Celeb farmer Joel Salatin talks sustainable farming

One cannot talk about sustainable farming without mentioning the name Joel Salatin. Laboring on Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, this third-generation farmer has become a model for sustainable growing practices. A pioneer in environmentally-friendly food production since returning to his family’s farm in 1982, Salatin landed on the national radar in 2006 when he was profiled in Michael Pollan’s bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Two years later, Americans got to peer inside Salatin’s farm when it was featured in Food, Inc., a documentary that explores the state of the food industry.

On Mon., Oct. 5, Salatin gave a lecture at Pace Academy in Buckhead during which he offered commentary and practical knowledge about food production. The AJC caught up with Salatin to hear what’s on the mind of one of the most influential farmers in America today.

Since Michael Pollan wrote about your farm in 2006, have things changed for the better in food production?

Yes and no. Farmers markets, CSAs, online – electronic aggregation with online shopping carts where food is stored on the farm and picked up each week – these are extremely exciting developments. On the downside, we’re seeing increasingly burdensome regulations. Artisanal cheesemongers shut down because cheese has bacteria. It’s good bacteria! When the FDA shuts it down, you’re into Velveeta. Velveeta isn’t really food – it’s a food-like substance. Rules against raw milk, backyard chickens. That is disheartening, especially with the burgeoning interest in integrity foods.

What progressive farming techniques are you experimenting with right now?

We have finally put together enough ponds to be able to irrigate in the summertime during drought. The best irrigation for a pasture livestock system (Israel leads the world in drip irrigation, but that technology does not work for pasture.) – New Zealanders developed the K-line irrigation system. It’s a portable, modular, low-capital deal. We started that two years ago and expanded substantially this year. Secondly, we are borrowing from Colin Seis, an alternative-ag hero in Australia. He developed a system called pasture cropping. He married holistic livestock with cropping, using animals rather than herbicides and fertilizers to create a short-term cropping system to get an annual to grow in a perennial pasture. We are growing summer annuals like cowpeas and grazing it with animals, but the annuals, because of their growth physiology, grow rapidly when perennials are taking a summer break.

How do you get young people to care about food issues?

My approach is the self-protection that comes from knowing about your food. Childhood leukemia, obesity, autism – This is not normal stuff. If you want to be healthy, you need to be aware of this amazing, wonderful choreography of soil and visceral physical activity. If you don’t care, you’re going to find yourself used and abused by a shortsighted fraternity that thumbs their nose at nature and thinks the answer to everything is more drugs and surgery and that you falling into the “unhealthy” category is simply inevitable. It’s not. The answer is informational empowerment. That comes from participation, interest, experience. Get in the kitchen, scratch cook, go to farmers markets.

You’re the author of nine books. Is another in the works?

Yes. The release date is May 1, 2016. The title is Pigness of Pigs. I call this my “coming out” book. Generally, the Christian part of that has been fairly covert but I’m embarrassed by the seeming unconcern from the faith community regarding environmental care, food quality and animal care issues. I figure since I am one (Christian), know the language and have the background, who better to challenge my own community on these issues?

Did you ever think that you’d rise to celebrity status among food advocates?

Not in a million years. We just wanted to farm. But I think it’s time we had some celebrity farmers. We had our first visit last week from the Make-A-Wish Foundation: a 15-year-old boy. His wish? To spend a day at Polyface. We were brought to tears appreciating that we were his hero. We took it as a huge complement.

“An Evening with Joel Salatin” will be held Mon., Oct. 5 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Pace Academy. It will take place in the Knights Hall, located on the fifth floor of Pace Academy’s Garcia Family Middle School. Follow signs for event parking. Pace Academy is located at 966 W. Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta, GA 30327. The event is free and open to the public. More information is available here .


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About the Author

Ligaya Figueras
Ligaya Figueras
Ligaya Figueras joined the AJC as its food and dining editor in 2015.