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Poem: An Apology for Vivian
Learning to Love Goodness
Who Invented Thirst and Water?
Are Humans Sacred?
Readers Respond Issue 10
Consistent Life Network
Death Knell for Just War
Remembering Daniel Berrigan
My Return to Iraq
The Gospel of Life
Building the Jesus Movement
Behind Prison Walls
Womb to Tomb
Insights on the Gospel of Life
A World Where Abortion Is Unthinkable
Gardening with Guns
A Good Death
Behold the Glory of Pigs
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A self-described “Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic farmer,” Joel Salatin raises pastured beef cows, pigs, turkeys, and laying hens on a family farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Plough’s Kevin Keiderling visited him to ask how his pro-life and pro-environment convictions fit together – and how to raise kids to love to work hard.
Plough: How did you get interested in alternative farming?
Joel Salatin: My grandfather was a charter subscriber to Rodale’s Organic Gardening and farming magazine in 1949. He was an early adherent to the non-chemical approach, so my dad got it from him, and I got it from Dad. We were always interested in how does nature work, how did God design this, and what is God’s pattern to make it work.
You describe your latest book as your “coming out” as a conservative Christian. How does your interest in sustainability and the environment intersect with your views on the sacredness of human life, which of course is a concern for conservative Christians?
When you are an organic and ecological farmer, it is assumed that you are also an abortionist, you are opposed to homeschooling, and you support higher taxes and more government social safety nets. As a result of that I created my own moniker: Christian libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic farmer. So now I am free from that box.
Are Christians that you speak to coming to terms with that?
Very few. The book was sent to a hundred and fifty prominent pastors for a cover blurb, and nobody would touch it because they were afraid of their congregations. As Christians I think we take a pretty cavalier view toward our responsibilities. We need to actually come alongside God as his hands and his feet as we interact and care-take this gift of a beautiful blue planet.
What are the challenges of farming the way you do at Polyface Farms, and why aren’t there more people getting into this?
God does not see human occupation as an ecological disaster; he sees it as an ecological caress. We espouse the same view, that using our intellectual and mechanical ability should actually bring more regenerative capacity to the land. So here we don’t use chemical fertilizers but we are carbon centric, we buy bark mulch, and we pick up carbon where we can, we have a chipper and we chip branches, and we don’t sell hay. We don’t sell anything off the farm except the animals themselves. If the government would get out of the way and let us butcher them all here, we wouldn’t even let the hair, the hide, and the guts go. We would keep all that too. We do that for the poultry, but not for the cattle because of different regulations. Those principles that animals move and are not in stationary houses are an integrated approach that plants and animals institute carbon and perennials. Those are the principles, and then of course the biodiversity.
Obviously the challenge is that the way I do things is heresy—it is unorthodox. A lot of people think that our neighbors must yearn to have a farm like this; well, they don’t. They call us bioterrorists and typhoid Marians and all that. So you are going to be an outcast; biblically you are going to be serving without the cap. Historically you are going to be a bit of a heretic, and that is not for the faint of heart. You have to have staying power and conviction and be real savvy to be able to do that. That is the hardest part, and the second hardest part is that the way we do things is people-centric. Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that the system is prejudiced against having people. It is incentivized toward having machines and computers and robotics, and that is why companies are going this route.
What are you working on at Polyface Farms now?
One of the main things we need to do is marketing, getting more people to buy into integrity food and realize that they need to be as interested in that as they are in the latest dysfunction in the Kardashian household. If we could ever get that done, we’d be in good shape. We are constantly working on marketing to customers and consumer education, which includes getting into your kitchen and not just wanting processed food all the time.
Some Christians have criticized you for being a save-the-earth liberal, while some progressives would criticize you for being a fundamentalist pro-lifer. Is there a common basis where they could learn from each other?
I think that bridge is food. We are human: from humus. I don’t know anybody – from socialists to libertarians – who wants unbreathable air, undrinkable water, and toxic soil. You can almost go naked and live under a bridge, but you can’t go without food. This is the most intimate thing we do – taking something physical and ingesting it. It becomes flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones.
Even though I am a very outspoken Christian, I’ve been welcomed into Yale, UC Berkley more than once, Rutgers, and other institutions where a conservative Christian voice would normally not be welcome. We are united around the commonality of what they call ecology, and I call creation stewardship. I have been able to plant seeds in ground that would normally never be open to that seed.
Another thing that struck me in your book was about teaching reverence for life to children. How does that connect with having them there when the cow calves, or on butchering day?
We have never sheltered our kids from the most visceral aspects of farming. Before they could even pick up a chicken, they are toddling along dragging a chicken to the plucker. We are born with a primal sense of life and death, and the fact that something has to die for something to live. In a compost pile microbes are ingesting and being ingested by others.
All of creation is pulsing with sentience: when the sunflower tracks the sun across the sky, when the maple tree withholds its sap in a windstorm so that if a big branch falls it will have enough sap to run to the wound. Appreciating these things elevates our reverence, awe, and wonder to a higher plane.
When you kill something on a video game, you wait five seconds and it gives you a new icon. But when you go out to the garden and the tomato plant is dead, that’s it. The gravity of that situation helps to create a frame of reference to how we interact with each other.
