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Celebrity chefs are a dime a dozen these days, but Joel Salatin is perhaps the world's first celebrity farmer. The charismatic star of recent documentary Food, Inc. is an outspoken advocate for small-scale sustainable farming and an unapologetic critic of government complicity in the demise of nutritious food and the rise of unjust factory farming in the United States.
Here is a man who outsmarted the authorities and, having found a loophole in the law, continues to butcher poultry on his own farm. People now drive hundreds of kilometres to buy his chicken, rabbit, pork and beef as he sells only from his farm gate and at a few farmers' markets near his property, Polyface Farm, in the Shenandoah Valley about 240 km south-west of Washington D.C.
He first caught the world's attention when Michael Pollan wrote about him in The Omnivore's Dilemma. Now Salatin travels the US, Canada and Australia, inspiring farmers to bite the bullet and commit to the hard-work, high-reward style of farming that has made him, in some circles, a household name.
Salatin sits today at a table in one of Melbourne's most fashionable restaurants. When asked where he'd like to eat he had quipped, "Anywhere but McDonald's". Dressed in a smart sports jacket and dark trousers he looks like a businessman or salesperson. "We are professional farmers," Salatin says in a folksy accent that belies a steel-trap mind. "We take a bath and comb our hair when we come to the city because now we're on their turf, our customer's turf. And we have to respect them. They have a pocket full of money and you don't pick someone's pocket by bad-mouthing them. You hug them first." As he says this, his face erupts in an impossibly infectious smile. "We must do this otherwise it will appear only the lunatic fringe, in their hemp shirts, can feed people, in this 'alternative way'. We are serious farmers who simply want to follow another course."
A few days earlier Salatin had told a group of farmers, many treading mud into the lecture theatre at the Lake House in Daylesford, Victoria, that he was easy to pigeonhole. "I am a Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic." Over lunch I ask him about the lunatic moniker. "I was born a lunatic. I farm the way my father did and so I have always been unconventional. To other farmers I am a lunatic." Time will tell. "We really are grass farmers," says Salatin. "Grass is the most efficient solar collector converting solar energy into compostable carbon." It's a tight ongoing circle: grass converts solar energy, water and carbon dioxide into fodder for the cattle. The cattle's manure fertilises the grass. The result is fertile soil, healthy animals and massive carbon bio-sequestration.
Polyface Farm's environmental credentials are self-evident. Salatin's 'waste-nothing, recycle-everything' ethos of pre-agricultural farming is combined with high-tech solar-powered electric fences, micro-forestry sawmills and humane animal husbandry. Having the animals perform multiple tasks that reflect their true behaviour also saves money.
"It gets cold where we are," says Salatin. "We can have five feet (1.5 m) of snow in winter so we have to keep the animals indoors." While other farmers may pay to heat their barns, Salatin keeps his cattle on an ever-rising bed of straw and sawdust (both by-products of on-farm production).