Updated: Aug 29, 2020
Series 2: Farming During COVID, Episode 4
No one likes to go to the supermarket and find key items -- from toilet paper and hand sanitizers to vegetables, flour and meat -- out of stock or rationed. You are used to abundance, options, plenty. But during COVID, a new reality rules. Even if you are getting by, you know that our food systems are shaken. Farms are essential operators. You learned this in Episode 6. And you are navigating new territory to get the food you want. Many of you are joining farm CSAs. Some of you have new chickens in your back yards, if you were lucky enough to get them early. And even more of you are starting gardens in hopes of having summer vegetables. You and folks like you are like-minded and walking a few steps in a farmer's shoes (Episode 7). Now we are diving deeper. How did we get here? Why do we have these problems? And what the heck can we do about it?
Farmer Joel Salatin, a livestock farmer from Swoope, Virginia -- who has long been the poster child for sustainable farming -- tells all... about his farm -- Polyface Farm -- and the innovations they are implementing during COVID. He talks about what's wrong with some farms and the food supply chain. If you want things to be better, Joel has some thoughts on how you might shift your mindset and your practices to ensure your own food security and to fortify the farming landscape. Tune in and take note!
IN THIS EPISODE
One guest this week. None other than Joel Salatin. Some Zoom distortion here and there, but not too bad. Next time I will go and interview him in person. But I loved sitting with him and talking, his back to a big library of books while a pesky housefly persisted. He wore suspenders over a gas-station style shirt and had a ton to say. My only regret is not to have had more time with him. Thoroughly engaging, thought provoking, warm and funny.
Joel Salatin, Farmer, Polyface Farm, Swoope, Virginia
Musings from The Lunatic Farmer -- Joel Salatin's blog
All of the photos were provided by Polyface Farm, except the one of Joel in the brown jacket. That lovely photo was provided with permission by photographer Michaelann Bresica (michaelannbresicaphotography.com)
All of the music in this episode is by Lobo Loco. All Night Long (ID 774) and Spencer Bluegrass (ID 1230) Creative Commons License (by-nc-nd)
Always thank you to the amazing farmers and farm supporters who said "Yes!" to an interview. Joel, thanks. It was a pleasure. Looking forward to another conversation soon.
For those of you who cannot listen to the podcast or prefer to read it, here's a full transcript. Please forgive any typos.
Talk Farm to Me, Season 1, Episode 8
Food Security or Insecurity? Joel Salatin Dishes on What You Can Do
Joel Salatin (00:00):
So when people started going to the supermarket saying, "Where's the the food?" Well, we local farmers, we had it. We had it in our stockpile, our inventory, because that's just the way we live. That's the way we run our business. And so, we were the ones that were able to step in and be nimble enough. So I think that's part of what's dawning on people, is they're realizing, "Where was the food?" Well, the food was in my community in these local farms.
Farm Girl (00:39):
Today on Talk Farm to M we meet a Virginia livestock farmer, who is considered the gold standard in sustainable agriculture by organic farmers around the world. Farmer, author, and lecturer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, is a prolific writer and thought leader. He likes to stir the pot to get you thinking, even if you don't agree. Today, Salatin dishes on three major issues with farming and our food system that the COVID pandemic has made more obvious, and he has some solutions too. Most of them involve you.
Farm Girl (01:29):
Welcome to Talk Farm to Me. I'm your host, Farm Girl. On Talk Farm to Me, the farmer takes center stage and we find out what they do and how they do it. And no matter how you spend your time, I'm pretty sure you have more in common with farmers than you think. So sit back and relax and I'll bring a farmer, and maybe a cow or two, right into your living room for a chat.
Farm Girl (02:03):
On 550 acres, Polyface Farm is where farmer Joel Salatin raises cows, pigs and chicken. Salatin has been known to call the meat he raises "Beyond Organic." Salatin has authored no less than 15 books, and writes and lectures prolifically across the globe. Polyface Farm is located in rural Virginia between Washington DC and Richmond. Salatin and Polyface Farm featured prominently in author Michael Pollan's 2006 New York Times bestseller, Omnivore's Dilemma, a Natural History in Four Meals. Salatin famously refused to ship Pollan any of his prized meat because Pollan lived in the Bay area. Salatin, an authentic promoter of organic local food, considered that to be too far to be within the farm's natural food shed radius. Salatin describes himself as a Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic farmer, and is known to have some controversial opinions.
