that means for Polyface in practical terms is that the cattle graze different areas of pasture every day. Then chickens pick through the same fields, eating bugs and spreading cow manure before clucking back to mobile coops.

The farm's pigs generate fertilizer by rooting around the floor of the barn, lured by sweet corn into aerating the mix of hay, cow manure, and wood chips. The finished compost is spread on fields. This process not only takes almost nothing out of the environment, it puts nutrients back in.

"We believe that the farm should be building 'forgiveness' into the ecosystem," Salatin says. "What does that mean? That a more forgiving ecosystem is one that can better handle drought, flood, disease, pestilence."

'Is There a Righteous Way to Farm?'

Salatin concedes that when his father bought the farm in 1962, the family's initial emphasis on sustainable farming had more to do with environmental concerns than faith convictions. But as the business evolved, Salatin began to see himself situated at a unique place in America's moral conversation.

"We should at least be asking, Is there a righteous way to farm and an unrighteous way to farm? … The first goal is to at least get people to appreciate that how we farm is a moral question," he says. "Once you get to that point, then you can actually discuss: What is a moral farm? What is a moral way to raise a chicken?"

How farm animals are treated on the majority of farms today dismays Salatin.

What Americans do to pigs, chickens, and cows speaks ill of the nation's moral health, he says. "A culture that views its life from such a manipulative, disrespectful stance will soon view its citizens the same way and other cultures the same way. It's how we respect the least of these that creates a moral-ethical framework."

Don't be confused: Salatin is no crunchy-granola transplant to Appalachia. He graduated from archconservative Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., with a degree in English. While he appreciates the "bearded, beaded, braless, Woodstock revolution" set who make up the bulwark of environmentally conscious farming, he's delighted that half of those coming to visit his farm nowadays are involved in the home-school movement.

It's this broad appeal that makes Salatin unique, says Teresa Heinz, the American philanthropist whose foundation recently awarded him a $100,000 award for his work. "Salatin is a person who is accessible conceptually and conceptually acceptable to a huge number of people – not just the Massachusetts guys, but people from anywhere," Ms. Heinz says.

What breaks Salatin's heart is that the rest of the religious right has been largely uninterested in picking up the banner of environmental stewardship.

"I think the whole religious right community should be very apologetic and repentant that we – who should have carried the banner of Earth stewardship – got co-opted on that message," he says.

How farm animals are treated on the majority of farms today dismays Salatin.

What Americans do to pigs, chickens, and cows speaks ill of the nation's moral health, he says. "A culture that views its life from such a manipulative, disrespectful stance will soon view its citizens the same way and other cultures the same way. It's how we respect the least of these that creates a moral-ethical framework."

Don't be confused: Salatin is no crunchy-granola transplant to Appalachia. He graduated from archconservative Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., with a degree in English. While he appreciates the "bearded, beaded, braless, Woodstock revolution" set who make up the bulwark of environmentally conscious farming, he's delighted that half of those coming to visit his farm nowadays are involved in the home-school movement.

It's this broad appeal that makes Salatin unique, says Teresa Heinz, the American philanthropist whose foundation recently awarded him a $100,000 award for his work. "Salatin is a person who is accessible conceptually and conceptually acceptable to a huge number of people – not just the Massachusetts guys, but people from anywhere," Ms. Heinz says.

What breaks Salatin's heart is that the rest of the religious right has been largely uninterested in picking up the banner of environmental stewardship.

"I think the whole religious right community should be very apologetic and repentant that we – who should have carried the banner of Earth stewardship – got co-opted on that message," he says.

Can Small-Scale Sustainable Farming Feed the World?

"Hearing him talk is like going to a revival meeting," says Jo Robinson, a journalist and founder of eatwild.com, a clearinghouse for information on pasture-raised animals.

People come away from his meetings, saying, " 'I'm going to do everything he's doing!' " she adds. "He takes people who have never been farmers and inspires them to become farmers."

But the big question is, Can this sort of small-scale, environmentally sustainable farming really feed the world?

Salatin answers with a resounding yes, even though ecoconscious farming currently accounts for less than 5 percent of American food production. And that's after what he estimates is a quadrupling of the number of environmentally friendly farms in the past five years.

"Not only can we feed the world, we're the only system that can feed the world," Salatin declares. "What's happening is that the current industrial system is beginning to break down."

Still, Polyface Farms faces an ethical limit when it comes to producing food: By promising personal connections with the purchasers of Polyface products, the business can grow only so large.

"His model is not scalable in terms of getting bigger and bigger. That defeats what he's doing," Ms. Robinson says. "It can be multiplied – there can be many people that do what he does. There are people who are scaling up so that they can sell to restaurant chains and Whole Foods, and he's not a part of that."

If Salatin's model is going to be more than a footnote to American agricultural history, many more farmers will need to attempt his delicate balance: growing big and savvy enough to make a decent profit while staying small enough to remain part of the community. Until then, Salatin and his devotees hope to find converts in more and more farmers' markets, local restaurants, and buying clubs.

"We know that the best-tasting stuff and the most integrity is found by buying right from the farmer you know," Evans says. "It doesn't get any better than that."

 

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