Category: Real Food

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.

Tree-Hugging, the Christian Right, & Joel Salatin

Alongside a recent trip to Polyface Farm, I had the chance to interview farmer Joel Salatin. He had much to say about faith, politics and environmental stewardship.

You resonate with the Christian right on economic freedom and deregulation, 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?

Seeking the peace and prosperity of the farm

On Monday, October 7th, I drove south through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with three of my colleagues for an interview and farm tour with Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm. If you aren’t familiar with Salatin, he may be the most tree-hugging libertarian you’ll ever come across. He’s also a self-proclaimed Christian and lunatic farmer.

After filming an interview with him in his living room, Salatin graciously offered to cook us omelets with free-range eggs and raw milk fresh off the farm.

As he was beating the eggs, he told us he grew up on Mother Earth News and FEE, which explains his “libertarian-environmentalism.” He wishes everyone would be more considerate of earthworms, but he also wishes the USDA didn’t exist. Politicos in Washington may find this odd, but as a Christian, Salatin doesn’t see his passions as conflicting:

Truth is truth, and it all lines up across all spectrums:  ecology, economy, theology, society. […] Dualism has no place in the Christian credo.

Everything is interwoven in God’s great design. Salatin says his personal mission statement is “to develop emotionally, economically, and environmentally enhancing agricultural prototypes and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.”

IFWE staff at Polyface Farm

All of the work he does in relation to his farm—whether it’s building ponds to mitigate drought and flooding or fighting to reduce agricultural regulation in Richmond—falls under the umbrella of “stewardship:”

I want to caress creation as a loving steward, knowing that such an attitude and action helps me understand everything: death before life; Jesus’ parables; redemption; the New Earth.

But he laments that many Christians today don’t live integrated lives:

The fact that most Christians can quote John 3:16 but in every other area have more interest in the world’s agenda than God’s agenda should give us pause.

Salatin—who passionately distinguishes himself as a creator worshipper and not a creation worshipper as he believes many radical environmentalists are—thinks it’s a shame that caring for the environment is associated exclusively with the left. If we truly want to be good stewards to all of life, Salatin believes dedication to creational healing and wellness is a moral imperative for all Christians.

My conversations with Joel reminded me of Jeremiah 29 when the prophet Jeremiah writes a letter to the Israelites illustrating how they are to live in Babylon during exile:

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

The word used for peace is the Hebrew word “shalom,” which Cornelius Plantinga defines as:

[…] universal flourishing, wholeness and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

As Christians, we are all called to seek the peace and prosperity of our community. We are called to pursue shalom. And one of the tools God has given us to heal the world is our work.

Salatin’s life is a quintessential example of “work as shalom” in the way he respects the “pigness of pigs,” understands the profit-and-loss system in creation, and defends our food system from “the food police.” He builds forgiveness into his farm through sacrificial devotion to transforming hurting landscapes into beautiful, productive areas.

Salatin says this physical picture of redemption on his farm  has an important spiritual lesson:

Redeeming the earth puts flesh and practicality around the theological concept of redeeming the soul.

We sat on stacks of hay, our feet dangling over the edge of a wagon as we weaved through 500 acres of green pasture with Joel as our guide. He proudly showed us his chickens, pigs, and cattle, beaming as he explained how he cares for his animals and his land. My boss turned to me and said, “This is what it looks like to reweave shalom.”

*This article was originally published at the Values & Capitalism blog.

Joel Salatin on Economics, the Environment, and God

Economists and environmentalists generally stand on opposite sides of the aisle in Washington. But one of the most fascinating lessons to learn from Virginia farmer Joel Salatin is how to apply theology to the environment and economics to see both as inseparable and in need of each other.

Why do you think so many Christians don’t care about economics?

Our Greco-Roman, Western, linear, reductionist, systematized, compartmentalized, segregated, linear parts-oriented approach loves separate boxes. We put theology in one, economy in another, ecology in another, and so on. This is patently unbiblical; every thought and every action is to be brought under the authority of God. For too long, the Augustinian idea of spiritual goodness and physical badness has allowed us to escape the relatedness of things—which, by the way, you don’t find in Eastern thought, where everything is about holism, oneness, community, and we’re all relatives. Israelites are Easterners, just for the record.

Why should Christians care about economics?

Truth is truth, and it all lines up across all spectrums: ecology, economy, theology, society.

Why should Christians care about economic freedom?

Freedom is freedom. You can’t have a religiously free society without freedom in other areas…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 [ourselves] to give us the energy to go pray, preach, and congregate?

