"You sound like a communist," a woman recently told Joel Salatin, after touring his Polyface Farm, 550 acres of pasture and forest in the Shenandoah Valley.
Leave it to Salatin, a self-described "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic farmer," to be called a communist. Not that it bothers him much. Salatin defies labels left and right: a capitalist who as a matter of principle has no sales objectives, will not ship food beyond his local "food-shed" and believes no one in America should make more than $250,000 a year; a Christian whose priority is environmental health; a lunatic who's running a farm that is so self-sustaining he's never bought seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, plows or silos—aka "bankruptcy tubes," in Salatin-speak.
Salatin, catapulted into the national eye after features in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and films like Food Inc., has become a veritable prophet of the sustainability movement and dubbed "the High Priest of the Pasture" by the New York Times. He's also self-published eight books and currently pens two magazine columns. The title of his most recent book could serve as an epithet for his worldview: Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People and a Better World.
When I ask Salatin, on the phone from his home in Swoope, Va., who should read the book, he responds, "Everybody!" and then bursts into jolly laughter. His latest work is a wake-up call to a culture that has, he says, "a terribly misplaced faith that we will be the first civilization to beat nature, to disconnect our ecological umbilical cord and say, 'We don't need this womb.'"
At Polyface Farm—"the farm of many faces"—Salatin raises cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and rabbits according to the symbiosis of nature. "I think that our responsibility as stewards of creation," he says, "is to do exactly that: to steward it—not rape it, pillage it, exploit it, but to actually massage it."
A true libertarian, he bemoans the "proliferation of the food police," the federal government's overarching regulation of what we eat. "They tell us it's safe to drink Mountain Dew and eat Twinkies," he marvels, "but Aunt Matilda's homemade pickles and compost-grown tomatoes are hazardous substances."
Does he eat any food that he can't procure locally? "I'm a banana-aholic!" he exclaims, laughing again. "Hey—we all get to pick our hypocrisy."
With his affable sincerity, Salatin proves that the sustainable food movement is not solely the domain of the righteous elite. Despite the success of his farm (over a million dollars of sales annually) and his rise to celebrity status, Salatin tells me, "I'd just as soon go out and tote buckets of water and run a chainsaw as well as anything. I love earthworms. I desperately want earthworms to be happy, to dance and not feel assaulted."
Joel Salatin speaks on Tuesday, Oct. 25, at Baker Creek Seed Bank. 199 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 7pm. Tickets $1 with book purchase at any Copperfield's Books; $5 extra. 707.823.8991.