Mother Earth Living

Joel Salatin on Sustainable Food

Joel Salatin shares his thoughts on a sustainable food system, food-related skills and how we can all contribute to make a difference.
By Mother Earth Living staff
May 2013
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Joel Salatin is a full-time farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He will be a keynote speaker at the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington, June 1 and 2. For more information, check out the Mother Earth News Fair website.

Although there are many factors to consider, what is, in your mind, the top way in which building a sustainable/organic food culture would improve the health of our families?

Nutrient-dense foods. Deficient soils produce deficient foods. Whether it's grass-finished beef, grass-fed dairy, pastured poultry, compost-grown tomatoes or open-pollinated vegetables, the taste, texture, and nutrient profile is completely different than the industrial counterpart. Corn is not corn is not corn. Eggs are not eggs are not eggs, as proved empirically by the two-year egg analysis on pastured eggs conducted by Mother Earth News and profiled in my book Folks, This Ain't Normal. Chemical-based agriculture, from fertilizers to pesticides and herbicides, takes a fundamentally mechanical, inert approach to life. Only life can produce life. Machines don't produce food; only bacteria, nematodes, fungi—life—can produce food. The profound nutrient deficiency plaguing our nation, giving rise to unprecedented autism, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity is a direct result of assuming that life is fundamentally mechanical rather than biological. If all the money spent on pharmaceuticals were spent on carbon cycling and in-home preparing, preserving and packaging of food, we would be a far healthier nation.

What is the best thing the average family can do to encourage the development of a sustainable food system?

Get in your kitchen. Become as jazzed and passionate about re-discovering domestic culinary arts as you currently are about the latest belly button piercing in Hollywood celebrity culture. Most people spend far more time with their favorite reality show than with the fuel that gives them the energy to punch the remote button for the TV. Our culture currently extols dependency and victimization as if it's a virtue. We sit around pointing fingers, signing petitions and writing angry emails trying to get "those people" to make changes, as if all would be well if only "those people" would do what is right.  It's so much easier to blame somebody else for our maladies and afflictions than the person we see in the mirror. We write the check to Sierra Club to do our penance for ecology, then hustle the kiddos off in the SUV on a 3-hour drive to the soccer game. Tired after the tournament, we stop at McDonald's for Happy Meals on the way home. But the check to Sierra Club provided guilt assuagement. Here's the point: you can't have an integrity food and farming system without personal involvement. Wouldn't it be nice if I could snap my fingers and make all those bad guys do the right thing? But in the end, those bad guys exist and thrive because we patronize them. The way to stop them is to quit patronizing. You don't need to buy potato chips. Get some whole potatoes from your farmer neighbor and use your own frybaby with pastured pork lard to make your own potato chips—at half the cost, twice the fun, and triple the nutrition. Go for it.

What food-related skills should I try to learn first if I want to improve the health and responsibility of my family’s diet?

Acquiring integrity food from your local farmers is the first thing. Take all your recreational and entertainment budget in time and money for the year, and spend all of that treasure hunting your local integrity food providers. Every area is surrounded by wonderful, soil-building, eco-friendly farmers who often desperately need a few additional customers. Most farmers are not good marketers. Help them—go seek them out. Ask them how to help them solve their inventory problems. Slightly blemished tomatoes?  Turn them into juice and salsa—in your kitchen. Too many pork backbones?

Plop them into your slow cooker and they're way better than spare ribs. See yourself as a co-producer, as Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food International, says. All of us vicariously create the food system we patronize. Patronize a short custody chain, a true farm-to-table system, and all those evil middle processors with their unpronounceable additives and stabilizers simply go the way of the Dodo bird. Withdraw support.

Once you've found your sources, learn to prepare them in your kitchen. Don't ask someone else to prepare them. Be sure to keep it simple at first. Sliced carrots, if they're good carrots, are great by themselves. I'll never forget dessert at Chez Panisse restaurant, the iconic eatery owned by Alice Waters in San Francisco. It was simply a bowl of almonds and nectarines from Michael Ableman's farm. Delicious. Remember, if you start with good ingredients, they don't need a lot of gourmet pizzazz to make them delectable.  Slow cookers for meat and poultry are fine—drop them in when you walk out in the morning, and all day at 40 watts makes them crazy good at 5 or 6 p.m. Start with one scratch-cooked item, then graduate. Your taste buds will go into ecstasy; your hands and feet will follow. Go for it.

Besides changing our personal eating habits, what’s the most effective thing we can do as concerned citizens to improve our nation’s food systems?

I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, it's get in your kitchen.  If the whole family of Mother Earth News readers encourages one thing, it's self-reliance. We don't need a tax concession, government program, or community initiative nearly as much as we need personal responsibility to take charge of our own food system. The reason our food and farming climate is the way it is in our country is not due to some outside malicious conspiracy. We've created. We made it. When we decided that a frozen TV dinner was better than growing and cooking from our own garden, we built the processed food empire.  When we bought into the notion that we could have integrity food without involvement, we created a host of processors glad to make stabilized irradiated reconstituted amalgamated extruded pseudo-food—efficient and cheap. We did this to ourselves. We believed the USDA (pronounced USduh) food pyramid in 1979 when it told us to eat mostly carbs without differentiating between in-home fresh-baked fresh-sprouted amaranth bread and PopTarts. In our home, Teresa has made our own home-made granola for as long as I can remember—and I'm an old geezer. If not a single American bought a single prepared breakfast cereal next week, it would bring the entire industrial food conglomeration to a standstill. If not a single American bought a single grain-finished piece of beef next week, it would bring the entire feedlot industry to its knees. Folks, this is not complicated. You and I have this power. Despite what many non-profits and hand-wringers cry, we are not helpless.  It is not about THEM; it is about ME.  Get it straight. Now go for it.

How do events like the Mother Earth News Fair help promote change in our thinking when it comes to our diets?

I can think of few things as personally empowering and encouraging as the Mother Earth News Fairs.  They attract high-science foodies and all the peripheral wackos, but true change always happens on the lunatic fringe. A wider and more eclectic forum for bringing food innovation to the world, all in one place, can hardly be imagined. These fairs are not industrial organic trade shows. They have patio-appropriate stackable gardens, in-home preparation infrastructure, juicers, dehydrators—everything for self-reliance and personally being the change you want to see. From heirloom seeds to grass-fed beef, it's hard to imagine seeing more cool plants, animals and culinary infrastructure picked for their applicability to localize and domesticize our entire food system all gathered in one place. A virtual cornucopia of innovation, if the products and techniques showcased at Mother Earth News Fairs became the new normal in our culture, the sea change would completely invert the power, position, prestige and profits of the entire industrial food and farming system. What's cool is that we'd have way more food, at better quality, and improved wellness. What's not to love? Come and see.


Joel Salatin 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.

Salatin holds a bachelor of arts degree in English and writes extensively in magazines such as The 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, Salatin's after-broadcast chat room fielded more hits than any other segment to date. Polyface achieved iconic status as the grass farm featured in the New York Times best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

A sought-after conference speaker, Salatin addresses a wide range of issues, from creating a 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 herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization.” His humorous and conviction-based speeches are akin to theatrical performances, often receiving standing ovations.

Visit www.polyfacefarms.com for more information.


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