For Joel Salatin, good food is farmed food
SILT, Colo. – Despite the proliferation of farmers markets, the introduction of words and phrases like “foodie” and “farm-to-table” into the vernacular, the advent of the celebrity chef, the Obamas’ organic garden at the White House and the Academy Award nomination earlier this year for “Food, Inc.,” Joel Salatin, an irrepressible optimist by nature, has difficulty seeing a meaningful shift in the way America produces and eats its food. Salatin, a Virginia farmer, author and lecturer, has an imposing statistic lodged in his mind, and it stands in the way of him envisioning any scaling back in the industrialization of our eating habits.Every day of the year, according to Salatin, five tractor-trailer loads of French fries enters Washington, D.C. That alone – one product, in one city – dwarfs the efforts of people like Salatin, who operates his 550-acre, “beyond organic” Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, some 100 miles from the nation’s capital. Salatin, whose seven books – including “The Sheer Ecstasy of a Lunatic Farmer,” published last month – position him as the fierce, badgering opposition to corporate farming, recently dipped his toe into the world of mass-scale food production. He has been supplying pork to the Chipotle chain of Mexican restaurants. The experience has been daunting.”I now have an appreciation for how humongous the food system is,” the 53-year-old Salatin said from home. “The way we farm produces more per square yard of land, more per labor hour. We’re more efficient and better. But the other system is so huge, it’s amazing.”Still, he spreads the gospel according to Joel. (With Salatin, a Christian, who writes with confident disdain for his foes – the U.S.D.A., Tyson Foods, even liberals who advocate for open space easements instead of productive farmland – the conversation about food does take on biblical tones. At one point in our conversation, he referred to himself as “a caretaker of creation.”) Salatin appears this weekend in Farming & Feeding of the Minds 2010, at the organic Divide Creek Farm in Silt. The event includes a farming workshop on Saturday, Oct. 16, with Salatin joined by Eliot Coleman, owner of Four Season Farm in Maine, author of “The New Organic Grower,” and father of Clara Coleman, who owns Divide Creek with her husband, Robbie George. Sunday, Oct. 17 features a dinner prepared with local ingredients by Ryan Hardy, chef of Montagna restaurant, as well as a bluegrass band, Colorado wines and beer from Aspen Brewing Company. Following dinner are presentations by Salatin and Coleman. Salatin never needed preaching to gain an appreciation for small-scale food production. His parents bought the land that now houses Polyface when Joel was a kid, and raised organic cows there – predating “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s influential 1962 book about the environment and the threat raised by chemical pesticides. After a brief go as a newspaper reporter, and after his parents paid off the mortgage on the farm, Salatin and his wife, Teresa, became farmers. “I don’t have a conversion moment. We’ve always been lunatics,” Salatin said.Salatin wonders if America will ever have its conversion moment. He has seen such warning shots as Mad Cow disease – which he attributes directly to misguided government policies – and the recall of diseased eggs and even baby food, come and go, with no real effort toward dismantling the corporate and regulatory policies that he believes underlie such incidents.”You think, How many of those do we have to have before people opt out? That’s the $64 million dollar question, and I don’t have an answer. I can scarcely imagine the kind of disturbance it would take. There’s a lot of inertia in our culture to make sure disturbance doesn’t happen. Because disturbance is disturbing,” he said. “But the cultural response isn’t to clean up the industrial food system. It’s looking for more food police to keep the industrial food system safe.”That point seems to be confirmed by the further industrialization of food. Salatin points to such movements as farmed fish – “We’re not content to just pollute the land, now it’s the oceans,” he said – and the Food Safety Accountability Act, proposed in the U.S. Senate last month, which he says has daunting implications for “integrity farming.” “It plays havoc with the local, small-food system. Under the guise of food safety, it criminalizes and marginalizes it.”If there is reason for hope, Salatin sees it in consumers and the purchasing choices they make. To date, small-scale farming is only about 2 percent of the food market. But Salatin says even that tiny portion terrifies Big Food.”What’s exciting is, we’ve gotten their attention,” Salatin said. “What happens when we hit 5, 8 percent? Then we’ll see a pushback.”Stewart@aspentimes.com
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