Joel Salatin: The Lunatic Farmer

Through the Looking Glass by Zachary Smith //

The Lunatic Farmer by Joel Salatin //

After a brief introduction, a beyond middle-aged, balding man wearing glasses, a blue suit, a white shirt, and a maroon tie is accompanied to a podium by applause from the crowd. He has been invited to give a lengthy speech to the employees of a Fortune 500 company. His appearance and presence gives the impression that he may be a business executive providing knowledge on how to improve Google’s business model. Right away he appears to be a witty, charismatic, and articulate gesticulator. This orator opens by explaining that it took him ten minutes to get out of the hotel parking lot because his keycard wouldn’t work. He then states that this is no surprise because he has “anti-technology karma - but I sure can make dancing earthworms (video).” At this point, a late arriving uninformed spectator may become confused. Earthworms? This man isn’t what he seems. He is not a CEO of a multi-national corporation, but instead is a farmer that can usually be found wearing his wide suspenders and cowboy hat. Wait a minute, aren’t farmers supposed to be low-brow, uneducated, simple, inarticulate rednecks? Not Joel Salatin. Being just the opposite, he is helping to bury antiquated ideas and prejudices in the world of animal husbandry.  
“I am first and foremost a farmer, but not a very ordinary farmer. In fact, I’m known as a Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic (sic) (Salatin).” This self-analyzing proclamation is how Joel Salatin proudly describes himself. However, this statement, even though quite inclusive, doesn’t sum up Joel or his talents. What really makes Joel worth profiling? He is fascinating because he is a rebellious, modern renaissance man that owns and manages a business that is both a throwback and revolutionary.  
Joel is the primary owner of Polyface Farm, which is a family run business found in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley Virginia. The four generations of the Salatin family define their operation as “a diversified, grass-based, beyond organic, direct marketing farm (Salatin).” The once dilapidated property was purchased in 1961 by Joel’s parents and now boasts over a million dollars in annual sales through growing and selling pioneering products such as “salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, pastured poultry and eggs, forage based rabbits, and forestry products (Salatin).” 
Joel always wanted to be a farmer and even tried his hand at raising rabbits and selling eggs when he was a boy, but became disillusioned because he felt that he could never make a living at it. Even his parents needed jobs outside of the farm to make ends meet. This drove a youthful Joel off of the farm and into college where he studied another passion, English. After he completed an undergraduate degree from Bob Jones University (a fundamentalist Christian school) he took a job at The News Leader as a writer. However, after only a short time he grew tired of having his stories spiked and decided to return home to try farming full-time. The early years on the farm were difficult for Joel and his wife Teresa, but soon Joel’s nature-inspired farming innovations began paying off and the business became more profitable. 
Today, Joel stands out from the crowd of family farmers because of his ability to create a synergy between nature and modern ingenuity; his extremely unusual ideas regarding marketing methods; the kindness he shows to his animals; in how his beliefs and values add to the health of the land he stewards; and his ability to articulate and spread his beliefs, ideals, and message to the rest of the world. Salatin may be crazy, but he is crazy like a fox.
From a very young age Joel had a knack for observing cooperative relationships in nature and creating methods to enhance these collaborations instead of working against them. When raising rabbits, at the age of eight, he creatively built the rabbit pens above chicken coupes. The falling rabbit droppings would be scratched by the birds into usable compost. Joel has expanded his inventions to create a farm that works with and uses the natural abilities of the plants and animals to fashion an interlocking system that is self-sustaining and improves the health of the livestock, land, and meat produced. The cows graze upon the natural multi-variety grasses (which Joel calls the “salad bar”) in a patch of pasture for only one day before being herded to a new area by mobile electric fences. Once the area is clear of bovines, “eggmobiles” (portable coops) are moved in and laying hens are allowed to peck for insects, scratch the dung and earth, and add their dropping for exactly one day. These techniques rejuvenate the grasses, fertilize and rebuild the topsoil naturally, and make the earthworms dance. 
Pigs and cows also serve as bio-machines on Polyface Farm. The cattle winter on spacious straw beds where they add their waste throughout the season. Periodically corn and woodchips (which are gathered from the property) are added to the bedding which serves to keep the bovines warm and content. In the spring, pigs, which have spent the warmer months happily rooting around in the farms woodlands, now replace the cows in the barns. The sows (which Joel calls “pig-aerators”) dig for the fermented corn which creates a wonderful, purely natural compost that is used upon the fields. Joel feels that nature’s products are better than any man-made substances and he really likes “technology that allows us to do better what nature does itself (Purdum).” Salatin strives to make his innovations as low-tech and simple as possible while remaining highly effective. 
In keeping with his pioneering model, Joel’s farm never ships anything. Instead, it “direct markets everything it produces to a customer base that numbers 2,000 families, 25 restaurants, and 10 retail outlets (Salatin).” The Salatins believe strongly that farm products should be marketed and purchased locally. They want their local patrons to really know them and their methods. Anyone, including those purchasing their products, is able to tour or film any corner of the facilities at any time. The owners are proud of the operation they have refurbished and have no secrets. Visitors are even encouraged to assist with the slaughter of the chickens and turkeys, which takes place out in the open air, so that they can gain a better appreciation for their food and the lives that are given to provide that resource. 