In an interview you said “Amoral, unbalanced capitalism is no better than amoral, unbalanced communism.” What did you mean by this?

Amoral anything is without constraint, and in the end, freedom without constraint is just as tyrannical as socialism without constraint…Giving Monsanto everything they want is just as culturally devastating as giving the poor everything they want.

What about your Christian faith has influenced the way you interact with the environment?

I believe the environment is better with a righteous human touch. The human touch can bring on sickness or wellness; knowing the difference and doing more of the latter is a good thing. I want to caress creation as a loving steward, knowing that such an attitude and action helps me understand everything: death before life; Jesus’ parables; redemption; the new earth.

Why do you think there is such a perceived division between the economy and the environment in politics and in our culture today?

First, the Augustinian notion that the physical universe is bad and the spiritual is good (I know that’s oversimplifying, but that helps make the point) created a lethargic interest in creation stewardship. Second, an inordinate importance on other-worldly thinking—after all, it’s all going to burn up anyway—gave an excuse to abdicate our visceral responsibilities to creation. Third, the modern environmental movement grew out of the pantheistic writings of romanticism into creation-worshipping and finally the hippie movement of the 1970s. Christians, unfortunately, found it much easier to lump environmentalists into anti-capitalist, anti-American commies than to wrestle with thornier questions like whether pesticides that make infertile frogs and 3-legged salamanders really glorify God. Out of this political context came the universal principle that what was good for the environment was bad for Wall Street, and what was good for Wall Street didn’t damage the ecology irreparably.

What paradigm shift needs to happen in our culture to erase the division between economics and the environment?

The paradigm shift for this to change is for Christians to realize that creation has a profit and loss statement just like Wall Street. Furthermore, the invisibles—like the 50 billion bacteria in a handful of healthy soil or the 3 trillion bacteria in the human gut—are more foundational than the visible. In other words, what the business plan does to earthworms, soil, and water is as important as what the business plan does for jobs and return on investment. Even a good idea or good service potential must be balanced with its effect on the greater invisible life community surround us.

How should Christians view the connection between economics and the environment from a theological perspective?

Christians should understand that without a functioning ecology, you don’t have an economy. Ultimately no civilization can be healthier than its soil and no people can be healthier than the food they eat. With each mouthful of food and each touch of the earth we are creating the landscape our children will inherit. We’re also describing, one action and attitude at a time, our view of God’s creation. Are we first seeking to understand creation’s patterns rather than first seeing what we can manipulate? Are we first seeking to understand what make the human body as the temple of the Holy Ghost healthy and functional rather than what can be ingested so cheaply that we can put more money in the offering plate for missions?

Tensions between economic productivity and environmental integrity persist in Washington, but not at Polyface Farm, according to Salatin:

On our farm, we’ve found that when we function with ecological integrity, we also function with economic integrity. The only tension between the two is created when we take short-term views. If we take long-term views, then the tensions vanish.

Salatin’s long-term, eternal vision of work drives him to respect the earth and steward his resources, which allows him to run a more productive business.

*This interview was originally published at the Creativity. Purpose. Freedom. blog. 

Forgiveness Farming

Here’s part 2 of 3 of my interview with Joel Salatin. Can’t get enough of this fella!

My dad used to always admonish us: “Remember, machines don’t forgive.” – Joel Salatin

Inanimate things—objects, systems, social structures—are not forgiving. If you mishandle a chainsaw, says Salatin,

[I]t can cut your arm off and no amount of apologies to the chain saw for mishandling it will make it remorseful. It’s inanimate, inert, a pile of unfeeling, uncaring metal and plastic.

That’s the difference between the living and the non-living: inanimate objects cannot forgive, but living things are created to forgive. Salatin further explains this concept:

Any living thing, plant or animal, can be abused or mishandled. If we show enough remorse and ask enough forgiveness, healing will set in and things can be made right. That’s the fundamental difference between the biological and mechanical world.

Salatin believes physical principles should show what we don’t see spiritually. This means creation can reveal a lesson of spiritual truth and vice versa, even in forgiveness.

Convicted that his work as a farmer should somehow reflect Christ’s forgiveness, Salatin implements a model of “forgiveness farming.”

How do you develop a forgiving farm? Salatin summarizes seven different ways:

Eliminate Flooding and Drought

“Nature is not always kind. Floods and droughts come as part of creation’s fallen condition. Our job as stewards is to massage the landscape so that when these assaults come, it is more resilient, more forgiving. On our farm, we have built and continue to build many ponds to hold surface runoff that floods the downstream neighbors, and hold it for slow release during a drought to maintain springs and creeks, again to help our neighbors downstream.”

