By Megan Phelps
Joel Salatin is a farmer at the forefront of the trend toward local food and grass-fed meat. Many people first became familiar with Salatin’s complex and eco-minded approach to farming when he was featured in Michael Pollan’s bestselling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But Salatin also is well known within pasture-based farming and libertarian circles. He’s especially vocal about government regulations that make life difficult for the small farmer — his most recent book is titled Everything I Want to Do is Illegal. He’s also the author of You Can Farm and Holy Cows and Hog Heaven (excerpted here in Mother Earth News). Salatin kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about Polyface Farms. Hold onto your hat! Here are Salatin’s candid thoughts on government regulations, high grain prices, vegetarians and making money at farming.
Grass Fed and Beyond Organic
Tell us a little bit about Polyface Farm.
We’re located eight miles southwest of Staunton, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley on 550 acres (100 open and 450 forest). We also lease four farms, totaling an additional 900 acres of pasture. We sell “salad bar” (grass-fed) beef; “pigaerator” pork; pastured poultry, both broilers and turkeys; pastured eggs and forage-based rabbits.
Your livestock and poultry are grass-fed, and your farm is “beyond organic.” Do you find people are familiar with those terms?
More and more people are aware of the compromise and adulteration within the government-sanctioned organic certified community. Weary of 6,000-hen confinement laying houses with 3 feet dirt strip being labeled “certified organic,” patrons latch onto the “beyond organic” idea. It resonates with their disappointment over the government program. When Horizon battles Cornucopia, for instance, to keep its organic-certified industrial-scale dairies, consumer confidence falls.
Intuitively, people understand that the historical use of the word “organic” identified an idea and a paradigm rather than a visceral list of dos and don’ts. And now that the high prices have attracted unscrupulous growers who enter the movement for the money, people realize that no system can regulate integrity. That is why we have a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 day a year open-door policy. Anyone is welcome to visit at anytime to see anything, anywhere. Integrity can only be assured with this level of transparency.
When someone asks if we’re certified organic, we respond playfully: “Why would we want to stop there? We go beyond organic.” That response generally leads to an info-dense discussion and people come away with renewed awareness, rather than just another case of hardening of the categories.
How has the public’s attitude toward your products changed in the last few years? Do you find it easier to sell grass-fed meat now?
Public awareness is definitely up. In the 1970s when I was selling grass-finished beef and pastured poultry, nobody had even heard of the word “organic,” much less “grass finished.” Now, thanks to New York Times bestselling authors like Jo Robinson and Michael Pollan, the awareness is huge.
The market limitations are primarily twofold. One is the supply. The artistry and choreography required to move animals around on palatable pasture year-round in any given bio-region takes years to learn. This is not cookie-cutter rations formulated from annuals stored in a big grain bin. The producer deals with on-farm variables such as seasonality, wet, dry, hot, cold, genetic physiology, minerals and a host of others. Beyond that, the Food Safety and Inspection Service has successfully annihilated most community-based, appropriately sized abattoirs (slaughterhouses) and criminalized on-farm processing. This is by far the major impediment to the local integrity of food.
That’s all on the production/processing end. The second market limitation has to do with entry-level requirements for major marketing channels. From liability insurance to net-90-day payment to slotting fees, large buyers share a Wall-Street business mentality. That mentality aggressively shuns competition, especially from little innovators. But every time industrial food hiccups with recalls and more diseases, another wave of opt-outers hits the local, integrity food scene. Exciting times.
On Being a Farmer
When did you decide you wanted to be a farmer?
As early as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a farmer. I love growing things. I appreciate the emotional steadiness of animals. Every day when I go to move the cow herd, they are glad to see me. The pigs always come over to talk. None of these critters ever asks you to fill out licenses or threatens litigation. They never talk behind your back or conspire to overthrow you. And to watch the land heal, with ever-growing mounds of earthworm castings, is better than any video. Indeed, walking through a dew-speckled pasture in the early morning after a blessed nighttime thunderstorm, the ground literally covered with copulating earthworms — what could be more magical than that?
