If you’re reading this, you probably know who Joel Salatin is. He’s the outspoken and vaunted founder of Polyface Farm — arguably the most famous farm in the world (as far as famous farms go) — a grazier, sustainable agriculture advocate, author of a number of books, the subject or feature of several food documentaries, and was made famous by Michael Pollan’s bestselling “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
Joel Salatin is also a world-class bigot. Let’s explain.
Whining and Entitlement
Some time ago, I published an essay about flaws in the systemic economics of small farming and its failure to pose a real challenge to conventional agriculture and traditional agribusiness. This is a subject I write about fairly extensively; while most of the farm-to-table movement focuses on blaming the consumer for problems in the food system and posing solutions accessible only to wealth and privilege, I and a growing (and decidedly diverse) cohort of practitioners in sustainable agriculture have begun to challenge the Generally Accepted Agrarian Principles (GAAP) of supposedly sustainable agriculture: 1.) small farms owned and operated by 2.) nuclear families that 3.) sell directly into their hyperlocal foodsheds. You can dive into some details about the problems with these principles with some resources I’ve posted at the end of this essay.
Salatin is one of the godfathers of GAAP, and he’s made quite a living for himself and his family (if not his employees) promoting it, so it’s not surprising that he’d take some exception to criticism of his model.
What is surprising is that Joel, regarded by many as one of the leading lights in sustainable agriculture, would have no substantive answer to the challenges posed in my essay, and would instead respond with a post in his personal blog that avoids the issue entirely by making it about my race.
I didn’t learn of Joel’s response until much later, right before I was approached by Mother Earth News (MEN) with an offer to write for them, with Joel’s involvement in the publication put forward as a point of prestige. MEN was, and apparently still is, seeking to substantially broaden the perspectives they offer on sustainable agriculture, etc. in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the global protests that followed, but I wasn’t willing to be used — intentionally or otherwise — to legitimize racism by having my anti-racist stances published as “a point of view.”
Joel’s claims about my “personal failures” aside, my farm was successful enough for me to decline their offer:
“Salatin penned an appallingly racist screed about me in response to one of my essays on small farming back in November, and has a storied history of hostile, racialized rhetoric toward people of color in both public and private.
Until and unless this is addressed, I must assume Ogden’s endorsement of the above and cannot pursue this further.”
Joel Gets Dropped
MEN didn’t respond to my email, and it seemed the publication had turned to page one of the performative ally playbook: dressing up their magazine with woke-cred from authors like Leah Penniman, continuing to provide a safe space and platform for racist authors like Joel, and ignoring calls to upgrade from diversity to anti-racism.
This story was told to our farm’s social media following, which was not pleased with MENs non-response. MEN’s social media feeds were inundated with outraged commentary for nearly a week until, finally, someone over there decided that deleting those comments and ignoring their content was only making things worse. They ended up having a “heart to heart” with Joel that culminated in a half-assed apology from Polyface.
That could’ve been the end of it, but Joel — reeling from the indignity of being asked to respect other people — couldn’t help running his mouth in private.
One young farmer in particular drew Joel’s personal ire for joining the call for MEN to address his racist statements: Clara Coleman. She comes from a family that’s been intimately involved with Salatin for some time, so her challenging him seemed to be a particular thorn in his side. Their personal email exchange culminated in the July 29 email shown above, where Joel suggests:
“…that the BIPOC folks who feel America offers them no opportunity should give up all modern conveniences and return to their tribal locations and domiciles.”
This prompted Clara and another influential farmer, Kate MacLean, to deliver a letter co-signed by hundreds of other farmers (including a broad swath of MEN’s writers) to MEN publisher, Bill Uhler. That letter, combined with Joel’s even more appalling denial of systemic racism and racist, fact-free commentary on Black fatherhood in an email delivered to Bill (see image above) on August 20, effectively stripped MEN of any option but to drop him from their writing and events roster, which they quietly did.
Hiding in Plain Sight
MEN isn’t the first magazine to be caught off guard by Joel’s bigotry; lots of people are surprised to learn that Joel has been saying and writing racist things for decades.
