Cue the Beach Boys' "Catch a Wave," and turn up the volume. Got it blasting? Good, because Joel Salatin, the 55-year-old, self-described "lunatic farmer" of Polyface farm and author of nine books about holistic farming, local food sourcing and all manner of righteous, common-sense approaches to eating, will be in town this Friday.
You may also know the Swoope, Va., boy from the film Food, Inc., and Michael Pollan's bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma. As Salatin would put it, "I've been riding the local-food tsunami ever since."
But the story of Salatin's ascent to sustainability supremacy really begins with his family, who were completely organic before the movement took hold in the early '60s. His grandfather was a charter subscriber to Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine, he says, and his parents carried on that tradition on the land that would eventually become Polyface farm.
The pen is mightier ...
"My plan was to maybe write a bestseller," Salatin says, "and then go back to the farm with a lot of money."
As a kid, Salatin had demonstrated a flair for writing, often running home after school to pen a story. In college, he apprenticed at the local paper, The Staunton News Leader, and majored in English. Of course, "Dad said I majored in debate and minored in everything else," he says with a laugh, recalling that he was drawn to all of the things one thinks of when they think "English major."
After college he worked for a little over a year as an investigative reporter for the News Leader, but kept his hand in farm work by running a "curb market" with a friend, selling yogurt, eggs and produce from his parents. When he realized he'd saved enough money, he and his wife decided to give full-time farming a shot.
"I always thought that I'd go back to the newspaper, but we lived quite well on $300 dollars a month and with a $75 car," he says. So Salatin turned his formidable farming and writing skills to teaching people about holistic, sustainable farming, and why it's important.
"When the farm became successful," he says, "all the storytelling, drama and debate came in handy. I can talk about the issues with real farmers who have splinters and callouses," and also with audiences at universities.
His message is simple: Eat locally — food grown within four hours of where you live — and grow organically. "Nature will eventually force us into normalcy," he says. "What we're doing now, is absolutely not normal."
The message is getting out there, he says. People are beginning to connect the dots between the farming and ranching practices that are prevalent right now, and medical and health issues. "Many of the things we're doing now with GMOs [genetically modified organisms] will come home to roost in the next 30 to 40 years."
best loaf of bread
Salatin says the future should have more internal food systems embedded in communities, rather than the segregated, global systems we have today. Also, farms should look to diversification and complex "farmscapes," instead of the homogenized "mono-speciated" (single-crop, or -animal) systems common in modern agribusiness.
The last factor, and perhaps the most important to good health and food, is to turn our attention to "domestic culinary arts." Essentially, this is Grandma's canning and preserving, but with the muscle and efficiency of technology.
"We're not talking about Martha Washington's kitchen, here," he says. "It doesn't take a crew of servants checking Dutch ovens and pots. We've got techno-processing at our fingertips."
Salatin says that modern kitchens are capable of so much more than what we typically use them for. "You know, why can't we buy a bushel of wheat of our own? In the morning, throw some of it in your grinder, then make quick dough and pop that into a bread machine. When you come home from work, guess what? You've got the best loaf of bread on the planet. You can't buy better, no way."
Even the best bread can't expedite such a huge change, but Salatin says we're getting there: "Right now, I think the whole movement has gone from the lunatic fringe to an early-adoption phase."