Sometimes we become so disconnected that we don’t have a frame of context for what true sacrifice is. Part of blessing our food is being grateful for the sacrifice whether it is a carrot, a pig, or a chicken. The ultimate purpose of living things is to give themselves for something else.
The ultimate gift we can give is that we sacrifice in service for each other. And then there is the profound thought that there can be no eternal life without the sacrifice of Christ. There’s the ultimate example of life. When I’m in secular circles I’m able to use the sacrificial metaphor, that something has to die in order for something to live. It’s beautiful to be able to move seamlessly to the thought that for us to have spiritual life something had to die, and that was Christ. You can move that tenderly and seamlessly with credibility in a very unchurched crowd.
So how do you teach your children to love to work?
First of all, you have to like to work. We have to appreciate that all we do, from cleaning the toilet to planting the tomato plant, is all sacred stuff. It is an extension of God’s participatory hand in life. We do it all as unto the Lord.
Children love competition and so instead of saying, “Go out and pick beans for a half hour,” you go out and you put a survey ribbon from this plant to that plant, and maybe another one from here to there, and whoever gets to their ribbon first wins. I tell parents not to give time-oriented tasks; give task-oriented tasks. When you do time, then you can always sit down and have a big argument about whether you are actually working hard or not. But if you make it task oriented – if you want to dawdle, you can dawdle, but you’ll be a long time and stuck with it for a while.
You pointed out in your books that the age of the average American farmer is pushing sixty. Why aren’t more people taking up farming?
Right now the impediments to entry are so large that young people can’t get in, and old people can’t get out. If you want to grow a chicken for Tyson, the first thing you have to do is to have a $500,000 chicken factory, right? But you can do it with our approach – livestock with portable infrastructure and portable water and modular infrastructure – and just not go to the movies for a month to save some pocket change, and build a portable shelter, and if you like it you build another one, and if you like it as much as we do, you have 120 of them. But the point is you can scale it up or scale it down. This way it is management intensive as opposed to infrastructure intensive. The beauty of this is that the equity moves from land and depreciable energy-intensive infrastructure and pharmaceuticals to knowledge, skill, and customers. My thing about that is that no bank can come and foreclose your knowledge. No bank can come and say, “I’m going to foreclose on your skill today,” and so what it does is moves the equity into non-depreciables, and that fundamentally changes the economics, and the ability to enter and escape at will. That is a big paradigm change.
And if adopted on a larger scale, it is a new way of being a human community.
The problem is that in most of our Christian communities our divorce rate is the same, losing our children to secularism is the same, our recreation is the same, and our entertainment is the same. Our investment is the same as is our food, and our medical is the same and our education is the same. Man! What happened to the narrow way and the broad way? We say there is a broad way and a narrow way, but we’ve become completely secularized and inculcated into the greater culture instead of being a city set on a hill that is a beacon of attraction to the culture because we are so joyful, happy, and confident, and draw people to ourselves as part of drawing people to Him. Wherever these can be established as beachheads of examples, I think we are going to see a ripple effect of influence going out. The question is, what is the most efficacious way now to touch the culture; is it to inculcate from the top down or from the bottom up? I’ve always been a bottom-up kind of guy.
The fact that 97 percent of the eggs sold in America are produced on 170 factory farms, which are mostly located in a couple of little pockets in the entire country – that’s a pretty elite fraternity. If that were your church, it would be a hard thing to enter. I wish we would understand the spiritual principles we espouse from the pew, so that we can see ourselves as a player in this magnificent lesson of spiritual truth. And when we participate in food and farming, we leave saying, “Oh, that’s what forgiveness looks like, oh, that’s what being a good neighbor looks like, oh, that’s what a whosoever-will paradigm looks like.”
In rural areas of the United States we are witnessing a pattern of decreasing life expectancy as a result of suicide, alcoholism, and the opioid epidemic. What does the solution to these problems look like?
I’m a big fan of children’s gardens. It is so powerful when I plant a tomato seed, nurture the plant, watch the bees pollinate the blossoms, and then the little green orb comes, and then it finally turns red, and then I get to eat it and the juice runs down my elbow. That awareness of my place in the context of something bigger than me is so much more profound than being the top points getter on Angry Birds.
When we’re in the shower getting ready for work, are we thinking: what am I going to do today that actually massages and caresses the mycelium, the earthworms, and the acetobacter bacteria in the soil? Can we possibly think that way? I think we can if we have a little vermicomposting kit under our sink, and maybe two chickens laying our eggs and eating our kitchen scraps, and if we make a conscious decision to not put our kitchen scraps in the landfill. That takes an act of will, which elevates our life to a new plane that is more receptive to understanding. Wow! This is really God’s stuff, it really is ... and what does He want?
As people become more disconnected, they become disempowered. At the same time, government agents and the bureaucracy is addicted to this manipulative attitude: oh, we can just manipulate the market and health, as opposed to realizing that, fundamentally, we are very, very dependent and this is the posture that God wants us to have. It is the mutual dependency; a servant’s heart toward each other. When our hands are in the soil, when we are actually thinking about our dependence on air, soil, water, microbes, and the magnificence of life, it gives us a better perspective on what is at our fingertips. It makes us a little more humble and a little less manipulative, and a little more appreciative of other people’s abilities, gifts, and talents. I think that is true diversity.
Interview by Kevin Keiderling on June 29, 2016.
Photographs are in the public domain.