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December 31, 2010
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'Lunatic farmer' to preach the word at sustainable food conference


Joel Salatin doesn't mind being thought of as a lunatic. He revels in it, giving lectures on "The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer."

Now, Nevada County audiences can share in the lunacy when Salatin speaks at the Sustainable Local Food and Farm Conference on Jan. 22, an event organized by Nevada County Grown to highlight sustainable farming and the importance of growing and consuming nutrient-dense food.

Salatin and his Virginia spread, Polyface Farms, vaulted into the international spotlight after being featured in Michael Pollan's book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and in the movie "Food, Inc."

Polyface has been widely praised by sustainable-farming advocates and foodies for its commitment to Earth- and animal-friendly practices, including rotational grass grazing, humane treatment of animals and local processing. Salatin now spends a great deal of time traveling around the world, giving speeches and presentations on how to copy his success; his son Daniel now oversees the day-to-day operations at the farm.

"It's really funny to be the ugly stepchild for 20 years and wake up one day and be chic," Salatin said in a phone interview; he had just returned from a trip to New Zealand.

"I certainly didn't aspire to anything like this," he said of his new-found notoriety. "I just wanted to farm full time. The bittersweet part is, it's a shame I'm uncommon."

Salatin sees the hand of God guiding his life to this point, with the influence of his father's "out-of-the-box visionary savvy" and his mother's theatrics shaping him in childhood and a short stint as a reporter teaching him "how to leverage media exposure."

He firmly believes he might not have been successful if he "had gone the (conventional) track and taken ag classes, gone a less flamboyant route ... I'm very aware it's the gift of communication. There are plenty of good farms out there. What's made us different is our desire to communicate."

One huge difference - for a commercial farm - is the diversity of products. Polyface has an annual average population of 6,500 laying hens (for eggs), 24,000 broilers (for meat), 1,000 head of cattle, 200 hogs, 500 turkeys and 250 rabbits, according to its website.

"We've mixed it all," Salatin said. "That diversity, and the scale that we operate at, is unique."

Another big asset is Salatin's willingness to treat his farm as a viable business and hire sufficient help, he said.

"We're business people, not just farmers - but we run the business with a vision of healing the planet," he said, before adding, "If your vision can be accomplished in your lifetime, it's too small."

Farming can be a tough business to learn, Salatin acknowledged.

"A lot of people who are coming to (farming) think it has to be easy, but there's a lot of knowledge (needed)," he said. "Farming is all how to herd cattle and fix fence and run a chain saw ... People often are unprepared for the skills that are necessary to pull this off."

Prospective farmers "are coming into a food climate that is better on one hand, because there's much more consumer interest," Salatin continued. "But the negative is an incredibly bloated regulatory climate."

Salatin believes farms need to highlight the fact that they are "local and transparent," rather than "organic."

"Now that the government owns the term (organic), it has become adulterated," he said. "What is beginning to separate the players is transparency - and that's hard when you're a global entity. We have a 24-7 open-door policy; that's our degree of transparency. It makes us stay on our toes."

Salatin fervently believes that smaller-scale farming is the necessary future for America.

"There are 35 million acres of lawn in the United States, if we want to just look at land (that could) produce food," he said. "There are 26 million acres devoted to housing and feeding recreational horses. Those two combined are enough to feed the country. And we haven't even talked about the golf courses."

Huge hurdles stop small farms from penetrating commercial markets, largely due to the "systemic hurdles of bureaucracy," he said.

Salatin offered up Polyface as an example.

To sell his meat to a chain restaurant, he has to use the chain's commercial trucks. But to do that, he needs a product liability policy that he said is both very expensive and difficult to obtain - and has 17 pages of "rules" to abide by.

Many small farms choose to step outside the system - which means they lose their ability to leverage any economics of scale; that is what leads to higher costs to the consumer.

But all Salatin's costs are figured into his price to the consumer, Salatin said.

In contrast, the costs of cheap food are enormous and hidden from consumers: Pollution in the creation and use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that boost production; food-borne illnesses; disease caused by poor nutrition or the ingestion of agricultural additives; displacement caused by erosion and deforestation; and even immigration, as farmers in poor nations leave the countryside in search of better lives.

"Those aren't paid for at the cash register, and that creates an extremely unfair price," Salatin said. "We're very aggressive about telling people we have the cheapest food - you're just paying for it up front."

And, he points out, his clients can buy a pound of his premium beef for the cost of a Happy Meal.

"If you buy raw food and fix it yourself, you can eat like a king," Salatin said. "Processed food is expensive. ... It's a matter of priorities. Thirty years ago, Americans spent 18 percent per capita on food and 9 percent on health care. Today, that is reversed. It begs the questions of whether there's a correlation."

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.


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The Union Updated Dec 31, 2010 03:59PM Published Dec 31, 2010 03:55PM Copyright 2010 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.