Sustainable farming guru will give talk

Joel Salatin of Virginia-based Polyface Farms, whose innovative, sustainable farming practices have been featured in books and a documentary film, will share his vision for establishing local food systems during a presentation Feb. 19 in Medford.

He will speak from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at North Medford High School, 1900 N. Keeneway Drive.

Salatin believes farms should be open to visits from consumers, rich in earthworms and offer a grass-based "salad bar" to livestock.

"Pasture-based livestock means a farming system that's aesthetically, aromatically and sensually romantic" for animals and people, joked Salatin, in a phone interview.

"It looks pretty and smells nice and you move the animals around — cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits and turkeys — so they're in a new paddock daily," he explained. "It lets the grass rest and grow and gives animals new pasture. They get fresh air, sunshine and exercise, which is as important to them as it is to us."

Salatin and his family farm in Swoope, Va., are featured in the book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan and in the documentary film "Food, Inc."

Noting a dislike of stereotypes and a desire to "keep people off balance," Salatin, a graduate of the conservative Bob Jones University, calls himself a "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist farmer."

As a libertarian farmer, Salatin said the answers for successful farming "come from the grassroots, from individual entrepreneurs and from the bottom up — and, as for capitalism, don't apologize for making a profit. As much as I like to talk about massaging the earth, none of that pays the taxes. You've got to make business sense. Sometimes, environmentalists don't get that through their heads."

Salatin said he is able to reconcile the polarities created between capitalism, the environment and the Christian ethic.

"The conservatives love me for my business and profits and the environmentalists love me for being warm and fuzzy," he said. "Eventually, both sides have a problem with me and for the same reason. I bring environmentalists back to the realities of business and I bring capitalism back to the needs of nature."

The Salatin family bought "the most worn-out, eroded, abused farm" near Staunton, Va., in 1961. Using nature as a pattern, the Salatins began innovations that now support three generations, says their Web site,

Will Reishman of the Jackson County Local Action Coalition says his group is one of the sponsors of Salatin's visit because it wants to help people support local agriculture and improve their nutrition. It also wants to reduce government regulation of farms that is aimed at corporate agriculture but is "bludgeoning the family farm "¦ to the point of extermination."

"The ideal," said Reishman, "is 30 to 50 percent of food grown and processed here, with (some) for export to neighbors north and south of us and people recognizing the need to pay a premium for nutrient-dense food."

Annie Hoy, outreach director for the Ashland Food Cooperative, another sponsor, praised Salatin's message that "it's possible to make a living on a diverse farm that's healthy for people, animals and vegetables, as well as the planet, instead of industrial-scale farms with monocrops."

Everything — compost, manure piles, excess vegetables going for feed — is all interconnected and "a closed loop" on the Salatin farm, said Hoy, noting that scale and complexity needs to be brought back and supported as the local food system.

Christian beliefs, said Salatin, "are too often used to justify exploiting the earth, instead of nurturing it. We are stewards, not dominant players. I don't worship the earth, like some environmentalists. I worship the Creator, not the creation."

Salatin, who is author of "Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal," said the main impediment to a working local food system is not research, pro-farmer organizations or investor networking, but the "demonizing and criminalizing of virtually all indigenous and heritage-based food practices."

He noted, "From zoning to labor to food safety to insurance, local food systems daily face a tsunami of regulatory hurdles designed and implemented to police industrial food models but which prejudicially wipe out the antidote: appropriate scaled local food systems. A call for guerrilla marketing, food choice freedom legislation, and empirical pathogen thresholds offers solutions to these bureaucratic hurdles."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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