Q&A With Joel Salatin: A Tree-Hugging, Christian, Libertarian Farmer

Alongside a recent trip to Polyface Farm, I had the chance to interview farmer Joel Salatin. He had much to say about faith, politics, environmental stewardship,  government regulation, and the best way to “feed the world.”

You resonate with the Christian right on economic freedom and regulation, but you also call yourself an environmentalist. What do you think about the way the Christian right engages, or does not engage, issues of environmental stewardship?

Interview with Joel Salatin

When Rush Limbaugh laughingly discharges his machine-gun into jungle monkeys or Sean Hannity disparages the notion of animal rights because the animals can’t write a constitution, Christians should be appalled at such an egocentric, disrespectful, sacreligious view toward life. […]

Nothing less than Christian authenticity is at stake when we cavalierly dismiss environmentalists as a bunch of tree-hugging idiots.  The fact that creationworshippers have taken the high moral ground of stewardship while the Creator worshippers have accepted the low moral ground of manipulators, dominators, and pillagers should be cause not for gaiety and jokes, but for deep repentance in sackcloth and ashes.

Isn’t it just like Satan to turn something as noble and righteous as creation stewardship—which includes nutrient density, animal respect and soil building—into a hippie, beaded, bearded, nut movement as perceived by Christians? What if our side had owned stewardship? What then? We’d own the high moral ground.

In your opinion, what is the number one way the agriculture industry is failing to steward the earth’s resources today?

The number one problem is carbon cycling. Some 80 percent of all material filling landfills in the U.S. is biodegradable biomass. The way God set things up, the Sun [obviously an interesting permutation on Son] provides all the energy for the whole program. Plants capture sun energy through photosynthesis and build carbon material. Out of 100, roughly 95 pounds of all plants is sun energy; only 5 pounds is soil.  In other words, the earth is supposed to be getting heavier and fatter every year.

This carbon drives the cycle of life, death, decomposition and regeneration. Everything living must die, and the deaths provide the fertilizer for the next generation. This life-death-decomposition-regeneration cycle is, of course, a beautiful picture of the spiritual regeneration that happens when we voluntarily die to self so that our sacrifice may live in others. Ultimately, to live is to die to self. Anyway, the idea that chemical fertilizers can replace this cycle strikes at the very basis of this creation truth and leads people to believe we can have life without death. A bag of chemical fertilizer has no life; a compost pile brims with life.

In a creation economy, therefore, the carbon cycle is fundamental to proper function, and by extension, to proper appreciation of spiritual law. That we have squandered life by burying it in landfills where it cannot be regenerated into anything is an assault not only on creation’s balance sheet, but also on the object lesson God intended to keep us apprised of—life’s value and death’s temporality (if it’s used correctly). To deny solar energy its rejuvenating capacity and substitute it with inert lifeless chemical material disrespects all parties to the plan. If all this buried material—which we’re still burying, by the way—had been and were currently used to feed the soil, it would drop our petroleum use some 25 percent and reduce the toxicity that is leaching from our landfills.

In your book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal,” you talk in great length about how ridiculous it is to have a state ban on the retail of raw milk. What is it about your Christian faith that drives your passion for food freedom?

The idea that each of us is an asset or liability to the state creates an economic imperative to deny risky behavior through patronage, like not vaccinating our kids, drinking raw milk, fertilizing with compost or choosing herbology over pharmaceuticals—you get the picture.  The bottom line is this: what good is it to have the freedom to worship, assemble or speak if we don’t have the freedom to choose the food (fuel) to feed our 3 trillion member internal bacterial community to give us the energy to go pray, preach and congregate?

One of the major criticisms you get from other farmers is that your farming model isn’t scalable. Some say it can’t “feed the world,” but you believe it’s the only system that really can feed the world. Why do you think industrial food is failing to feed the world? And do you think there could ever be a proper place for genetically-modified/conventional food in impoverished nations that need cheap food to survive and for whatever reason can’t implement your farm model?

First, the world is awash in food. Never in the history of civilization have we wasted this much food: roughly half of all human edible food is wasted. […] Nobody in the world is hungry because there isn’t enough food. If I could snap my fingers and double the world’s food production tomorrow, it would not change one single empty stomach. People go hungry due to socio-political things like: thugs holding Red Cross trucks at gunpoint, distribution issues, infrastructure (inadequate roads), ignorance (a farmer in Ontario landfilled 3 tractor trailers of butternut squash two years ago because the people at the food bank did not know how to cook butternut squash) and negligence.  Many people are overfed and undernourished. Today, the world has more obese people than starving people. Clearly, we have enough food.

