There’s a uniform-cleaning service in Staunton, Va., where Joel Salatin buys his work shirts: castoffs marooned there by workers who’ve been fired or died or otherwise gone AWOL. Salatin gets them cheap, and he’s not picky. If it fits, fine, and so he answers the door on a Monday afternoon sporting the logo of George’s, a behemoth poultry corporation, embroidered above his left breast.
You’ve heard of Joel Salatin, right? The self-proclaimed heretic who runs Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley? The eco-friendly, avant-garde Old MacDonald featured in Michael Pollan’s 2006 bestseller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.”? The vociferous critic of industrial feedlots and petroleum-based monoculture? The one who slings blunt terms like “evil” when he’s talking about modern corporate agribusiness?
Sometimes he wears shirts repurposed from that evil system.
Such incongruity is entirely normal when it comes to Salatin, who has famously characterized himself as a “Christianconservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic.” And increasingly, it’s normal for the larger sustainable-food movement, of which Salatin is a prominent and admired leader.
Everybody eats, and the movement’s most basic tenets — food should benefit our health, farming should benefit our environment, food systems should be transparent — have wide appeal. From far left, far right and far out, the eaters have responded. Food politics runs deep purple. These are, quite literally, kitchen table issues.
You’ll find Salatin, for example, giving the keynote address at such events as last fall’s Food Freedom Fest in Staunton. The event, heavy on the anti-regulatory, free market rhetoric of the American right, was hosted by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which exists to resist and roll back what it considers to be big government’s meddlesome and oppressive food safety regulations. Sample bumper sticker from the booth at the back of the room: “Keep The Government Off Our Farms!”
Soon thereafter, he’ll turn up at something like the Sustainable Agriculture Symposium in Idaho and pillory the idea — dear to many believers in the free market and American exceptionalism — that our farmers can, should and do feed the world. Sample quote from his speech: “This whole notion that I’m supposed to go out and turn my community into a toilet bowl, and kill all the earthworms, and make 200-pound chickens grow on a half a pound of feed to feed the world is asinine!” (The audience whooped, hollered and applauded in response, as Salatin’s audiences often do.)
Although specific events he attends might have different political flavors, the crowds there have become more and more kaleidoscopic. Salatin often looks out to see dreadlocks beside head coverings.
“The food issue is one of the best ones to free people from the false left-right dichotomy,” says John Moody, interim executive director of the Farm-to- Consumer Legal Defense Fund and founder of a food buying club in Louisville.
His club’s membership, Moody says, is a microcosm of food’s unifying power. Some members open-carry; others would probably scrap the Second Amendment if given half a chance. But they find common ground in their rejection of industrialized food, and they rally beneath Salatin’s flag.
“Big government and big business have a comfortable coexistence now,” says Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who caucuses with the Tea Party and has championed causes such as raw milk since taking office in 2012. “Joel Salatin is not afraid to take on either of those 800-pound gorillas.”
Pollan, who remains a good friend of Salatin’s, calls him the most “influential farmer in the country right now.”
Much of the reason for that is the innovative methods Salatin has devised for raising cattle, pigs and poultry in symbiosis with one another and the pasture beneath them. Those methods have proved productive and profitable, and are based on mimicry of natural systems rather than constant chemical inputs.
“He’s also an evangelist,” says Pollan. “He shares whatever he’s figured out as widely as he can, both through his writing and his talking and his willingness to have journalists come hang out with him.”
In the early 1990s, when word first spread that an oddball farmer was doing something different and interesting on his farm, Salatin figures that at least three-quarters of the folks who paid him any mind were “liberal earth-muffin types.” Conservatives came later to the movement, Salatin says. These days, when the Polyface parking lot fills up, bumper-sticker politics are pretty much evenly split between earth-muffin stuff and slogans from the Don’t-Tread school of thought.
“This is a big-tent movement,” says Nicolette Hahn Niman, a California cattle rancher and the author, most recently, of “Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.” As a vegetarian, she knows a thing or two about refusing to conform to a stereotype. “You have all these strange bedfellows, and that’s part of the strength of the movement.”
Salatin vigorously resists confinement to any one camp. His Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic label is a purposeful mouthful intended, in part, to satirize “the desire that we have to narrowly constrain every argument.”
In fact, he is an antiabortion evangelical Christian and a 1979 graduate of Bob Jones University. He once aspired to become a journalist in the Woodward/Bernstein mold. He’d jettison jails and resurrect the whipping post. He can’t abide the foreign wars we keep fighting while bad farming and bad food lay waste to the homeland. Drugs? Legalize them all. The sort of government that would get between a man and his meth today is the sort of government that might get between a man and his milk tomorrow — and between a man and his maker the day after that.
“He really is a party of one,” says Pollan. “There are elements that he’s taken from many, many parts of the spectrum. To characterize his politics in a simple way would be to distort it.”
