5 Things I Learned From Visiting Food Inc.'s Joel Salatin

Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.
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Just a couple of guys who love red meat. (Photo: Oliver Lee)

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of driving down to Polyface Farms in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley with my family, who lives a few hours away in Manassas. 

While we were there mostly to pick up some of the farm's famously "beyond organic" beef—I know it's not exactly de rigueur, but I still love a good steak—we had the pleasure of running into the "High Priest of the Pasture" himself, Joel Salatin.

For those of you who have seen Food, Inc., rest assured that Mr. Salatin is every bit as charismatic and articulate as he appears on screen (and perhaps even more ruddy).

Best of all, he was more than happy to engage with me for a few minutes as we discussed how the film has changed his life, his busy speaking schedule, and the uphill battle that we all still face when it comes to our food.

Here are some of the highlights from my all-too-brief visit:

1.) No delivery? No problem

Polyface doesn't ship anything anywhere—their website proudly encourages "folks to find their local producers and patronize them"—but we were still surprised to find their parking lot packed on Saturday afternoon. There was even a family that had stopped by on a road trip from Illinois.

Of course, Polyface is a unique farm, run by a unique family. But it proves that people are willing to drive long distances for food they trust.

2.) Movies are good for business

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The farm is open for sales from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays (and mornings during the week).

When I asked Salatin if business had changed since the release of Food, Inc., he was quick to nod.

"There was a definite blip," he said, his hand moving up like the crest of a wave. "That's what we're calling it. A blip."

He was also quick to give Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma a shout out, saying that they'd noticed a similar "blip" with its publication in 2006.

3.) Talk isn't cheap

These days, Salatin spends almost as much time on the road giving talks as he does on the farm.

According to his website, he is booked through April 2012 and commands up to $5,000 per speaking engagement. Interestingly, the price is the same whether you book him for 30 minutes or the entire day, which I imagine is designed to make the most of his travel miles.

But despite his best efforts and the film's success, Salatin was still surprised by how few people had gotten the message.

"When I'm on the road, not one in ten have heard of Food Inc. or Omnivore's Dilemma," he said with disbelief.

4.) Miles to go before we eat

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We cross a small bridge and pass the Salatin family home to get to the sales area.

With so much to be done, Salatin cautioned against complacency with his trademark conviction and humor. 

"McDonald's is still very much in business," he said with a shrug and a smile.

Salatin also mentioned that whenever a Walmart opens, there is a 20 percent bump in obesity within a two-mile radius. While I wasn't able to confirm this, he did tell me to check out a website called See you at Walmart that depicts some of the super-sized clientele that he hoped someday to convert.

Editor's note: I'm pretty sure Joel meant "People of Walmart," which you can find here.

5.) Happy cows make for great steaks

In the end, we purchased four New York strip steaks, two dozen eggs, a box of heirloom tomatoes, a bag of fresh shiitake mushrooms, and a gallon jug of local apple cider for a very reasonable $67.50 (cash only, of course—don't get Joel started on credit card fees).

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A final look at Polyface as we leave the farm with our organic bounty.

As expected, the eggs were brightly orange-yolked, the tomatoes juicy and flavorful, and the cider sweet (the mushrooms were just mushrooms).

But the steaks. Oh, the steaks. Does beef that comes from cows grazing on at least 40 varieties of plants—he has called his fields a ''salad bar"—taste any different than the steak from your local Outback?

In a word, yes. But don't take my word for it. Ask my father, who usually avoids eating animals of any kind and is as vegetarian as Koreans from his generation get.

After eyeing the rest of us wolfing down our medium-rares, curiosity got the best of him and he forked over a well-done portion onto his plate. We watched as he chewed thoughtfully and waited for the verdict.

"This steak is good," he said, with more than a little bit of surprise.


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