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.