Joel Salatin is a third-generation, alternative farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Salatin’s 550-acre farm serves more than 5,000 families, 10 retail outlets and 50 restaurants through on-farm sales and a buying club.
Ten years ago, his family’s farm was featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006). Salatin also has appeared in the documentaries, “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh.” Salatin was in Richmond last week for an invitation-only business forum, hosted at Hirschler-Fleischer.
Richmond magazine: What is the biggest improvement made to our food system since “Omnivore’s Dilemma” came out?
Joel Salatin: Big picture, I don’t see much improvement. The Monsantos are circling the wagon. The entrenched orthodoxy is not moving. They are digging in their heels and now instead of calling it GMOs, they are calling it genome editing. There is every kind of clever speak and wordsmithing going on around things to try to blunt our movement’s efforts to create contrast, to create delineation. Positive things I see now since “Omnivore’s Dilemma” is that there are more and more farms that are scaling to where they can actually talk to significant buyers. We can talk to a Chipotle, we can talk to a university, we can talk to a restaurant chain. Personally, one of the ways I’ve seen changes is that I’m now doing Field Day speeches for some of these farms; they are paying me to come and be their [headliner] for the day. The point here is that they are of enough scale that they can pay me to come and do a field day; these farms couldn’t have done that 10 years ago — that’s very exciting.
RM: What do you think of people in the city raising chickens in their backyards?
JS: I think it’s fantastic! I think people in the city should raise chickens in their condominiums. I’m all about household chickens, backyard chickens. Fundamentally [I prefer] integrated food systems as opposed to segregated food systems, and I use those words on purpose because I think what we have is a segregated food system as part of its inefficiency.
RM: Can Walmart and other super stores really get into the “local” food space?
JS: Well, they have to change their business model. We had nine vice-presidents from Sam’s Club come out to the farm. They were on an environmental, two-day sabbatical. We took a farm tour. They loved it and were totally into it. Later, we were in the sales building having sack lunches and they asked, “So how can we get your stuff?” “Well, the first thing is I have to be able to back in with a truck smaller than a tractor-trailer.” End of discussion — that was it. Their business model does not allow the inefficiency of anything smaller than a tractor-trailer backing up to their dock. Their model works on such tight margins in the materials handling business that you start to erode the economies of scale by actually picking up a box instead of picking up a pallet with a forklift; that destroys the business model.
RM: What about stores using labels that sound so clean and healthy and animal-friendly: free-range, no antibiotics or hormones, organic. Talk to me about this, is this a healthy piece of meat?
JS: There is a tremendous amount of greenwashing going on, clever speak. Greenwashing is taking something that’s not the real deal and splashing green on it ... [most] organic chicken is raised in an industrial factory house; the chickens never set foot on a patch of grass. If people want to check into this, the website to keep up with the policing of the organic industry is cornucopia.org. Cornucopia Institute is a nonprofit out of Wisconsin; they have a staff of attorneys and agents and sue the government about two or three times a year over non-enforcement of the organic standards. The USDA’s definition of free-range is not grass and blue sky and bugs and grasshoppers ... So turn off the TV and turn off the fantasy game; know your farmer, know your food. Find your local food treasury.
RM: Final question: I hear you’re interested in opening a restaurant! Details please.
JS: Right now it’s an idea. Here’s the deal: When Teresa and I go out to eat, we’re sitting there and what we want is to eat like we do at home, except we don’t want to cook it or wash the dishes. So, our choices are either $50 a plate at a really nice, white-tablecloth, local-food-sourced place or something like an Applebee’s. My idea is, why can’t we have our [Polyface]-quality food at Applebee’s price, how do we do that? There are three major costs involved — labor, food/ingredients and overhead — utilities and rent are fixed. The single biggest factor that makes ingredient cost so high in house is maintaining inventory. We can drop food cost by eliminating choice. In other words, serve a wonderful, locally sourced seasonal meal daily, maybe two meat choices. A 14-day menu would be posted on social media. And as for labor, we will use a cafeteria or family-style model in order to limit waitstaff; there will be no tipping but a per-plate commission on every meal sold for all staff, from dishwasher to manager. The name is SANE: Staunton Augusta Nutrition Exchange.