Building Bridges: Organic Crusader Preaches Industry Expansion Through Conversations, Not Criticism

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, Virginia, was featured in both the New York Times bestseller The Omnivores Dilemma and the documentary Food Inc. for his farm’s unique and holistic management, servicing more than 5,000 families, 50 restaurants, 10 retail outlets and a farmer’s market with organic beef, pork, poultry and forestry products. What’s more, he’s published 12 books.

“Our mission statement is to develop environmentally, economically and ecologically enhancing agricultural prototypes and facilitate their duplication throughout the world,” he said.

In pursuit of this goal, Salatin found himself delivering the keynote address at the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) Conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, this past November. The conference’s theme of building bridges, he said, was an important goal for organic growers who often find themselves in conflict with their traditional counterparts. Nicknames such as “Typhoid Mary” and “The Local Bioterrorist” have been leveled at Salatin throughout his organic crusade, but he advised his audience not to reproach their neighbours in kind. Expanding organics, he said, would require a lighter touch.

“You can’t push on a string,” he said. “You have to pull. If we have the healthiest crops, the healthiest cows, the most aesthetically and aromatically pleasing farms; if we have the happiest children and we’re attracting people back to our farms; if we have the happiest and healthiest customers, then we’ll be pulling on that string.”

Salatin believes firmly that the organic sector, innovative and courageous by its very nature, has answers for the agricultural community at large, and spent much of his time at the podium explaining how to share them. Among his suggestions was to trade labour with neighbouring farms. Even if extra hands aren’t necessary, he said, hire neighbours for the odd job so they can see, first hand, how organic farms are run. In Salatin’s experience this sharing of labour leads to productive conversations and the exchange of radical ideas. Feeding kelp to cattle for its naturally occurring iodine and the prevention of pink eye is one such nugget Salatin has spread to his traditional neighbours.

“I believe we are much stronger when we’re mutually interdependent in the community than when we’re so cotton-pickin’ completely independent that we can’t establish any verified credibility outside our own spheres,” he said, preaching against purity and encouraging projects with neighbour which are neither organic nor inorganic. Hire your neighbour to build a fence, he said, so that in time you can build a bridge.

“Folks, you and I, for whatever reason, drank a different Kool-Aid. We’ve drunk the elixir of sustainability, regeneration, soil biology, and we’ve embraced the default position of wellness, that it doesn’t come out of a bottle or a tube or a pill. We got this, but you know what? There’s a world out there that doesn’t have a clue where we’re coming from, and we need to hold their hand, shepherd them, coach them, and be a friend, and not hit them on the head with a hammer because they dare to give their cows Ivomec.”

Another of his decrees was to remain active in the community at large, outside the sustaining walls of ACORN and into 4H Clubs, church groups, trade groups, the local chamber of commerce and beyond, and to take part in community infrastructure projects where organics might be championed. He described how, in these settings, casual conversations with neighbours have led to heartfelt discussions of their trials and tribulations on the farm, for which he makes routine suggestions. In the span of 20 years he’s converted neighbours, tip by tip, from traditional to certified organic dairy.

“Offer gentle empathy and soft advice,” he said.

An underappreciated opportunity to expand organics is to participation in scientific studies, he said, in which Polyface frequently takes part. Such studies have demonstrated that levels of latent Salmonella in the soil under his unvaccinated chickens are no higher than those of a neighbouring farm, which hasn’t itself hosted chickens in 50 years, a victory he attributes to his vibrant soil biology. Others have examined the health of insects on different farms in his area and, time and again, Polyface has demonstrated the greatest biodiversity.

“If we can’t be confident in what we’re doing,” he said, “we shouldn’t be doing it.”

A final approach he recommended was straightforward mentoring and edutainment, which Polyface champions with an open-door policy to anyone interested in seeing their work, and with programs encouraging visitors to pet their calves, go birdwatching in their woods, and follow instructors in the pursuit of wild, edible plants.

“All this stuff is about seeding and germinating a conversation, because when you have a conversation, when people are talking, there’s hope,” he said.

“May all of your carrots grow long and straight. May your radishes be large but not pithy. May tomato blossom-end rot affect your Monsanto neighbours. May the coyotes be struck blind by your pastured chickens. May all of your culinary experiments be delectably palatable. May the rain fall gentle on your fields, the wind be always at your back, your children wise and call you blessed and may we all make our nests a better place than we inherited. God bless you.”

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Rural Delivery Magazine.

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