Joel Salatin on his farm in Virginia (Creative Commons)
Joel Salatin is one of the rock stars of the local food movement. He’s written books, appeared in documentaries and scheduled speaking engagements nationwide. Among foodies, he’s a celebrity.
He’s also a vocal critic of industrialized agriculture. Salatin criticizes the use of pesticides, herbicides, genetic modification in crops, and hormones and antibiotics in livestock.
The move to source locally has taken hold across the country, but still faces many hurdles. Small-scale farmers and ranchers face limited or unfeasible distribution, scarce capital, sometimes burdensome regulation, the prospect of high costs and low margins and a perception problem that local food is elite.
But local food isn’t for everyone. Salatin’s detractors say conventional forms of agriculture play an important role in feeding the world’s growing population and small vegetable farms and grass-fed beef fill niche markets, not the vast majority of eaters.
I spoke with Salatin from his farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley about some of the movement’s biggest roadblocks.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing the movement?
“When you come to legal issues, the biggest problem right now is the suffocating Food Modernization Act, which came in on the heels of the peanut scare down in Georgia. The fact is that there is more and more a codified orthodoxy that have legal ramifications. We’re seeing just a suffocating array of industrial scale, industrial friendly food regulations under the guise of food safety, that are extremely local and small-scale prejudicial.”
“The industry has very much enjoyed talking about food miles and carbon footprints and that supermarkets are much more efficient than farmers markets because even though farmers markets are localized the small volumes that farmers are bringing to them don’t justify the distribution miles even on a local scale. I understand that argument. So that is creating a prejudicial price in the marketplace because of the inefficiencies of small-scale distribution.”
Does the dialogue need to focus more on regional food systems than hyperlocal food systems?
“Absolutely. And if you ask five people their definition of local you'll get five different answers and I certainly don’t have an answer. People say, is 100 miles really local? Or 50 miles really local? Well we can argue about that, but it’s sure more local than 2,000 miles. And part of course of eating local is having an educated consumer base that appreciates seasonality and domestic culinary skills. Those two elements are critical for developing a credible regional food system.”
One problem I’ve come across with people attempting to run a farm like yours is figuring out how to make a living doing it. Young farmers are concerned they won’t be able to pay their bills or send their kids to college. Is that a concern to get young people interested in farming as a viable career?
“It’s a huge concern. The average American farmer is now almost 60 years old, this is unprecedented in human history. And it’s not just an American problem. In the developing world it’s a common issue. So we have a break in the successional transfer, not only of assets but of information, of experience, into the next generation. The fact is when young people can’t get in, old people can’t get out. So we’re desperate for a successional fluidity in the farming system. You have to understand that farming while it’s very much a lifestyle and a sacred thing, it’s also a business and it so it has to be treated like a business. And just because it’s beautiful and it’s sacred and it’s soul-satisfying, does not push shoes on your feet or start a college fund. Many young people want to enter, all they need to know is how to take the passion of their heart and put shoes on their feet.”
Is there a class component to the conversation about local food as well? You have these farm to table dinners with high price tags and the perception that only the wealthy can afford to shop at high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods, which sources a lot locally. Does the movement have a perception problem?
“Absolutely. I’ve certainly been accused of being an elitist. Whenever somebody says they can’t afford our food, and this applies to inner city, suburban, rural whatever. I want to grab them by the collar and say, ‘OK, take me to your house. And I’m sure here’s what we’re not going to find. We’re not going to find a flat-screen TV. We’re not to find Burger King or McDonald’s take out. We’re not going to find frozen pizza.’ You see where I’m heading with this? The fact is, there is money in the system and to just simplify it and say, ‘Well, because it’s higher price it’s elitist,’ begs the question of a personal value system. And yes, there are definitely impoverished, down and out people. My hearts goes out to them. I can’t solve every problem out there. I do know one thing. There are tremendous ways to change our valuation of what’s important to us.”
There are programs to reach out to people who are low-income. SNAP benefits are accepted at some farmers markets. But do you think class enters the conversation about local food as much as it probably should?
“No. I think class is a cop out. Class just assumes that there is a disempowered, victimhood class and I don’t buy that at all. I’m a pretty libertarian guy. I think this whole idea of disempowerment and victimhood and dependency, has actually stigmatized a whole segment of our society into assuming they’re powerless to help themselves. And what I’m suggesting is, turn off the TV, get rid off the chips and the take-out and the beer and alcohol and cigarettes. It sounds terribly uncharitable to say it, but if you can afford a package of cigarettes, you can probably afford a package of grass-finished beef from somewhere. There are certainly people that don’t know how to manage money and don’t have a work ethic and there are certainly people who need help. What I’m suggesting is that the number is probably 95 percent smaller than the government would like us to think.”