The Local Food Movement's Wild Eyed Old Testament Prophet

Janey Fugate

This is a story I wrote for my Reporting on the Economy class. I interviewed Joel Salatin, featured in the documentary Food Inc., and visited his farm, Polyface.


A self-proclaimed “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic,” Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm is a small-scale agriculture celebrity. Based in Swoope, Virginia, his farm has become a nationally recognized model for sustainable agriculture and Salatin is the poster child for the local food movement.

“Less spoilage, more response food marketers, less energy used in transport…all of these benefits begin to accrue with vibrant local food buying,” said Salatin in an email.

Described by another local farmer as a wild-eyed Old Testament prophet for sustainability, Salatin advocates the need for communities to reconnect with their local food systems in the face of the issues presented by industrial, globalized agriculture. His presence in the region has revitalized Rockbridge area farmers’ response to the globalization of the food industry.

And he leads by example. He practices what he calls “herbivorous mob stocking solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization.” Essentially, this means that his farming methods should mirror natural, biological systems.

Local farmer Ben Eland, who has a graduate degree in sustainable agriculture, says that Salatin’s “radical approach is appropriate, and necessary.”

The word “necessary” implies that there is something wrong with a system where we can eat oranges in rural Virginia at any time of the year. The irony is that it is now more novel to buy tomatoes grown from a small farmer’s crop than to eat avocados shipped fresh from Mexico. A century ago people were consuming the bulk of their calories from local food, and now the opposite is more common for Americans. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental advocacy group, found that between 1968 and 1998 world food production increased by 84 percent to meet the needs of an exploding urban population. And food trade increased by a staggering 184 percent.

"Farm" by Janey Fugate. 

This reflects a complex web of historical events, technological advances, the comparative advantages of nations, and more difficult to name cultural shifts. But homing in on Rockbridge County, today this issue comes down to how individuals make choices over a matter of dollars.

Pure Eats, a burger joint in Lexington that buys all of its meat from a local organic farm, sells regular cheeseburgers for $7. The average Burger King cheeseburger sells for around $2. Arguably this isn’t a true comparison – these restaurants aren’t necessarily targeting the same customers – but the fact remains that a poor person in the Rockbridge area with limited disposable income is more likely to satisfy his or her American burger cravings at a fast food franchise.

But both Salatin and Eland agree that the decision to buy food that is cheap and immediately consumable is rooted in cultural reasons rather than economics. Eland says that Americans expect food to be cheap, and that their choices on which commodities to buy reflect societal values.

“It just doesn’t seem like part of our culture for people to go without other commodities in order to buy local food,” said Eland.

Salatin is adamant that quality, locally grown food should be at the top of people’s priority list.

“When anyone says they can’t afford integrity food, I grab them by the shirt and say: “Take me to your house. Right now. I want to see how you spend your money,” said Salatin. He proceeded to spell out a laundry list of items from alcohol to candy wrappers to video games. “I don’t care if they’re on SNAP (food stamps) and a single mom of 10,” said Salatin. “If ANY of this is in their house, affordability is not the problem.”

But beyond the cultural reasons for not eating seasonally and locally, the reality remains that there is a common assumption that all farmers’ market or local food is astronomically more expensive than what one can snag at Food Lion, part of a conglomerate based in Belgium, or at Walmart, the largest corporation in the world. Mitch Wapner, an organizer for the Lexington Farmers’ Market and farmer, maintains that this is simply not the case.

“There’s a misperception that farmers market food is more expensive,” said Wapner. “Sometimes it is, often times it’s not.”

At the Healthy Foods Co-op, an small organic grocery store in Lexington, a dozen eggs laid by happy local chickens costs $3.59. At Kroger, the cost is essentially the same. Polyface’s ground beef is a dollar cheaper by the pound than Kroger’s Simple Truth Organic brand. On the other hand, a whole Polyface chicken is a dollar more expensive than Kroger’s Simple Truth one.

But the real economic value for consuming seasonal, local food is employment benefits and having money directly impacting local producers, says Wapner.

“If you’re sending your money to a global store when you spend a dollar at Walmart, that dollar doesn’t stay in the local economy,” said Wapner. “But when you spend a dollar at the local farmers’ market, it goes around and around the local economy.”

Farm to You, a local food aggregator, claims if every household in Rockbridge County spent $10 a week on local food, that would translate to $5.5 million in annual revenue for the entire county.

But while this is a lot of money relative to a small population like Rockbridge’s, how much impact does this figure really have? Eland holds that the Lexington Farmers Market, for example, may be a noble cause, but consumer behavior in these types of markets is not making a dent in the global food system.

“Economic forces cause farmers to sell to the market, instead of to sell what’s most sustainable,” said Eland.