Build Soil

“Fertile, rich soil is the basis for all productive plant life. The story of civilization and agriculture is the story of desertification and erosion, unfortunately. But with perennials, predators, and herbivores, God’s design builds soil. Mimicking that design through an herbivore-perennial base using electric fencing as a predator, we can actually better duplicate the soil-building patterns so that the human footprint builds soil rather than depleting it. That’s fundamentally healing rather than sickening.”

Maintain Symbiotic Order Through Relationships

“God has orders of church government, civil government, gifts and talents—lots of permutations on order and relationship. A farm that exemplifies this principle, therefore, should have an intricately-choreographed dance of multi-speciation rather than growing only a single crop or simplified corn-bean rotation.”

Recognize the Pigness of Pigs

“If we’re going to respect the unique gifts and talents of human beings, we start by respecting the physiological distinctiveness of the plants and animals. It’s how we respect and honor the least of these that creates an ethical framework in which we honor the greatest of these. That means our farm provides each plant and animal a habitat that enables it to fully express its gifts—like the ‘pigness’ of pigs. That certainly means we do not feed dead cows to cows, and we don’t lock animals in concentrated confinement factories. Animals are free to move, to express their individuality, and to eat a diet they were designed to eat. They aren’t machines; they are biological life.”

Be Sun-Driven

“The energy source for the farm is the sun, preferably in real time. Clearly, God intended that the land would become more and more productive under proper stewardship. He gave the Israelites a clearly-marked boundary called the Promised Land, and then told them to be fruitful and multiply. This was before petroleum, chemical fertilizer, Faber-Bosch, pesticides, herbicides, and genetic modification. Our farm, then, leverages the carbon cycle for fertility and energy rather than chemicals and petroleum. Just like we’re supposed to be Son-driven spiritually, our farms should be sun-driven physically.”

You Cannot Have Life Without Death

“Perhaps one of the biggest travesties of the chemical fertilizer industry is to encourage the notion that life can spring from inanimate products, that life does not require sacrifice. The foundation of all ecology is the cycle of life, death, decomposition, and regeneration. A farm without a compost pile is a farm without a demonstration of that fundamental physical principle, which is a basic spiritual principle. Sacrifice precedes life. If you want to fully live, you die to yourself, to your spouse, to your classmates.

Disturbance creates succession. We live in a time of environmentalism by abandonment. To many, the environment is too sacred and special to be touched by human breath. But in fact, all innovation requires disturbance. All change requires disturbance. Repentance is disturbing, but it’s the precursor to spiritual growth. Disturbing the landscape–temporarily–to move it to a better state is one of our human mandates. Our big brains and opposing thumbs are not bestowed on us to make us more efficient pillagers of creation, but rather to massage this ecological womb so that it can be more productive and beautiful than it would be if left in a static state. That is our mission.”

Redemptive Work

Salatin is driven by his God-given calling to understand the intricacies of creation in order to steward all of the resources that God has given him. His faith motivated him not only to work more productively, but also redemptively. He says,

Part of our redemptive imperative is to extend our spiritual forgiveness to the physical universe around us, to show through physically healing our soil, air, and water the incredible capacity of a loving caress and sacrificial devotion to turn hurting landscapes into beautiful, productive areas.

Salatin passionately believes that his work in redeeming the earth with his gifts and talents puts flesh and practicality around the theological concept of Christ redeeming the soul.

Want to see what God can do for a person? Come and see our farm, and I’ll show you what God can do.

Next week, in the final part of my interview series with Joel Salatin, he will explore tensions between economic, environmental, and theological principles.

*This interview was originally published at the Creativity. Purpose. Freedom. blog.

Joel Salatin, farmer and undercover theologian

Joel-Salatin-1

I first stumbled upon Joel Salatin a couple years ago while I was caught in a Netflix vortex of (trendy) food documentaries. He is featured in the infamous Food Inc., and whatever he said drove me to perform an extensive Google search on his name.

After discovering his farm, Polyface Farm, is located just outside my college town of Harrisonburg, VA and that he refers to himself as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer,” I was hopelessly fascinated.

I followed up in my fascination by reading his book Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal, which only fed the fan girl inside me. I decided I must meet this man.

This past May, his name came up in a small group meeting when we were discussing theological stewardship. It was then that I discovered one of the girls had an extra ticket to a sold out Salatin speaking event nearby. Divine intervention.