Farm Girl (03:28):
It's Spring time at Polyface Farm and Salatin and his team are immersed in the seasonal duties of running a farm. Calves and piglets are being born, chicks are hatching, they are planting the garden, repairing fences and getting everything ready for the spring season. All of the day-to-day work has put Salatin and his team in a bit of a bubble.
Joel Salatin (03:53):
The cows don't know about the Coronavirus, the chickens certainly don't, the tomato plants don't, the compost doesn't. And so, when people come into the farm store, it's hard for us to shift gears to sit in their shoes where they've been cloistered in their apartment for a month, and listening to 24/7 stream of media about, "We're all going to die."
Farm Girl (04:21):
Salatin is busy doing his work and living on a farm. He has never been more grateful to be where he is.
Joel Salatin (04:29):
If there's ever been something that makes rural living look appealing this is it. This has really brought out the difference between rural and urban. Of course, we service our urban customers, and so the stories coming in from our delivery driver are just... We can hardly imagine the hysteria, but it's real, it's there, and we're glad we're here.
Farm Girl (05:02):
Salatin recently found out that a friend of his has the Coronavirus. This makes the pandemic feel a lot closer to his farm and his home. But even before that, Polyface Farm had lost 30% of its business as its restaurant clientele shuttered their doors.
Joel Salatin (05:20):
Well, our restaurants are basically out. They're kaput. But it has been more than compensated for by the explosion in the retail.
Farm Girl (05:31):
Like many farms across the United States that had a big restaurant business, Polyface Farm is now selling what it would have sold to restaurants direct to consumers instead.
Joel Salatin (05:41):
I mean, financially this is the best thing that ever could have happened to us. We're having the best financial Spring we've ever had. There are a lot of people who are getting acquainted with, and thinking about authentic local food, who have not been in this space before.
Farm Girl (06:06):
The Coronavirus crisis has impacted daily lives across the globe in innumerable ways, with its rate of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. With some people in lockdown down at home, and other essential workers, including doctors, nurses, farmers, and others risking their lives and working around the clock, the crisis has also made more obvious some preexisting problems in the world of farming and food supply chains.
Joel Salatin (06:40):
So they say that crises don't make new trends, they simply expose trends that are already there that may not have been as obvious as they may have been otherwise.
Farm Girl (06:52):
Even before the COVID crisis hit, Salatin saw cracks in big business farming, cracks in the food supply chain, and even some cracks in how the government is handling things, one of Salatin's favorite topics. First, farming. Salatin sees some big cracks in big business farming, many of which are exacerbated and getting more attention under COVID.
Joel Salatin (07:20):
There's a big difference between farmers that are in this wholesale treadmill, like a Tyson chicken farmer or a Smithfield pig farmer, or goodness, somebody who's growing corn for Cargill. I don't want to see anybody fail, but I think, and I'll make a lot of people mad here by saying this, but as you know, anybody that knows me knows that I don't back down from saying, "There's good farming and bad farming." And I think that if we fail to make that differentiation, that there can be good farming and there can be bad farming, I think we don't make progress. We don't get anywhere if we fail to make that differentiate... If we're all farmers, this "one for all, all for one," that doesn't help us solve problems and make progress.
Farm Girl (08:22):
Commodity farmers, those who grow products in bulk, like wheat, dairy, corn, even meat, and send their products to wholesalers for distribution to consumers, are stressed. Many of them readily seek advice from Salatin. They want to be successful, and they are working so hard with so little return.
Joel Salatin (08:47):
Last year, the median income of American farms was minus $1048. The median net income was a negative number.
Farm Girl (08:59):
I know this sounds impossible, but it's true. According to the USDA, in 2020 it's supposed to be even worse, and that was pre-COVID. Many farmers have to take jobs off the farm just to stay afloat. We heard about this firsthand from former dairy farmer Peter Mauer in episode one. He counted pills on the night shift in a pharmaceutical company for 11 years to try to save his farm. But 24/7 farm work combined with a negative income is stressful.
Joel Salatin (09:34):
I mean, farmer suicides are up.
Farm Girl (09:36):
Salatin is right about farmer suicide rates. A combination of rising debt and tariffs, plunging prices for commodity crops, farming problems caused by climate issues, and the pressure to continue a family farming legacy amid modern farming challenges all contribute to farmer stresses. On a larger scale, the problems can feel, well, bigger.