I had my own laying hen flock at 10 years old, pedaling eggs on my bicycle to neighbors, selling them to families in church. The fast-paced, frenzied urban life disconnected from the ponds, the trees and the pasture never held much allure for me. Go away? Why? Where? I think I was planted here. I think God tends my soul here. It’s not for everyone, but it satiates my soul with wonder and gratitude.
What’s changed about your philosophy of farming over the years?
Like all geezers, I’ve learned a lot just through experience. Because I’m a third generation-Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist lunatic I don’t have a conversion epiphany to share. I’ve just always been weird.
Initially, I thought I would need to work off-farm to stay here, and I learned that wasn’t true. I encourage young people to follow their passion and go ahead and jump. If you wait until all the stars line up, you’ll never do it. In recent years, I’d say my biggest change has been regarding economies of scale and marketing realities. Twenty years ago my vision for the food system in Virginia was thousands of little mom and pop farms like ours serving their neighbors. I no longer think that is viable for two reasons. First, urban centers would be hard pressed to grow all their own food within their communities. Second, most farmers are marketing Neanderthals. Either they really don’t want to be around people, or they don’t know how to interact with them. A successful marketer needs to be a bit theatrical; a storyteller, schmoozer, gregarious type. And that’s not typical, especially among John Deere jockeys.
What’s the answer? I don’t know, but what I’ve come up with is what I call food clusters. These require production, processing, marketing, accounting, distribution and customers — these six components make a whole. The cluster can be farmer-driven, customer-driven, even distribution-driven initially. But once these six components are in place, it can micro-duplicate the industrial on a bio-regional or foodshed scale, which includes urban centers. I think a local integrity food system could supplant the opaque industrial one in Virginia, but realistically it would comprise several hundred or a thousand $5-$10 million food clusters rather than several thousand mom and pop $100,000 fully-integrated enterprises. I certainly never thought our farm would top $1 million in annual sales, but it happened. We still have no business plan or marketing targets. But we’ve been blessed with a family of enough variety to put together these six foundations for a whole, and that has made all the difference. And I’m a schmoozer.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a farmer?
Anyone familiar with me would have to smile at this question, knowing that my answer would be and continues to be the food police. The on-farm hurdles we’ve faced, from drought to predators to flood to cash flow, are nothing compared to the emotional, economic and energy drain caused by government bureaucrats. Even in the early 1970s when, as a young teen, I operated a farm stand at the curb market, precursor of today’s farmers markets, the government said I couldn’t sell milk. The first business plan I came up with to become a full-time farmer centered around milking 10 cows and selling the milk to neighbors at regular retail supermarket prices. It would have been a nice living. But it’s illegal. In fact, in 2007 I finally wrote Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, documenting my run-ins with government officials.
I think it’s amazing that in a country which promotes the freedom to own firearms, freedom to worship and freedom of speech, we don’t have the freedom to choose our own food. If I can’t choose the proper fuel to feed my body, I won’t have energy to go shoot, preach and pray anyway. Half the alleged food in the supermarket is really dangerous to your health. In fact, if we removed all the food items in the supermarket that would not have been available before 1900, the shelves would be bare. Gone would be all the unpronounceable gobbledy-syllabic industrial additives, irradiated, GMO, cloned pseudo-food.
The reason this issue is hard to articulate is because most people don’t realize what’s not on the shelves, or in their diet. We’re fast losing the memory of heritage food, as in made from scratch, in the home kitchen, with culture-wide generic culinary wisdom. I remember when every mom knew how to cut up a chicken. Now, most people don’t know a chicken has bones. As the food police have demonized and criminalized neighbor-to-neighbor food commerce, the food system has become enslaved by the industrial food fraternity. And just around the corner is the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) coming on strong, under the guise of food safety and biosecurity, which will annihilate thousands of non-industrial farms. We don’t need programs; we need freedom. If we really had freedom, farmers like me would run circles around the corporate-welfare, food adulterated, land-abusing industrial farms.
