Joel Salatin, a self-described “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer” lived up to every aspect of his reputation in his lecture to the incoming class of 2017, during their fall orientation. The lecture, which was open to all members of the Wake Forest community, was the denouement in the summer academic project on food access and food justice.
Salatin is undoubtedly the most recognizable, and arguably one of the most successful, sustainable farmers in the United States today. His alternative farming practices have drawn him into contentious battles with government regulators and have contributed to his unique views on food justice. He has captured the attention of food activists, environmentalists, libertarians, and government regulators, in equal measure, illustrating why he named his Virginia farm Polyface – the farm of many faces.
“We have become disconnected from our ecological umbilical,” he remarked. Most of us have little idea where our food comes from, how it is grown, and why either of those things matter. We have done our best to insulate ourselves from the consequences of those realities. Our society has divorced itself from food production. Farming is done by people we don’t know and in places we can’t see or smell, and for good reason: industrial food production is an unsightly and hazardous business. We make decisions about how to expend our monthly budgets based on a disconnection from the real cost of food or its importance in our lives. The question of how we can afford a sustainable food system must be turned around to ask how we can afford the system we have now – one that promotes health crises, ecological crises, and ultimately economic crises.
It is this disintegration that has allowed the industrial food system to flourish. With the bluster of a preacher on a pulpit, Salatin exclaimed, “Injustice thrives in secrecy and opaqueness, justice thrives in openness and accountability.” He suggests that transparency and accountability to consumers is the best form of regulation for safety, quality, and price; he proposes that regulation be modified to allow small farms equal market access.
According to Salatin, if we want to change our food system, if we want to see food access in our communities, we must re-integrate our food system. Food production must be localized and consumers must make the sometimes difficult choice to purchase locally and seasonally grown food. He challenged students to imagine the university covered with an edible landscape, to substitute meal-plan reliance with whole foods preparation, and to imagine adjusting the academic calendar to coincide with seasons of peak local food production.
Salatin reiterated again and again that our human cleverness – our desire to outrun nature– is getting us into trouble. He urges us to exercise more humility and less hubris. He suggests that personal responsibility is the starting point for change – that each of us must take up what Dr. Miles Silman, director of the WFU Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, described as the “hard and happy labor of change,” during his introduction to the lecture.
As a final take-away, Salatin emphasized the need to start somewhere and not be afraid of failure. He challenged the old saying that anything worth doing is worth doing right by suggesting that, “anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly first!”
By Jamie Sims, Campus Garden Intern