Joel Salatin — How to Feed the World
Beyond Organic Farmer, Virginia, USA
If you look at Africa, they have rainfall, there’s luxuriant growth. [The African farm delegates] said, “The reason that we’re having trouble, is because of western dumping that displaces our indigenous production.”
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Joel Salatin, 54, is a full-time farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. A third generation alternative farmer, he returned to the farm full-time in 1982 and continued refining and adding to his parents’ ideas.
The farm services more than 3,000 families, 10 retail outlets, and 50 restaurants through on-farm sales and metropolitan buying clubs with salad bar beef, pastured poultry, eggmobile eggs, pigaerator pork, forage-based rabbits, pastured turkey and forestry products using relationship marketing.
He holds a BA degree in English and writes extensively in magazines such as STOCKMAN GRASS FARMER, ACRES USA, and AMERICAN AGRICULTURALIST.
The family’s farm, Polyface Inc. (“The Farm of Many Faces”) has been featured in SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, GOURMET and countless other radio,television and print media. Profiled on the Lives of the 21st Century series with Peter Jennings on ABC World News, his after-broadcast chat room fielded more hits than any other segment to date. It achieved iconic status as the grass farm featured in the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA by food writer guru Michael Pollan.
A sought-after conference speaker, he addresses a wide range of issues, from “creating the farm your children will want” to “making a white collar salary from a pleasant life in the country.” A wordsmith, he describes his occupation as “mob-stocking hervbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization.” His humorous and conviction-based speeches are akin to theatrical performances, often receiving standing ovations.
He has authored nine books, including FOLKS, THIS AIN’T NORMAL: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. His speaking and writing reflect dirt-under-the-fingernails experience punctuated with mischievous humor. He passionately defends small farms, local food systems, and the right to opt out of the conventional food paradigm.
African Farmers on Western Food Dumping
One of the most interesting things that ever happened to me was in Turin, Italy. I was a US delegate to Terra Madre, which was the slow food, big, international, slow food convivium.
When I wasn’t speaking, I went and, and attended as many of the African delegation speakers as I possibly could.
There were, I don’t know, 400 of us American delegates, it was a 5,000-member thing. It was interesting, the animosity of the rest of the world toward we American farmers.
Every single African delegation said, “We have all the resources.” And if you look at Africa, they have rainfall, there’s luxuriant growth. They said, “The reason that we’re having trouble is because of western dumping that displaces our indigenous production.”
What they said was we have all of this resource ability to produce. We’ve got indigenous production, we’ve got all this. But what happens is that when the aid food comes to our shores, it suppresses the local market. It overwhelms the local market with cheapness. And what that means is that the local farmers who were selling at the market and who had their ongoing business concerns are now displaced by a subsidized, cheap, material that’s dumped onto the local market.
And we spent, trust me, we spent most of our time distancing ourselves from all American policy, saying, “We’re not Washington, DC. They don’t like us in Washington, DC. We’re different.” Well, the fact was that that was the same way it was with all of the other slow food delegations. They were distancing themselves from their governments, who were taking foreign aid and displacing them as indigenous, embedded, localized food networkers. They were being displaced by UN charity. What each of these delegates said, each session I went to, was, “You Americans butt out. We don’t need your foreign aid. We can feed ourselves.” And they would list these wonderful, perennial nut-bearing trees and things that had now been cut down because of cheap, western-dumping, foreign aid into those cultures, which depressed the price of their locally-produced food, and eliminated the value.
And as soon as it eliminated the value of their local food, it eliminated the resource base that produced that food, which means that resource base became exploited, cut down, destroyed. And now they were looking at we’ve got, we’ve got 20 years ‘til we can replace this, because our resource base has been destroyed due to the lack of value, which created a lack of respect, which created a lack of stewardship. And here we are. And here we are, poor, and we’re not feeding ourselves; not because we can’t, but because a system that was working extremely well has been displaced by this, this western dumping.
