Food For Thought

Virginia Needs More Lunatic Farmers 

by Jeff Ishee, Contributing Columnist

Jeff Ishee

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 agriculture.

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 act locally.

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 listen.

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 speaking up.

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 Augusta County.

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