Joel Salatin is a third generation farmer, as well as an author, speaker and advocate for farm freedoms and alternative agriculture. Photo by Rachel Salatin.
Joel Salatin and his family operate Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The farm has become an example of innovative non-industrial food production for farmers and consumers looking for an escape from America’s conventional agricultural model.
Polyface produces pastured poultry and eggs, forage-based rabbits and forestry products. It also produces “salad bar” beef from cows who eat only forage, are pasture-raised and are contained by electric fencing. Additionally, Polyface produces pigerator pork, which are pigs that aerate bedding to create compost.
Salatin, a third generation farmer who grew up at Polyface Farms, educates others about the importance of natural, ecological farming practices as a speaker and author of nine books.
Advocating for Farm Freedom
However, when Salatin began farming, he had no plans to become the natural farming advocate he is today.
“When we started, I can assure you I had no intention of becoming a mouthpiece,” he said. “We just wanted to farm.”
Salatin said customers began inquiring about Polyface’s unique alternative agriculture, which prompted the farm to release a poultry manual in 1991. In two years, Polyface sold 2,000 copies of the manual.
Polyface is passionate about pasture-raised poultry, even though the farm raises the Cornish Cross chicken for meat, which is the standard chicken breed used in conventional meat production.
Salatin stated in an email that trying to sell meat from alternative chicken breeds is difficult because they cost more as a result of the slower growing process and look very different from the standard birds.
“Your customers will only let you be so weird. You can be a Buddhist, or a nudist, but if you’re a Buddhist nudist, you’re just too weird,” Salatin stated. “I would rather have a chicken that’s 95 percent perfect that everyone can afford and enjoy than one that’s 100 percent perfect that only ten percent of the population will try.”
Salatin said the success of the poultry manual led him to become an author and speaker, advocating for small integrity farmers while exposing the dangers and damage of conventional agriculture practices.
According to Salatin, the farm garnered greater attention after he was featured in Michael Pollan’s bestselling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” — published in 2006 — and the award-winning 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.”
Salatin says curious people often approach him wondering how he developed such an innovative alternative method of farming.
A portable shelter at Polyface Farm, which allows the livestock to move around the land in a natural way. Photo courtesy of Joel Salatin.
Following Nature’s Example
He said Polyface just focuses on basic principles in nature.
“The farm production model is simply a manifestation of how you view the world, how you view ecology,” Salatin said.
Polyface grows perennials, not annuals, because nature is based on seasonal plants. The farm does not use any chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
Salatin says he and his family embrace the “positive nourishing cycle” of natural carbon production. They compost biomass and use the farm’s forest as a carbon sink to produce healthy, carbon-rich soil.
Because animals move in nature, Polyface has incorporated methods to raise free-range animals, such as using portable shelters and developing water systems that allow the animals to access water as they move from place to place.
“This idea that animals move sets up an entire domino effect of innovation,” Salatin said.
He also said his animals work, as they are naturally inclined to do.
Polyface also incorporates an earthworm enhancement business, using earthworms to enhance soil quality.
“If you don’t have healthy soil, you don’t have healthy food,” he said. “The moral equity, the moral fiber of any society is predicated on the health of the soil.”
Salatin said his approach to farming combats the “conquistador mentality” in big American agriculture.
“We (natural farmers) should be the normal,” he said. “There should be thousands and thousands of us. We should not be an anomaly.”
The Dangers of Industrial Agriculture
Salatin said he noticed that his friends who practiced conventional agriculture had safety problems — such as risks associated with the use of poison — that he never experienced as a natural, sustainable farmer.
“Our greater agricultural template in the western world is a mechanical view toward life. We just view it as a factory … without any moral or spiritual ramifications,” he said. “When fewer and fewer people have their hands in the soil and participate in the wonders of visceral, ecological networking, we actually become a very unreasonable culture,” he said.
Salatin says Polyface strays from the impersonal world of massive agricultural production by serving customers’ individual needs through direct marketing.
“The average farmer doesn’t think about those kinds of things,” he said. “They’re just thinking about volume and bushels and feeding the world, but not necessarily ‘can we feed the world well?’”
Polyface invites the public to visit the farm store or take part in a farm tour.
The farm offers two farm tours a month for people interested in seeing the inner workings of a natural, sustainable farm operation.
“It has given thousands of people access that they wouldn’t have had,” he said.
Instead of conquering nature, Salatin says Polyface nurtures the natural world.
“Our mission statement is to develop agricultural prototypes that are environmentally, emotionally and economically enhancing and facilitate their duplication around the world,” he said.
Salatin says Virginia needs an “emancipation proclamation” for food.
