Joel Salatin: The Hardest Working Farmer In The Business
When Joel Salatin speaks, the farming world listens. Farmer, author, columnist, researcher and all-around respected figurehead in the farming and agricultural community, Salatin embodies the farmer’s spirit and mentality.
He’s a hard-working family man with the ability to squeeze 72 hours of work into a Tuesday afternoon, and his tireless work ethic is matched only by his creative genius, a one-two punch which has led him to the top of his field.
Joel got to work early, raising chickens at the age of 10. He published the first of nine books in 1996, and has since delivered countless speeches, hosted conferences and emerged as a thought leader in the farming and agriculture industry. On top of this, he manages a 500-acre farm and spends time nurturing a loving relationship with his wife, children and grandchildren.
And he wakes up every morning with a smile to greet these challenges.“What motivates me is to know that I’ll have the distinct privilege and honor to participate in healing land,” Salatin said. “To be able to touch a creation in such a visceral, personal way and to see it respond like we’re doing is just…it’s almost unspeakable. It’s sacred.”
Salatin’s fascination with the farming lifestyle and appreciation for the land beneath his feet was catalyzed early in his childhood. A youngster of seven or eight years old, Salatin recalls days on his grandfather’s farm, meandering through the half-acre vegetable garden and stopping to reach mightily in an effort to pluck a fresh Concord grape from the trellis.
“It was just the right height to stand on your tippy-toes and pick the lowest one,” Salatin said. “That just really resonated with me, and I never really got it out of my system.”
The son of an economist, Salatin combined the experiences on his grandfather’s farm with his father’s forward-looking, analytical mentality to merge business and farming savvy in a way rarely seen in the agricultural space. These lessons resulted in a keen understanding of the importance of trial-and-error research on the farm; something that all farmers should practice, according to Salatin.
Furthermore, the desire to stretch outside his comfort zone taught him the humility necessary to succeed. “I think, too often, farmers walk around with a chip on their shoulder like, ‘The world owes me a living because if we don’t have farmers, we won’t have food, and I’m special,’” Salatin said. “Farming isn’t all business, but it’s still a business, so we need to realize that we’re not immune to business practices.”
On top of this, the family-centric environment in which Salatin matured taught him the importance of partnerships, camaraderie and love—in the home and abroad. Now he feels that such a system is absolutely vital as the farming world and those who populate it continue to grow and evolve.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that takes more personal care in the land, and in the food, and in their customer as much as a family farmer. There’s something magical about a family,” Salatin said. “I think the skill set to be successful doesn’t all grow on one pair of legs. Typically, it takes a partner to have weaknesses where you’re strong and strengths where you’re weak.”
For partnerships and sole endeavors alike, however, Salatin believes a connection with the earth can be fostered in one simple way: We need to get in the kitchen and cook.
“You’re going to have to put down your People magazine and pick up a recipe,” Salatin said. “Ultimately, a home-centric food system is the underpinning of an integrity food system. You can’t have an integrity food system and have a home only having food in it that was prepared, packaged and preserved by somebody else who put it in a box with a SKU number on it.”
This “integrity food system” Salatin describes is one characterized by fresh, organic ingredients and a consumer’s desire to understand one’s food from soil to plate. In learning where your food comes from and how it arrives in your kitchen, Salatin says families will inevitably develop the skills and knowledge necessary to sustain a life which supports the integrity food system.
“An integrity food system only works when there’s accountability, and you only have accountability when it’s transparent,” Salatin said. “You become more skilled, knowledgeable, and informed of food in general. That means you have to touch it, smell it, slice it, dice it, puree it. You have to do the processing, packaging, and preserving in home.”
Today, Salatin’s work and curiosities have led him to a role as a columnist for Mother Earth News magazine, and he’s currently at work on his 10th book. Add in: guest speaker appearances, the family life and day-to-day operations at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va., and it becomes clear that Salatin’s time management skills are unparalleled.
In a career defined by success and notoriety, Salatin’s greatest achievement remains a personal one. Fame and fortune are trumped by another “f” word: family. “One of the things that I’m most happy about is that we have four generations living on the farm, so I can grow up with my grandkids living on the farm,” Salatin said. “Our own family is so multi-generationally involved with it that that’s perhaps the biggest blessing.”
Beyond the gift of a healthy, contributing family on the farm, Salatin sees the ripple effect of his work as the crowning achievement of a lifelong devotion to his land. “To have thousands of farmers around the world who say, ‘I’m farming because of you,’ that’s better than any paycheck you can ever imagine,” Salatin said. “To populate our foodscape with bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, entrepreneurial self-starters who caress our ecological womb with love and who care about the longevity, health, and vitality of the customers… that’s just a wonderful ministry to be able to participate in.”
by Hunter Homistek