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Secrets of a Lunatic Farmer

  • A star of the sustainable agriculture movement offers words of wisdom from Virginia's rich Shenandoah Valley
    By Joe McCully
    The Register-Guard, Eugene OR, January 21, 2009
    Straight to the Source

The Shenandoah Valley has been producing superb livestock and rich crops since Colonial times. During the Civil War it was dubbed "the breadbasket of the Confederacy," and supplied Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Translated from Native American expression, Shenandoah means "beautiful daughter of the stars," and with the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west, it is aptly named.

This past summer, I drove through the Shenandoah Valley on my way to Staunton, Va., and Polyface Farm, made famous in Michael Pollan's best-seller, "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

Polyface Farm sits on 550 acres, of which 100 is open land, the rest wooded. The man in charge is Joel Salatin, self-described "lunatic farmer," and arguably the most outspoken opponent of the government's management and control of the food supply system in America.

My appointment is for 7:30 a.m., and Salatin has promised only a 30-minute interview. I'm with my son, who lives 50 miles away in Charlottesville. We arrive early and decide to wait in my son's truck. The main house is a large, white frame structure with a small swimming pool in front. A flock of turkeys, behind a fenced area, approach as I get out of the truck to stretch my legs.

A man comes out of the house and I recognize Salatin. After shaking hands he invites us into his retail area.

After reading Pollan's book I half-expected a crazed, extremely opinionated man who would offer up paranoid theories of government evils and advise everyone to stop shopping at Albertsons. Instead, I found a thoughtful, articulate proponent of free enterprise and local food production and consumption.

Salatin was a newspaper reporter in nearby Staunton before deciding to take up farming. I ask if he misses being a newspaper reporter. Salatin admits he always wanted to farm full time but thought the family farm would never make enough money to support the family.

"As it turned out, in 18 months we saved enough money to live for a year," he says, stretching out his long legs. "Today we only need to buy toilet paper and Kleenex, everything else we make here."

I ask Salatin what kind of farmer he is.

"I'm a lunatic farmer, that's my new catch phrase," he says with a grin. "I have a Ph.D. That stands for Post Hole Digger."

He explains that it means he does everything counter to industrial Wall Street and USDA structured stuff.

Salatin talks about his farm animals the same way someone would describe their pets.

"We like animals. We ask, 'Can the cow display its cowness?' " he says. "To the government, livestock are just a pile of inanimate protoplasm. Some may call it sissy farming, thinking this kind of farming is effeminate. We actually care if the cows are happy. This kind of farming is very sensitive."

Salatin describes Polyface Farm as a "grass-based livestock enterprise that direct-markets what we produce." When Pollan asked Salatin to FedEx him a steak and was turned down, it intrigued Pollan enough to decide to visit the farm. Salatin sells to local restaurants, farmers' markets, metropolitan buying clubs and directly from the farm. Drop-off locations for his buying clubs include communities within four hours or less driving time from the farm, what Salatin refers to as his "Bio Region."

As Pollan points out in his book, Salatin believes in relationship marketing: having the consumer and the farmer meeting and looking each other in the eye, guaranteeing integrity.

"We actually like people on the farm, we have transparency," he says.

And Salatin means it. The public is always welcome on the farm. In July he hosts an annual Field Day where the public can bring the family and enjoy a farm tour; seminars; a farm-grown, farm-cooked lunch; and even help out with the chores. Adults pay $90 (children $50) for the daylong tour, which always sells out early.

Pollan's book has had a major impact on Polyface Farm and Salatin's life. He says the book has given him a larger pulpit to speak from, and speak he does. Salatin's schedule during the course of a year includes two dozen appearances, including speaking engagements from Boone, N.C., to La Grande. His brand of fiery rhetoric resonates with the independent farmer. His speaking topics include: "A Disconnected Food System is Out of Joint," "Forgiveness Farming" and "Everything I Want to do is Illegal, Holy Cows and Hog Heaven." His "hassle fee," as Salatin calls his honorarium, is $3,500 plus expenses for nonprofits and $7,000 for corporate and for-profit business organizations.

"It's what it takes to get me off the farm," he says. "I've been a communicator all my life. I do enjoy it very much."

