Joel Salatin, “The Lunatic Farmer,” on the Joe Rogan Podcast: How Decentralizing the Food System Is Healthier for the Planet and Its Inhabitants.
Posted On May 27, 2020 by Stephen Douglass
I have a friend, Robbie, who is a brazier. He’s also an exceptional farmer and soil scientist with a keen eye for genetics in his herds of cattle and sheep. When I mentioned to him that Joel Salatin had been on the Joe Rogan Podcast recently, he said what he always says when Salatin is mentioned within earshot.
There’s a good reason for this. If you’ve ever seen the movie, FOOD, INC., Salatin is featured fairly prominently in it, and, there’s a scene where he’s doing his sage-of-pastured-poultry act while Robbie and his young son are in the background struggling to assemble a specialty Italian hay tedder after being Tom Sawyer-ed (by Joel) into putting it on a trailer at the Port of Richmond, towing it up to Polyface Farm, and (“oh by the way, the film crew is here, can you assemble”) -ing it. You see, Robbie had ordered the same machine and it arrived on the same ship.
Another friend and mentor, the late, great Tony Kleese, who spent his whole life teaching about and advocating for small farms, and helping to write the federal guidelines for organic certification, was also a bit wary of Salatin, especially when Joel started using the term “Beyond Organic” for branding.
“Carny” is a good word for Salatin, and so is “showman” as he’s a one man, farm hat wearing, farm book writing, small farm preaching, author/speaker/celebrity farmer. And, while “carny” and “showman” are mild pejoratives, Salatin seems to revel in his role, referring to himself on his website as “The Lunatic Farmer.” The thing his skeptics have to concede; sometimes the archetypal jester is really the prophet.
The Pandemic Reveals the Showman Is the Prophet
Salatin has been pushing against factory farming methods for decades, but, as a self-professed “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer,” what really draws his ire is the big government, one-size-fits-all regulatory scheme that makes it nearly impossible to process meat animals without taking them to a USDA approved processing facility. He points out the inherent fragility in the current system where maximizing animals per square foot is, obviously, a haven for pathogens, and a setup that is inhumane.
The other inherent fragility in the current system is in the processing bottleneck created by the lack of small scale community abattoirs. This has been exposed by the pandemic where meat handlers are working in that same, pathogen-loving environment and getting sick from COVID-19, consequently shutting down the entire system to the point that farmers are actually having to destroy livestock. To complicate the problem even more, the Federal government, through the CARES Act, has created a perverse incentive for workers to stay home since furloughed processing workers are earning more money in extra unemployment benefits than in regular pay.
On top of that, the regulatory overhead created by the USDA food safety rules – read about HACCP plans sometime and you’ll find yourself mind-boggled – makes small farms conform to inapplicable industrial farm regulations. Salatin has illuminated the absurdity of some of these regulations over the years and has actually made some headway. He chronicles his struggles in an amusing and compelling book called Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. All of his books are worth reading as his primary skill, maybe above farming, is writing. He majored in English and was a feature writer for his local paper and editor of the Stockman Grass Farmer, an important animal husbandry trade magazine.
The Prime Act 2020: A States’ Rights Solution for Healthier Humans, Animals, and Environment
After floundering in the House for five years, suddenly Thomas Massie’s bill has picked up steam, and a new host of co-sponsors, in the wake of the pandemic. The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act seeks to exempt custom slaughtering of animals from federal inspection and allow local, and intrastate sales of meat as prescribed under State laws. There is a concise summary of the bill here at congress.gov. There’s also a great explanation written here by a friend, Jared Cates, of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.
Salatin also supports the bill and points out on the podcast that “instead of having 150 to 200 mega-processing facilities doing 98 percent of the nation’s meat,.. if instead that were 200k small scale, community based, ecologically nested facilities all around the countryside. That would be an incredibly resilient system.” He also claims that the animal waste, the poultry bedding, and even the processed guts can be composted on the farm and returned to the soil along with a lot of carbon. If you’ve ever visited Polyface Farm, you already know that one thing Salatin is exceptionally good at, and values above all else, is soil building.
Capturing the waste on the individual farms not only improves the soil, but the organic matter added greatly increases soil nutrient and water capacity and retention. For every percentage point of organic matter content, soil can hold 16,500 gallons of water per acre. If a farm can improve from 3 percent to 8 percent as Salatin has on his farm, that’s an additional holding capacity of 82,500 gallons per acre, reducing runoff that ends up in our rivers, estuaries and oceans. Capturing the farm waste onsite also reduces the use of fossil fuels used for trucking, and fertilizer. Salatin calls this circle-of-life on the farm “not overrunning your ecology,” which is a good way of looking at it from an environmental perspective.
Don’t Overrun Your Ecology: Where Freedom and Environmentalism Unite
If, like me, you live in a rural area near poultry and hog farms, you know full well that this vertically integrated system is most certainly “overrunning the ecology,” often literally. I’ve been around hog waste ponds where the anaerobic stench was so visceral that it made my teeth hurt. These farmers are my friends and I support them. I’m a devout capitalist. However, what they will all tell you in an unguarded moment is that their corporate overlords are forever squeezing them on price and changing the game just when the farmer is about to get ahead.
Now what would happen if those same farmers were free to harvest, process and sell their livestock directly to retail and wholesale customers throughout their state? What if they were free to introduce more holistic farming methods where the fauna and flora exist together in the natural cycle of life? What if we eat more locally and in season instead of importing and exporting produce and meats cross country or even worse, intercontinentally? Kudos and thanks to Joel Salatin for leading the way in advocating for small local farms all these decades. His advocacy turned out to be prophetic, indeed.