HILDA LABRADA GORE: Our guest today is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Joel is a straight-talking speaker and author, a farmer and a mentor to thousands. His farm was featured in Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and in the award-winning movie, Food, Inc. Today he speaks to us about one of our favorite topics—food—and discusses how the food that is best for us is also best for the planet.
I understand part of your mission in life is providing people with better food. Aren’t we eating well enough as it is?
JS: Well, the trend lines indicate that we are not. Or I guess the new way to say it is, “We are eating well—not!” The trend lines for obesity, type 2 diabetes, autism, childhood leukemia, cancer—name your disease—these things have been on the uptick for some time. The food-health link is very well verified, so most people intuitively realize your body is only going to run as well as the fuel that you give it. It’s like your car or anything else; we intuitively understand that. People “get” that they eat well to be well—but I think what trips them up, what they don’t understand is that every pork chop is not the same, every egg is not the same, every tomato is not the same. They assume that every tomato is the same and every pork chop is the same, and that’s simply not true.
HLG: Can you explain that? How are they not the same?
JS: If you raise a tomato on compost seasonally, with the full array of mycelium, mycorrhizae, earthworms and the whole food web that’s doing its commercial café under the soil surface to make sure all the minerals are there and everything is right—when you bite into that tomato, the juice runs down to your elbow, right? But if your tomato was grown in synthetics, with a lot of pesticides and herbicides—and genetically selected to withstand two thousand miles of banging around in the back of a tractor trailer going from some place to another—it’s going to be like cardboard, and it will have the nutrition of cardboard. The difference between a backyard, homegrown tomato and what’s in the supermarket is the difference between night and day. The same thing is true with animal proteins, eggs, poultry, everything.
Mother Earth News magazine commissioned a study a few years back where they took twelve pastured-egg producers in the country— we were one of them—and had them send eggs to a lab to do a nutrient analysis. They compared the results to the official USDA (I call it the “US-duh”) nutrient label on eggs. They measured twelve or thirteen things. I’ll just give you one—folic acid—which is really important for pregnant women especially. The regular USDA label is about forty-eight micrograms per egg, and our eggs average one thousand thirty-eight micrograms per egg. You can go down the list, looking at riboflavin (vitamin B2) and other B vitamins.
Let’s look at beef and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). After only fourteen days of grain-feeding an herbivore, the CLA is gone. That’s why we don’t feed any grain to the herbivore because we want the conjugated linoleic acid, which is one of the top anticarcinogenic substances in nature. You can go down the list of all foods and see these—they’re not ten percent deviations—sometimes a thousand percent deviations in quality.
HLG: You’re saying these huge differences make a huge difference in our health.
JS: Absolutely. That makes sense intuitively. If you have a more nutritious fuel, your body will function better. And of course, it’s been proven over and over empirically as well. And anecdotally, certainly. People say to me all the time, “I switched from eating industrial food to high-quality pasture-based meat, poultry and eggs and my whole life has changed.”
A lady in our store had a sickly-looking six-year-old son. He was a small, kind of a failure-to-thrive looking child. He was a very picky eater; he wouldn’t eat anything. She got a couple dozen eggs and called me three days later to say, “My son is eating six eggs at a time, he cannot eat enough.” Well, it’s because his body was starved for nutrition. He now had to work overtime to make up for lost time.
HLG: I think a lot of people in the U.S. are overfed and undernourished. They’re starved for nutrition, too, aren’t they?
JS: Absolutely. Being overfed and undernourished is related to the refined carbohydrates and sugar—that whole deal. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really satisfy either, so you’re constantly opening the cupboard and the refrigerator and looking for something else that will satiate, because what you’ve eaten is so nutrient-deficient that it doesn’t satiate.
HLG: You said people come to your farm seeking these high-quality foods. What causes them to make a change from where they were before to where they are now, seeking out these nutrient-dense, more natural foods “off the grid”?
JS: Every one of them has a conversion story. Everybody’s conversion story is different, but every single person has a conversion story. It might be that somebody got sick, or something they read, or it might be something they tried where they had this epiphanic “aha” moment— like, “oh wow, that’s different.” We do that all the time.
For example, we use Golden Acres apple juice here; just a cold-pressed apple juice. There’s no water. There’s an inch of sediment in the bottom of the jug. It’s the real deal, you have to shake it up because of this inch of sediment. You have to be careful drinking it, because you can drink two glasses and suddenly realize you just ate six apples, and had twenty-four hours to work through the effects. But it’s the real deal. We love to give it to people because—compared to Welch’s or whatever, which is basically watered-down apple-juice-looking material in the store—this stuff is full-bodied and the real deal. Think about raw milk compared to pasteurized, homogenized, industrial skim milk. One is like chalk compared to the real deal. So, there’s more and more understanding that taste doesn’t lie. In a laboratory, you can do a lot of trials, but ultimately, you can’t actually replace taste.
HLG: What about people who are longing for food like this but they simply can’t afford it. What would you say to them? Or they don’t have access to it. How are they supposed to get this food?