And, and it was that way in every single delegation. So, it was fascinating that all of us, all 5,000 of us delegates from 147 countries of the world, none of us, not a single one, developed countries, undeveloped, none of us represented had the blessing, if you will, of our official governments. We were all guerillas. We were all mavericks. We were all unlovely stepchildren.
Dealing with the Oversupply Caused by Agricultural Subsidies
Agricultural subsidies … Cotton, sugar, wheat, corn… what happens is as soon as you have subsidies for certain commodities, you’re going to have an inordinate amount of research, an inordinate amount of salvage of those products, when there’s overproduction. Uh-oh, now we’ve got to figure out how to salvage it. So, we salvage it through the school lunch program or we salvage it through the United Nations, or the World Health Organization, you know, or we call it relief and famine relief and stuff.
Paternalism vs. Empowerment
What is the thought, the arrogant thought that we can go in and just manipulate something. I mean it’s unbelievable hubris, done in the name of charity and sincerity. And the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And that’s a fact.
The way to move these things forward is to empower the local people to do better for themselves by giving them freedom and the opportunity that comes with freedom to be able to express their own gifts and talents, and for the resource base to express its own gift and talent in its own bioregion. That’s how you actually empower people.
The fact is that even in America, most communities don’t feed themselves; they’re actually. Our community here, as rich as we are right here, only 5% of the food that we eat here is grown here. So we ship it 1,000 miles away, re-import in a box, in a bag, in something, when we could be raising it all and feeding ourselves completely.
We feel absolutely no threat, here, to foreign imports. None. What threatens our food security here, in our region is making it difficult for us to sell a steak to a neighbor. Ultimately, that is what disempowers and diseconomizes a local food network.
Take California as an example, California doesn’t nearly begin to feed itself. But it’s because California is trying to feed the East Coast and the northern tier with strawberries and mesclun mix in January.
If we, if we took all the diesel fuel that’s trucking this food across the country and put it in season-extending hoop houses, so that the east and the northern tier can grow strawberries and mesclun mix in the winter time, to feed themselves then California could feed itself, too.
Ultimately, ultimately, nobody in the world is starving because there’s not enough food. 50% of all the edible food, human-edible food in the world, never gets eaten by humans because it spoils. It spoils in route to a destination.
If we would just localize our food networks, it would be like suddenly increasing production or available food by 20% or 30%, simply because it wouldn’t be spoiling in a warehouse. It wouldn’t be rotting on a ship. It wouldn’t be eaten by sacred rats on a dock. It wouldn’t be held up by an uzi-toting displaced youth in an African country demanding a bribe from the rest, Red Cross truck to pass this checkpoint.
All of these things are, have nothing to do with production. If I could click my fingers tomorrow and double the world’s food production, it would not affect one hungry stomach in the world. Nobody in the world goes hungry because of not enough food.
It’s a matter of distribution, and distribution is primarily a matter of sociopolitical hurdles.
Bio-mimicry the answer to feeding the world
This whole feed the world thing is such a such a non-issue.
Let’s take cows, for example. In our county, of Augusta County, here we stand, our average cow days of production per acre – a cow day is what one cow will eat in a day. The average is 80 cow days per acre. That’s our county average.
If you buy a 100-acre farm and go down to the government office or the resource office and say, “I just bought a 100-acre farm, 100 acres of pasture, how many cows can I feed on it?” they’ll pull it up on a spreadsheet. And for our climate and our region, blah, blah, blah, it’s 80 cow days per acre.
On our farm, we average 400 cow days per acre. That’s 5 times the county average. We rent 6 farms in the community, and every one of them, in the very first year we’re there, we double it’s production in the very first year because of this very intensive grazing management, where we’re moving the cows every day, from spot to spot.
Alan Savery, Holistic Management International in Zimbabwe is quadrupling production in Zimbabwe with this same technique of what we call “mob stocking” herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization.
And all it is bio-mimicry of the buffalo, the wildebeest, the reindeer, okay, the herds that mob up and move and mow.
