Joel Salatin, the farmer made famous by his appearance in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, had a heck of a year in 2009. His sustainable agricultural practices earned him a Heinz Endowment of $100,000, he was featured in numerous food documentaries, and, most recently, The Hook News Blog named him Person of the Year.
By now, most people interested in food and where it comes from have heard of Salatin, whose Polyface Farm in Central Virginia provides beef, pork, chickens, turkeys and rabbits to 46 restaurants and stores (most famously, to the local Chipotle in Charlottesville) as well as individual consumers. A passionate locavore, Salatin refuses to ship his pastured meat and encourages people to eat food from within 100 miles of their homes. Hook News says Salatin developed his approach to agriculture from his father, William Salatin, who began adapting agricultural systems in the 1950s.
According to the Hook, Salatin took over the family farm in 1982 and continued the practice of selling directly to consumers and using innovative practices like his "egg mobile," combined with his outgoing personality to make a name for himself in the farming industry.
In his profile of Salatin, author Dave McNair details his visit to Polyface Farm, his meetings with the farm's college interns, interactions with another documentary film crew that plans to feature Salatin, and Salatin's passion to get people away from the frozen foods aisle and out into the farms. McNair quotes Salatin, writing, "I want to see dancing earthworms, feed the world, and heal people ... The more people we get out here to see it, to feel it, the more converts we'll get."
The conversion Salatin refers to is a return to what he calls the "healing ministry" of the farm, a way of eating that eschews corporate food production and "America's detached relationship to food production." To get past this, Salatin feels we need to overcome the intense regulations on food prodcution. Salatin speaks out against the strict regulations of the food industry. These codes are meant to protect consumers, but Salatin feels they stifle small farmers. McNair writes that, "most food production laws were designed with industrial farm operations in mind. For instance, Salatin must transport his own hogs to be butchered, and farm regulations require him to spend $10,000 a year in workers' compensation insurance to have a 'live animal hauler.’” But despite the hurdles Polyface and similar farms face, Salatin's message is getting out there. The Hook reports that 1,600 people came to Polyface recently for an open house.
On such tours, Salatin details the ways a "close relationship between the farmer and consumer creates safety." He emphasizes the importance of an interpersonal relationship with food and the people who produce it. Keeping food local, Salatin says, also confines and makes traceable any diseases or problems. Salatin hopes to both lead by example with his family farm and to change policy, to move away from the current trend toward "sterility" and back toward a network of diverse, small farms catering to the communities close to them.
In the meantime, Salatin is still experimenting with farming "the way it should be." He has stopped using his "egg mobile" and developed something called a "Feathernest," which puts a hen house on skids amid a 450-foot circle of "electrified netting." The Feathernest has a self-feeding and self-watering system that gives three weeks' worth of supplies to the 1,000 or so chickens within.
Speaking to critics who claim we can't feed the masses with such agricultural systems, Salatin replies "factory farms don't include the cost of filthy drinking water, ruined streams, air pollution and inhumanity to God's creatures." The Hook points to the hard-to-quantify production of "indigenous systems" that incorporate a large number of species or crops into one area of land, as opposed to industrial systems which maximize production of just one thing.
McNair ends his cover profile of Salatin by emphasizing the lost and important connection humans should have with their food. When our typical experience includes a trip past neatly packaged choices, McNair writes that we don't stop to think about how they got there. And that is why Salatin is so outspoken as he works to transform agricultural practices. According to the Heinz Award profile, Salatin's "pioneering agricultural practices inextricably and beautifully interweave a food system with the land and ... will have a profound impact on farming well into the 21st century."