On the speaking circuit, our nation’s foremost Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic is also a performer, with a flair for the dramatic and a tendency to lob bombs from the lectern. Massie likens Salatin’s ability to inform while entertaining to that of Glenn Beck. Salatin’s more liberal fans might prefer a Jon Stewart comparison.
Among his favorite targets is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, usually known simply as the USDA but gleefully trolled by Salatin as the “USDuh.” The agency, he charges, has been a public enemy ever since Abraham Lincoln created it and has gotten steadily worse regardless of whoever supposedly has the wheel. Bush’s USDuh was bad, he says; Obama’s USDuh is equally so. Bush, Obama, whoever, whatever, doesn’t really matter: In Salatin’s estimation, they’re all corporate puppets. In 2012, to protest our two-party hegemony, Salatin voted the Libertarian presidential ticket. He can’t recall the candidate’s name offhand. (It was Gary Johnson.)
When he knows that a crowd skews liberal, Salatin is apt to call out those who seem to value animal welfare more than unborn-child welfare. When he’s talking to evangelicals, he’s just as likely to argue that stopping for fast food on the way home from church is equally hypocritical and morally bankrupt. He pleads with the left to break its big-government habit. He begs the right to quit idolizing cheap food. He beseeches the faithful to beat their lawn mowers into ploughshares, to turn their churchyards into gardens.
“I want people to think through issues,” says Salatin. “I’m just tired of blind alignment.”
His antagonisms aside, Salatin’s critique of the industrial food system and his demonstration of better alternatives have won him a huge following.
He “totally opened my eyes,” says Bernadette Barber, a food activist and farmer on Virginia’s Northern Neck. “I thought Farm Bureau was the friend of the small farmer . . . . When he explained how the playing field really works, everything fell into place.”
Since that aha moment, Barber, who describes herself as a pro-life Tea Party Republican, says she has begun to rankle conservative friends with her new enthusiasm for ecology.
And in the fall of 2006, when an E. coli outbreak in spinach sickened about 200 people, Pollan — who places his politics to the left of Salatin’s — wrote in the New York Times Magazine that stricter food safety regulation would only “accelerate the sort of industrialization that made food safety a problem in the first place.” While working on the piece, Pollan told Salatin over the phone that before they’d met, he probably would have made the opposite argument.
Salatin’s own views have been evolving, too, particularly since he has begun to travel more widely. He has learned that “we don’t have a corner on good ideas” and says he is no longer “quite such a belligerent American.” (Salatin, of course, claims a complicated sort of patriotism: a full admiration for the fundamental American freedoms, tempered with a Howard Zinn sort of disdain for American hubris over the centuries.)
There are certainly rifts in the sustainable-food movement’s raucous big tent. Food safety policy is a thorny subject at the moment. Along predictable lines, some call for better government regulation. Others, including Salatin, say that’s the last thing we need. And then there are arguments about meat: Does or doesn’t it have a role in a sustainable food system? Salatin calls it “ecologically aberrant” to even think about farming without “an integrated animal component.”
Still, conventional wisdom says the movement is on a roll. There are now more than 8,000 farmers markets in the country (a statistic brought to you by the USDuh). Local food economies are a hip thing to be thinking about. Wal-Mart is getting into the local-foods game.
Salatin, though, is a lot more guarded. He doesn’t see it. There have been victories, yes, there has been some progress, but he says the broader trajectory in the way we feed ourselves is still putting us on a collision course with disaster.
“You can’t have a healthy civilization without healthy soil. You can’t have junk food and have healthy people,” he says. “The problem is that the historical record is not very friendly to a civilization finding out in time to save itself . . . . I’m very pessimistic about the way things are going.”
There’s no doubt in Salatin’s mind that the lunatic heresies he has been preaching are fundamentally true:
“History will bear me out that I’m right . . . [but] the question is, what’s going to happen between now and then?”
As in, when our food and farms and health and planet hit rock bottom, when a sufficient critical mass finally says “enough” and starts to embrace the unorthodoxies of the food movement, will it already be too late? Tough to say. The jury’s still out, Salatin says. In his office, he keeps a file folder of quotes and prognostications rendered foolish by history, and he’s not about to join it himself.
Although he’s glum about the world generally, he’s full of optimism about what people can accomplish on their own farms and in their own kitchens. What becomes of our civilization isn’t much within his control. What happens at Polyface Farm is more so, and with the arrival of spring, he has plenty to do.
Good thing his evil-chicken-company shirt is just one of many. He owns others embroidered with their original owners’ names. Some days he’s Carlos, other days he’s Tommy. Like the movement he embodies, you can’t pin Joel Salatin down. It’s right there in the name he chose for his farm: Polyface.
Jenner is a freelance writer who lives in Harrisonburg, Va., and writes often about farming.