Joel Salatin in Wanaka


Last week I went to a talk by Joel Salatin, the influential, self-described “lunatic farmer” profiled in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and many other publications. Salatin has been an important part of my conversion to food activism, so I was excited to hear what he had to say. I bought my ticket in advance – actually, so far in advance that I had ticket #1. I convinced a few friends on the fence to come, insisting that Salatin was a dynamic and engaging guy, and that he would put on a good show. I was half right.

Salatin is far less well-known here in NZ than he is in the US, so I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as turn out. I arrived a few minutes early to get a decent seat, and was pleasantly surprised by the number of people in the crowd. I snuck up front and sat next to an older couple that were getting involved in the local and sustainable agriculture movement after careers as high country sheep farmers. The rest of the room appeared to be folks from similar backgrounds: small farmers, younger activists, a dread-locked woman with a “McShit” t-shirt; an easy audience for a seasoned speaker like Salatin.

After a short introduction he came out to a warm welcome and quickly launched into his brand of farmer schtick. He talked about the evils of concentrated animal feedlot operations and the health benefits of food produced naturally. “Great,” I thought, “here comes the big finish.” But there was no big finish. He didn’t delve into any information that isn’t already better explained in his books. In fact, many talking points were repeated word-for-word. This left little time for discussion, and after a few massive softballs a good question came from the audience: “What do you do to replace the biomass that leaves your farm?” This was acknowledged as an excellent question and then forgotten as he spun into a discussion of integrating systems at the farm. I’m still curious about the answer.

I left disappointed and a little upset that I recommended the event to friends. I expected an enlightening discussion of new ideas and a real dialogue with invested parties and their unique problems so that we could all learn from the specific set of challenges that farmers in New Zealand face, which are undoubtedly different that the problems Salatin faces in Virginia. Perhaps he’d even learn something from us. But instead I got preached to as a member of the slow-food choir and a thinly-veiled public stroking.

Furthermore, Salatin’s delivery comes off less as the nice neighborly guy and more as a condescending know-it-all. His jokes were cheesy and he mixed in advanced vocabulary that felt as if it were pulled from a thesaurus to make him sound more polished and professional. Unless you’re speaking to a room full of mathematicians, calling something a “sigmoid curve,” when “s-curve” will do undermines the message. He talked AT us instead of speaking TO us.

Of course this doesn’t change the fact that I still agree with a lot of what Salatin says (though definitely not all), and I think he’s done the world a lot of good by preaching his message. I suppose I’ll just need to find another farmer rock star’s poster to hang on my bedroom wall.

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    1. Joel says:

      A lot of biomass goes into his farm: he accepts a lot of wood chips from local arborists.

      I think he also buys kelp and other supplements to feed his cattle.

      That said, he always struck me, in videos, as the sort of speaker you describe: a little scared to lose the upper hand, and working hard to maintain an air of expert authority.

      I have a lot of compassion for the emotional bind he’s in, but really, his accomplishments are enough to convince the open-minded, and few academic types with an established career can be convinced of anything radically new (as Thomas Kuhn pointed out, paradigm shifts, as he coined the term, happen on the time scale of a generation).

      • Zach says:

        Thanks for the info re: biomass, Joel. I’m not sure why your namesake didn’t admit that during his talk. There’s no shame in supplementing your farm with byproducts from other endeavors. In fact, that’s really effective integration beyond the fences of a farm and should be encouraged.

        You’re right, he’s in a tough spot, but he also has the opportunity to be a leader for this new movement and I think he’s got an obligation to deliver more than what we got.

    2. Kelly says:

      I saw him speak at an organic farming conference in the Midwest (USA). I thought he came off as a jerk. He said something along the lines of: people who don’t eat organic food will all die off/not have healthy kids. That’s not true and it’s a stupid thing to say. I’m 100% behind local foods and I admire him for his courage to be a national figure on the subject. But you attract a lot more flies with honey than vinegar and what he said there was rude and untrue.

    3. Kelly says:

      Haha I just realized you’re probably American. I thought you were from NZ so I specified “(USA)”. Mea culpa.

      • Zach says:

        Thanks for your comment, Kelly. It’s a shame Salatin isn’t taking this opportunity to create a network of allies. Alienating and dividing people will do nothing but harm to the movement.

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