Joel Salatin Talks to Three Squares

Joel Salatin of Polyface, Inc.

May 12, 2011

in Interviews

Joel Salatin, the self-described “lunatic farmer”, who’s been made famous by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary film Food Inc., stopped in San Luis Obispo recently to give a talk to the Cal Poly students’ Real Food Collaborative. Three Squares was able to catch up with Mr. Salatin after the talk to ask some more in-depth questions.

Buying Food from Small Farmers
Raising Cattle in California
Small Farm Food Processing
Feeding Families
More Resources

Buying Food from Small Farmers

TS: You’ve said that you have a love-hate relationship with farmers’ markets, and that right now, you’re not participating in any. Can you explain your position and let consumers know why a small farmer would choose not to participate in a market?

JS: Farmers’ markets are only one marketing venue among many:  on-farm sales, wholesale, subscription (Community Supported Agriculture–CSA), internet, and Metropolitan Buying Clubs. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but it shows the variations and opportunities. Farmer’s Markets are only good as long as there is not something better: that’s the point.

Weaknesses of Farmers’ Markets are many, and I’ll list some of them:
1.  Political drama – gossip, backbiting, rumors, he-said, she-said, accusations about rules infractions. It’s huge and it gets old real fast.
2.  Commissions – paid on gross sales, these can be as high as 10 percent or more, which is a huge amount to pay just for the privilege of a stall space.
3.  It takes the farmer off the farm and occupies the farmer all day – getting there, doing the market, coming home, and then putting everything away.
4.  Most are seasonal. Bills don’t stop in the off season and people don’t stop eating in the off season.  Not enough markets are willing to break down barriers to become year-round. (Editor’s Note: This is especially true where Mr. Salatin farms in Virginia; it is less of a barrier here in Southern California.)
5.  Speculative – the farmer packs everything up and hopes to goodness people want what he’s bringing that week. Sometimes he hits the jackpot, and often he misses it miserably.
6.  Patrons generally are not really buying their food;  they are nibbling. If people really bought their food once a week at a farmer’s market, it would be cleaned out in half an hour. They can’t really buy groceries because one hand is occupied holding the leash on Fifi the poodle. When is the last time you heard a patron ask a farmer to bring two bushels of green beans next week because she was planning to can her winter’s stash of green beans the following week?  Farmers’ markets too often are more a social event than a food buying exercise.
7.  Location. Too often farmers’ markets are located in the armpit of the city as a revitalization solution. This takes them out of the food buying corridor and turns them into cutesy points of assembly for foodies to meet and greet. Farmers’ markets should be located on the parking lot of Wal-Mart or whatever the big supermarkets are – and those businesses should be shamed into providing the space, not given a free pass because they write a $50,000 check to United Way as their local community good deed.
8.  Regulations. Food police are everywhere, poking thermometers into things, looking at type size on labels, etc. I don’t have time for these people.

TS: What is the difference between a farmer’s market and a metropolitan buying club? How might one start such a club?

JS:  An MBC is a scheduled drop point in an urban area servicing patrons who have pre-ordered from a complete inventory. This takes out the speculation and insures that enough volume is sold to justify the trip. You start one with one interested hostess who provides a drop point. Residential areas are best – stay away from commercial districts or public spaces. (Editor’s Note: For an example of an MBC in the greater Los Angeles area, check out Healthy Family Farms.)

Raising Cattle in California

TS: What are ways that California farmers can rotate animals onto fresh pasture all year round, given our very dry climate in summer? What is the feasibility of a Fodder Solution System that some farmers have begun using?

JS: I recently visited a California beef cattle operation that uses no hay. With high-tech electric fencing and extremely skillful management, you can stockpile forage on the stem to be grazed during dormant times. By tightening up the mob, a more primal instinctive grazing mentality dominates wherein the animals do well on forages that would be considered unacceptable in a more spread-out pattern.

TS: California has seen the closure of several slaughterhouses in recent years. (As documented in this New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/08/us/08bcslaughterhouse.html.) These closures are already an impediment to small cattle ranchers who want to sell grass-fed beef to consumers locally. What advice do you have for farmers who want to raise grass-fed cattle and consumers who want to continue eating it?

JS:  Abattoirs are a vital link between the field and the fork. Regulations are the number one impediment to abattoirs’ success because the rules are highly prejudicial and discriminatory against small operations. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) actually measures its productivity based on pounds of product per hour per inspector; clearly this favors large businesses with perceived economies of scale. The most important thing to remember is that food safety laws always, always, always, hurt local small processors and favor the big guys.

Small Farm Food Processing

TS: Why is it that you’re able to do on-farm processing of chickens, but not pigs or cows?

JS: When these rules were written, the vertically integrated poultry industry did not exist. Most chickens were still small-farm or cottage industry-based. To have required poultry to go through the same rigmarole as beef and pork would have eliminated thousands upon thousands of small farm processors, an idea that did not have political support. It is strictly historical politics and doesn’t have anything to do with food safety. I think we should extend the poultry exclusions to all the other livestock to once again enable viable small-scale local food commerce.

Feeding Families

TS: You’re a supporter of families raising their own food and cooking their own meals. What motivation can you give to a working mother who has the financial means to purchase prepared foods for her family to forego that option and prepare a meal from scratch instead? In your view, why should she learn to preserve foods, butcher a chicken or make a home-baked pie?

JS: Several reasons:
1. Far cheaper. I realize money is not an issue here, but I don’t know too many people for whom money is not an issue at all – even among the affluent. The affluent got that way, for the most part, by being economically prudent.
2. Food integrity. Those processors generally don’t have your health in mind. All they know about is how to make you buy more. That’s not integrity.
3. Connecting. Do your children know what unprocessed food looks like? Reconnecting to our ecological umbilical starts with food.

TS: On the other end of the financial spectrum, what motivation can you offer the family who’s struggling to make ends meet? Why and how should they put fresh, whole foods on the table night after night when they can buy fast food for under $10 a meal and eat in under 30 minutes? What benefit does buying fresh foods and preparing them at home offer people?

JS: A $10 fast food meal is not cheap. You can buy a whole pound of our premium salad bar beef for $5, and that’s far more nutrition than can be found in a fast food meal. Processed food is expensive, and fast food is the worst of the lot. The benefits follow the answers above. On pricing, I don’t want to hear about pricey high quality food from anyone who has the following in their home:  soda, alcohol, tobacco, TV, Netflix, celebrity magazines, designer clothes, frozen pizza, etc.

TS: What is one positive thing that people can and should be doing now to improve the quality of the food they eat?

JS: The number one thing is to buy unprocessed food and prepare it in your own kitchen. That is the most subversive cultural act you can accomplish right now. It returns far more money to the farmer instead of patronizing the processing industry; it gives you living food instead of sterile food; it re-establishes the home as the center of life’s most important activities; it restores sacredness to the table.

Here are more resources for buying local, sustainably-raised meat, eggs and poultry in and around Los Angeles:

{ 2 comments }

Ryan McLeod May 16, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Great succinct points from Joel as usual.
Definitely going to use some of these, especially those points on the true cost of food.

danielle May 16, 2011 at 7:52 pm

great article. great resources. I’m excited to look into the beef.

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