We don’t get any more sun or rain than any of the other farms in Augusta county, that are at a quarter of our production. What we do is we bring to this landscape an extremely management-intensive technological, ecologically-patterned, bio-mimicked scheme. And so, if you can imagine every farm in this country doubling or tripling its production, and then multiply it by the number of counties in the state, the number of states in America, and the number of countries in the world, you begin to realize the ramifications. We haven’t even begun to produce what’s possible, if we would go back to matching the best of our techno-glitzy innovations with a natural pattern template. That’s where you get your huge increases.
Polyculture Production vs. Western Reductionist Imperialism
The production issue, when you go to Haiti, I mean it breaks your heart, you see people, impoverished people or hungry. That is primarily either a distribution or an indigenous lack of production. I think the production here in our county is despicable, even though people use chemical fertilizers and all this stuff, the fact that the production is so low is despicable.
What brings production up is, well, there are numerous things. One is a knowledge of how you integrate symbiotic, multi-speciated production schemes.
The world, which is now dominated by western reductionist, linear, compartmentalized, fragmented, segmented, systematized thought says, “Well, you need to be either a cherry farmer or a peach farmer or a cattle farmer, or a dairy farmer, or a chicken farmer.”
I’m saying nature doesn’t look like that.
Nature combines these things. Plants and animals, plants and plants, animals and animals in proximity, so that there’s an actual symbiotic, synergistic model.
And so in a lot of these developing countries, the malnourishment that we see, many times, is a result of them being disempowered of very luxurious, indigenous production models with western-credentials. The great white doctor comes and teaches them a very simplistic, linear reductionist, western-type of production.
The Problem with UN Agricultural Studies
If the United Nations wants to go study genetically-modified organism rice production in Vietnam, they find some PhD somewhere who has a couple of masters students that are wanting to go and get some credit. The 4 of them go running off with the UN checkbook to Vietnam to do research on genetically-modified rice, golden rice. So they spend their summer doing that. They use the GMO, they use the chemicals, the fertilizers, the herbicides, all this stuff.
The plots next to it are raising indigenous. So they’re raising rice with tilapia fish in the patty and ducks up on top, to eat the algae and the snails and things, and around the edges are arugula and bock choy, you know, native oriental green salad fruit stuff.
So, at the end of the study, they print their report. “The GMO rice produced this many pounds per square foot, the indigenous rice produced this many pounds per square foot, and so obviously, the GMO produced way more, so we’ve got to have GMO’s and chemicals and all this in order to feed the world.”
The obvious question is what about the ducks and the tilapia and the, uh, bock choy and the arugula? But they didn’t go to study bock choy, arugula and ducks.
And so that never makes it into the official UN report or the World Health Organization, or whatever. It doesn’t make it into the report, and it certainly doesn’t make it on the front page of the New York Times, because in our western linear reductionist, systematized, fragmented, disconnected thinking, we’re not studying wholes, we dissect. We pull a little piece and we study it and study it and study it, and we don’t view its relationship to a whole. We do that economically, we do that theologically, we do that environmentally, we do that, statistically, and that’s the way this official research is done.
The fact is that in these indigenous systems that are very integrated and very complex, the actual production per acre is higher than a chemical monospeciated production thing. But for whatever reason, it’s too complicated. It’s too difficult to study all those things. It’s a lot easier to separate out one little thing.
Polyculture Productivity = Much Higher
In our country, we talk about the production of corn or soybean per acre, when actually, if you simply measured all the production possible from that acre, it would be way higher if you were using multispeciation, multicropping systems, and close animal/plant relationships. It would actually be way, way higher. In fact, we can produce more pounds of beef, for example, per acre, in a perennial, in a perennial prairie polyculture, than you can chemically-fertilized corn to feed the cow, to produce the beef.
And this runs on 100% solar energy. With the cow, self-harvesting, self-fertilizing, and all we’re doing is choreographing the ballet to make sure the animals are in the right place at the right time.
Chernobyl Story – There’s a Better Way to do Food Aid
Right after Chernobyl blew, the top 3 people of Belarussia came on a visit. Their agricultural minister, head of parliament, they came. And they said, they, Belarussia was the dairy-producing region, and after Chernobyl, the radioactivity came into the mammary glands of the cows, but not in the meat.
