Ecocentric

Can Joel Salatin Save America’s Food?

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I have a profile of the self-described “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic” farmer Joel Salatin in this week’s TIME. Sadly it’s behind the pay moat, so only subscribers can access it, but for introduction’s sake, Salatin is a sustainable farmer who raises grass-fed cattle and “beyond organic” chickens, pigs and rabbits at Polyface Farms in rural Swoope, Virginia.

If you know Salatin’s name, you either live around Swoope and buy his products—he refuses to ship them, believing everyone should buy locally—or you’ve seen him in the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. or read about him in Michael Pollan’s seminal The Omnivore’s Dilemma. You might imagine that Salatin has politics similar to foodie stalwarts like Pollan or Mark Bittman, and that—beyond advocating that consumers buy more organic and sustainable food—he’d also want to see tougher government regulations of conventional agriculture, factory farming and food safety.

Except not, as I write:

In his new book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, the 54-year-old farmer-philosopher emerges as a true American throwback: an agrarian libertarian who wants both Food Inc. and Big Government out of his fields. He thinks the ills of America–unemployment, obesity, disaffected youth–can be cured by going back to the land and its values, a return to what he likes to call “normal.” It’s about better food, yes, but what Salatin is really calling for is responsibility: a declaration of independence from corporations and bureaucracy. He wants us to be full citizens of the food system, like the Jeffersonian citizen-farmers who founded the country. “I differ from most foodies because I don’t think factory farming should be regulated out of business,” says Salatin. “It’s up to people to step up and think responsibly about their food.”

Politically, Salatin really is a hardcore libertarian when it comes to food, and other issues. During the (very fun) time I spent with him—and in his writings—Salatin is at least as perturbed by what he calls the “food police” as he might be by the problems of conventional agriculture. Salatin believes that it is up to the individual consumer to learn about his or her food, get to know their farmer and make the informed choices needed to push the food industry in the right direction. In his throwback vision of the world, there’s very little room for government to forces changes on the food system.

That’s frankly a tall order for most consumers, harried as they are by their jobs and families, increasingly unable to make ends meet. But Salatin also thinks we should essentially stop moving around so much and relocalize our lives. That’s a pretty radical change, one that goes far, far beyond just shopping at Whole Foods. Salatin doesn’t just want to change your dinner plate—he wants to change the country.

Ultimately it’s not a change I can see happening—and certainly, it’s not one I can see applied to my own peripatetic, workaholic urban life. (Though maybe I could cut out the Playstation 3.) But I really enjoyed talking to Joel—and given the way things are turning out right now, with high unemployment and general unhappiness, maybe a radical change is just what we need.

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