Thinking About Meat
What are some of the things you want people to know about the meat they buy from you? What should we all know about the meat we eat?
The main idea we promote is that our animals enjoy a habitat that allows them to fully express their physiological distinctiveness. I like to say we want our pigs to express their pigness and the chickens their chickenness. The industrial food system views plants and animals as inanimate protoplasmic structure to be manipulated, however cleverly the human mind can conceive to manipulate it.
I would suggest that a society that views its life from that egocentric, disrespectful, manipulative standpoint will view its citizenry the same way . . . and other cultures. How we respect and honor the least of these creates the ethical, moral framework on which we honor and respect the greatest of these. The freedom for you to express your Tomness or Maryness is directly proportional to the value society places on the pig expressing its pigness. And to think that our tax dollars are being spent right now to isolate the porcine stress gene in order to extract it from pig DNA so that we can further abuse and dishonor pigs, but at least they won’t care. Is that the kind of moral framework on which a civilized society rests? I suggest not.
This fundamental understanding drives our production models. Herbivores in nature do not eat dead cows, chicken manure, dead chickens, grain or silage: They eat fresh or dried forage. Of course, what’s neat is that empirical data is discovering the nutritional and ecological benefits of this paradigm. We’re reading about Omega 3 and Omega 6 balance, conjugated linoleic acid, polyunsaturated fats and riboflavin. Whenever a new laboratory confirmation of our philosophy hits the news, we make sure our patrons know about it. In a word, this is all about healing: healing our bodies, healing our economies, healing our communities, healing our families, healing the landscape, healing the earthworms. If it’s not healing, it’s not appropriate.
Perhaps because it’s such a hot topic, let me address the cow-global warming argument. Every bit of the alleged science linking methane and cows to global warming is predicated on annual cropping, feedlots and herbivore abuse. It all crumbles if the production model becomes like our mob-stocking-herbivorous-solar-conversion-lignified-carbon-sequestration fertilization. America has traded 73 million bison requiring no petroleum, machinery or fertilizer for 45 million beef cattle, and we think we’re efficient. Here at Polyface, we practice biomimicry and have returned to those lush, high organic matter production models of the native herbivores.
If every cow producer in the country would use this model, in less than 10 years we would sequester all the carbon that’s been emitted since the beginning of the industrial age. It’s really that simple. Without question, grass-finished, mob-stocked beef is the most efficacious way to heal the planet. We should drastically drop our chicken and pork consumption and return to our indigenous, climate-appropriate protein source: perennial forages turned into red meat and milk.
Do vegetarians ever challenge you about raising meat? If so, what do you say in response?
I will answer this in two parts. The first has to do with the people who think a fly is a chicken is a child is a cat — what I call the cult of animal worship. This would include the people who think we’ve evolved beyond the barbaric practice of killing animals to some cosmic nirvana state where killing is a thing of the past.
Rather than indicating a new state of evolutionary connectedness, it actually shows a devolutionary state of disconnectedness. A Bambi-ized culture in which the only human-animal connection is a pet soon devolves into jaundiced foolishness. This philosophical and nutritional foray into a supposed brave new world is really a duplicitous experiment into the anti-indigenous. This is why we enjoy having our patrons come out and see the animals slaughtered. Actually, the 7- to 12-year old children have no problem slitting throats while their parents cower inside their Prius listening to “All Things Considered.” Who is really facing life here? The chickens don’t talk or sign petitions. We honor them in life, which is the only way we earn the right to ask them to feed us — like the mutual respect that occurs between the cape buffalo and the lion. To these people, I don’t argue. This is a religion and I pretty much leave it alone.