The U.S., of course, sent them all sorts of aid to help them, because they were starving, because, you know, they couldn’t drink their milk. And these government officials said, “The day that the check was deposited in their national bank, in Belarussia, every hotel in the capitol city was full of representatives from Monsanto, Pioneer Seeds, John Deer, Alice-Chalmers, all of the American industrial corporations, and they said, “We’ve spent that money just like that.”
After they toured our farm and saw our integrated, gentle-footprinted, high-tech but low-impact style, they said, “You know what? If we had taken that money and, and done water lines, electric fencing, and portable infrastructure, and this stuff here,” they said, “we could have not only fed our people, we would have had plenty left over to export. But instead, we spent all of the money on things that we don’t need, things that we don’t buy, anything like that.”
Agricultural Aid in Afghanistan
I spoke at the University at Lincoln College in Missouri, and had a US Army colonel come in, with about 6 guys from the fort there, that were in the Army Corp of Engineers. And they were headed over to Afghanistan. And I got done with the talk about what we do here, and he said, and, and went back to talk to him, because I don’t usually get guys in army fatigues at my lectures, and he said, “I want to tell you something.” He said, “That is exactly what we need over there. We need people to butcher chickens in their backyards, raise cows on perennials, use electric fencing, and move this stuff around.”
He said, “But you know what we’re going to do?” He said, “We’re going to be sent over there to give them machines that they don’t know how to run, to produce crops that are not indigenous and don’t grow in their area, that will require extra chemicals to grow because they’re not acclimated to their area, that will require huge hydrologic projects for irrigation that they can’t afford, to run machinery that they can’t afford to put fuel in, to run crops that they don’t even… That is what we will be doing in Afghanistan.” He said, “Would you be willing to come and talk to a, to a group of generals?” I said, “Absolutely!” Never heard from him again.
I can just imagine, when he went back and started talking about pastured chickens and grass-finished beef, and pastured turkeys, and racking houses with rabbits above pigs and above chickens, and home-based cottage industry, I’m sure that he was laughed out of the room, that, “Oh, that’s ridiculous! It’s stupid! It doesn’t work.”
But the fact is that has always been the way we have fed ourselves, and the fact is it will be the way we feed ourselves in the future. We just don’t realize it yet.
Over-Regulation Strangling the Local Slow-Food Movement
You know, a lot of people complain about the big, evil corporations and the strangle. They just feel, “What in the world can I do in the face of Monsanto,” or some big, evil corporation.
People like me would absolutely spin circles around those big, evil corporations, if we were actually freed up to do entrepreneurial development in our businesses like we would like to do.
We would love, for example, to cure our own pork. I mean, people have been doing it in the Shenandoah Valley for centuries. You know, Virginia ham, it’s like apple pie. Virginia’s known for ham.
I mean, everybody around here cured ham, cured pork. Why can’t we do it? Because of the regulations that keep us from being able to do it. So now, in order for you to buy bacon from us, from one of our pigs, okay, that pig cannot be processed on the farm because abattoirs are illegal in agriculturally-zoned areas, because we’ve decided, in our culture, that people and farms, agricultural land are bad things; that in order to have beautiful, pastoral farmscapes, those can’t have any people in them.
And yet, it was the people, over the centuries, it was the populous of the farmers that cleared, opened and made these beautiful pastoral landscapes. If you pull the people away, you just have wilderness area.
So we can’t butcher these animals here on the farm. We have to take them up the interstate that’s already congested, using petroleum, to take them to an abattoir that is also licensed by the government, and, in fact, is licensed by an agency that measures its productivity based on pounds of product per inspector hour. So, there’s a discriminatory prejudice against small processors, which means that that pig that we spend $200 processing, a great big, evil corporation gets done for $20.
When we get that pig slaughtered, now, that slaughterhouse is not licensed to do curing, so now the bacon has to be transported 100 miles to another licensed outfit, to get cured.
