AR — You have been on a quest to get your message out for more than 30 years. Now you speak to sold-out audiences. Why do you think your message resonates now? What changed? What have been the biggest drivers of the change?
Joel Salatin — The local/integrity food tsunami is a result of several things:
- The food and farming industry are failing to inspire people to continue putting faith in them
- Chronic non-infectious diseases are escalating and driving people to ponder a food/wellness connection
- Energy costs are escalating, bringing into question the globalized/industrial food system that floats on oil
- Natural resource losses are staggering: dead zones, aquifer depletion, atmospheric gases. These are all a direct result of unregenerative systems, epitomized by chemical-based agriculture.
- Soul level yearning to reconnect with our ecological umbilical. We've been out of touch for too long. You could label this the call of the earth.
Do you think there is a shift in people’s mindset, in which they now behave more like citizens, and less like consumers?
For some people, certainly. We'll know it's a tipping point when Hollywood lays off half the actors and actresses and McDonald's posts huge quarterly losses a couple of years in a row. Many people intuitively realize we are living historically abnormally, but are paralyzed by routine, ignorance, and apathy to change course. Local food is now officially almost two percent—that's not much. We're still a tiny minority. But we're growing... fast. Ultimately we need to participate rather than assume if someone else would make better decisions, or live differently, everything would be fine. Tomorrow's culture will be the culmination of billions of daily decisions made by individuals, just like today's. When you decide to buy soda instead of pastured chicken, or go on the Caribbean cruise right when the tomatoes are ripening—these decisions create the civilization we have.
The Internet has given visibility a whole new meaning. It seems ironic but do you think that in a big way, the Internet has brought back this need to reconnect with nature? How?
I'm a firm believer in the new tribalism. The internet has democratized information and conversations like the Gutenberg press a few centuries ago. The printing machine enabled the people who decried the atrocities of the Inquisition and Feudalism to get their message out. It was certainly not the first time atrocities had been committed. But this time, the news could be spread farther faster. The internet is doing that in our day to the city-state and corporate abuse.
As people realize the extent and depth of unfairness and atrocities, they begin looking for anchor points and security. Your garden is always glad to see you. The tomatoes this year look surprisingly similar to the tomatoes last year. Animals don't have bad days. In short, nature provides stability and continuity during a time of epochal change.
As people realize the extent and depth of unfairness and atrocities, they begin looking for anchor points and security. Your garden is always glad to see you. The tomatoes this year look surprisingly similar to the tomatoes last year. Animals don't have bad days. In short, nature provides stability and continuity during a time of epochal change. That is comforting physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Since the banking collapse and the multiple crisis that ensued, we’ve discovered a new meaning to the word ‘fragility’. Do you see farming as an antidote? Is farming and local consumption ‘antifragile’? How?
In times of crisis, stability and security become more valuable than gold. Indeed, you can't eat gold or wear it (unless you're Mr. T). When people yearn for visceral relationships with abundance, farming and local consumption provide it. A community fed from its bio-region can see its food. Iowa, for all its agriculture production, still imports 95 percent of its food from elsewhere because those fields of corn and soybeans are simply part of an opaque, convoluted global network.
Historical normalcy is still the way to bet. Here are some of the patterns that have kept civilizations together:
- Integrated food systems — Today, our segregated food systems require unprecedented energy in transportation. Historically, transportation was expensive, necessitating imbedded production systems, from the family cow to the kitchen garden to domestic culinary arts. If 15 percent of Americans had 6 laying hens and 10 broiler chickens, living primarily on their own domestic food scraps, it would outproduce the entire poultry industry. Kitchen chickens need to be the next big thing, along with edible landscapes
- Omnivores as salvage/recycling operations — Today, half of all the world's human edible food is wasted through spoilage, blemishing and inventory adjustment. Omnivores have always eaten food waste and kitchen scraps near where they were generated. Today, it goes in landfills and the animals are fed subsidized, soil-eroding grains
- Carbon cycling — Carbon has never been transported very far. Blowing leaves and animals eating one place and pooping another were about as far as carbon could be moved. Today, we transport it by boat load and train load, depleting the soil in one area and creating toilet bowl toxicity in another. This cannot continue
- Perennially based systems — The reason civilizations have looked to herbivores and the sea for the basis of their nutrition is because those were the two things that did not require tillage. Nature does not plant annuals. Nature uses perennials. Perennials build soil; annuals deplete soil. The USA only subsidizes annuals, which is terribly destructive environmental policy. Herbivores cannot continue to be fed annuals
- More expensive food — No nation has ever spent less per capita on its food, or more on health care. Cutting out a few movies and $100 designer jeans with holes already in the knees will be necessary to restore integrity food
- More participation in food — No culture has ever been able to extricate itself so completely from viscerally participating in its food system. That the USA now has twice as many people incarcerated in prisons as we have farming does not indicate societal nirvana; it indicates failure on the grandest scale. We've never spent more remodeling and techno-gadgetizing our kitchens, but been more lost as to where they are. We need to rediscover preparing, packaging, and preserving food in our home kitchens, using our techno-gadgets to save time and make us exponentially more efficient than grandma
That the USA now has twice as many people incarcerated in prisons as we have farming does not indicate societal nirvana; it indicates failure on the grandest scale.