Joel Salatin (10:05):
Every day these stress farmers are coming to me saying, "Okay, I want off a sinking ship." And the problem is the bigger they are, the harder it is to make the change, because it's a lot harder to turn around an aircraft carrier than a speed boat. And in the commodity business, because your margin is so narrow, the only way that you can make a living is to grow tons and tons and tons of stuff at this very, very narrow margin. They're in this horrific colonialism, beating the price to the bottom, global, "How cheap can we make this?" Cheap food policy. And it grinds people up, it does.
Farm Girl (10:49):
Smaller entrepreneurial farmers, like Salatin and others, that we have featured on this podcast so far are in a different boat altogether. Where they control more of their pipeline and have a direct line to their consumers, farmers have the opportunity to make adjustments when challenges arise.
Joel Salatin (11:08):
when we wear the middleman hats, the processor, the distributor, the marketers, and we wear all those different hats, the middleman hats, then we're not on that production treadmill. Because we have wiggle room, we can make up for production and distribution marketing, we can process it differently. We can turn chicken necks into chicken stock, and we can value add, and we can do all sorts of cool things to take us off of that production treadmill. So for the commercial farmer who's locked into the commodity program, doesn't own a market, and is completely at the whim of a price where he's just a price taker, it's just... It's sad. It's really sad.
Farm Girl (11:58):
To the bigger commodity farmer, Salatin has some tough love advice.
Joel Salatin (12:03):
I don't have an answer except to get off that ship as fast as you can. When I look at their situation, they never like this advice, but I tell them, "Well, you need to sell about half your land to get out of debt, and that'll give you enough wiggle room to start something different."
Farm Girl (12:23):
Doing something else means innovating. Salatin encourages farmers who want to shift their model to think creatively. What's not being done now that could be important and lucrative?
Joel Salatin (12:35):
And what that means is you might have to just say, "Right over here, we're going to do something different." Maybe it's some honeybees, maybe it's some plum trees. Maybe it's a little produce thing. Maybe it's a Chinese sunken greenhouse, you know? I mean, fortunately in this food fiber space, there are a million things that you can do.
Farm Girl (13:02):
Even within the same space, there are ways to farm and make money where the farmer is not beholden to a fixed price set by someone else. In wholesale dairy, for instance, farmers struggle to make money. At first blush, having less cows and making less milk does not necessarily seem like the solution.
Joel Salatin (13:27):
I mean, I'll never forget a guy, he had a massive dairy. I mean, he was milking a couple of thousand cows up in Wisconsin. And his wife, actually, was able to procure a little 50 acre place nearby, and started a little direct sell grass-based 25 cow dairy. She was making more than he was with 2000 cows.
Farm Girl (13:53):
Salatin is outspoken about how some farms that are failing might not be worth saving. Why not? Well, maybe they didn't innovate. Maybe there's just not enough demand for what they are supplying.
Joel Salatin (14:09):
The old ones, the inefficient ones, the non-innovative, whatever, gradually go out. I realized when there is disturbance and disruption in the culture, a winnowing has to take place. I mean, what if we had said in 1910, "Well somehow we've got to prop up all these buggy whip makers." I mean, we can't have these buggy whip makers going it out of business.
Farm Girl (14:38):
Yes, buggy whip makers. The folks who used to make whips to drive horses. And he's referring to the idea that we might try to keep them in business, even though we're cars instead of horses. Cracks in the world of farming continue down the food supply chain, mainly to supermarkets. Part of the initial COVID panic, besides the health risks, was that supermarkets were running out of certain items and rationing others.
Farm Girl (15:10):
Eight weeks in, and shortages and rationing continue for some items. This week, flour is scarce. Toilet paper and sanitizers continue to be in limited supply. Again, the COVID crisis did not create these problems, but it did reveal some serious cracks in the food supply chain. Cracks that are more noticeable now to those of us who weren't looking so closely before COVID.
Joel Salatin (15:40):
We've heard people say, "I'll never go back to the supermarket." They feel like the supermarket system let them down.
Farm Girl (15:48):
Supermarkets used to keep months of inventory on hand. Salatin explains that now, the supermarket system, the stores, the warehouses, the suppliers, practice "Just in time" inventory. This is an industry practice that tightly calculates supply and demand to save costs.