The second part of this answer deals with folks who don’t eat meat in order to vote against animal abuse, concentrated animal feeding operations, or pathogenicity. And to be sure, many of these folks have bought into the environmental degradation inherent in livestock farming. To these people, Polyface is a ray of hope. I could write a book about the patrons who have come to us at death’s doorstep because they needed meat, and we’ve watched them heal. To be sure, not everyone needs meat, and those who do have varying levels of need. And when people find out that grass-based livestock offer the most efficacious approach to planetary health, their guilt gives way to compensatory indulgence. After all, they have to make up for lost time, and routinely become our best customers. Their emaciated vegetarian faces fill out, their strength improves and they are happier. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to just give them a Weston A. Price Foundation brochure. We keep them in our sales building like religious tracts. Oops.
All About the Farm
How have you been affected (or not affected) by the recent increase in grain prices?
This depends on which species we’re talking about. Let’s start with the poultry. Broilers will pick up only 15 percent of their diet off the pasture; layers 20 percent; turkeys 30 percent or more. Since birds are omnivores, they can’t survive on grass alone. Waterfowl jump on up to more than 50 percent. We’ve watched our local genetically modified-free grains double in price over the last 24 months. In response, we’ve raised our chicken and egg prices about 25 percent. Grain is only a portion of the cost, so all we have to do is raise the price enough to compensate for the grain. The amount required to cover these exceptionally high grain prices only amounts to less than $2 per bird. A family buying 50 chickens a year would only pay an additional $100 to cover all the additional feed costs. Of course, the industrial food poultry giants say they can’t pass along these costs to their customers. I don’t know why, but I think it has to do with the idea that people will only pay so much for junk.
Typically, hogs are similar to chickens, but here at Polyface we’re making an end run by finishing pigs on acorns. Just in the nick of time, we discovered an efficient, cheap way to fence out sections of forest with electric fence. Using quarter-inch nylon rope as poor-boy insulators, we zig-zag a single 12.5 gauge Tipper Tie aluminum wire from tree to tree and erect three- to five-acre finishing glens. In our native Appalachian oak forests, each acre displaces $500 worth of grain. That translates to about $50 per hog in expense, which is enormous. It has allowed us to keep our hog prices fairly stable even with the huge increase in grain prices. We put the pigs in for one month and remove them for 11 to rest and to let the next acorn crop fall. It actually helps the trees, because the pigs root out competing brush and brambles for their starchy roots, in effect weeding the woodlot. All parties win. Very exciting. And if you think about the millions of acres of forests and realize that they could displace tilled, petroleum-based, subsidized, annual grain cropland, you begin to see the potential of this model.
Finally, salad bar beef. This is the most exciting, because it is completely immune to grain prices. It requires no tillage, no fertilizer, no feed transportation or drying costs. It runs on real time solar energy, self-harvesting with four-wheel drive self-propelled sauerkraut tanks. At Polyface, we believe we’ve become the least-cost producer in an artisanal market, which pushes the gross margin both ways. That’s pretty cool. As a result, we have not raised our beef prices at all, and are watching with great satisfaction the squirming and postulating within the feedlot industry. They don’t need any bailouts. Let them die. To place all of this in historical context, we should all realize that until cheap energy, beef was always the cheapest meat while pork and poultry were the luxuries — especially poultry. When President Roosevelt said his vision for America included “a chicken in every pot,” he was talking about today’s filet mignon. With cheap fuel, cheap grain, cheap labor and cheap pharmaceuticals came cheap poultry. In the continuum of human history, poultry-cheaper-than-beef is a veritable blip. For nutritional, environmental and social reasons, I think it would be fine for the historical beef-poultry relationship to be restored. And most things do eventually find a way of coming home.
Describe some of the ways you sell your products. You’ve made it a general principle not to ship anything, but there are several ways you sell products locally.
We have three marketing venues: farmgate, restaurant/retail and metropolitan buying clubs. For the farmgate sales, we send out a newsletter once a year, in the spring, and patrons order for the season from that schedule. We used to sell everything that way, but with frenzied schedules and gas prices, resistance to driving out to the farm started becoming an issue. We live way out in the boonies on a dirt road where the only time you have to lock your car is in August to keep the neighbors from putting runaway zucchini squash in it. This still accounts for 30 percent of our sales. We have public hours, 9 to 4 every Saturday, and that allows us to serve the non-ordering people without sales interruptions throughout the week. Our simple sales building contains scales, freezers and counters to handle these customers.
