Joel Salatin hates listening to farmers complain at the local coffee shop. He’s tired of economic doom and gloom casting heavy clouds over farmers’ fields. An agriculturalist with a motivational pitch, Salatin says it’s time for more farmers to love farming again.
Mr. Salatin, author of many books, including You Can Farm,Pastured Poultry Profit$, Salad Bar Beef, and Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, touts a new-old way of farming that’s earning him a living, both on his farm and on the speaking and book-signing circuits. He gave the opening address to a packed house of more than 600 people at the recent Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference in Gaylord.
Mr. Salatin, who raises livestock in Virginia, says farmers are “tired of being cogs in the international wheel,” growing food for bulk commodity buyers and on contract with corporations that are fast-food chains. It’s too often dusty, smelly, low-paying, completely unrewarding work.
His books’ titles reveal his philosophy: Use common sense and the elegance of nature to save money, make farming enjoyable, and humanely produce the high quality food that growing numbers of consumers say they want and are willing to pay for.
Salad Bar Beef? That means cattle raised on grass instead of purchased corn. Mr. Salatin moves his cows from one fenced-in part of his pasture to another, keeping each grassy area lush by not overgrazing it. Instead of using big pieces of costly equipment to spread expensive petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, he lets the cows spread their own manure around.
Holy Cows and Hog Heaven? Mr. Salatin allows his cows, chickens, and pigs to live as nature intended — healthily. No pumping them full of expensive antibiotics. Cows are herbivores; they thrive on grass, not corn or the animal body parts that factory farms have used to add protein to a diet that many experts connect to “mad cow” disease. So he lets them graze. And, since hogs are in heaven when they can root around with their snouts — Mr. Salatin lets them wander, too; their muddy munching breaks down poultry bedding into compost and also tills new land.
It is the industrial, global markets that dictate the low prices that hurt farmers and often cause them to adopt practices that crowd animals into cramped quarters and lace land with chemicals instead of teeming, microbial life. It’s no wonder, he says, that many farmers aren’t encouraging their children to take up farming. He is, though, and his kids have been actively involved on his farm, because Mr. Salatin cultivates local, not global, markets.
More Than a Mouthful
Mr. Salatin can talk at the speed of an auctioneer and with the cadence of a beat poet. Here’s how he described industrially produced food while speaking in Gaylord: “Archer Daniels Midland amalgamated, reconstituted, chlorinated, extruded, extracted, adulterated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, inhumane, globally transported, disrespected protoplasmic pseudo food.”
He scoffs at irradiation and other technological fixes for the industrial food system’s chronic contamination problems, like the manure waste that comes with factory farming’s cramped living conditions: “Well, at least we can eat clean poop.”
His voice rises as he ticks off the industrial farming practices that he says defy nature and common sense: “Ten thousand birds in a house is enough!”
He says the industrial food system’s cheap consumer prices come at a high cost: “We’ve taken the oldest, noblest vocation of humankind and desecrated it with a cheap food policy that dishonors the stewards of our natural resources.”
Signs of Life
Despite his unsparing critique of the status quo food system, Mr. Salatin ultimately delivers a deeply optimistic message. He sees signs everywhere that consumers are seeking fresh local food that is raised humanely and in a manner that protects the environment.
He points to the widespread growth of farmers markets throughout the country, which now attract 3 million customers and 74,000 farmers each weekend to buy and sell fresh produce. He adds that the number of community-supported agriculture farms — where consumers pay in advance for a season’s worth of a farm’s products — has skyrocketed: According to one account, there are now at least 1,700; there were just two known CSAs in 1986. Mr. Salatin also pointed to the dramatic growth the Chef’s Collaborative, a culinary organization that promotes local, seasonal, and artisan foods. (The collaborative now boasts 1,000 members, up from 22 in 1993.)
Consumers are galloping toward salad bar beef, holy cows, and hog heaven because they are alarmed at the potential for pathogens in the food supply, thanks to the “fecal soup” chickens live in at factory farms and the threat of mad cow disease, he says. And, just as profoundly, they also want food that tastes good because it was raised for flavor instead of for surviving long shipping distances or providing uniformly sized French fries. Mr. Salatin bestows on such discriminating customers a badge of honor; quoting business trend expert and author Faith Popcorn, he calls them “vigilante consumers.”
One burgeoning market for Mr. Salatin’s own livestock is suburban Washington, D.C.; he travels up to 200 miles from his farm once every six weeks to make deliveries to neighborhood buying clubs. He packs $10,000 worth of eggs, meat, and other products in coolers in a truck each trip and sells the precious cargo to 150 families. They order ahead of time and pick up their food at a pre-appointed drop-off site at someone’s house.
Chefs also love his products. They’re willing to pay $2 a dozen for his eggs instead of the 60 cents a dozen they pay for commercial eggs.
Worth Every Cent
One chef’s reaction shows why. When Mr. Salatin brought him a free dozen eggs to try, the chef cracked one egg into almost boiling water and said, “Wow! Look at that!” The egg yolk and egg whites held together solidly; usually, commercial eggs separate into messy, unattractive loose strands in water. One of the chef’s specialties was poached eggs, but he considered dropping it from the menu because he wasted so many of the commercial eggs, which just fell apart.
At another restaurant, a pastry chef found that when she switched to Mr. Salatin’s eggs she could make five cakes instead of four from a single batch of cake batter.
And in another story from a restaurant kitchen: The chef’s preparation cooks found they could cut up Mr. Salatin’s chickens all day without getting what they call “sore hand syndrome.” With commercial poultry, their hands ache as if they have arthritis after a couple hours of handling the birds’ juices, which contain residual manure and chemicals, he says.
Nonetheless, consumers accustomed to cheap food sometimes balk at his prices. One woman at a farmers market questioned $2 for a dozen eggs. She was holding a can of pop that Mr. Salatin pointed out cost at least 75 cents and was far less nutritious than just one of his eggs. Another farmer, who charges $15 a pound for lamb, carries with him a bag of commonly eaten candy bars that, when tallied up, cost $21 a pound. It helps consumers put things in perspective.
In addition to forging relationships with consumers, Mr. Salatin wants to get government off small farmers’ backs. Safety regulations written for processing livestock and dairy products are geared toward industrial farming with its problems of E. coli, salmonella,and other dangerous pathogens, he says. But the processing plants and equipment these regulations require are so expensive that there’s no way small farmers can afford them. He decries having to “wrap each t-bone steak in a $500,000 factory.”
If a farmer can cleanly process a small batch of chickens for neighbors in his kitchen, it shouldn’t matter that it wasn’t done in a big industrial facility, he says.
Similarly, in Michigan, a new state fee that finances the enforcement of Michigan’s water quality laws has threatened to close small poultry operations. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recently charged small farms that generate 150 gallons of wastewater a week the same $1,500 permit fee as large slaughterhouses that generate 2,000 gallons a day. The fee is now under review.
Mr. Salatin thinks such one-size-fits-all regulation is the biggest threat to entrepreneurial small and mid-sized farmers trying new farming and marketing methods to meet consumer demand.
All innovative, entrepreneurial ideas start out small, he argues. It’s after the initial creative and testing phase that entrepreneurs add capital investment, not before.
“The weakest link in developing entrepreneurial agriculture is a regulatory structure that is impossible for small growers,” he says. “Entrepreneurial embryos cannot be born. We need emancipation.”
Diane Conners, a veteran journalist who once managed a farmers market and raises her own ducks, coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s entrepreneurial agriculture program. Reach her at email@example.com.