Joel Salatin (16:13):
That sounds very efficient, but the fact is if there's a shock in the system, it's very fragile because nobody has a stockpile anywhere. And so, what happened was, as everybody started going home and got scared and wanted to buy a two weeks worth of food instead of just three days worth of food, I mean, the average city has three days worth of food in it. Only three days worth of food in it. So as people started cleaning off the shelves, the "Just in time" inventory means that the grocer can't call up a warehouse because they're just in time. The warehouse can't call up the processor because they're just in time. The whole chain is just... So there's nothing behind the curtain.
Farm Girl (16:59):
Not able to find everything they wanted or needed in the supermarket, customers started thinking outside of their normal boxes. Where could they find food? How could they fortify their own personal security?
Joel Salatin (17:14):
Local farmers like us, who are selling a branded product directly into the community, we don't practice "Just in time" inventory. We do stockpile, because a fox can get in the chickens, or a drought can happen and you don't have anything to sell. Part of our whole modus operandi is thinking three and six months in advance. We do maintain an inventory.
Farm Girl (17:48):
This is not something that the average consumer thinks about, right? I mean, you go to the supermarket and you get what you need, period.
Joel Salatin (17:57):
So when people started going to the supermarket saying, "Where's the food?" Well, we local farmers, we had it. We had it in our stockpile, our inventory, because that's just the way we live. That's the way we run our business. And so, we were the ones that were able to step in and be nimble enough. So I think that's part of what's dawning on people, is they're realizing, "Where was the food? Well, the food was in my community in these local farms. That's where it is., I could go there and get it." And that's a good thing. That's a really good thing.
Farm Girl (18:34):
At Polyface Farm, Salatin finds that consumers are entering a space that is new to them. They are shopping directly from the farm, and he's noticed that they're also changing some of their buying behaviors.
Joel Salatin (18:49):
We have a farm store, so there are lots of people coming into the farm store, and they're buying bulk. They're not buying $20 worth of stuff, they're buying stuff for two or three weeks. So they're bringing coolers. They're walking out with $300 and $400 worth of beef, pork, chicken.
Farm Girl (19:10):
Selling food direct from the farm store isn't the only part of the business that's booming during COVID. Shipping meats anywhere in the country is up too. Why is this surprising? When New York Times bestselling author, Michael Pollan, first found Polyface Farm in researching his 2006 book Omnivore's Dilemma, Salatin refused to ship meat to him. He said that Pollan was outside of the farm's local food shed radius of a four hour drive. As of last year however, Salatin is shipping meats anywhere. While he's been criticized for changing his policy, the shift is more indicative of Salatin's own shark-like, "Keep moving or die" ethos, than it is of any sort of foodshed betrayal.
Joel Salatin (20:05):
You know, we started shipping, we kind of did our very soft, quiet launch last July, and that kind of... You know, seven, eight orders a week. Just going out gently. And now all of a sudden it's whatever... 40, you know? It's just completely exploded.
Farm Girl (20:33):
Consumer behavior, like buying in bulk or ordering online, that is driven by feeling food insecure during the COVID crisis, is causing some interesting innovations on Polyface Farm and others like it.
Joel Salatin (20:48):
I mean, we've had people now call us and say, "How can I get to the top of your list? How can I be on your first class team?" So I talked to a farmer the other day who's thinking of starting basically a farm prime, like Amazon Prime, a farm prime, where you'd call it like a food insurance policy. "Pay us a hundred dollars a year as a retainer fee to be in our first class, top 10% tier. And we're going to make sure that no matter what happens, we service this group of people who have been paying in a hundred dollars a year to a food insurance policy." They're going to get service first.
Farm Girl (21:30):
In Virginia where Polyface farm resides, the initial lockdown orders closed restaurants as well as farmer's markets. As farmers were gearing up for Spring, their key sales outlets were unavailable. At the same time, consumers were more and more eager to get products from the farm. To respond, Polyface joined with some other producers to bring the farmer's market to consumers in a minimal touch, curbside pickup environment.
Joel Salatin (22:00):
And so, four of us went together, us and a produce operation, a bakery, and the cheese maker. And the four of us went together and created an electronic platform. And it's the most convenient thing you can imagine. It's convenient for both farmers and consumers, and I think it really has legs. For the first time I feel like, in the local food scene, we finally have a credible competitor to Walmart curbside service. And that's pretty cool. That's pretty cool.
