The Common Good
December 2009

The Farmer in the Swell

by Jeannie Choi | December 2009

Joel Salatin finds himself in the middle of the food debate, fighting for a better way.

Search “Joel Salatin” on YouTube, and you will find him resplendent in a slouch hat, white T-shirt, and jeans, talking about the virtues of sustainable farming. His family-owned farm, Polyface Inc., nestled in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, is fast becoming the most famous sustainable farm in America, in large part due to Salatin’s outspoken advocacy for organic, sustainable, and local food. What many don’t know, however, is the source of Salatin’s passion for sustainable farming: his deep Christian faith. Salatin spoke with Sojourners assistant editor Jeannie Choi about the evils of industrial farming and agribusiness and his vision for healing the land God commissions us to steward.

Jeannie Choi: What’s the vision behind Polyface farm?

Joel Salatin: Healing—healing in all dimensions. We want to develop emotionally, environmentally, and economically enhancing agricultural prototypes throughout the world. We want to heal the relationships of the people involved with the farm and our business and our family. We want to heal the land, soil, air, water, and, ultimately, the food system.

From what disease is our current food system suffering?

Well, when is the last time a farmer went and asked for money from a banker and the banker said, “Well, that’s all well and good. I’m glad you’re going to be able to grow a corn crop. But what is that going to do to the earthworms? Or to the topsoil? Is that going to go down the Mississippi and add to the Rhode Island-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that’s been created because of erosion and run-off chemicals?”

We don’t measure those kinds of things, and yet each of us intuitively understands that those immeasurable or non-quantifiable parts in a business plan are actually the most precious resources we have.

So there is a disconnect between humans and the earth?

Oh, yes. For the first time in civilization, you can actually move into an area, plug your microwave and appliances into energy and not know where it comes from, get food from places and not know where it comes from, hook your pipe up to get water and not know where it comes from, put an outlet pipe in to take your sewage to places you don’t know about, and in effect never have a sense of the ecological umbilical cord that connects you to everything that’s most important.

How did we get here?

I think it has a lot to do with not wanting any kind of relationship with the earth. We talk a lot about relationships—marriage, work relationships, family—but another very critical relationship is the one we have with the nest we’ve been entrusted to steward. This actual divorce from our ecological umbilical is an abnormality in human civilization.

Sometimes I want to go down to [New York’s] Times Square, stand on the sidewalk, and scream at the world, “Folks, this isn’t normal!” It’s not normal to get food in little packages. It’s not normal to live in homes with ‘food nooks’ instead of kitchens. It’s not normal to eat food that you can’t pronounce. All of these things are extremely abnormal and have only come as a result of cheap energy during the industrial food system. So when you look at the continuum of human history, you and I are very much living guinea pigs in a radical experiment that is changing our relationships with each other and the world.

How can we revolutionize the food industry?

Healing the food system would fundamentally flip-flop the political and economic powers of our culture. Wendell Berry says that what’s wrong with us creates more gross national product than what’s right with us. It’s a fantastic observation. Right now, our culture thrives on things being sick. Dead soil brings more people to chemical companies because they need chemical fertilizers, which makes people sick. When people are sick, obviously the medical establishment thrives. If a neighborhood or community’s food system is sick, then of course you need to import food from a foreign country, which stimulates global trade. So when you start talking about healing the food system, we need a fundamental realignment of all the power and money in our culture, and that’s why there is a tremendous amount of inertia against healing the system.

So what can we do? If you want to dream out of the box for a minute, here’s an idea: If every American for one week refused to eat at a fast-food joint, it would bring concentrated animal feeding operations to their knees. What can one person do? We have a sick, evil system, and a healing system, and the question is, which one are you going to feed? Have you gone down to the farmers market or patronized local livestock farms? Or have you had candy bars and cokes? Whichever one you’ve fed is going to get bigger, and the one you’ve starved is going to get smaller.

How does your faith inform your work?

It makes me want to farm like Jesus would if he were here right now, in charge of this place. God actually loved us and provided a salvation experience for us that shapes the way we should, with the same grace and appreciation and respect, honor the creation that God made. It’s in respecting and honoring the “pig-ness” of the pig that we create our ethical and moral background for respecting and honoring the “Tony-ness” of Tony and the “Mary-ness” of Mary. And so it’s how we respect and honor the “least of these” that creates a theological and philosophical framework for how we respect and honor the creation that God made. It's in respecting and honoring the "pig-ness" of the pig that we create our ethical and moral background for respecting and honoring the "Tony-ness" of Tony and the "Mary-ness" of Mary. And so it's how we respect and honor the "least of these" that creates a theological and philosophical framework for how we respect and honor the greatest of these.

Our culture simply views our plants and animals as so many inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however cleverly hubris can imagine to manipulate it. I would suggest that a culture that views its life in that respect will be a culture that views its citizens and the citizens of other cultures in the same manipulative and arrogant way.

What would you say to Christians who believe it is their biblical mandate to have dominion over the earth?

“You’re wrong!” (laughing). The scriptures are full of admonitions about creation. God knows when every sparrow falls. The Pentateuch is filled with references. Further, in 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul says that whatsoever you eat or drink, whatsoever you do, do it all for the glory of God. If I were writing 1 Corinthians, I would have written, “whatsoever you catechize, whatsoever you sing in your hymnal”—I would have made this a very spiritual thing. But Paul didn’t. He took the most mundane, necessary things in life—eating and drinking—as his examples of how much God desires to penetrate into our lives. And so we must ask the question, how would Christ raise these animals? Would Jesus make genetically modified peanuts? Would Jesus apply something to the ground that made three-legged salamanders and sterile frogs? I don’t think he would, and that’s why I don’t—because to the believer, all life must be sacred.

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