JS: Those are two different questions. One is price and the other is access. Let’s take one at a time. I will do access first because it’s so easy. Access is as simple as joining the tribe that’s doing this. In every realm of life, there’s always the overriding conventional orthodoxy: “This is what we all know.” And yet there is always this undercurrent of subterfuge, rebellion and innovation percolating right under the surface. So, if you are wanting to make a change in your life to find a different kind of food, you just need to turn off the TV, turn off the Netflix and devote some attention to joining what I call “the tribe of heresy.”
HLG: It seems like in all these adventure movies I’ve seen, like The Matrix or Star Wars, there’s a rebellion.
JS: Yes, always there’s good and evil or good force and bad force. Or the conventional versus the unconventional. Sure, there’s that tension, and we have it even within us—the tension between laziness and discipline, action and lethargy. How much am I willing to put myself out to be successful? It’s just a matter of putting attention on this. So many people want their life to change but they don’t want to change anything. We know that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. I wish I could go into a room full of people and say, “All of you can eat the most nutrient-dense, integrity-based ecologically enhancing food, and you don’t have to do anything.” If I could promise that, let me tell you, I’d be the slickest marketer in the world. But you can’t. You have to do something. So, regarding access—our farm could easily double our production tomorrow if we had people wanting it. We market aggressively, but at the same time, we just need more people who are interested in this. The access is there. There are thousands of farmers ready to grow another tomato or another pork chop if the market were there.
HLG: I’m the DC chapter leader for the Foundation and we have a resource list of farmers markets that covers the whole city. If people look, they can find a farmers market in all parts of the city. They are all over. So you’re right, people need to plug in. Let’s talk about the price aspect.
JS: The price aspect is one of my favorite topics. First of all, realize that processed food is not cheap. One of the most fascinating experiences I’ve ever had was when I was doing a book tour in New York, and they had me do a signing down in the Green Market in Union Square in New York City. Arguably the oldest, most elite, highest-priced farmers market in the world—right in the middle of New York City. In the market I ask my hostess, “Could you take me to the most expensive potato in this market?” She said she knows just the guy. We start elbowing our way through the crowd, she takes me to this farmer’s booth. It’s like a sculpture—I mean, it’s gorgeous! He’s got twenty or thirty boxes—and he’s got purple, red, white, yellow, round, oblong, gnarly—every kind of potato you can imagine, and it’s arranged beautifully. He’s got prices on all of them. I look for the most expensive potato. It’s a little heirloom blue Peruvian fingerling potato. It’s a dollar ninety-nine ($1.99) a pound.
A dollar ninety-nine is fairly expensive for a potato if you compare it to Idaho baking potatoes in the store, but what’s fascinating is that all around this market are supermarkets, each of which has a hundred feet of dedicated, fluorescent-lighted, expensive, handicap-accessible floor space with shelves full of plastic wrapped bags of potato chips that are two ninety nine ($2.99) a pound! My point is that highly processed foods are not cheap.
I’m sure many of your listeners have seen Food, Inc., a great movie with one very glaring weakness. The family in the film that went to Burger King and got the Whopper and a five-gallon soda drink and french fries, and then went to the store and said, “We can’t afford to buy produce or tomatoes because we don’t have the money.” I remember very well the first time I saw that because we sell ground beef which is an ingredient in the Whopper—I’m thinking, “Right now you can buy two whole pounds of world-class grass-finished ground beef for the cost of that meal.” So, it’s not a matter of money. It is a matter of convenience, it is a matter of peer pressure and maybe peer dependency. Plus maybe there’s a little Star Wars character in the meal; that’s what you’re really buying, right? You want the little toys—you’re not really buying food.
That story could be told over and over again. Whenever anybody says, “I can’t afford your food,” I want to grab them and say, “Take me to your house and I’m sure here’s what we’re going to find: a lottery ticket—that’s a waste of money—we’re going to find soda, fast food, boxes of takeout pizza, alcohol, tobacco and coffee.” If you really want to do this, then do it. Everything else is an excuse. You don’t really need one-hundred-dollar designer jeans with holes already in the knees, you don’t really need the widescreen TV or—name your thing. The fact is that you can eat very, very well if you eat unprocessed and if you use your own kitchen to process, package, prepare and preserve your own food.
Fortunately, we now have the most sophisticated technology right in our kitchens. We’ve got bread makers, ice cream makers, dehydrators and Cuisinarts for mixing and baking. We’ve got hot and cold water on demand. You don’t have to go to the spring and heat it up. I’m not suggesting we go back to the past. I’m talking about taking our techno-sophistication in the culinary world and going forward with it. We’ve never been so blessed. Crockpots—what is easier than a crockpot? You don’t have to thaw anything out. You throw it all in there, you leave for work, it sits there at forty watts all day. You come back at five o’clock and supper is ready. If you come back at six, it’s ready. If you get stuck and come back at ten, it’s not burned; it’s still hot and ready. This is a no-brainer, and you can do it on pennies.
HLG: I think we have to refamiliarize ourselves with cooking. It seems foreign to us. You say it’s not about going back—but taking up cooking is going back for some of us.