Joel Salatin

Second, we’re ridiculously wasteful with land. The U.S. has 36 million acres of lawn and 35 million acres housing and feeding recreational horses. That’s 71 million acres, which is enough to feed the entire country without a single farm or ranch. Cornell completed a study a couple of years ago on abandoned farmland: 3.4 million acres of prime New York farmland was abandoned in 15 years. This is not developed land. It is not converted to strip malls, highways, or homes. It’s just abandoned—you can see it if you drive into upstate New York: mile after mile of early successional wilderness. What about interstate medians and the 40 acres gobbled up by the average interstate clover leaf? In Italy, these areas are planted with gardens. Solariums on houses, trellises, rooftops—we haven’t even scratched the surface in production.

Third, small farming is far more productive per square yard than large farming. Multi-speciation beats mono-speciation factory farming hands down. Western science is incapable of measuring highly complex, holistic systems. The research coming out of the United Nations and any other large accredited organization is prejudicially linear and therefore does not measure the full spectrum of assets or liabilities emanating from different production systems. The genetically-modified “golden rice” alleged to help Asians with blindness is a joke. You’d have to eat 10 pounds a day. It would be much better to eat the bok-choy and Chinese cabbage that historically grew around rice paddies, but which have now been killed with herbicides from America so the Chinese can become more efficient by producing only one crop. Why is it that Christians who have a spiritual and intuitive incredulity toward official governmental moral pronouncements are so gullible when it comes to everything else?

Fourth, you can’t food bank your way out of hunger. Civilizations must feed themselves. Fortunately, some of the societies suffering the greatest food security issues are blessed with extreme resource abundance. Through permaculture, symbiosis, synergism, holistic resource management, bio-intensive agriculture, foliars and a host of other high-tech, low-capital, informational-dense techniques, all of us can participate in the food system more efficiently than at any time in human history. The fact is, if we had had a Manhattan project for compost, not only would we have fed the world, but we would have done it without 3-legged salamanders, infertile frogs and a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico.

What is your general opinion about government programs and regulations intended to help our environment and the agricultural system?

Just because something good comes out of a program does not mean that same good could not have come out of something else. I do not believe that the U.S. would be technologically backward today had we not invested in NASA or public education. I believe the curiosity of the human mind and the creativity of entrepreneurism would discover and press the limits of understanding whether or not the government ever got involved.

I think we would still be better earth stewards or food producers, as farmers, had Abraham Lincoln never decided to put the government in the farming business. Farmers would have banded together to do research in their own private societies like the soil societies of early America. Herd genetics and breed improvements would have developed right along with advancements in other economic sectors. To say that the government is the only or even the best remediation of “something that ought to be done” is both myopic and disempowering to the collective strength of individuals who share a vision.

I’m often asked what I would do if I were named Secretary of Agriculture. My answer: “I’d shut the agency down tomorrow.” No government agency has been so successful in destroying its own constituency—look at the number of farmers today.

Most of the problems farmers have are caused by their endorsement and practice of recommendations coming from USDA. I eschewed feeding dead cows to cows for nearly four decades until the USDA’s greatest science was found to be in error. Our philosophy must be based on truth in order to protect us from the amoral vision of scientists. Today, I’m known as a bioterrorist for letting our chickens be out on pasture, proximate to red winged blackbirds and indigo buntings who may take our diseases to the USDA-sanctioned, science-based Tyson chicken houses and destroy the planet’s food supply. I’m not making this up.

This is why those folks can sit in their pews self-satisfied that they are protecting the world from people like me. But if they ever stopped to ask how a bird expresses its “birdness,” or a chicken its “chickenness,” do you think they would come up with a Tyson house? Really? Of course, on the other side, I infuriate my organic friends when I refuse to sign petitions for more government research into organics. The way I see it, we can compete very well, thank you very much, if the scales were not so unfairly tipped toward the creation-pillaging farming system. Take away the government involvement, give us a level playing field and free access to markets, and our side would roll right over the USDA-sanctioned corporate-industrial food complex.

*This interview was originally published on the Values & Capitalism blog.


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