Farm Girl (22:43):
It's been a really successful offering.
Joel Salatin (22:45):
And sales have just explo... I mean, we're talking... We're just finished, today is the last of the third week we've had this, and we're running up there into the $15,000 a week in sales. It's really dramatic.
Farm Girl (23:05):
What will this mean for farms long term?
Joel Salatin (23:08):
So the question is, will it stick? Will the new people we're seeing and the new awareness we're hearing, is it going to stick? And as my son, Daniel, said the other day, we were talking about this, and he said, "Well the fact is that if just 10% of it sticks, we're going to see a 30% increase in sales overall going forward." Well that's great. I'll take 30% increase in sales anytime of day.
Farm Girl (23:38):
Salatin sees more interesting positive changes on the horizon. Some of that is innovation from farmers, yes. But equally important is a trend toward consumers getting in the game too. Consumers' new found interest in having a direct in with farms is what seems to be driving innovation.
Joel Salatin (23:59):
I think some things that will emerge are certainly urban farming, urban agriculture. We're going to see, I think, a pressure on things like homeowner's associations that preclude growing a tomato plant, because that's agriculture, in an HOA or backyard chickens.
Farm Girl (24:17):
Salatin doesn't think that we will be going back to business as usual anytime soon.
Joel Salatin (24:22):
I think there's going to be a long tail to this thing, and some of it's going to be just avoidance of crowds, avoidance of bigs. People are going to want to shop small, they want to shop close.
Farm Girl (24:34):
And this new way of thinking is going to drive what farms do, how they change to meet demand, and even the possibility of new farms popping up in our communities.
Joel Salatin (24:45):
What I'm suggesting is that there are going to be incredible brand new opportunities joining this community scale, human sized local food effort, as a new authenticity in the food system.
Farm Girl (25:07):
And what does that mean for Salatin and other local farmers like him?
Joel Salatin (25:11):
Well, I think that those of us who know how to grow food, and have a message and a provenance that has integrity and transparency, I think we're going to be in the driver's seat.
Farm Girl (25:30):
Always thought-provoking in thinking, Salatin and his team at Polyface Farm spend a lot of time considering their customers, current and future. What kind of needs do they have? For farms like Polyface Farm, knowing your customers is key to knowing how to adapt to a constantly changing landscape.
Joel Salatin (25:50):
We've got the baby boomers, they get it. How do we get to these millennials? And, there's a lot of good things about the millennials. Love millennials, but the one thing that really stuck out at me that was negative was, that as a group, millennials would much rather spend money on something fun today than save money for either a rainy day or something bigger, more fun in the future. And that's all part of this convenience mentality.
Farm Girl (26:19):
Salatin believes millennials are not well served by the current impulsive, "I want it now" culture. He thinks that a dose of cultural hardship and a forced frugality, like he experienced growing up, might serve them well into the future.
Joel Salatin (26:37):
You got to prepare for another 1929, right? You got to get ready for this. I mean, goodness. We even saved little squares of aluminum foil. There was a drawer in the kitchen, where if you had aluminum foil and it was left over, you put it in that... But my point is, that that depression, World War II hardship, really built in a kind of a pack rat, stockpile, saving mentality: Money, food, material, just the ability to live, that I think we've lost. We've lost in just our consumerism, materialistic, convenience-oriented "just in time", abundance everything.
Farm Girl (27:27):
Salatin is a baby boomer. His parents and grandparents lived through the depression and its aftermath when a self-sufficient mindset was needed for survival. And that mindset of conservation trickled down. But now in 2020, the historical memory of what it was like to live on the margins, to do without, to save, that has all but disappeared. Salatin thinks about COVID imposing a sort of cultural shift from where we were two months ago, to where we were after both world wars. Back then, many families had vegetable gardens, victory gardens, to provide fresh vegetables during food shortages.
Joel Salatin (28:14):
It wasn't considered stodgy, or paranoid, or hillbilly, it was just what everybody did. And so what I see is this pandemic-imposed home-centricity is forcing people to, for the first time in their lives, re-evaluate where home-centric satisfaction can come from.
Farm Girl (28:48):
Home-centricity. I kind of feel a new Joel Salatin book coming on. As we all live with new lockdown and distancing protocols, many more of us are eating at home, finding entertainment at home, and non-essential personnel are working