The Sustainable MBA

Joel Salatin: Farm bill squashes innovation in sustainable agriculture

Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm.
Robert Salatin
Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm.

This Q&A is an edited excerpt from a Dec. 19 Sustainable Business Fridays conversation held by the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, based in New York City. This twice-monthly dial-in conversation features sustainability leaders from across the globe. The previously published interview was with Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability at JetBlue.

Joel F. Salatin is an American farmer, lecturer and author whose books include "Folks, This Ain't Normal," "You Can Farm" and "Salad Bar Beef." He raises livestock using holistic management methods of animal husbandry, free of harmful chemicals, on his Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va. Meat from the farm is sold by direct marketing to consumers and restaurants.

Bard MBA: You are a self-described "Christian libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic farmer.” Could you give us some background as to the work you're doing presently?

Joel Salatin: I'm second-generation on the farm, here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia — that some of you history students may remember as the bread basket of the Confederacy during what we call the War of Northern Aggression.

This valley was rich in grain varieties and the early Europeans grew grain here. They ended up eroding the soil down arguably to 3 to 5 feet depending on steepness of slope.

When we came in 1961 the farm was going to rock and wasn't very productive. Over the years, from composting, multi-speciation, stocking herbivorous for conversion, dignified carbon sequestration, fertilization and through a host of other practices, we gradually built up that soil, stopped the erosion, built and increased organic matter and developed a farm that generates gross sales of over $2 million a year.

We have 20 full-time people and run a full-blown internship and apprentice program. We supply about 6,000 families, 50 restaurants and 10 retail spots with pastured chickens and eggs, pastured turkey, rabbit, duck eggs, lamb, salad bar beets, Figueiredo pork and forestry products, and anything else we can cobble together to pay the taxes. It's an exciting time.

Bard MBA: This January, Congress passed the new farm bill. Do you see any worthwhile legislation in the bill?

Salatin: Well, in the introduction you mentioned my self-described moniker is libertarian, so I pretty much stay out of the politics of all this. I don't see much good coming out of Washington for a long time. In the new farm bill, they are changing the verbiage from subsidies — direct farm subsidies — to what they call “crop insurance,” but it's the same thing. It is still just six commodities getting assistance — I hear they're adding a seventh.

So it meddles in the marketplace essentially, from my perspective. Every time taxpayers collude through the federal government to create marketplace winners and losers, it creates prejudice against innovation — against the folks that aren't the big players and are trying to come forward with innovation.

For example, there's a guy in Wisconsin, right now, well on the way of being able to prove that you can actually replace soybeans with perennial hazelnuts. He's been breeding for 30 years an extremely productive hazelnut, and done soil tests of all sorts to show the viability.

As long as you have economic protection over one crop, then it prejudicially diminishes the viability of an innovative competitor in the marketplace. In my perfect world we would just shut down the USDA and let farmers rise and fall with their own innovation and the savvy of the marketplace.

Bard MBA: Vermont passed an act that requires labeling of GMOs. Do you see that being a trend that other states might pick up?

Salatin: Absolutely, no question about it. Monsanto already said it is going to sue Vermont, and we will see how that winds its way through the courts.

I make a great distinction between states passing labeling laws and the federal government passing labeling laws. I see a tremendous difference between a state or locality doing something as opposed to the federal government, and it’s about size and scale.

When does something become so big that its bureaucracy begins to suffocate its own viability? We see this in nature, this unbridled growth in nature we call cancer and it’s not a good thing. Nature always has a governor on that accelerator. For example, in winter too many wolves eat too many bison, and then there are too few bison and the wolves starve to death. Then, the bison can grow back when there are fewer wolves, but then there are too many bison eating the grass and the wolves need to have big litters and balance that, and it repeats.

In nature, there's this kind of governor on the system that makes it function. It's a valid question today to ask how many things have become so big that we cannot efficiently operate them at the federal level?

So, I do see the GMO backlash as growing among states, whether that manifests itself in legislation like in Vermont, or through other initiatives that California and Oregon are presenting. I do see it moving forward and progressing, and possibly because it's just people not buying junk at the marketplace, and buying from their farmers.

For us, we have simply made a decision that we are not going to use GMOs. Without any regulation, legislation, subsidies or anything else, we spend an extra $0.50 a bushel on local grains grown without GMOs. We even started and helped finance a local feed mill that would grind feed for us and for the entire mid-Atlantic region. The mill only uses GMO-free grain so nobody can push the wrong button and mix it up.

This is the way innovation moves through the culture. It is proliferating without any unit, without any regulation or politicians. This is being done simply by an informed populace saying we want GMO-free food.

A recording of this conversation is available.