Is there any “up” side to covid? What lessons can we learn from the past year? Joel Salatin, the man behind Polyface Farms in Swoope, VA, is an author, speaker, and leader in the regenerative farming movement. Today he dares to suggest that we examine what is happening and what our role has been in ushering it in. What are we doing to nurture good health? What are the restrictions doing to the same, and to our economy? He asks important questions and offers common-sense advice on where to go from here.
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Lessons from this Past Year
Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda
What if COVID-19 has a purpose and lessons to teach us? This is episode 314 and our guest is Joel Salatin. Joel is the man behind Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia. He is an author, speaker and leader in the regenerative farming movement. Always outspoken, Joel dares to examine the lessons we may learn from COVID. On the farm when animals get sick, farmers try to figure out what went wrong. Nature’s default, Joel suggests is wellness. We have to ask ourselves, what have we done that has led us to where we are? Are there steps we can take to support our immune systems? What‘s the problem with heavy–handed restrictions? Are these worse than the illness itself?
Welcome to the show, Joel.
It’s great to be with you, Hilda, always.
Years ago, we talked about the situation. Even though you’re not a doctor, you had a feeling that staying away from each other and wearing masks might not be the answer. Why is that? Where did that come from, Joel?
I’m a big believer in immune function and the adaptability of our own bodies to be able to adapt, to adjust and to speak into a new situation. Intuitively, it didn’t make any sense to me that we’re going to social distance, we’re going to wear masks or we’re going to get vaccines. This is a new thing. Are we going to wear masks forever? My problem at the beginning was, what’s the end game? Unless you get herd immunity which was something we heard early on and then it waned. You didn’t hear about it. There were many people talking about herd immunity. It comes on. That’s part of cultural adaptation to a new thing. How many flu strains did we have? There‘s a dozen. Things mutate and we see it on the farm. Things come through. You have this initial difficult adaptation time. You brush yourself off. You go on and you don’t hear about it again.
When the animals on your farm are exposed to disease, some don’t make it. Those that do, are they stronger?
Yes. I’ve never believed in a bunch of crutches thus part of the problems with complete herd-like vaccinations, wormers and those kinds of interventions. When you give everybody a crutch, then you don’t know who the strong and the weak are. You give things less chance to adapt. You exercise that immune system a little bit. People know that I drink out of the water tank with the cows. The cows are drinking out of that side, I drink out of this side. They’re slobbering out there. I don’t drink it all day, every day but a little swig of pond water once in a while out of a creek, these are all things that I do to exercise the immune system.
Would you dare to say that by staying apart from each other, we are making ourselves weaker in some way?
Yes. Dr. Zach Bush has talked about this at length about how my breath vapors interact with your breath vapors. This is all part of the immunological exercise that yields strength to us. Not debilitating fragility but makes us stronger. I created a furor early on in the thing by saying, “I want it. Let’s get it over with. I’ll brush myself off. We’ll go on.“ I’m not trying to be disrespectful to people that have suffered with it. I’m not coming from a position of fear. I wonder if some of the resurgences are simply from the stress of people that are fixated on paranoia. On the farm, in our animals, we know the number one reason anything ever gets sick is stress. It could be hygiene. It could be fear. They’re scared of something. It could be dietary. They are not getting enough nutrition. There are numerous reasons. Stress is a big umbrella word but among people, since we have a huge brain compared to the size of the brain of the rest of the animal, it’s reasonable to think that our brains have a bigger influence on our stress level than animal‘s brains with thinking capacity. We have this capacity to sit and think all day about fearful things and worrisome things. When you do that, you get stressed.
That depresses our immune system function and makes us more vulnerable. We’re at this amazing gathering that the foundation has put together and I saw a fellow here with a shirt that says, “Fear is the virus.“ What do you think of that?