We’re a small potato, you know. We’re sending in a few hundred pounds at a time into a facility that’s set up to handle a tractor-trailer load at the time. So, we have to pay 10 times as much for curing as the great big rooms with tractor-trailers.
Then they have to slice it, they have to put it in a tamper-proof bag with an approved label on it. Again, all done very small-scale.
Then we can go get it and bring it back to the farm, so that we have the privilege of selling our neighbor a piece of bacon from a pig that we raised on our farm, but has now gone to circuitous, expensive, $5-a-pound route to get back to us.
If we could just butcher and cure that pig right here, on our own farm, we could sell it for the same price as Walmart sells bacon, and it would be way better and keep all that money right here, with no roads, no fuel, no transportation, and no bureaucrat. But it’s illegal.
I can’t do that because it’s illegal. Every step in the process, from the butchering of the animal to the curing of it, to the packaging, to the labeling, all of that stuff comes under some sort of governmental, jurisdictional, regulatory power that precludes, that prejudices that product in availability and price, being able to be sold locally.
People really misplace their anger. I’m not a big friend of Monsanto, but you know what? Monsanto doesn’t scare me at all, because Monsanto doesn’t come to my farm with a sheriff’s badge and a handgun saying, “You can’t do that.”
So, for example, when governor Tim Cain was here, he came with his entourage right at the end of his term, he wanted a tour of the farm. We toured around, and, and he asked me, “What’s your relationship with Monsanto and Ciba Geigy, and these people that a lot of people are concerned about?” I said, “They don’t scare me a lick, and they don’t bother me a lick.” I said, “What bothers me is the people that you, Sir Governor, send to me from the Attorney General’s office, telling me that I can’t build an apprentice cottage for housing for my interns and apprentices, because it doesn’t meet a building code.”
Here’s the difference. The difference is Monsanto can’t send out a guy with a badge and a gun and tell me that I can and can’t do something. What they do is they wine-and-dine the elected politicians, who do have people with guns and badges, who come out and tell me I can’t sell raw milk, I can’t cure bacon on my property.
Farms as Colonial Serfs, Economic Apartheid
It’s illegal in our county to have a saw mill on a farm. Why? Because saw mills are commercial interests, and farms are not supposed to be commercial. Farms are supposed to be colonial serfs, producing raw products for processors, who get to enjoy all of the profitability of that product. We’re supposed to be just colonial serfs.
And I’m saying a farm should be an integrated economic engine, just like if you go to Williamsburg. If you go to Williamsburg and you go to visit one of those farmsteads, you’ll go in there and there, there’ll be somebody spinning wool into fabric. There will be somebody making barrels with a spoke shade, a candle-maker. There will be a farrier pounding metal. This was the industry. This was the butcher, baker and candlestick maker embedded in the village, in the community, that oiled that economic enterprise in the locality.
What we’ve done now is we’ve created economic apartheid by segregating hamburger alley is over here, the fast-food joints, the commercial sector is over there, the residentials over here.
In fact, if you can only afford a 3,000-square-foot house, you can build it here. But if you can afford a 4,000-square-foot house, you can build it over here. I mean, we wouldn’t want the 3,000-square-footers to have to rub shoulders with the 4,000-square-footers. I mean, that just wouldn’t work, see.
And if you want to farm, it can be over here, but that farm can’t have schoolchildren coming out and visiting it, because then it’s a farm of Disney. And entertainment and recreation is not agriculture.
So we have segregated these economic sectors, and, and created economic apartheid from what used to be, from what really drove our economic engine, an embedded butcher, baker and candlestick maker in a village, which created transparency in the commercial sector, that then became its own policing, simply because people could see what went in the back door and what came out the, the, the front, or what went in the front door and what came out the back door.
And when there is economic transparency, that creates the accountability, which creates the integrity.
Government Over-Regulation = Magnet for Special Interests
The fact is that every time you get government penetration into the marketplace, it creates points of temptation and opportunity for the large players in that new, penetrated area to buy favor and to curry concessions at the government’s hand; that inevitably hurts innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, and small, competitive access to that marketplace. That’s the truth.
