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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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‘Massaging Nature As A Lover’ [Farmer Joel Salatin Preaches The Gospel Of Local Food In Tampa]

Posted Apr 18, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Apr 18, 2012 at 04:46 PM

Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin sees himself as more than a farmer.

He’s healing the earth, one cow, pig, rabbit and chicken at a time.

For too long, he says, food in the United States has come from industrial farms that have cut the cord between Americans and organic food sources.

On his Polyface farm in Swoope, Va., Salatin says he attempts to link the two by using farming practices that not only put wholesome ingredients on the table, but also restore ecological balance to his 550 acres in the Shenandoah Valley.

Salatin will discuss his views on organic, sustainable farming at 8 p.m. Thursday at The Roosevelt 2.0 in Ybor City. The event, which includes a sold-out dinner, is produced by Tampa Urban Food Forum (TUFF).

Salatin became a celebrity farmer of sorts among those in the local-food movement in 2006, after being featured in food writer Michael Pollan‘s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” as well as the documentary “Food, Inc.”

“He’s the first farmer I’ve seen who actually connects with people,” says TUFF co-founder Robin Milcowitz.

“We have a quickly growing local food movement that needs to come together,” Milcowitz says. “He can inspire people to keep doing what they’re doing.”

Salatin, 54, began working full-time on his parents’ farm in 1982, using bio-diverse methods for raising livestock.

The farm now serves more than 3,000 families and 50 restaurants through on-farm sales and metropolitan buying clubs with beef, pastured poultry, eggs, pork, rabbits and turkeys.

Here’s a glimpse of the farm. As you’ll see, Joel’s a little excitable:

I had a chance recently to speak with him about his approach to farming and how he tries to bridge the divide between the farm and the family table:

Florida has a year-round growing calendar, but it could not be more disconnected from farm to table in a lot of ways. You talk about the disconnection, but why is it continuing so strongly considering how visible that cause is right now.

As a civilization we kind of lost our mornings, if you will. We lost our ecological umbilical during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, with our love affair with everything mechanical and industrial. We even quit breast-feeding our babies. We made TV dinners. We essentially put our faith in Procter & Gamble and DiGiorno frozen pizza.

We essentially as a culture left those historical anchors, we lost those cultural moorings. Here we are in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and you have the Mother Earth News and Back to the Land Movement, the beaded-bearded-braless revolution of Woodstock. Then you had La Leche and Lamaze and people started saying wait, maybe some of these heritage umbilicals are anchors that are important. You can only embrace technology so far, but it does not give you the social anchorings and soul-level anchorings.

The local-food tsunami is very much a ground-upswell of rediscovering this lost ground. But this institutional food sector – the restaurants, the colleges – are still completely immersed in the old industrial paradyme which is about concrete and size, high-energy. It floats on oil and cheap energy and it floats on a mechanical view of life as opposed to a biological view of life.

Because it is the largest ship in the fleet, it takes it the longest to turn around. You can turn around in your backyard pretty quick, but a fast-food franchise if hard to turn around. It’s a big aircraft carrier. It takes a while.

Does your vantage point as a farmer give you a unique connection to the land? You see things every day that people who sit in the office don’t see.

It is a vantage point, because I’m out there with calluses and dirt under the fingernails. For example, I’m looking at the landscape thinking, “How do you create a less energy intensive, more resiliant, more forgiving landscape?’ There are principals involved in that. One is that you need a diversified production. Nature does not go toward monocrops or monospeciaition and synergy between plants and animals. So you don’t have acres and acres of one single animal.

Another is the hydrology cycle. How do you insulate from floods and droughts and things like that? We want to manage water so that rain drops stay as close to where they fall for as long as possible. That can be accomplished lots of different ways, from a rain barrel under your downspout, to increasing the organic matter in soil.

These are very visceral principals and patterns in nature that I see and work with every day and allows me to bring something to this discussion that isn’t just an academic and cerebral book learning from the local university.

