The following interview with Joel was hosted by Laura Brown from the Sustainable Farm Conference in Grass Valley, California on January 21. I thought that you all might like to sit in on it.
What will be the theme of your discussions at this year’s conference in Grass Valley? What do you hope people will gain from your talks?
My main talk will be based on my most recent book, FOLKS, THIS AIN’T NORMAL. Modern Americans live in a blip of human history. No civilization has ever routinely eaten unpronounceable food, locked thousands of animals in factory houses, and consumed a quarter of all food in an automobile. Rather than being harbingers of progress and a cavalier infatuation with sailing off into a Star Trek future sans ties to an ecological umbilical, these aberrant modern realities are regressive and unsustainable. Though I do not advocate hoop skirts, wringer washers, and horse drawn conveyance, I submit that the future will require far more personal visceral involvement with mundane principles of food, clothing, and shelter than the current generation believes. Soil and water depletion, along with more expensive energy, nutrient deficiency and new pathogens are scaring many modern thinkers. The answer to these fears lies in historical precedent, historical normalcy. So while I have a sobering message, a wake-up call in fact, the goal is a newly informed and empowered person ready to tackle the future firmly anchored in the things that have stood the test of time
You have become somewhat of a celebrity. What kind of feedback are you getting from folks who come to hear you speak?
Generally approbation and appreciation. Occasional skepticism, but my message resonates with most people. Most people feel like we’re on a precarious precipice but aren’t sure what they can do about it. To know that we can extricate ourselves from the things that scare us is a truly liberating thing
Do you feel a real food revolution is here or is mainstream consumer change still a long way off?
Mainstream change is still a long way off. McDonald’s is still doing very well, thank you very much. And Monsanto is still a good Wall Street investment. No, we’re far from winning this one. That said, any number of events could bring us to a tipping point very quickly: oil at $300 a barrel; drug-induced hyper-pathogens; water wars; political calamity or economic collapse. These would restore normalcy quickly: localization, real time carbon cycling, food choice freedom, pasture based livestock models, edible landscaping, restoration of domestic larders.
Are sustainable farmers rocking the boat? Do you think industrialized farming will see significant changes in coming years?
I think the mechanical approach is trying to co-opt sustainable farmers–their methods, their lingo, their markets. Using their political clout to criminalize description language used to help differentiate us from them, the mechanical foodists will not go down gently. Of course I think things will change. We’ll see more soil depletion, more pathogenicity, more pollution, more nutrient deficiency from these folks, but their answers will always be more voodoo genetics, irradiation, chemical, pharmaceuticals, and artificials.
Do you still have time for farming? What do you have in the works for the year ahead?
I’m home nearly 2/3rds of the time, so I haven’t lost my callouses. I still love to get out there and sweat, and at my age, I know it’s important to do it. I’ve never developed an exercise regiment because I’ve been so active, and that’s one of the hardest things to adjust to–the lack of physical activity when I’m traveling so much. Even when I’m home, I’m spending a lot of time answering questions like this, doing media things in preparation for an event, or other writing. But we do have some wonderful projects happening on the farm. We’ve just finished creating what could be the only hoop house in the world with sidewalks inside. The concrete keeps pigs from being able to dig the floor out but the 10 inch strips between them allow us to grow vegetables during the spring, summer and fall, with the concrete sidewalks acting as thermal mass and mulch for the plants, as well as a nice solid floor for deep litter for the pigs in the winter.
We want to build a ferris wheel grain sprouter for self-harvesting with chickens; we’ve just leased our 8th farm so we’ll be installing fencing and water systems and introducing mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization to those acres this year; we’re continuing to develop our intern and apprenticeship program; and we have some exciting new portable shelter designs for turkeys and cattle in the works.
What draws you to the farming life?
Nothing beats watching the land heal. People have been abusing the land for a long time, and continue to do so. But if you love the land and you massage it with the caresses of nature’s principles, it will respond like a true lover, giving back far more than you can ever imagine. Living nestled in abundance offers a visceral antidote to the fears and concerns of our day. To be able to look out on verdant gardens, fruit trees, and pastoral landscapes soothes the human spirit like few things I know. It’s home.
Farming has become almost sexy in its appeal among young people. What do you attribute this to?
Our culture has been running away from visceral relationships with the land for a long time. But something in the human spirit, a yearning in the soul, beckons for relational restoration, similar to what Thomas Friedman articulated in his NYT bestseller THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE. You can only divorce from reality so far and so long before your are anchorless and adrift in a sea of meaningless, building virtual models on computer screens for cyber space essence that is sent adrift with a “send” button at the end of the day in the Dilbert cubicle working for “the man.” These young people seem to understand that the regenerative economy will require something physical, not just cerebral. And that is a wonderful balance to behold.
Can you share any valuable lessons you’ve learned from the past farming year?
Our inputs are going up precipitously and we must raise prices to maintain margins. We were audited by the Virginia Employment Commission, and that simply helped me despise bureaucrats more. I’ve come to deeply appreciate both our customers and the talented team we’ve assembled here at Polyface–good people always earn their pay.
Have you checked out the farming community here? How does it rate with other places you’ve been?
Every place has more similarities than dissimilarities–soil, air water and people who need clothing, shelter, and food.
What do you see as the biggest threats to agriculture? How does the small farmer fit in? What words of advice would you give a young greenhorn who dreams of the farming life?
The biggest threat is the ego and paradigm of the government-industrial-corporate food complex. The biggest threat is the intrusion of the government into the food system, because the government is simply a pawn of the biggest players who can afford to wine and dine both regulators and politicians to carve out for themselves special concessionary favors in the marketplace. All government intrusion is prejudicial against small producers. My advice to greenhorns is to stay away from government offices, surround yourself with cheerleaders, work harder than anyone else, and get advice ONLY from successful practitioners.
What can the American people do to preserve small farms? What shift in consciousness needs to occur? Is it happening?
It’s very simple: patronize them. We don’t need government tax incentives, agencies, or pamphlets. We need every eater to realize that whatever we have today is the cumulative result of millions of everyday choices being exercised in the marketplace. If everyone quit purchasing junk food tomorrow, it would cease to exist. We have the power. We vote three times a day; we create tomorrow’s food system and landscape with every bite we eat. Plenty of time and money exist to make this change. We don’t need soda, cigarettes, alcohol, $100 designer jeans with holes already in the knees or Hollywood. If you took the time and money devoted to vapid values and spent them instead on things that will heal your body, your community, and your natural resources, we’d have a different culture. Maybe it would be one that other cultures could respect. Maybe we could lead the world into a new era of happiness. How’s that for a goal? Maybe our children could inherit a planet with more soil, more nutrition, better health, and a brighter outlook. Awesome.