JS: There’s a certain mentality that is going back but I refuse to think that embracing a visceral participation in our umbilical is going back. No, it is the way forward—to understand that we are completely dependent on and connected to an ecological nest, which entails everything in us and around us. Life is not some fantasy thing on a smartphone. Real life happens in the conversation of three trillion bacteria inside us. And they couldn’t care less whether you’re watching the Super Bowl on a widescreen, a smartphone or whether there’s a Super Bowl at all. My point is that an understanding of our dependency on something within and bigger than ourselves is the path to truth. And if you’re going to say, “we’re going to levitate away from this dependency, we don’t have to worry about our internal three trillion critters, they’ll take care of themselves, thank you very much”—no, they won’t, they expect us to massage them a bit.
HLG: You mentioned a movie earlier. I saw a movie that said we give so much land over to animal agriculture that it’s not good for our planet. Does the way you’re talking about eating affect our environment in a good way or a negative way? Is it good just for us or is it good for the earth, too?
JS: Fortunately, we have historical templates that show us that you can have both nutrient density and planetary ecological enhancement at the same time. There is no tension, they’re not mutually exclusive. Now, while it’s true that movies like Cowspiracy use as their database current industrial production and “what is,” they didn’t come to Polyface Farms for any of their data points. My point is, when you’re studying and researching something, if your starting point is wrong, by the time you run your permutations—what does this mean for biomass? or carbon sequestration? or hydration?—you’re way off. If you’re heading to the North Pole today and you’re five degrees off, you’re never going to hit the North Pole by the time you get out there.
The truth is that it’s hard to study “what isn’t.” Sounds like a Dr. Seuss book, doesn’t it? It’s hard to study what isn’t. And that’s exactly where we are right now. This tribe that we’re describing—the tribe of nutrient density and ecological enhancement in a complementary, synergistic relationship—that tribe is extremely small. All of us, if we’re thinking and caring people at all, are living under this kind of guilt burden of the historical hand of man as being a rapist, a destroyer. The idea that the hand of man can be helpful and nurturing is almost a foreign thing. What we have is this environmentalism by abandonment—that the only way to take care of this earth is to get the humans off of these areas. Get man away from those because man tears stuff up. I get that, and I understand that, and I repent for all that my ancestors have done, from conquistadors to crusaders. But fortunately, that is not a legacy that you and I have to continue. We can break it.
I think it’s important for us to realize that five hundred years ago, North America had more pounds of animals on it than it does today. That’s important to remember. And those pounds of animals included over a million beavers—up to eight percent of the North American land area was covered by water, by beaver ponds. There were well over a million wolves, over a hundred million bison and so many passenger pigeons that in 1820, John James Audubon sat under a tree because he couldn’t see the sun for three days because it was blocked by a flock of passenger pigeons. Can you imagine the sun blocked for three days with a flock of birds going over? Native American lore has stories where wild turkey, prairie chickens and passenger pigeons would come in and roost in a forest next to an Indian village. In the morning, everybody would come out and there would be an inch of manure on the ground, and the whole forest would be just broken spires standing up, branches broken off, it looked like an earthquake had hit. Captain Jim Bridger out in the Dakotas—the first American to get out there and keep a journal about it—he said he got behind a herd of seven million bison. I have a wonderful diary from a guy from Arkansas in 1870 who went up on a plateau there and looked out. He measured the movement of this herd of bison: it was twenty miles wide and, measuring by the time it took this herd to pass him until the last one went by, was fifty miles long. So fifty miles long and twenty miles wide—one herd. California was full of megafauna elk. When you consider the level of animals that were in North America at that time, it’s profound.
In fact, there were more pounds of domestic livestock in America in 1900 than there are today because back then, all the weight we have today in tractors and combines was in draft power: mules, horses and oxen. This notion that we’re destroying the planet with animals is coming from a database that is wrong—factory farming, grain-fed beef, name your issue. I see a film like that and sit there and say “amen” to all the problems, but the solution is not to eliminate the animals. There is no functional animal-less ecology on the planet and never has been. The answer is to quit doing the bad stuff and do the good stuff.
Just imagine if somebody came here to study America’s educational system, and they picked the worst teacher in the worst classroom in the worst school in the country to do their data points. What would be the conclusion? “I don’t think we should have any education in this country,” right? That would be the conclusion. That’s what I’m trying to get to. Data points are all there is, and what is, is not good. But what is good is so small that, in the minds of the research community, it doesn’t exist. And it’s hard to study what doesn’t seem to exist.
HLG: Then you postulate that the level at which you’re farming is good for the people and for the earth?
JS: Absolutely. We’re building soil here out the wazoo. When we came in 1961, there were large areas in the farm that had no soil. They were just shale—saucer-shaped quarter acres of solid rock. And today, these shale saucers have eight inches of soil on them. And that didn’t come from chemical tin fertilizer, a feedlot and monocultures. That came from compost, poly-speciation, perennials and mimicking migratory patterns like nature does, using high-tech electric fencing and management.
HLG: This is fascinating. In another conversation I hope we will talk about your farming techniques and how they vary from what’s conventionally done. Is there anything more that you want to tell us now?
JS: I would just simply say, “be the change you want to see.” If you want to start to participate in a land-healing ethic, join us. Come in; it’s great.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019