You run a very successful apprenticeship program at Polyface. Who attends and why?
We have people from all walks of life and all areas of the world. Most come to learn how to farm profitably and environmentally. A few come just to experience life on a farm, but most are serious about wanting to be full-time farmers and we certainly skew our selection process to favor those. Polyface is a for profit operation, so it's as real as you can get. It's not supported by government grants or tax-free status. As a result, this hands-on learning experience uniquely prepares interns for the farming business world.
You are very rigorous in your selection process: “Bright eyed, bushy-tailed, self-starter, eager-beaver, situationally aware, go-get-‘em, teachable, positive, non-complaining, grateful, rejoicing, get’erdone, dependable, faithful, perseverant take-responsibility, clean-cut, all American boy-girl appearance characters. We are very, very, very discriminatory.” (from your website). From it transpires an evident desire for a resurgence of traditional values and ‘character’... Books have been written about the new adults (iGen) being ‘morally adrift’. Do you agree? Why?
Yes, I agree. But there again, the tendency is to brush with too broad a stroke. The exceptions here at Polyface prove that plenty of young people ready to do whatever it takes to be economically, environmentally, and emotionally successful are willing and ready to accept the challenge. We do quite a few tours here, and it never ceases to amaze me how many college environmental studies students can't imagine doing anything but working for the government. I consider someone morally adrift when he/she cannot imagine doing something personally, independent of the government. That 85 percent of Americans believe the government is responsible for food safety shows tremendous lack of moral clarity.
The foundation of moral clarity is personal conviction to do what is right when no one is looking.
The foundation of moral clarity is personal conviction to do what is right when no one is looking. That so few expect anyone to do right without a bureaucrat looking over their shoulder speaks to the profound lack of faith in personal and corporate morality. The government is always less moral than the people. Individuals as a rule have far more morality than society as a whole. Most young people today educated in government schools have been acculturated to believe problems can only be solved by the government and morality can only be defined by government edict. That is profoundly immoral, as evidenced by the fact that government food police consider it perfectly safe to feed your children Twinkies, Cocoa Puffs, and Mountain Dew, but downright criminal to feed them raw milk, compost grown tomatoes, free range chickens and Aunt Matilda's homemade pickles.
The government's obligation to define morality must be kept necessarily small in order to force citizens to own their own moral code. The more the society gives this primarily individual responsibility over to the government, or to society as a whole, the more lethargic become individual moral muscles. When people are forced to exercise their moral muscles by autonomous decision making, they develop a stronger moral code.
As the middle class erodes and the era of the ‘zero-cash-down mortgage’ a ghost of the past, ‘hard work’ seems to be making a comeback. Can you comment on that? Why does hard work matter?
Hard work matters because it is the historically proven method for progress. As people's faith in abnormality wanes, they begin grasping for the tried and true techniques from the past. They begin looking for the track record. The track record is still all those sayings you heard from your grandparents about a penny saved is a penny earned and an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. Those of us who have always been frugal and savers and investors, I confess, have a hard time feeling sorry for the greedy, self-centered folks who actually thought they could get something for nothing and overextended themselves. I say let them take their bath. Society owes them nothing. Nobody made them sign on the dotted line. The banks and politicians who rewrote the rules requiring banks to make foolish loans simply played to human greed and I resent being told that my taxes should soften their fall from greed. Being shocked into the reality of true economics is a good thing; let the shock be profound. I think the banks should have failed, Chrysler should have failed. Government should not pick winners and losers. Do you think the government will help Polyface if we fail to make good business decisions? The phoenix can only rise out of ashes, ashes symbolizing the failed assumptions and paradigms of the past. Without ashes there can be no Phoenix. I say bring on the ashes; it will germinate a phoenix.
Hard work matters because it is the historically proven method for progress. As people's faith in abnormality wanes, they begin grasping for the tried and true techniques from the past. They begin looking for the track record.