Joel’s popularity is largely owed to glossy media coverage of his food gospel preached at the crossroads of agrarian nostalgia and chronic dietary anxiety. But most people haven’t read his books or his blog, which are full of racist dogwhistles, poor-shaming, homophobic screeds, full-throttle misogyny, science denial, and naked appeals to White ethnocentrism. For evidence that these themes are present throughout Joel’s personal zeitgeist, one need only peruse the things said in Joel’s defense when he’s challenged.
Publicly, Joel’s Polyface Farm gets around these issues with polite euphemisms (such as this post, where they describe the MEN affair as “a significant ideological impasse over political and social issues.”) and bizarre distancing of the farm from its own founder and operator (such as this post, in response to controversy over Joel’s COVID rant).
You see disclaimers like this in his blog:
Right before seeing his blog linked directly from their main social media outlet:
In any case, Polyface is taking this opportunity to push the tried-and-true “our culture is under attack” line to rally its most dedicated supporters, making hay from paranoid White-grievance politics even while claiming to do the opposite (where’s the off button on this guy?) And this brings us to an interesting point: Joel is now mired in a racial controversy of his own making because he didn’t have the chops to answer a hard question about the viability of sustainable agriculture, and that latter part is arguably the biggest problem of all.
Impotence & Vainglory
Racism aside, Joel’s “Whining and Entitlement” essay is a damning indictment of his intellectual firepower. As I wrote in response to Ogden publisher Bill Uhler:
“As offensive as [Joel’s] decision to [make the issue about my race] was to me as a person of color, I find its sheer laziness just as troubling: his inability to respond to the substance of my essay very much calls into question his possessing the erudition, grace, or courage required of a leader in any capacity.
Challenged by a hard and fundamental problem about the systemic economics of smallholding, Joel chose to retreat into the safety of racial grievance politics instead of rising to the challenge of articulating a real solution. It was an act of pure cowardice. Your readers, my peers in agriculture, and a public that is absolutely requiring us to succeed in order to secure a place for humanity on this planet deserve better leadership than that.”
Joel conflates success of the individual with the success of the farm-to-table movement more broadly, failing to acknowledge or address the fact that the latter simply isn’t happening as most fledgling farms, like most fledgling businesses, fail… while a handful of small farms (his and mine included) manage to succeed thanks in large part to uncommonly good luck*.
He doesn’t explain how this tiny number of successful small farms will compete with Sysco, Aramark, ConAgra, JBS, ADM, and Amazon. Instead, he pens a love letter to himself that poses the success of the farm-to-table movement as a function of his personal wealth and popularity. Metrics that actually matter, e.g. the displacement of traditional agribusiness in dollars, acres, and people fed, are left undiscussed.
In his own email to Bill, Joel laments that people like me may become the “future of small farming” even as people like me argue against small farming itself**, advocating instead for new models of ownership, integration, and scale that protect larger landscapes, improve access to good food, offer equitable opportunities to land protectors who don’t possess the rare entrepreneurship gene, and pose a realistic challenge to the incumbent food system.
For my part, I lament the falling of Joel’s star because he was a beacon for me early on. Visit my farm and you’ll find a livestock system very similar to his — same chicken tractors, same henmobiles, same fencing system for pigs, same systems of livestock rotations. He’s a great farmer, but somewhere along the way he got convinced that he can’t be a great farmer without being a bigot. And that is a tragedy.
But it’s a tragedy that won’t stop the march of progress as new ideas about land stewardship, water protection, food sovereignty, farm economics, and agricultural equity pour into this space from a cohort of sustainability advocates more rich and diverse than any that’s been seen yet. I’ve written about a number of these ideas if you care to click on these links, and there are lots of other voices to follow, too. Mourn what America’s favorite farmer has become, but rejoice at what’s coming in his place.
*Joel inherited hundreds of acres and, with it, a stake in a slaughterhouse that comprise the foundation of his businesses: farming, meatpacking, and talking about the two. I didn’t inherit any land, but I did inherit a world-class private high school education (where I honed my writing skills and a deep personal network) and college education (where I learned software engineering), both of which were indispensable to putting together the money and learning-curve runway to farm successfully.
**As a strategy for challenging conventional agriculture, not against its very existence.
Chris Newman is co-founder and Ehakihet at Sylvanaqua Farms. Read more about our background and mission at sylvanaqua.com/invest