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How America’s most famous farmer can appeal to left, right and center

Alternative farmer Joel Salatin runs Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va., where his methods and philosophy have won him followers from the left, center and right. (Greg Kahn/for The Washington Post)

There’s a uniform-cleaning service in Staunton, Va., where Joel Salatin buys his work shirts: castoffs marooned there by workers who’ve been fired or died or otherwise gone AWOL. Salatin gets them cheap, and he’s not picky. If it fits, fine, and so he answers the door on a Monday afternoon sporting the logo of George’s, a behemoth poultry corporation, embroidered above his left breast.

You’ve heard of Joel Salatin, right? The self-proclaimed heretic who runs Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley? The eco-friendly, avant-garde Old MacDonald featured in Michael Pollan’s 2006 bestseller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.”? The vociferous critic of industrial feedlots and petroleum-based monoculture? The one who slings blunt terms like “evil” when he’s talking about modern corporate agribusiness?

Sometimes he wears shirts repurposed from that evil system.

Such incongruity is entirely normal when it comes to Salatin, who has famously characterized himself as a “Christianconservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic.” And increasingly, it’s normal for the larger sustainable-food movement, of which Salatin is a prominent and admired leader.

Everybody eats, and the movement’s most basic tenets — food should benefit our health, farming should benefit our environment, food systems should be transparent — have wide appeal. From far left, far right and far out, the eaters have responded. Food politics runs deep purple. These are, quite literally, kitchen table issues.

Joel Salatin talks to visitors during Polyface Farm’s Field Day in July 2011. Close to 1,700 people came to learn more about his sustainable-farming methods. (Norm Shafer/For The Washington Post)

You’ll find Salatin, for example, giving the keynote address at such events as last fall’s Food Freedom Fest in Staunton. The event, heavy on the anti-regulatory, free market rhetoric of the American right, was hosted by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which exists to resist and roll back what it considers to be big government’s meddlesome and oppressive food safety regulations. Sample bumper sticker from the booth at the back of the room: “Keep The Government Off Our Farms!”

Soon thereafter, he’ll turn up at something like the Sustainable Agriculture Symposium in Idaho and pillory the idea — dear to many believers in the free market and American exceptionalism — that our farmers can, should and do feed the world. Sample quote from his speech: “This whole notion that I’m supposed to go out and turn my community into a toilet bowl, and kill all the earthworms, and make 200-pound chickens grow on a half a pound of feed to feed the world is asinine!” (The audience whooped, hollered and applauded in response, as Salatin’s audiences often do.)

Although specific events he attends might have different political flavors, the crowds there have become more and more kaleidoscopic. Salatin often looks out to see dreadlocks beside head coverings.

“The food issue is one of the best ones to free people from the false left-right dichotomy,” says John Moody, interim executive director of the Farm-to- Consumer Legal Defense Fund and founder of a food buying club in Louisville.

His club’s membership, Moody says, is a microcosm of food’s unifying power. Some members open-carry; others would probably scrap the Second Amendment if given half a chance. But they find common ground in their rejection of industrialized food, and they rally beneath Salatin’s flag.

“Big government and big business have a comfortable coexistence now,” says Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who caucuses with the Tea Party and has championed causes such as raw milk since taking office in 2012. “Joel Salatin is not afraid to take on either of those 800-pound gorillas.”

Salatin and his wife, Teresa, say a prayer before breakfast at the farm. (Greg Kahn/For The Washington Post)

Pollan, who remains a good friend of Salatin’s, calls him the most “influential farmer in the country right now.”

Much of the reason for that is the innovative methods Salatin has devised for raising cattle, pigs and poultry in symbiosis with one another and the pasture beneath them. Those methods have proved productive and profitable, and are based on mimicry of natural systems rather than constant chemical inputs.

“He’s also an evangelist,” says Pollan. “He shares whatever he’s figured out as widely as he can, both through his writing and his talking and his willingness to have journalists come hang out with him.”

In the early 1990s, when word first spread that an oddball farmer was doing something different and interesting on his farm, Salatin figures that at least three-quarters of the folks who paid him any mind were “liberal earth-muffin types.” Conservatives came later to the movement, Salatin says. These days, when the Polyface parking lot fills up, bumper-sticker politics are pretty much evenly split between earth-muffin stuff and slogans from the Don’t-Tread school of thought.

“This is a big-tent movement,” says Nicolette...


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