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How America’s most famous farmer can appeal to left, right and center

March 31
There’s a uniform-cleaning service in Staunton, Va., where Joel Salatin buys his work shirts: castoffs marooned there by workers who’ve been fired or died or otherwise gone AWOL. Salatin gets them cheap, and he’s not picky. If it fits, fine, and so he answers the door on a Monday afternoon sporting the logo of George’s, a behemoth poultry corporation, embroidered above his left breast.

You’ve heard of Joel Salatin, right? The self-proclaimed heretic who runs Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley? The eco-friendly, avant-garde Old MacDonald featured in Michael Pollan’s 2006 bestseller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.”? The vociferous critic of industrial feedlots and petroleum-based monoculture? The one who slings blunt terms like “evil” when he’s talking about modern corporate agribusiness?

Sometimes he wears shirts repurposed from that evil system.
Such incongruity is entirely normal when it comes to Salatin, who has famously characterized himself as a “Christian­conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic.” And increasingly, it’s normal for the larger sustainable-food movement, of which Salatin is a prominent and admired leader.

Everybody eats, and the movement’s most basic tenets — food should benefit our health, farming should benefit our environment, food systems should be transparent — have wide appeal. From far left, far right and far out, the eaters have responded. Food politics runs deep purple. These are, quite literally, kitchen table issues.

You’ll find Salatin, for example, giving the keynote address at such events as last fall’s Food Freedom Fest in Staunton. The event, heavy on the anti-regulatory, free market rhetoric of the American right, was hosted by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which exists to resist and roll back what it considers to be big government’s meddlesome and oppressive food safety regulations. Sample bumper sticker from the booth at the back of the room: “Keep The Government Off Our Farms!”
Soon thereafter, he’ll turn up at something like the Sustainable Agriculture Symposium in Idaho and pillory the idea — dear to many believers in the free market and American exceptionalism — that our farmers can, should and do feed the world. Sample quote from his speech: “This whole notion that I’m supposed to go out and turn my community into a toilet bowl, and kill all the earthworms, and make 200-pound chickens grow on a half a pound of feed to feed the world is asinine!” (The audience whooped, hollered and applauded in response, as Salatin’s audiences often do.)



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