There’s a lot of truth to that. The fact that we as a culture, have completely abandoned the overall notion that we can, without crutches, without cheating, without vaccines, without other things, affect our health, our immune system and that we can do something. Imagine if the culture had taken the attention it put on masks, social distancing and vaccines. Let’s take those three. We put as much attention and invested the amount of energy and money in truly building an immune system as it did in those three things. Where would we be? We might be in a whole different place.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi–Cola would be out of business. Mountain Dew would be out of business. There would be certain things. Maybe McDonald’s would be out of business. There would be things that would be out of business. Things that would be in business would be grass-based agriculture, local food systems. People cooking in their kitchens wouldn’t be getting hot pockets and preprocessed everything. There’d be a revival of domestic culinary arts as people learned how to take whole foods, raw foods and prepare them. We would have larders. We would have dehydrators, jerky bakers and all sorts of things. There would be a loss of a lot of things. We wouldn’t sell as many candy bars. Hershey chocolate might have a bad year but in general, there would be more than compensation for those losses in rejuvenated new things that are healing within the culture.
I’m thinking if the disease were to sweep through, let’s say your cattle, sometimes there is a time for an intervention. Maybe one reason we’re responding to this virus with a lot of death and suffering, is it in part because something radical needs to happen and we haven’t done all the proactive stuff?
Anytime you’ve had as many animals as we’ve had on our farm and have on our farm, there are times when you have issues. I can tell you in my years of farming, every single time we’ve had a statistically, critical problem. I’m not talking about a chick in 1,000 that dies. They’re going to have that. I’m talking about when you go out and you say, “This flock doesn’t look good.” They’re sick and out of 1,000, you pull out 20 in a day and 20 more tomorrow. Now, you’re in trouble. We’ve had about six of those episodes and every single time, it’s been our fault.
We didn’t give the right food diet. We crowded them too much. We didn’t give them a good habitat. They were too cold or too hot. There’s something wrong. One time, we bought a bad set of calves from a guy that was vaccinating, corn feeding and all that stuff. We didn’t realize that they wouldn’t be able to make the transition to a more natural grass-based approach. A bunch of them went down and got sick. I’m convinced that nature’s default position is wellness if things are running well. Sickness is not nature’s default position. If it’s sick, then what did I do to break down the wellness trajectory?
I feel like that’s not a question we’re asking ourselves. We’re looking for a solution outside of ourselves as we’re looking and thinking it’s something outside of ourselves that’s threatening our health.
It’s like the average farmer when there’s a sickness, his first question is, “I must not have used the right vaccine or the right concoction. What am I missing in my medicine cabinet?“ Whereas when we see something, our first question is, “What did we do that allow the immunological function to break down in this critter?” Not a single person in our culture, at least that I know of in leadership position, expert position at the Dr. Fauci level, has asked, “What could we have done? What could we do to build up our immune system?“ All we hear is comorbidities. “What created the comorbidities?“
I don’t understand why they’re not talking about that, why they’re not saying, “There’s a week we’re not going to drink sodas. There’s a week we’re going to stay away from junk food.“ Honestly, I want to ask you, why are they not putting an emphasis on things we can do to strengthen our health and our immune system?
Nobody wants to take responsibility that it’s something that I can do. We’re a victimhood society. We love to say, “I’m sick because of something over there,“ which means I get well because of something over there. If it’s something that I could do, affect or create myself, then I’m responsible for decisions, for choice and for all these things. I don’t want to be responsible. I want to do whatever the orthodoxy says and expect that somebody in the orthodoxy will fix me if it’s not the right thing. That’s the mentality we have.
The other aspect, too, is money. People don’t make anyone else any money. If I’m sick, I’m going to need a lot of medications, a lot of doctor’s visits. I’m perpetuating a big system but if I’m well, I’m not giving anybody a cent.
That speaks to the whole Wendell Berry idea of what’s wrong with us. He creates more GDP than what’s right with us. He writes about this in The Unsettling of America eloquently. The bottom line is as a culture, we think we’re pretty clever. We have not been clever enough to identify what is a cultural asset and a cultural liability. If I stay well, that doesn’t add money to the GDP but if I get sick and I need doctors, medications, hospital beds, around the clock nursing care, all those are jobs that are all expenditures of money. GDP goes up. From a cultural accounting system, sickness creates more GDP than wellness.
For example, we have a creek in front of the house. If I go out and pollute that creek, the cost of cleanup does not come off national GDP. It adds to GDP. That’s jobs. It’s energy. We have to bring a truck. We have to buy petroleum. My position is that if a culture cannot capture the difference between an asset and a liability, we’re doomed. “We’ve got to build more prisons.“ Prisons are GDP accelerators. Every prison we build should be viewed as a liability. It should come off of GDP. Juvenile detention centers should come off of GDP. Every time somebody spends money on a divorce attorney, it should come off of GDP but we don’t have that kind of accounting system.