I imagine you have moments where you think, “I wish people could see what I see.”

Oh, no question.

I think one of the main things is to be surrounded and embedded in the myriad of beings that we call nature or ecology. It’s profound to realize that the world does nto revolve around me. I am just one part of this great community of beings that is dancing together. How can I participate in this in a way that massages everybody into health, vigor and vitality beyond what they would have if I were not here. We have this notion of culture today that the best thing we can do today for the land is to abandon it and get rid of the human element because the human destroys everything. We ought to abandon the landscape to the trees and the foxes and everything will be fine. That doesn’t sound like a high-moral road to me. It’s a tough sell. So I can ask, “Why am I here and why do I have a big brain and the ability to heal and exploit so profoundly?”

I suggest that the answer is that I’m supposed to use my creativity and this big brain and opposing thumb to use this to massage the environment and ecology into greater solar conversion into decomposable biomass than it would in a static state. That’s a mouthful but it’s physics; that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. At the very time in human civilization when we have the most efficient ability to destroy the ecology, we also have the most efficient ability to heal the ecology. I am not a luddite by any means. What I want to do is leverage the technology we have, not to prostitute, adulterate or continue to exploit and rape nature but to massage nature as a lover because if we do, nature will love us back more than we could dream of.

We have to study nature for the patterns throughout history so we can leverage them.

You came back to farming full-time in 1982, when it was a must different culture. We’ve come a long way since then in thinking about farms, almost in the way chefs were elevated in the past 10 to 15 years. Farmers are almost coming into their own as the new rock stars.

You have hit the nail on the head. I have this conversation all the time. When I was growing up, Julia Child was the only chef I had ever heard of. Now of course we have food channels and celebrity chefs all over the place. I do believe that the next permutation of that theme is going to be the celebrity farmer or the idea of people putting that farmer on a pedest5al as a patron saint of health and landscape caretaking.

Paint the scene for me. What was it like back then when you came back to the farm? It was a hidden profession in a lot of ways, I imagine.

Certainly it was. Let’s not kid ourselves, it still is. We still have twice as many people incarcerated in prison in our civilization as we do farming. That’s not very many eyes and ears interacting with out sustenance. Actually taking care of our landscape.

Back then the biggest difference was that the food laws were not as onerous as they were today. The food safety laws are prejudicial against small-scale innovation. They scale up well but they don’t scale down very well. Most of the price issues and access to market issues that are impediments in the local food system are simply arbitrary hurdles created by an industrial food system.

The second thing is, in those 30 years, our farm business has personally seen a profound, continued culinary ignorance in the culture. Thirty years ago you almost couldn’t find a boneless skineless breast in the grocery store. If you wanted one, you bought a chicken, you took it home and had boneless skinless breasts. Today, half our customers don’t know that a chicken has bones. It’s some sort of breasts that you pick off a tree somewhere.

So there is an incredible, profound culinary ignorance that is way deeper. Back then, almost all our customers had gardens. Yes, they are coming back now, but boy, there is a profound lack of understanding in the system.

The third change is the electronic media, the whole Facebook and Web site is a thing developed for globalization that has been co-opted by the localization movement. There is real-time communication between ideological tribes that is more efficient than anything we could have ever imagined. It’s allowing this kind of network to occur in a much better way than ever possible.

Do you find it an odd fit at all that you’re seen as the patron saint of good farming?

It’s not a role that I’ve aspired to, but I take very seriously this mantle I’ve been given as an ambassador for local food, ecological farms and food freedom and food choice. Those, of course, are my themes. I lie awake at night trying to conceive of better sound bites that will be more clever and humorous to make the message more enjoyable. It’s a big deal

I certainly am not the be-all and end-all, but I do take it very seriously that I’ve been thrust onto this platform and I’m thrilled to death that so many people want to come and hear.

Standing-room tickets for Salatin’s appearance at The Roosevelt 2.0, 1812 N.15th St. in Tampa, are available for $35. They can be ordered online at

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