In the rural Virginia town of Swoope, near the Shenandoah Valley, Joel Salatin practices common sense and ecologically sustainable agriculture on his farm, Polyface. In the wake of a COVID-19 pandemic that has drastically changed food distribution networks and disrupted the entire supply chain of the country, farming methods like Salatin’s have become increasingly desirable as we approach a dystopian future where terms like “farm-to-table” and “organic” have become buzz words associated with unrealistic ideas of expensive, healthy eating.
The truth is that Joel Salatin is practicing the long-standing agrarian traditions that have been used for hundreds of years in the South, long before the rise of factory farming and industrial food processing.
Modern society has dictated that it is perfectly normal and safe to pump animals full of hormones and steroids to grow them faster, soften their meat, and meet the increasing demand for cheap food for the masses. It has also become completely normal to raise livestock in putrid conditions where they wallow in their own filth and are fed massive quantities of cheap corn.
Take chickens for example. In order to meet the needs of today’s fast food corporations and Americans on tight budgets, most chickens never even see sunlight and are raised in poorly ventilated, dim poultry houses. Conditions are often so crowded that the chickens have barely any room to move around. Even though chickens are omnivores, these types of farms almost exclusively feed chickens corn. Because so many consumers prefer chicken breasts, factory farm-raised chickens have been genetically modified to grow larger breasts in shorter amounts of time - which often leads to the skeletal structure of these chickens being weakened to the point where they can only take a few steps before collapsing.
Beef and pork are produced using similar methods, and most of our meat is processed in factories that exploit illegal immigrant labor with poor working conditions. If we are a society that has become obsessed with sanitation, vaccinations, and bacteria, then why are we allowing our food to come from facilities where workers are in close proximity and handling our food in potentially unsafe ways? A recent study from the USDA even showed that conditions in these meatpacking plants likely drove COVID-19 outbreaks.
Joel Salatin rejects these modern methods that are demonstrably linked with countless examples of disease in our country, and he insists that there is a healthier, less complex, and more holistic way to feed the masses in times like these.
Since Polyface farms processes its own food and raises their animals in a more natural way, the anointed pundits of the FDA and other similar agencies have branded Joel Salatin a “lunatic” - a term which he has embraced amid the chaotic times we live in. Joel believes that animals should be able to graze more freely and allows his chickens, for example, to graze behind his cows. This allows the chickens to assume a more natural diet and helps his farm, since the chickens go through the cow waste and consume pesky bugs and insects that otherwise can cause problems. Joel also allows his pigs to roam the forest, rooting and foraging the soil to make more pasture for future use.
Salatin’s logic on moving his animals around comes directly from the Southern traditions of great agrarians like George Washington. During an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Salatin discussed the fact that Washington was a meticulous record keeper who often became frustrated during hog-slaughtering seasons because his laborers always had a difficult time tracking down all of the hogs. Washington even had certain workers designated to protect the gardens from these free-roaming swine.
COVID-19 has drastically changed how Americans view our health. With supermarkets constantly facing pricing and stocking issues, Joel Salatin’s farm has been more financially successful than ever. People drive from many miles away to purchase Polyface Farm’s sustainably raised meat.
To understand in simple terms why this method of consuming locally can have such a massive impact. Consider the current industrial, fast food model: A consumer goes to McDonalds and purchases a hamburger for about a dollar. That single patty can have the ground beef from around 100 cows. It is assembled with tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and pickles that have been grown around the country and shipped to various locations - and somehow this is a cheaper option than purchasing all of these ingredients locally in a store. Again, in today’s society where Americans must be ever-vigilant against disease and infection, why is it acceptable to eat a patty tainted with hormones and ground up with dozens of other beeves? (Yes, “beeves” is the old plural for beef)
When someone goes to buy a ground beef patty from Polyface farms, it comes from ONE cow. Joel Salatin has been labeled a mad man because he wants to raise animals in a way that harmonizes with nature. As he pointed out in the documentary “Food, Inc.”, our society has perverted science by genetically modifying animals and using technology to figure out extensive ways to grow and use corn as animal feed, when the industry never really even stopped to consider the long-term health effects of consuming animals raised this way. Looking at our food this way has unintended consequences that impact how we treat the earth and each other. Salatin put it perfectly when he stated:
“A culture that just uses a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure, to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community, and other cultures in the community of nations, with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type mentalities.”
The South has always been the agricultural cradle of the United States. Farmers like Joel Salatin are trying to bring food production and healthy living back to the community level. The true spirit of the South is based on a respect for, and interdependence with, mother nature. Salatin exemplifies this philosophy and represents the best that the South has to offer. During these troubling times, this kind of thinking might just save America.
Michael Martin is a teacher and historian residing in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of Southern Grit: Sensing the Siege of Petersburg and his work has been published on The Abbeville Institute, The Imaginative Conservative, and Dixie Heritage. His goal is to shatter the paradigm of centralization and show the world what the Southern Tradition has to offer.