Speaking of accounting, I’ve noticed that the rich have gotten richer. If you go, you can see stats that the head of Amazon, Home Depot and people that were already raking in the money are multibillionaires.
This whole COVID thing has been the biggest transfer of wealth from poor people to rich people of any other thing that’s ever happened in this nation. Think about how big Amazon was in February 2020. Was Amazon big? It was big. Think about this though. In the last months, Amazon doubled. There is a huge transfer of wealth power and now we’re getting into censorship. This has created the whole misinformation log. For the sake of COVID, we cannot afford to let minority views be heard. If you write The Contagion Myth, we have to ban that book. We can’t let minority views get out. Under the guise of controlling a contagion, we have allowed cultural control and lack of choice, even lack of ability to choose a different narrative. We have stopped that in a profound way. My bottom line is that the external things surrounding COVID, the fallout, the result of it is far worse than COVID itself.
In light of everything you’ve said, there’s this huge redistribution of wealth. Socially, we’re afraid of each other. Health–wise, we’re compromising our immune system by staying apart from each other and living in fear. What do you see coming down the pike?
I don’t know what’s going to come down the pike. One of the things I don’t do is prophesy. A couple of things that I would like to see is a slow emergence. In fact, the negative effects of the vaccine are gradually filtering out. A big headline in the paper was, “The vaccine is up and so is COVID.” You get some of these little headlines. We’re seeing that the heavy lockdown states, California, New York fared no better than the non–lockdown states like Florida and Texas. What I would like to see coming down the pike is additional validation of the gentle effect versus the heavy–handed response to it. I would like to see leaking into the press some of the side effects of the vaccine.
Light bulbs start to go on in people’s heads. We’re hearing about face rashes with children wearing masks all the time. Dentists are concerned that all this masking is going to create dental problems. This is going to have a long tail and the tail from 1985 to 1990 when pharmaceutical companies were freed up in 1985 from suits to 1990 when we had our first food allergy discussions and things like that. Five years is a long tail and a lot of these things do have a long tail. It’s going to be interesting to see years from now, are we going to start seeing some real serious issues? Will somebody somewhere in the mainstream media connect that back to a response? My biggest problem with the whole COVID thing is I don’t know what the exit strategy is. They’ve painted themselves into a paranoid hole. At what case level do we say, “You can take your masks off?” At what case level do we say, “You can fly in an airplane without a mask?” I don’t know what those are.
You don’t know and I don’t think they know.
That’s even scarier. You would think if they had a policy, they would say, “When this benchmark happens, we’re going to do this. When this benchmark happens, we’re going to stop doing this.“ You would think there would be some specific benchmarks like the red, yellow and green fire danger in California. They’ve got the little dial. Somebody is measuring humidity, wind speed and biomass. They’re putting it on the dial. Nobody’s doing that with this. I don’t see an exit strategy and it’s sad.
You said something about gentle versus heavy–handed. Maybe the problem with a heavy–handed is we don’t always see the consequences right away until down the pike. You put it in there thinking, “We’re going to eradicate all these weeds,” when those weeds were what we‘re feeding the birds. You’re missing something. I know you know about the gentle approach because that’s what you use on your farm. You’ve talked about it being a beautiful choreography between nature and man.
A lot of things that look like a problem are a stepping stone to successional regeneration. For example, let’s take a weed. We’ve got a weed in the pasture. It looks unsightly but it makes a great big taproot that makes a big core going out into the ground. The bottom line is that big taproot makes a big carbon drill and a porous spot for rain to soak in better in that new channel into the ground that will stimulate the germination of a new clover or succulent plant that doesn’t look like a weed, that the cows liked better. It was created by the weed that made a different environment. The soil translocated a different set of minerals and nutrients for the soil to succeed to a different level.
We see it, for example, with the pigs. The pigs go out and they tear up a place. It looks rotten here for a couple of days then suddenly you see brand new plants germinate from the seed bank that was there that was maybe years old but those seeds never germinated because there was never enough distributor exercise to get them to germinate. We bring the pigs in. The pigs stir things up. They exercise the soil a little bit and suddenly the seeds say, “We’ve been sitting here waiting for years for this disturbance so that we could germinate.“ That’s a lot of what all this is. I’ve gone on record saying COVID is not a government thing. It’s not a government problem. It’s not anything.
