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Omnivore - Joel Salatin and the lunatic fringe of farming

The famed farmer visits Atlanta's Pace Academy to talk sustainability

Joel Salatin likes to say that innovation comes from the lunatic fringe, and he fully embraces his role as provacateur in chief on the fringe of sustainable farming. On Monday night, Salatin, the famed farmer from Polyface Farms in Virginia, held a public lecture at Pace Academy on the topic of challenging the current orthodoxy present in the world of agriculture. Salatin is spending time in Atlanta this week as a visiting scholar for Pace's Isdell Center for Global Leadership, meeting with students and faculty on the theme of global issues in food. 
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? For the capacity crowd Monday night - a mix of Pace parents and alumni, local farmers, and the broader Atlanta community - Salatin framed the current challenge facing sustainable farming as one of overcoming an embedded belief. And that belief is that today's chemical-driven approach to farming is necessary to feed our growing global population. It's a belief he hopes will be proven as obviously absurd as the once-dominant view that the world is flat. Yet Salatin recognizes that displacing the current world view is no easy task - he just hopes that the lunatic fringe, the innovators, and the early adopters can poke it, poke it, poke it until a tipping point is reached and the world comes along. "Solutions to today's problems," he proposed, "come from the lunatic fringe. We need to cultivate a healthy respect for the weirdos."
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? I sat down with Salatin Tuesday morning at Pace to follow up on that discussion and get his further thoughts on the steps necessary to drive change in the realm of sustainable farming.
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? ??? With the near disappearance of the family farm from the American landscape, how critical is it that today's kids understand what's going on in agriculture?
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(Understanding where our food comes from) I think it’s the launch pad for common sense…  to participate in the mystery and magnificence of growing a tomato, to be able to plant that seed and watch it grow, and the gravity of the situation of whether it grows or dies. It really speaks to the child's self esteem and self understanding to have been able to have grown a tomato plant and eat that tomato, as opposed to striving to be the top points-getter on Angry Birds! There's a lot more value in (children) looking back and saying I grew that tomato.
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? Yesterday, with the third graders, I asked them - can you tell me places where you live where you can grow something? To just be aware that we are immersed in life, in something bigger than ourselves is powerful. Even if they can't grow something themselves, they can visit a farm, or have a relationship with a farmer, or even with animals and plants and see them living before they end up on your plate. It brings a profound understanding of life, that life must die and regenerate to make new life, and it's not just an academic matter. 
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? What are your thoughts on the opportunity for urban agriculture, especially as a way to reach populations that don't necessarily have great access to fresh food?
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I'm a fundamental believer in integrated food systems as opposed to segregated food systems, and that's a strong word but I use it on purpose…  The answer to food deserts and access is not more government programs… but to encourage not only food production in these areas but also a thriving food commerce – what I call freedom-oriented food commerce.
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? There's got to be a way for embryonic food entrepreneurs to be able to access their neighbors... to engage in one on one food trade without bureaucracy getting in the way. This is only a problem in so-called first world countries... in our luxury and our disconnection (from food), it has created an arrogance and an ignorance that have combined to create food phobia – because people don’t understand it (how food gets to our table).
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? In our sophistication and advancement, we have left the understanding that creates a place for faith... faith in each other… faith that the system works... that the soil in a backyard can actually grow safe food that doesn’t have to be Clorox-washed.
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? You're working on a book that addresses food and the environment from a faith-based perspective, and the Pope these days is very clearly stressing the tie between the environmental impact of climate change and the mandate that brings for those of faith - what's your pitch on faith and farming?
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My one liner is that all of physical creation is an object lesson of spiritual truth. So... the question becomes – what does a food and farming system look like that exhibits faith? Forgiveness, abundance, “whosoever will” may come, humility, dependency on something besides myself - these are all powerful faith-based means, but they've been... removed from a practical manifestation. In my book, I’m actually going to lay it out – does it matter at the church potluck if you have styrofoam or paper plates - why can't we have that question? But if somebody dared ask that question at their church they're suddenly branded as some commie pinko environmentalist tree hugger! Why can’t our church lawns be turned into community gardens? Or the kitchen that’s only used two days a month, why can't it be a canner for gardens in the community - FREE? As simply an outreach of healing! 
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? I have a bookshelf full of theological and academic treatises on creation care, creation stewardship – but without a visceral understanding of the life of a pig, or the practical growth of a tomato plant, these things tend to get lost in so much cerebral discussion. I'm willing to express what it actually looks like on a daily basis. 
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