I knew this particular farmer was going to be
different from the moment I met him. Above the desk of this successful
Virginia agriculturist hung not plaques or certificates acknowledging his
many achievements, but a simple sign proclaiming “Joel Salatin: Lunatic
farmer.” Yup. This fellow was going to take some time to understand —
a complex man, a unique individual in the big, big world of Virginia
But to understand the complexities (and phenomenal
success) of Joel Salatin, one must first understand the mindset of a
typical Virginia farmer.
Modern farmers actually prefer to be called
“producers.” Not the Hollywood type, but producers of food and fiber.
Agriculture news stories (my own included) use terminology such as poultry
producer, pork producer, soybean producer, etc. The cattle industry is
segmented into several types of producers, including cow-calf producers,
seedstock producers and replacement heifer producers just to name a few.
Agriculture has become a modern and highly specialized industry.
But many modern-day agriculturists have habits and
socialization practices handed down from conservative forefathers,
preferring not to upset the oxcart by voicing their opinions unless
absolutely necessary. Many Virginia producers limit their observations
about the industry to quiet comments made amongst friends at the stockyard
or feed mill. The typical Virginia farmer prefers the peace and quiet of a
good day’s work in
the field compared to the possible anxiety created by
taking sides and speaking out on important issues.
Joel Salatin, however, is no typical Virginia farmer.
Famous, yes. A “Google” search on the Internet returns 7,520 articles
about the guy. This successful Augusta County farmer has written five
books. His family farm has been featured in prominent national magazines
and in countless radio and TV stories.
A renowned public speaker, Salatin has traveled
extensively to speak about his personal mission, which he says is “to
develop emotionally, economically and environmentally enhanced
agricultural enterprises, and facilitate their duplication around the
world.” Here’s a guy who knows what it means to think globally, but
One must understand, however, that Joel Salatin is
often considered a divisive speaker. He not only upsets the proverbial
oxcart when he addresses an audience, he dismantles it piece by piece and
starts tossing it in every direction. Salatin is not afraid to tackle
controversy. He tells audiences, “If you want agriculture that does not
pump animals full of drugs and hormones, pollute the water, erode the soil
and stink up the air, vote with your pocketbook and quit patronizing the
conventional food industry — seek out and support your local alternative
farmer.” Needless to say, he’s made a few enemies along the way. But
the interesting point is this — people are listening.
On the farm, Salatin wears thread-bare work clothes,
a straw hat and red suspenders. But when he hits the road to make a
presentation, whether to a California Organic Growers Conference or the
local Kiwanis club in nearby Staunton, he appears crisp, clean and quite
conventional as he steps up to the podium in tailored suit and shined
shoes, a gleaming 15x Stetson hat keeping his place in the front row (his
presentations are often standing room only).
But a few minutes into the speech, one realizes there
is nothing conventional about this Virginia farmer. He’s irreverent.
He’s passionate. He’s focused. A writer for Smithsonian magazine said,
“Let Salatin get about 30 minutes into one of his talks and you can hear
a pin drop.” You may consider him a missionary of sorts for small-scale
farming, or perhaps a rural activist. But one thing is for certain — you
One of the key problems in Virginia agriculture today
is that vocal farmers like Salatin are the exception, not the rule. No one
seems to be listening to the concerns of the ordinary farm family. No one
seems to care that, according to a recent study by the American Farmland
Trust, the rate of prime agricultural land loss in Virginia has increased
76 percent in the last five years. No one seems to care that a significant
number of dairy farms go out of business every year.
Why is no one listening? In my opinion, no one is
listening because what we need is a few more lunatic farmers like Joel
Salatin. Agree or disagree with his philosophies, but you have to admire
his undying enthusiasm.
Where is the enthusiasm of our leadership in
agriculture today? We have plenty of good news concerning the industry,
including the fact that Virginia agriculture accounts for more than 11
percent of the gross state product. We hear news reports that corporations
have taken over agriculture, but the fact is that more than 98 percent of
Virginia’s farms are owned and operated by families. The fact is that
agriculture is still Virginia’s largest and oldest industry. It’s been
the backbone of the state economy for almost four centuries.
But other than the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation
and the Young Farmers of Virginia (two organizations who do an excellent
job of communicating important issues), few others besides Salatin are
As I travel the state and talk with people, I often
ponder this lack of enthusiasm in agriculture. Where are the men and women
who are passionate about their chosen career? Where are the people willing
to speak out against the sometimes outrageous claims of environmental
protesters and animal-rights activists who accuse Virginia farmers of
everything from cruelty to animals to air pollution?
Farmers and others involved in agriculture should
voice their opinions — not just the career bureaucrats in Richmond and
those who represent special-interest groups, but the common folk who live
and work on Virginia farms, the men and women who want Virginia
agriculture to not only survive, but thrive.
You know what you believe. Stand up and be heard. We
need a few more lunatic farmers.
Jeff Ishee is host and producer of
the award-winning programs “On the Farm” Radio and “Virginia
Farming,” a production of Virginia Public Television. He resides in
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