Eland says that much of locally grown food is artisanal, or intended to satiate the tastes of the affluent, not the nutritional needs of the average consumer. Profit margins are greater when one is selling a niche product, such as Wapner’s signature ginger, versus a bulk product like wheat. And given the global food system’s convenience and efficiency, people are not basing their diet around local availability. In this way, the local food system is not “addressing the deeper cultural issue about where people get their food,” said Eland.

And necessity takes the issue to another level. The world is increasingly urban, with the majority of its population residing in sprawling metropolises. In this sense, industrial agriculture has to exist to meet this global demand.

As Wapner says, “local food is thousands of miles fresher, riper, and tastier.” But, local food distribution is not necessarily more fuel and time efficient than the global food industry’s methods of transportation.

“You can move a lot more stuff in a train from California to the East Coast than you can from the back of a Suburu,” said Wapner.

"Lex sign" by Ellen Wiencek. 

While Wapner may make up to $600 selling ginger in Charlottesville, the hour and a half drive certainly detracts from the perceived “greenness” of this action. While this may seem counterintuitive, a barge bearing ginger from China actually leaves relatively less of a carbon footprint than a hoard of small-scale agriculturalists travelling to and from various markets in their gas guzzling trucks, says Wapner.

“What I see as the future is local food distribution systems,” said Wapner.

Much like airports serving as bases for various flights, these food distribution centers would serve to aggregate locally produced food to cut down on carbon miles. Local Food Hub outside Charlottesville is one such organization. A nonprofit, Local Food Hub buys produce and meats in bulk from over 70 farms in the surrounding area and then sells this food to schools, hospitals, food banks and other “institutional customers” in the area.

According to most estimates, the average morsel of food travels 1,500 miles before consumption. But while food miles are notoriously difficult to nail down, the concept remains true. This puts the food industry in a long catalog of contributors to the issue of global climate change.

“The reality is we are all in a sense paying for cheap lettuce because it’s causing other problems,” said Eland. “…Environmental problems have a real economic cost.”

Anthropogenic climate change is the economic cost and environmental problem that links every agribusiness, individual farmer, and consumer to the global food system.

Climate change, as evidenced by global temperatures rising out of sync with natural cycles due to fossil fuel emissions, will inevitably affect productivity for both industrial agriculture and small-scale farms. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a multinational group of United Nations scientists that reports on the impact of global warming, cites industrial agriculture as a major impetus for climate change and says that global warming is expected to alter crop yields.

Rockbridge County will not be exempt from these changes. In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture redrew its Plant Hardiness Zone map, a standard that growers can use to determine what plants are likely to survive in a given region, to reflect changes in average regional minimum temperatures. Virginia, including Rockbridge County, is now in a warmer zone than in previous years. Robert Humston, biology professor at Washington & Lee University, says that while it is too early to quantify precise changes in Rockbridge County agriculture, for instance, locally growers can expect warmer temperatures and greater variability in precipitation.

“We can expect our precipitation regime to change from being heavy in the spring to heavy in the summer,” said Humston.

This past summer of unusual heavy rains seems to support this conjecture. As Wapner testifies, farmers had lower crop yields and sold less produce in June and July as a result of the heavy rain. Climate scientists warn against the dangers of attributing weather anomalies to global climate change, but the unpredictability of weather is a largely agreed upon, data-backed expectation.

“If one time weather patterns effect growers now, you can get a sense for how they will be impacted with climate change,” said Humston.

Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, advocates the need for a global move to re-localize the food industry as a response to climate change. He highlighted the inadequacy of the distributive functioning of the global food system in a recent report to the UN.

“Wealthy countries must move away from export-driven agricultural policies and leave space instead for small-scale farmers in developing countries to supply local markets,” Mr. de Schutter said. “They must also restrain their expanding claims on global farmland by reining in the demand for animal feed and agrofuels, and by reducing food waste.”

The problem is that local food systems do not have the infrastructure to compete with global suppliers, and people disagree on the value of corporate farms versus small ones. Rockbridge County is a rural region with a small population, which makes it a more viable community to have a vibrant local food system. But even so, because the infrastructure isn’t here, Kroger is not likely to buy Eland’s kale in bulk. And if it did, the global issue still exists. Feeding every mouth in Beijing would require a vastly different system than feeding everyone in Rockbridge County.

For this reason, Mr. de Shutter said it is “more realistic” to have different food systems coexist, and that for this to happen the world must redesign the food industry to shift away from large-scale farming. But a change in the cultural paradigm of eating must also occur before local food systems can compete with a globalized one on efficiency and price advantage. And even a “lunatic farmer” like Salatin agrees that this paradigm shift will not be a one-size-fits-all-approach, but rather a multifaceted one.

“A banana in Vermont is a real treat,” said Salatin. “It’s a matter of balance.”

Thanks for reading. Check out Sand/Shrapnel