At Polyface, animals have value that goes beyond the monetary and are allowed fresh air and space in which they can express themselves. Joel believes that animals should live as God intended and that pigs should be able to enjoy their “piggyness.” Joel believes that the industrial farming model has eradicated our ability to see the interconnected relationships in nature and has reduced living creatures to the level of lifeless objects for our disposal and that this model harms the animals, the land, the ecosystem, and ultimately the consumer. However, Salatin is not delusional regarding the purpose of his livestock and by no means sees them as pets or believes that they should be humanized in any way. He is a capitalist that is out to make money, but to him animals are simply life which has been gifted by God and are a valuable part of this world, which, in his opinion, deserve reverence and appreciation. 
Joel’s Christianity as well as his knowledge of eastern philosophies allows him to empathize with not only the beasts but the land upon which they trod. Polyface Farm’s operations are meant to honor God’s creations, and one of the farm’s primary goals is to heal the earth and keep it that way. The Salatins assume that healthy earthworms equal healthy soil which, in turn, supports healthier livestock. The farm’s website states: “We’re really in the earthworm enhancement business. Stimulating soil biota is our first priority. Soil health creates healthy food (Salatin).” The family hasn’t purchased a chemical fertilizer in over half a century, doesn’t own a silo (they call these bankruptcy tubes), and use byproducts from the animals to fertilize the land. Joel and his family strongly believe that farmers should work with the systems that God has put into place and not try to control or manipulate them through artificial means.
All of the aforementioned approaches are quite different from their industrialized counterparts, and Joel takes great pride in this fact. His organization states that, “the Salatin family invites like-minded folks to join in the farm’s mission: to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world (Salatin).” Not only does he live and breathe his own philosophies, but he is working hard to spread his example to the world. Surely, this is being accomplished due to his authoring and notoriety. As of August 2013, Joel has written and published eight books, which include such titles as Folks, This Ain’t Normal and The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. Also, he has hosted podcast lectures; has been asked to speak for universities and corporations; hosts educational, fundraising and celebratory events at the farm; had many articles written about him, his beliefs, and his practices; regularly writes articles for Acres USA; and has even won the 15th Heinz Award (with special focus on the environment) (Heinz). 
Joel is a well-accomplished and well-documented individual, but where there is success quite often criticism follows. His methods and political ideals have caused a great deal of tension between himself and many government bodies including, but not limited to, the USDA and Elaine Lindholm (the communications director for the Virginia Agriculture Department). Lindholm dismissed Salatin by saying, “His is a specialty-niche market. Not everyone could do it. Not everyone would want to do it (Purdum).” Joel has struggled year after year to weave his way around extensive government bureaucracies while teaching others to copy his model and prove those like Lindholm to be incorrect. Joel is also at odds with others that would seemingly be of like mind. He finds himself in opposition to the conservative political parties because he believes that they have aligned themselves with those that simply want to maximize the bottom line at the cost of the health of the world. This is why he classifies himself as a libertarian due to their strong beliefs in less government and red tape. In fact, Joel disagrees with a lot of groups both current and historical. For example, he speaks poorly of the “American settlers’ disregard for Native American agriculture and modern ‘gene splicing, irradiation and all sorts of things we don’t understand’ (Purdum).” 
It is surprising that supposedly conservative “Christian” government officials and organizations are opposed to old-school, small-scale, natural farming methods, and instead call for more centralization, toxic approaches, and land erosion. Why would politicians fight for something that is so evidently hostile to the environment? The answer is money. Even though Joel’s cause is a noble one, he is fighting against companies, such as Tyson, that have deep pockets. These corporations and their funds are currently shaping the political landscape in their favor. However, Joel is striking back by organizing a Legal Defense Fund to assist farmers that desire to follow his example, of which there are growing numbers. Salatin is ambitious, but is definitely fighting a difficult battle, which for the good of the planet, he should and must win.
Joel sees himself as a modern day “Sitting Bull – trying to bring a voice of Easternism, holism, community-based thinking to a very Western culture (Purdum).” Salatin is an every-man, a forward thinking throwback that reeks of enthusiasm for his political, theological, and career ideals. He is an energetic force that is changing minds and reshaping the fronts of farming and animal husbandry. Perhaps one day the world will look back upon him with respect and reverence and appreciate how he used ancient ideas mixed with modern innovation to breathe life back into an ill and abused planet. Is he crazy? Maybe, but the world could use a few more lunatics like Joel.

Works Cited
Heinz, Teresa. "The Heinz Awards :: Joel Salatin." The Heinz Awards :: Joel Salatin. Teresa Heinz, n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <>.

McCrary, Lewis. "Cultivating Freedom." American Conservative 8.14 (2009): 23-25. Academic Search  Premier. Web. 4 Sept. 2013.
Phelps, Megan, and Joel Salatin. "Everything He Wants To Do Is Illegal!." Mother Earth News 235 (2009): 46-51. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Sept. 2013.
Purdum, Todd S. "High Priest Of The Pasture." New York Times Magazine 154.(2005): 76-79. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.

Salatin, Joel. "Polyface, Inc." Polyface "the Farm of Many Faces" Salatin Family, n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
Walsh, Bryan. "This Land Is Your Land." Time 178.16 (2011): 52-54. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Sept. 2013.
Wirzba, Norman. "Barnyard Dance." Christian Century 124.2 (2007): 8-9. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Sept. 2013.