Tragedy of the Commons – Short-Term vs. Long-Term Vision
It’s the tragedy of the commons … There’s no incentive to actually have a piece of land and have it in longevity enough to really do it. And the other thing is they suffer from the same thing that other people suffer, and that is “I want mine, right now, today.”
So there’s an exploitive mentality that doesn’t look way down at the future; it’s, “What can I, what can I harvest, what can I get off of this today.”
It’s only in a long-range view. So you say, “How do you cultivate a long-range view?” Well, you cultivate a long-range view by creating a whole social/political/cultural, paradigm of stewardship.
Well, you realize we are supposed to leave this better for our children than we found it. There’s a lot of even religious and social and cultural issues involved. And it’s interesting, it’s interesting. If you study, for example, the native American, the Indian, one of the most fascinating things is the study of the Hudson Bay Company, which, of course, was a European exploiter. We’re going back now to the 1600’s, okay? But the Hudson Bay Company came into the northern part of Michigan and up in what is now the northern part of the US, and what they found were that there were some they were trading beaver pelts. And what they found was that there were some tribes that wanted to be entrepreneurial and have a sustainable income, have a business relationship with the Hudson Bay Company. There were other tribes that didn’t.
The Hudson Bay Company actually sent biologists into the field, to study and determine what a given region could produce sustainably, and how much rest should there be between trapping cycles, and developed a regenerative beaver protocol, went to the Indian tribes. Some Indian tribes bought it hook, line and sinker. “Yes, we’ll basically rotationally harvest our beaver pelts to give regeneration time, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
The whole thing broke down not because the Hudson Bay Company was an evil European exploiter; the whole thing broke down because as soon as one Indian tribe decided, “We’re going to rest this area,” the other Indian tribes, the other ones that didn’t buy into a sustainable, regenerative, long-term, thought pattern, they came in and poached, and destroyed these recuperating beaver areas.
And so, I’m not an anthropologist. I can’t tell you why some tribes, you know, adopted a long-range strategy and others adopted a more myopic short-range strategy, but that’s absolutely the same problem we have in other places, expressed in different ways around the world. And this is not something that some bureaucrat somewhere can just change, can make a little edict and say, “Okay, now, we’re all going to think more long-term.” It’s a big, big, big issue.
Biblical Inspiration for Organic Farming
All my life, I’ve had this tension, when I walk into a room as I’m billed as an organic farmer’s coming, and people assume that I’m some pro-abortion, tree-hugger, cosmic-worshiping nirvana, woo-woo, foo-foo, earth muffin guy. Okay?
And people say, “Where do you get this, this land ethic, this ecology ethic?” and I say, “I get it straight out of Genesis stewardship.”
See, I believe that we are supposed to extend redemption and forgiveness into everything that we touch. We have so cerebralized and academized our theology and our thinking, we’re all concerned about reciting the catechism correctly, but we don’t translate that into how we treat creation. And what I’m suggesting is that if there is a cornerstone to Christian integrity and evangelistic consistency in our world, it is that the Christian community, the religious rite, we should be the ones who come to the world with the mystique of fearfully and wonderfully made-ness, who say, “Wow, look at the majesty of creation, and, yes, it does matter if the pig can express its pigness, because it is fundamentally at that moral intersection of the pig, of respecting the pigness of the pig, that we create a respect of the Thomas of Tom and the Maryness of Mary, and that the evolutionists and the ones who think that this all just happened into being, that they are the ones who are the repository of Earth stewardship should bring all of the Christian community to its knees in repentance, to realize we have squandered the moral high ground and now, indeed, the environmental, the radical environmental group view us as the dominion, conquistador, rapists of the world, while we send our kids off to the best schools, so they can get a good job in Monsanto, to earn enough money to put us in a nursing home when we get older.
We should be building forgiveness, redemption, encouragement in our system, by landscape stewardship. That should be as much of our being and bone of our bones. That should be as much of our fiber as reciting the catechism, because it’s all one, it’s all supposed to bring glory to God. Not part of it, all of it.