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Joel Salatin's gospel

(article, Angela Allen)

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Joel Salatin can work the crowd as well as the soil. On a visit to Oregon in late summer, the Virginia-based farmer fertilized his presentations with a Southerner’s natural-born gift of the gab.
Sporting a "Grass Farmer" baseball hat and aviator glasses, Salatin — the 50-ish farmer who stole the spotlight in the documentary film '“Food and in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore's Dilemma — is a fire-in-the-belly orator on the green-food-movement lecture circuit. 

Last month, Salatin received the prestigious Heinz Award for spreading the word about sustainable family farming. The $100,000 prize awards recipients for contributing to human progress with “passion and individualism” and, in Salatin’s case, utter confidence in his techniques and vision.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Joel Salatin in Oregon."]

Salatin's newfound fame and not-so-new message come from practicing and preaching old-fashioned farming on his 550-acre Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. His MO: Let the animals do the work to nourish one another’s habitat and health.   

The media and mankind (many of us, at least) have eaten it up. “We were Luddites for 30 years, and now suddenly we’re out in front,” Salatin said during his Oregon talk. 

Salatin came to the Pacific Northwest to promote his books, including his latest, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front, and to guest-star at a “field day” in Corvallis, Oregon. The event was hosted by Salatin's former farm apprentice, Tyler Jones, who owns the 106-acre Afton Field Farm with his wife, Alicia. 

Jones and Salatin addressed about 150 growers and anyone interested in making the family farm sustainable and profitable, without the help or hindrance of government or corporations.     

h3. Salatin's secret

Salatin refers to himself as a “caretaker of creation.” Big stuff for a small farmer, yet in the crush of corporate agriculture, he is surviving quite well, thank you. (Salatin says he nets $150,000 a year.)

He raises beef, sheep, chickens, pigs, rabbits, and turkeys, and rotates them on his land, creating symbiotic relationships. Among other “pasture-perfect” (his term) practices, he sells premium-priced chicken after butchering the birds on site in an open-air structure, to the dismay of the feds.

“They can try to shut me down, but I’ll come back like a junkyard dog. Let’s see what happens when I have 24 hours a day to write in prison,” he said.
Salatin remains a free man, a new-age Thoreau on iced tea (he doesn’t drink coffee). Just how does he make the farm work so well?

Pay it forward, pass it down: Salatin has run an apprentice program for 20 years at Polyface. People like Afton Field Farm owner Jones, 29, provide labor, of course. They also learn Salatin’s practices, go home and use them, and spread the word. Afton Field Farm is a “baby” Polyface, Jones says. 

Salatin hires apprentices for 12-month stints. Each works 11 to 15 hours a day, doing such chores as rotating the chicken houses or “hoops” from field to field so the birds can clean up after the cattle. Apprentices behead chickens, stack firewood, and work on buildings. Each earns from $200 to $500 a month, sleeps on the farm, and eats the Salatins’ farm-fresh food (no alcohol or coffee; the Salatins eschew both).

Apprentices audition by doing the most unsavory task on the farm, such as dumping chicken guts into the appropriate compost pile. In 20 years, all but one worker stuck with the program — “and almost one more,” Jones says, referring to himself. 

Is this a happy-camper democratic apprenticeship?

[%image joelandtyler float=right width=400 caption="Tyler Jones and Joel Salatin, talking the talk."] 

“No. Total tyranny,” Salatin said. “I don’t farm by committee. I burned out on that in grade school. You don’t begin to learn until you admit you know nothing. The good apprentices realize this in about a month. You get paid more as you become more valuable. You learn to see that everything on the farm is the farm. It all takes work.”

h3. Turning pigs into pearls

Here's an example of Salatin's ingenuity: Pigs create disturbance when they uproot land. Disturbance is good in Salatin’s view. It means new life and innovation. An oak grove, or anything but prime farm land, provides the ideal place for a pig to tear up the soil.

So, instead of raising pigs on tons of feed and moving them from paddock to paddock to rip up more land, Salatin lets them run free among the trees, enjoying a regular acorn feast. Pigs eat enough acorns to decrease their feed by 45 percent, Salatin says. 

“People think these oak savannahs are without value," he said. "Landowners will lease them for near-nothing.”


h1. Want more Joel?

The Oregonian featured a lengthy story about Joel Salatin's visit to Oregon, written by [/user/baltimoregon "Laura McCandlish."]


In Virginia, Salatin leased a neighbor’s piece of oak-grove land for $3,000 a year and saved $30,000 in grain. You do the math, he says.

“You can take marginal land, rejuvenate it, and make an annual income by saving on grain,” he said — and pay the mortgage as the pigs fatten up. 

Another Salatin tip? Market in your sleep.

“Make your farm a one-stop shop,” he said, referring to the Afton Field Farm’s heirloom cherry, apple, and pear trees. “This orchard is a remarkable asset that came with this place.”

Can jams and sell fruit at the farmers' market along with your chicken, eggs, and pork. Raise bees and sell their honey.  

“Once a customer darkens your venue, the more they want to buy," Salatin said. "That’s when we have to turn the $100 customer into the $1,000 customer. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to build your business and pay that mortgage. You have to stoke that boiler every day. Eat, breathe, and sleep your marketing. That’s why we have T-shirts.”

Along with fresh chicken.

p(bio). Angela Allen is a Portland, Oregon-based journalist, photographer, teacher, and poet. She has written on Culinate about Sally Schneider, Barry Glassner, deviled eggs, and supermarkets.

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joelandtyler, l