“People should be able to, by right, get the food of their choice from the source of their choice,” he said. “The consumer is absolutely the key to bringing that economic freedom and entrepreneurial success to these local integrity farmers.”
According to Salatin, if nobody in Virginia ate McDonald’s or Burger King for three days, it would have a massive impact on the entire industrial food system, bringing it “to its knees.”
“That’s how fragile it is,” he said. “All that takes is for people to take personal responsibility and get in your kitchen.”
The pigs at Polyface Farm roam the farm land. Photo courtesy of Joel Salatin.
The Importance of Farm Freedom
Salatin also says farmers need more freedom to produce, process and market their products.
“(With more freedom), you could take your garden produce and make it into quiche and sell it to your neighborhood without five licenses, commercial zoning and three inspections” he said. “These are such basic human rights that they weren’t even put in the Bill of Rights because the founders couldn’t have imagined a day when you couldn’t butcher a chicken and sell it to a neighbor.”
One of Salatin’s advocacy initiatives is trying to attract more young people to natural farming.
Salatin says Polyface accepts the best and brightest young people for its one-year apprenticeship program and four-month internship program.
Polyface currently has 11 interns, but Salatin says Polyface received more than 500 queries about those 11 positions.
“It’s now easier to get into Harvard and Yale than it is to get into a Polyface internship program,” he said.
Farmer Joel Salatin and his turkeys at Polyface Farm. Photo courtesy of Joel Salatin.
The Connection Between Younger and Older Small Farmers
Salatin encourages older farmers to mentor young farmers. He says that is the best way to leave an “ecological legacy” for the next generation.
From a conventional agricultural perspective, Salatin says concerns about capital are the number one impediment for young people getting into farming. But, from his perspective, Salatin says overregulation is more of an impediment than anything else. For example, he says zoning and food safety regulations keep young farmers from advancing natural agricultural innovation. He also says regulations push young potential farmers away by requiring them to develop a large agricultural infrastructure and obtain expensive licenses.
“The regulations make it very easy for the status quo to continue to operate,” he said. “Regulations always impede innovation.”
Salatin says it goes without saying that young people bring innovation to farming.
As a result of young people moving away from farming, Salatin says agriculture is a declining economic sector as the average farmer is just under 60 years old.
In the next 15 years, roughly 50 percent of America’s agricultural assets will change hands, he said.
Salatin says these assets are at risk of being taken over by foreign agricultural conglomerates, but he still has hope for the future of natural farming in America.
“Is this equity going to be … metabolized, assimilated by a new wave of land-caressing, customer-loving, carbon-centric, local-oriented, neighbor-friendly, aesthetically, aromatically, sensually romantic young farmers?” he asked.
Salatin encourages consumers to seek out and support their local farmers, including young farmers who may be just starting out.
“Maybe when you go to the farmers market the next time, you’ll tell your young farmer, ‘Man, I don’t think you’re charging enough for these tomatoes. Can I pay you some extra?’” he said.
Salatin also says the future of American agriculture is threatened by a cultural stigma against farmers.
“The thought of our culture is that farming is for the dredges of society, for brown people, for foreigners,” he said.
Polyface represents the traditional American family farm. Photo courtesy of Joel Salatin.
In his efforts to break this stigma and encourage other natural farmers, Salatin says he relies on the steady help and support of his family at the farm.
“I’m a big believer in families working together, not just necessarily in farming … but home-based businesses,” he said. “If you can have a way to nurture those relationships in a meaningful way and have an incubator for children’s entrepreneurialism and their own industriousness, it gives children self worth, self esteem and self actualization, which is far superior to being the top point-getter on Angry Birds.”
Salatin says Polyface does not sell their products through farmers markets and Community-Supported Agriculture programs. He says he is not opposed to them, but thinks they limit the marketability of the products.
Instead, Polyface offers its products through metropolitan buying clubs, which Salatin said are a hybrid between farmers markets, CSA programs, direct sales and Internet sales.
Customers can choose from Polyface’s entire inventory using the farm’s website. Eight times a year, customers can pick up the products they ordered at designated drop sights at prescheduled times.
Salatin says the buying clubs are “extremely efficient” in allowing the farm to connect with its customers in metropolitan areas. He says the electronic inventory reduces a lot of physical expense and is more customized for both farmers and consumers.
“We don’t know if this is the answer for the future,” he said. “But we think that it is a definite way to make the local distribution and interaction system far more efficient than some of the other transitionary models.”
Salatin urges consumers to take practical steps to advance the food and farm freedom movements, like starting a produce garden or getting to know your local farmers.
“Every single area is surrounded by really high-quality, integrity farmers,” he said. “Go find them, patronize them, and heal the world one bite at a time.”