I showed up at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market on May 29th with 49 others to see Salatin give a lecture of forgiveness farming. I am proud to say that the slightly-nervous fan girl within mustered up the courage to approach him afterwards and ask him for an interview for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog. And to my flattery, he generously accepted.

Here is part 1 of 3 of my interview with Joel Salatin:

Speaker, writer, and full-time farmer Joel Salatin is one of the most well-known leaders for the local and organic food movement. He has been featured on ABC World News, the award-winning documentary Food Inc., and the New York Times bestseller Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Known for combining humor with common sense, this Virginia farmer brings hands-on experience and expertise to topics covering best farming practices, ecology, environment, and agriculture regulation.

One interesting thing about Salatin that not many people know about is how strongly his convictions as a farmer stem from strong convictions in his Christian faith. He calls himself a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer,” and he brings a unique perspective to his work in the agriculture industry by viewing both his work and the industry through a theological lens.

Last month, I had the opportunity to meet Salatin at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market in Richmond, where Salatin gave a lecture on “forgiveness farming.” He was gracious enough to participate in a three-part interview series for our blog.

I first asked Salatin the question about which I was most curious: What is the number one way your Christian faith informs the “libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic farmer” in you? The answer comes easy to him: theology of creation. He said:

Creation is an object lesson of spiritual truth. In other words, the way God set things up, physical principles should show, viscerally, what we don’t see spiritually.

Salatin’s faith informs his understanding of creation. Not only has God designed creation to function in an ordered way, but creation is a physical reflection of spiritual truth. To Salatin, this means that creation is redeemable. Our role is to steward God’s creation and participate in Christ’s redemptive narrative of the earth.

Salatin is driven by several principles, which he says are not necessarily in any order:

  1. Healing the earth serves as a fundamental object lesson of God’s healing of our spiritual condition.
  2. Adhere to God’s nature patterns as an indicator of humility and obedience to his plan.
  3. Embrace physical stewardship as a visceral template for how far God’s redemptive capacity stretches.
  4. Appreciate the holistic capacity of life; that sacred and secular, spiritual and physical co-mingle.
  5. Express faithfulness to my King in ambassadorship, to receive the commendation: “Well done, thou Good and faithful servant.
  6. Empower others to become entrepreneurial agrarians with multi-generational family businesses.

His deep understanding of creation theology and holistic stewardship affects every aspect of his farming, from what he feeds his cows to how he distributes his eggs. His faith also influences how he views his overall God-given calling:

My mission statement [is] to develop emotionally, economically, and environmentally enhancing agricultural prototypes and facilitate their duplication throughout the world. Just like James Dobson sees the family in every Bible verse and Larry Burkett saw economics in every Bible verse, I see ecology in every verse.

God gave Salatin a unique gift to understand his pattern and order in creation. As a farmer of faith, he is dedicated to holistic stewardship in order to heal creation for a higher purpose:

Every day I pray, ‘Lord, let me operate this farm exactly like you would if you were here in person.’ It’s a ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ situation, realizing that the land is holy; indeed, all of creation can be sanctified by our interaction with it.

Salatin’s work serves as a living example of man interacting with creation in the way that God intended so that humanity might flourish.

Next week, in part 2 of 3 of this interview series, Salatin will elaborate on what it means to redeem creation on a farm, with a method which he calls “forgiveness farming.”

*This article was originally published at the Creativity. Purpose. Freedom. blog.

Parts 2 and 3 are on the way!

Bureaucracy & the Farm Bill: FRIENDS

During the summer of 2011, I worked on a policy project for my internship on the 2012 Farm Bill. But it’s now 2013, and that “2012” Farm Bill is still just a poor little bill sitting there on Capitol Hill.

Let’s take a blast into the past for context. This is an op-ed I wrote on the 2012 Farm Bill that was originally published in the Detroit News on August 16th, 2011.

Earlier this month, Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow appeared before a Washington meeting of the American Soybean Association and lamented how ongoing budget negotiations were making it “incredibly difficult” to maintain a proper level of “risk management protection” for farmers.

Translation: Federal farm subsidies are for the first time in a long time on the chopping block.

From 1995-2010, Michigan farmers received $4.35 billion in subsidies. Though meant to support the incomes of farmers and promote rural economic growth, subsidies are making rich Michigan farmers richer because payments don’t usually end up where they are most needed. The top 10 percent of recipients receives 71 percent of the payments in the state of Michigan. Instead of helping those most in need, farm payments are just another failed government welfare program.