Salatin does not limit his communication skills to speaking. He has also authored six books, four of them how-to types. On his Web site, Salatin writes that his speaking and writing reflect dirt-under-the-fingernails experience punctuated with mischievous humor.

He says that everyone has the freedom to "opt out," a favorite phrase he uses to describe the freedom of choice people can exercise when buying locally from farmers instead of supporting the large, industrial farms, often located across the country and the world.

"The only reason the framers of the Bill of Rights did not include freedom of food choice along with the right to bear arms, worship and speech was that they couldn't conceive of the day when food would have to have a USDA sticker on it," he says.

As I look around the retail area, I notice at least 50 large plastic coolers stacked in the corner. Salatin explains that they ase used to transport pork, beef and chickens to the local restaurants and stores that feature Polyface Farm products. A number of restaurants in Charlottesville feature Polyface chickens and beef on their menus. Chipolte Restaurants, a 500-plus chain of Mexican restaurants, features Polyface pork at its Charlottesville location. However, don't expect to see his pork on the other 499 Chipolte Mexican Grill's menus. Salatin does not believe in empire building.

"We're trying to gracefully grow into a self-directed, entrepreneurial-style farm," he says. "Right now we are renting four other farms. The farm itself is experiencing a straight-line expansion, thanks to 'The Omnivore's Dilemma.' "

Faith is the cornerstone of Salatin's farming philosophy, and he makes no bones about it.

"We never make a sales target," he says. "Our benchmarks are based on the New Testament, not profit. Every day I pray to God to help me run the farm as he would."

Salatin's philosophy has generated many converts, and each year many men and women apply for a yearlong internship at Polyface. There is a two-year waiting list for applicants.

Corvallis farmer Tyler Jones was one of the lucky ones chosen to intern at Polyface, and Jones credits Salatin with transforming his life.

"I wouldn't be where I was today without the experience at Polyface," Jones says, describing his experience as intense. "Joel constantly thinks outside the box."

Jones admits Salatin can be very hard to work with, calling him a triple-Type A personality, but shares Salatin's vision of the future. "There is an agricultural revolution happening," says Jones, who like Salatin considers himself a grass farmer first.

"It will take hold. A lot of farmers realize they will go under without changing their ways."

As my interview with Salatin ends, I purchase a dozen eggs and ask where I can buy the chicken, since Polyface sells chickens only on Friday, after the birds are butchered. He gives us a list of local stores carrying his products and we depart to walk around the farm.

My son comments on the lack of insects, a sign of a well-maintained and clean farm. We spot the "eggmobile" in a distant, grassy field. The chickens become agitated as we approach, so we keep our distance. As each paddock becomes available, the portable chicken house is moved and the chickens revel in the new surroundings. The cattle departed days earlier but their manure has remained, giving the chickens the opportunity to eat the insect larvae and parasites left. The chickens enjoy the feast, providing the protein that makes their eggs unusually flavorful. A cycle of happy animals.

We discover the pigs, sunning themselves in the warm Virginia sun. They ignore us and we decide it's time to head home.

On the return trip we stop to buy a whole Polyface chicken at a local store. However, the sales clerk notices the tag on the chicken and refuses to sell it, explaining that the chicken is five days old and past its expiration date. She says that Polyface chicken is fabulous, but that we should find a fresher bird.

At another store we find a fresher chicken and we hurry home. I roast it simply, basting often with the juices. My son and I enjoy the tender, moist meat. The flavor is intense. The next morning I scramble the eggs and fry some of Polyface's bacon, which is cured on the farm.

Salatin boasted that when restaurant chefs try his eggs they always become customers, and I can see why. The eggs tasted fresher and creamier than any eggs I've ever eaten. Only fresh eggs from a friend's farm on Lopez Island in Puget Sound came close to these in flavor. As Salatin says, "My eggs just jump up and slap you in the face."

It's easy to forget how wonderful local, fresh foods taste; easy to forget peaches are seasonal when we can purchase them year-round. Salatin may be labeled a character, a food preacher or even a lunatic farmer; however, he represents something much greater. The mission statement of Polyface Farm says it best: "To develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world."

Joe McCully is a faculty instructor in the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Department at Lane Community College.

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