Restaurant/retail we lump together because we deliver to them on Thursdays and Fridays every week and they pay about the same prices — a bit of a volume discount. A delivery fee per pound and scaled to volume pays for a vehicle and driver. Several nearby cheese, produce, mushroom and honey growers add their wares to our delivery bus and that helps the distribution economies of scale. We service about 25 upscale restaurants and about 10 retail venues, primarily specialty foodie-type businesses. My daughter-in-law, Sheri, calls these patrons on Tuesday for that week’s orders. Several restaurants in Washington, D.C., use an independent courier to come to the farm and deliver their orders. Among these restaurants is one fast-food establishment: the Charlottesville branch of the national Chipotle chain. This has been a huge undertaking for both of us, but heralds a new awareness of local and ecologically sound food. These venues account for 30 percent of our sales.
The metropolitan buying clubs grew serendipitously out of quarterly farmgate sales from three Maryland patrons who asked us to deliver to their area for all their friends who would not make the trek to the farm. This has grown to 20 drop points and we deliver to them eight times per year. The same delivery driver and infrastructure that services the restaurants services these patrons. They order via electronic shopping cart (www.polyfaceyum.com). Each drop point must average an annual sales quota and patrons are rewarded with free product for bringing in new customers. This venue provides neighborhood service, low overhead and complete inventory shopping options. We don’t deal with farmers market commissions, rules, product speculation or politics. It’s the ultimate marketing below the radar and keeps us out of the supermarket, with its slotting fees, red tape and tardy invoice payments. This venue now accounts for 40 percent of our annual sales.
We hope to add an additional venue in the next few months: Sysco via abattoir. In the summer of 2008, we (my wife Teresa and I) along with a partner purchased our local federal-inspected abattoir, T&E Meats, in Harrisonburg, Va. Institutional demand for local, humane and ecological products is growing, but vending contracts preclude purchasing outside large distributor channels. For example, University of Virginia contracts its dining services to Aramark, which contracts its food vending to Sysco. But Sysco requires $3 million liability insurance, hold harmless agreements and other forms before purchasing from anyone. This is a serious impediment to local producers. Having acquired this abattoir, however, we hope to use its high product liability policy as a backdoor entry into the institutional market. Stay tuned.
You’ve done a lot of work encouraging other people to learn to farm through your books and your apprenticeship program. What are some of the challenges you think that new farmers will have to face?
The first and greatest challenge is experience — how to do more with less and how to solve problems creatively rather than with something purchased. Land is more available now than it has been in decades. With half of America’s farmland due to change hands in the next 15 years due to the aging farmer, a lot of this land will be available for management at extremely modest cost, owned by family members who aren’t ready to sell, or by new e-boom buyers able to afford to buy. In any case, the weak link will be a track record and experience to take a piece of raw land and make it profitable.
I think the opportunities are practically unprecedented. We had an apprentice leave two years ago and within three months had offers for 1,000 acres to manage in New York — at virtually no cost except to use it and keep it aesthetically and aromatically romantic. That’s what healing farming is all about, and why it has so much possibility. What landlord wants a Tyson chicken house built on their farm? But all of them love a pastoral setting, especially being able to entertain their city business partners with grass-finished steaks on the porch overlooking your herd of cows. The problem is that our culture tells bright, bushy-tailed young people that farming is for backward, D-student, tobacco-chewing, trip-over-the-transmission-in-the-front-yard, redneck Bubbas.
When was the last time you heard a group of parents bragging? Ever hear one say, “Well, you can have your doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers. My kid is going to grow up and be a farmer.” Ever hear that? Not on your life. The biggest obstacle is emotional — overcoming the cultural prejudice against splinters and blisters. That is why I talk about economics and marketing, along with the mystical, artistic elements of the farm. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But what a great office. What a noble life. What a sacred calling.
Got comments? Email me, dammit!
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