There is no doubt that farming is a difficult, volatile business filled with risk and uncertainty, but so are many other successful industries that do not receive any government hand outs. Farmers receiving payments should be careful not to view the government as a savior, who will reduce risk, create certainty and save the day if something bad happens. This is a dangerously dependent position to be in, and it is morally problematic when it comes at the expense of everyone else.

Stabenow, chairman of the U.S Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, conceded to the soybean farmers that “it’s wonderful that farming is prosperous now.” But she pointed to droughts in the South and the floods in the Midwest as proof that “you still face the same risk that farmers have always to deal with. Some agribusiness get paid seven digits to not farm areas of their farm in the name of “risk management” but what entrepreneurs don’t take risks?

The glaring injustices built into farm subsidy policies explain why so many on both the political right and left routinely describe them as immoral. Subsidies reward large commercial enterprises — in good times and bad — and shut out small farmers. Subsidies also drive up the cost of food for the poor and working families domestically and across the globe. Now considered by some to be America’s largest corporate welfare program, it is obvious that the government has failed to meet its original goals.

Rural communities dependent on farming seem to have the long end of the stick, but this isn’t true. According to an Iowa State University study, the most highly subsidized areas in the United States are seeing little to no economic growth. In counties where farm payments are the biggest share of income, job creation is very weak. This can possibly be attributed to highly subsidized agribusiness buy outs of family farms. Because farm payments often encourage overproduction and consolidation of agribusinesses, the price of land is inflated, which makes it very difficult for would-be farmers to enter the market. Rather than giving them a fair opportunity, subsidies undermine the entrepreneurial spirit of young domestic farmers. It is ironic that farm payments are intended to foster growth but instead they appear to be linked with subpar economic performance.

Not only has U.S. farm policy failed to create growth at home, but its unintended consequences have rippled across the globe. Commodity price supports, export subsidies and tariffs drive commodity prices below the world price, which makes it difficult for foreign countries to compete. Surpluses of overproduced U.S. crops are dumped on the international market at prices well below the cost of production, creating even more price volatility. Iowa farmer Mark W. Leonard, in a 2006 Wall Street Journal interview, described how he brought a farmer from Mali to talk to local church gatherings about the adverse effects of subsidies. “From a Christian standpoint, what it is doing to Africa tugs at your heartstrings,” he said. Many poor nations have few other options outside of subsistence farming. Subsidies keep poor nations poor and dependent on developed countries. The bottom line is that the large, commercial farmers win and everyone else loses.

Agricultural subsidies make little economic sense and they display many of the problems that characterize other large welfare programs: injustice, dependency and a slew of unintended consequences. But, good news might be just around the corner. With debt and budget negotiations in gridlock in Washington, and a growing consensus that federal spending at current levels is unsustainable, political support for farm subsidies is waning fast. What’s more, high crop prices and clear injustices are building bipartisan support for significantly cutting agricultural subsidies in the 2012 Farm Bill. This is good news for Michigan, not a problem like Stabenow claims.

It’s been almost two years since I wrote this and still, no Farm Bill. But the bureaucracy of the legislative process that we love to hate so much will help us this time. Stalling for an extra year has allowed a few things to marinade in the minds of lawmakers and hill staffers:

1. Farmers have been doing pretty well for themselves. It turns out that 2011 was a great year for farmers. The ag industry recorded one of its highest profits ever amid the Great Recession. 2012 was also a relatively good year to be a farmer, despite the drought.

2. Something’s gotta give. The past two years in Washington have been defined by budget gridlocks, debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs, and sequestrations. Congress is desperate now more than ever to cut spending anywhere they can afford, without much backlash from their constituents.

It’s taken time, but it seems like lawmakers are finally realizing that throwing dollar bills at our farmers, who are already making big cash on their crops, might not be the best way to steward taxpayer money given the federal government’s current debt crisis. As a result, crop insurance and food stamps–two of the more popular forms of subsidies included in the Farm Bill–are projected to see huge cuts this cycle. I ne’er thought I’d see the day!

And these cuts are good for everyone, even the ag industry. But that’s another subject for another blog post, so I’ll defer to Joel Salatin on that one.

So, the past two years have definitely provided fertile ground for farm subsidy cuts, and legislators get this, but all progress is all relative on the Hill…

2002 Farm Bill: $588 billion
2008 Farm Bill: $913 billion
“2012” Farm Bill: probably over 1 trillion

Perhaps I’m counting my chickens before they’ve hatched.

The Senate is closing in on a final vote to end the debate this week (or maybe next week) so I guess we’ll find out what happens in the next few months (or year). In the meantime, a message to all my anti-subsidy politicos and thought leaders: let’s make hay while the sun shines.