Instead of creating bogus financial instruments (credit swaps!) there is a strong maker movement, a DIY-everything. Farmers are the ultimate doers. Why is making things more important than ever before?
If you make things, you don't have to generate the cash to pay someone else to do it. With our criminal confiscatory tax policy in this country and the multitudinous regulations around hiring employees and services, you're far better off doing it yourself. A dollar saved is worth $1.30 because you don't have to pay taxes on it when you earn it. Between workmen's comp, FICA, and the new health care obligations on taxes, America has declared war on business and personal wealth generation.
The way to combat this climate is to not hire anyone. Don't earn as much. Quit spending. Live simply. Do for yourself. Actually, some of us have been living this way multi-generationally. The fact that such notions are new shows how far removed from normalcy we've become.
We’re interested in getting your views on urban agriculture (UA). The relationship between food and cities is newly maturing after decades in the shadows. Why is urban agriculture ‘hot’ again?
Essentially the only kind of food system that works is one that is integrated rather than segregated. Urban farms produce food near the point of consumption. They recycle carbon near its point of generation. Marketing occurs near the point of production. Food safety occurs due to the accountability inherent in transparent systems with a short chain of custody between producer and consumer. These principles defined food systems for all of civilization until the last few decades in our sophisticated culture. I suggest that the future patterns will look more like the past than the present for precisely the reasons they were normal for millennia. Expensive energy, expensive transportation, non-chemical soil fertility and community-based commerce all defined the only workable systems... until modern today's abnormal America. We will transition to these historically-proven patterns for the same reasons they were used in the first place.
How important is UA in urban renewal?
Communing is the heart of community. Communing, both socially and religiously, centers on food and feasting. If we're going to commune with someone, it has to include food. Few things can create community like communal food systems, whether they be community gardens, markets, or individual gardens in backyards. Food is the ultimate connector. You can live without phones, cars and electricity; you can't live without food. It epitomizes the nonpartisan issue.
People who dine together rarely fight for long. Gardens encourage communal meals. Sharing of earth's bounty. Sharing growing tips. Cooking tips. Urban farming provides a focal point for the most diverse people to get together. These urban farms are beautiful. Beauty generates positive social energy. It encourages people to take ownership, to protect, to participate.
In a time of fear and insecurity, urban farms demonstrate abundance where it's too often most lacking. Being able to touch, see, taste and smell abundance soothes the soul as well as the stomach, offering a balm of healing for distressed urban areas. Too often, our government housing projects have assumed that providing a bed is more important than providing a meal. It's hard to sleep on an empty stomach. Urban farms are filling that need... triumphantly.
Being able to touch, see, taste and smell abundance soothes the soul as well as the stomach, offering a balm of healing for distressed urban areas.
What do you wish for the future of UA?
I'd like to see every vacant square foot planted to edibles, including the little strip between sidewalk and curb in many places. Ornamental trees can be replaced with edibles. I'd like to see the food police, business license and building code/zoning police get laid off so that people with culinary interests could make quiche, soups, noodles, pot pies and other foods in their home kitchens and sell it to their neighbors without half a dozen bureaucrats pounding on their door with cease and desist orders. I'd like to see every kitchen have two chickens attached to it. Out with the old parakeets, fish, and pets; in with the chickens. No compostables should go to a landfill... ever. Rooftop gardens. Honey bees. All churches running kitchens to can and process foods for the community entrepreneurs. Tell the insurance underwriters to take a hike. Children growing plants and animals instead of playing video games. Zero sodas, tobacco, alcohol, flat screen TVs or lottery tickets. All that money can go into real food. Vacations are spent scouring the countryside for farm treasures and making food relationships. You get the idea.
Where do you see Polyface in five, ten years? Do you see Polyface as a brand platform for new farmers?
I don't do prophecy. It will be whatever it is. I could never have imagined that it would be today what it is, so I don't want to hazard a guess as to what it will be in 10 years. I quit planning a long time ago. Tomorrow will be the manifestation of all the decisions we make between now and then, and most of those decisions are spontaneous. In fact, most of them are simply an outgrowth of our own value base. If we stay true to our mission: to develop economically, emotionally, and environmentally enhancing prototypes and facilitate their duplication throughout the world, then hopefully our decisions will make us morph into whatever fits that mission.
We have no plans to grow, no plans to increase customers, and certainly no plans to trademark, patent, or any of the other things to which Wall-Streetified empires aspire. I know in 10 years I'll be 65. That's sobering. Ha! Perhaps we'll change the world by then. Wouldn't that be nice?