People will find their information. Different groups will publish their different findings. There will be some people that don’t want to write a plan. There will be some people that don’t want to go to a conference. There will be some people that don’t want to go to Disney World. There will be some resort centers that say, “We’re not going to be able to have a conference.“ There will be others that say, “We’re going to go ahead.“ What I’m saying is society adapts to information like the seeds that are in the soil adapt to a new environment in the soil. Just because there is unsightly weed now, it doesn’t mean that’s not part of the trajectory of progress tomorrow.
It reminds me of when COVID happened in 2020. Some people said, “It did give us 20/20 vision.“ All I can hope is that people will see what you’re saying. That may be what we think is a problem is a part of what we need to get to the next level for our health as humanity.
A couple of things that 2020 gave us is a tsunami of homesteaders, urban exodus, work–at–home, a new interest in home culinary arts. For months, the most-watched YouTube video was how to make sourdough. That’s a good thing. There are a lot of positive things coming out of this. Not the least of which is the ability for people to telecommute, stay at home, shut down the car and turn off the keys. That could do more than electric cars in reducing gas use. The empty store shelves brought people face-to-face with the fragility of the industrial food system.
They’re serious about the know your farmer, know your food, the security, the food chain, the custody chain and how fragile is it. We got the tank liner in the lodge in the Suez Canal. That threatened an 8 to the 10–month tail. Here we are at this stage of the game with a brand new awareness that maybe this industrial long custody global system isn’t quite as resilient as we thought. There are a lot of people thinking that for the first time and that’s good.
I want to close with a question I often pose at the end, Joel. If a reader could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
It would be to write down all the people that you don’t like and forgive them, all the things that you are in turmoil about and angry about internally. Stephen Covey writes about this, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, how we fixate on things that are beyond our control instead of fixating on things that are within our control. A lot of us are stirred up about things that are beyond our control. I can’t change the fallacy narrative. I can’t change the CDC. I can’t change whatever these things are. I can change me. Think about what I can control and then focus on that. Make a list if you have to. What can I control? What I can’t control, let it go because I can’t do anything about that anyway. If we do that, it will help to laser focus us to invest our time, energy and money in the spots that will give us personally, in our own lives, the greatest marginal reaction and that’s a positive thing.
Thank you so much for your time, Joel.
Thank you, Hilda. It’s always a delight to be with you.
About Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin, 62, calls himself a Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer. Others who like him call him the most famous farmer in the world, the high priest of the pasture, and the most eclectic thinker from Virginia since Thomas Jefferson. Those who don’t like him call him a bio-terrorist, Typhoid Mary, charlatan, and starvation advocate.
With a room full of debate trophies from high school and college days, 12 published books, and a thriving multi-generational family farm, he draws on a lifetime of food, farming and fantasy to entertain and inspire audiences around the world. He’s as comfortable moving cows in a pasture as addressing CEOs in a Wall Street business conference.
His wide-ranging topics include nitty-gritty how-to for profitable regenerative farming as well as cultural philosophy like orthodoxy vs. heresy. A wordsmith and master communicator, he moves audiences from laughs one minute to tears the next, from frustration to hopefulness. Often receiving standing ovations, he prefers the word performance rather than presentation to describe his lectures. His favorite activity?–Q&A. “I love the interaction,” he says.
He co-owns, with his family, Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. Featured in the New York Times bestseller Omnivore’s Dilemma and award-winning documentary Food Inc., the farm services more than 5,000 families, 50 restaurants, 10 retail outlets, and a farmers’ market with salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, pastured poultry, and forestry products. When he’s not on the road speaking, he’s at home on the farm, keeping the callouses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails, mentoring young people, inspiring visitors, and promoting local, regenerative food and farming systems.
Salatin is the editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, granddaddy catalyst for the grass farming movement. A frequent guest on radio programs and podcasts targeting preppers, homesteaders, and foodies, Salatin’s practical, can-do solutions tied to passionate soliloquies for sustainability offer everyone food for thought and plans for action.