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No Bar Code

An evangelical Virginia farmer says a revolution against industrial agriculture is just down the road.

I might never have found my way to Polyface Farm if Joel Salatin hadn’t refused to FedEx me one of his chickens.

I’d heard a lot about the quality of the meat raised on his “beyond organic” farm, and was eager to sample some. Salatin and his family raise a half-dozen different species (grass-fed beef, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rabbits) in an intricate rotation that has made his 550 hilly acres of pasture and woods in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley one of the most productive and sustainable small farms in America. But when I telephoned Joel to ask him to send me a broiler, he said he couldn’t do that. I figured he meant he wasn’t set up for shipping, so I offered to have an overnight delivery service come pick it up.

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“No, I don’t think you understand. I don’t believe it’s sustainable—‘organic,’ if you will—to FedEx meat all around the country,” Joel told me. “I’m afraid if you want to try one of our chickens, you’re going to have to drive down here to pick it up.”

This man was serious. He went on to explain that Polyface does not ship long distance, does not sell to supermarkets, and does not wholesale its food. All of the meat and eggs that Polyface produces is eaten within a few dozen miles or, at the most, half a day’s drive of the farm—within the farm’s “foodshed.” At first I assumed Joel’s motive for keeping his food chain so short was strictly environmental—to save on the prodigious quantities of fossil fuel Americans burn moving their food around the country and, increasingly today, the world. (The typical fruit or vegetable on an American’s plate travels some 1,500 miles to get there, and is frequently better traveled and more worldly than its eater.) But after taking Joel up on his offer to drive down to Swoope, Virginia, to pick up a chicken, I picked up a great deal more—about the renaissance of local food systems, and the values they support, values that go far beyond the ones a food buyer supports when he or she buys organic in the supermarket. It turns out that Joel Salatin, and the local food movement he’s become an influential part of, is out to save a whole lot more than energy.

In Joel’s view, the reformation of our food economy begins with people going to the trouble and expense of buying directly from farmers they know—“relationship marketing,” the approach he urges in his recent book, Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm Friendly Food. Joel believes that the only meaningful guarantee of integrity is when buyers and sellers can look one another in the eye, something few of us ever take the trouble to do. “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?”

Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm
Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm

Joel, who describes himself as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer,” speaks of his farming as his “ministry,” and certainly his 1,000 or so regular customers hear plenty of preaching. Each spring he sends out a long, feisty, single-spaced letter that could convince even a fast-food junkie that buying a pastured broiler from Polyface Farm qualifies as an act of social, environmental, nutritional, and political redemption.

“Greetings from the non-bar code people,” began one recent missive, before launching into a high-flying jeremiad against our disconnected “multi-national global corporate techno-glitzy food system” with its “industrial fecal factory concentration camp farms.” (The dangerous pileup of modifiers is a hallmark of Joel’s rhetorical style.) Like any good jeremiad, this one eventually transits from despair to hope, noting that the “yearning in the human soul to smell a flower, pet a pig and enjoy food with a face is stronger now than anytime in history,” before moving into a matter-of-fact discussion of this year’s prices and the paramount importance of sending in your order blanks and showing up to collect your chickens on time.

I met several of Polyface’s parishioners on a Thursday in June as they came to collect the fresh chickens they’d reserved. It was a remarkably diverse group of people: a schoolteacher, several retirees, a young mom with her towheaded twins, a mechanic, an opera singer, a furniture maker, a woman who worked in a metal fabrication plant in Staunton. They were paying a premium over supermarket prices for Polyface food, and in many cases driving more than an hour over a daunting (though gorgeous) tangle of county roads to come get it. But no one would ever mistake these people for the well-heeled, urban foodies generally thought to comprise the market for organic or artisanal food. There was plenty of polyester in this crowd and a lot more Chevrolets than Volvos in the parking lot.

So what exactly had they come all the way out here to the farm to buy? Here are some of the comments I collected:

“This is chicken as I remember it from my childhood. It actually tastes like chicken.”

“I just don’t trust the food in the supermarket anymore.”

“These eggs just jump up and slap you in the face!”

“You’re not going to find fresher chickens anywhere.”

“All this meat comes from happy animals—I know because I’ve seen them. And the pork tenderloin is to die for!”

“I drive 150 miles one way to get clean meat for my family.”

“It’s very simple: I trust the Salatins more than I trust Wal-Mart. And I like the idea of keeping my money right here in town.”

I was hearing, in other words, the same stew of food fears and food pleasures (and food memories) that has driven the growth of the organic food industry over the past 20 years—that, and the satisfaction many Polyface customers clearly take in spending a little time on a farm, porch-chatting with the Salatins, and taking a beautiful drive in the country to get here. For some people, reconnecting with the source of their food is a powerful idea. For the farmer, these on-farm sales allow him to recapture the 92 cents of a consumer’s food dollar that now typically winds up in the pockets of processors, middlemen, and retailers.

I asked Joel how he answers the charge that because food like his is more expensive, it is inherently elitist. “I don’t accept the premise,” he replied. “First off, those weren’t any ‘elitists’ you met on the farm this morning. We sell to all kinds of people. Second, whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that, with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”

As it is, artisanal producers like Joel compete on quality, which, oddly enough, is still a somewhat novel idea when it comes to food. “When someone drives up to the farm in a BMW and asks me why our eggs cost more, well, first I try not to get mad,” said Joel. “Frankly, any city person who doesn’t think I deserve a white-collar salary as a farmer doesn’t deserve my special food. Let them eat E. coli. But I don’t say that. Instead I take him outside and point at his car. ‘Sir, you clearly understand quality and are willing to pay for it. Well, food is no different: You get what you pay for.’

“Why is it that we exempt food, of all things, from that rule? Industrial agriculture, because it depends on standardization, has bombarded us with the message that all pork is pork, all chicken is chicken, eggs eggs, even though we all know that can’t really be true. But it’s downright un-American to suggest that one egg might be nutritionally superior to another.” Joel recited the slogan of his local supermarket chain: “‘We pile it high and sell it cheap.’ What other business would ever sell its products that way?”

pigs

When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. Look at any supermarket ad in the newspaper and all you will find in it are quantities—pounds and dollars; qualities of any kind are nowhere to be found. The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides price to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as numbers, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than “value.” And as soon as that happens, people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than price. But instead of stories about how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes—as illegible as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity.

Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring—to the carelessness of both producers and consumers that characterizes our economy today. Of course, the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the American food industry and its international counterparts fight to keep their products from telling even the simplest stories—“dolphin safe,” “humanely slaughtered,” etc.—about how they were produced. The more knowledge people have about the way their food is produced, the more likely it is that their values—and not just “value”—will inform their purchasing decisions.


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