Joel Salatin’s Pig Gospel

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Joel Salatin preaches his own brand of pig gospel.

And in her recent New York Times article, Kathryn Shattuck shines a light on Mr. Salatin, his work, his singular philosophy.

She visited Joel on his Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to see for herself how a herd of Gloucestershire Old Spots, Hampshires, Yorkshires and Durocs were being raised.

Ms. Shattuck writes:

After star turns in Michael Pollan’s best-selling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the documentary “Food, Inc.” (as well as his own books and videos), Mr. Salatin has been hailed as America’s proselytizer of the pasture, a busy advocate for the benefits of turning open land over to livestock so they can range freely and enrich the soil.

Among the nation’s most famous farmers, he has lately turned to preaching the gospel of the forest-fed pig. At a time when 90 percent of America’s pork is produced in huge confinement operations (the largest, Smithfield, is now owned by a Chinese corporation), Mr. Salatin, 56, is urging the return of the pig to its ancestral home. Like Virginia farmers of a century ago, when herds roamed and foraged these mountains, he has unleashed his pigs into the nooks and crannies of 450 acres of Appalachian hardwood forest on his Polyface Farm.

Not only is Mr. Salatin proposing to raise pigs in an old-school style, he’s giving young farmers ideas on how to turn marginal land into an income source.

Mr. Salatin has this to say:

“Think of all the mesquite in Texas, the pinion pines, the acorns in Appalachia,” he said. “Every place has the possibility of mass production. It’s an infrastructural system so nestled in ecology, it’s a more beautiful ecology.”

In her exhaustive article, the author explains how Mr. Salatin puts into practice what he so fervently preaches:

Rotating herds of about 50 pigs from pasture to pasture every few days, he aims for the ecological sweet spot: just long enough so that the pigs’ hooves stimulate seed germination and the soil’s ability to retain water, but not so long that a muddy moonscape develops, raising the risk of cholera and other diseases in the antibiotic-free animals. (He moves the herd as soon as they have consumed two tons of a local, non-genetically modified grain mixture that helps balance their diet, a common practice among farmers, who supplement with everything from cheese, yogurt and whey to pumpkins, barley and even bread.)

Our good friend, Joshua Applestone, founder of Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Brooklyn and Kingston, New York is quoted as he weighs in on this subject from a butcher’s viewpoint.

“Stories give traceability,” Mr. Applestone said. “They’re something for people to hold on to, to enjoy the product more.” And when the meat “hits your tongue,” he added, “it combines with the saliva and — bam! — it’s this explosion, like a windowpane onto full-flavored pork. That’s the joke about confinement pigs: they taste like whatever sauce you cook them with.”

Mr. Salatin’s methods are being used and, in some instances, questioned. Zachary Wolf, who along with his partner, Olivia Kirby, manages the Farm at the Locusts-on-Hudson in Staatsburg, New York. They rotate their pigs through woods and pastures à la Salatin, with this caveat:

“Although the economics are there,” Mr. Wolf said, “I would caution those looking to raise pigs in the woods to understand the ecosystem dynamics involved before jumping in.”

Heritage Foods has always championed raising animals in their natural habitats. They offer classes to farmers who want to be a part of Heritage’s farmer-centric network. Instructor Russ Kremer remarks that students in his classes are ” skewing younger as excitement builds for an ethical and economic antidote to industrial confinement.”

Ms. Shattuck quotes him more extensively:

“If you take the stress and fear off of a pig and give them an environment that’s more comfortable, the more reward they return to you as a producer” — like a lower mortality rate, said Mr. Kremer, who supplies La Quercia, the prosciutto maker, and D’Artagnan, the food distributor. “People that are really passionate about pigs know they have these personalities, and yes, they like being outside on a moonlit night just because they enjoy it.”

As a very revealing wrap up to this terrific article, the author tells the story of how Mr. Salatin and a chef were sitting in a stand of oaks at Polyface Farm. After awhile the chef remarked how he had never been around a live pig, didn’t know anything about pigs–but if he was a pig he would want to live like Salatin’s do.

“And that,” Mr. Salatin added, “just said it all.”

Yes, indeed, that says it all. Thank you, Kathryn Shattuck for some very insightful writing.

Kathryn Shattuck’s article originally appeared on nytimes.com. 

Is there a resource for non-CAFO  meat in your area?

Photo credit: Andrew Shurtleff for The New York Times