taking the words of Jesus seriously

Joel Salatin is a grass-farmer in Swoope, Virginia, where he and his family own and operate , a multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm. Joel is the author of nine books and has been featured in Michael Pollan’s award-winning book as well as the movie Food, Inc. Often cited in conversations about and with Joel is that he describes himself as a “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic-farmer.” He’s here with us today to talk about how his work as a “lunatic grass farmer” embodies the teachings of Christ.

So, Joel, how does your work as a lunatic grass farmer embody the red letters?

Christ as Creator established numerous principles for how this grand scheme would work. He established herbivores, for example, as pruners to make sure biomass did not go into senescence, but rather stay fresh and growthy, aggressively metabolizing solar energy into decomposable plant material that breathes in carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen. The whole earth’s ecosystem runs on sunbeams converted to tangible biomass through the magnificent process of photosynthesis. As a farmer, I have the distinct privilege of participating in this grand scheme, and as a human, I can either humbly encourage it or arrogantly fight against it.

The point is that all of creation is an object lesson of spiritual truth. So what does a farm that illustrates compassion, holiness, forgiveness, abundance, faith, and order look like? Does a farm that requires more and more chemicals reflect these Biblical principles more than one that has such a great immunological function it doesn’t need veterinarian care or pesticides? I would suggest that a farm that builds soil, heightens immunological function, produces more nutrient density, and runs on real time sunshine more consistently illustrates divine attributes than one that destroys soil, produces deficient food, runs on petroleum, and reduces immunological function.

Just like a local group of believers functions better when many different gifts and talents can be exercised, a farm functions better with synergistic and symbiotic multi-speciated relationships. Mono-speciation is a direct assault on God’s relational ethics, and yet simple crop or animal farms are encouraged in the industrial paradigm.

Life is fundamentally biological, not mechanical. Appreciating the pigness of pigs creates the moral and ethical framework in how we preserve the Tomness of Tom or the Maryness of Mary. Our industrial food system views food and life as fundamentally mechanical, to be manipulated however cleverly hubris can imagine to manipulate it. So in our human cleverness, we can innovate things we can’t spiritually, physically, mentally or emotionally metabolize, like feeding dead cows to cows to create bovine spongiform encephalopathy. This kind of assault on Christ’s ecological patterns stems directly from a disrespect toward life.

If life is sacred at all, then we should be farming in such a way as to honor the distinctiveness, the created uniqueness, of the plants and animals under our care. That extends to the eaters who partake of our fare. In other words, growing it faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper must take a second seat to honoring the pigness of the pig.

How can we, as eaters, consumers, and Christians, reflect our faith in what we eat?

Is it healing or sickening? Is it neighbor friendly? Jesus says to love your neighbor, and yet industrial farming assaults neighbors with polluted water, stinky air, and nutrient-adulterated or deficient food. The empirical nutrient difference between a factory-farmed egg and a pastured egg is different enough to prove it’s not even the same product.

Godly farming should be aesthetically and aromatically sensually romantic. Indeed, many older farmers—and most are now older—discourage their children from going into this vocation due to the aggravation, low pay, difficulty and pathogenicity that have become ubiquitous in this ministry. Does this sound like the husbandry and pleasurable agrarian life that beckoned Abraham? Does this sound like a ministry worthy of human effort? If the food system we patronize dishonors farmers and discourages visitors and participation, how are we supposed to illustrate a spiritual system that attracts people, that embraces a “whosoever will” mentality?

How can those of us in urban areas, and especially those who are low-income, eat as close as possible to how you would on your farm?

1.  Get in your kitchen. We eat almost no processed food. Preparation, processing, packaging and preserving of whole foods occurs in the home. The junkiest potato chips are still twice as expensive per pound as the most expensive organic whole potatoes.  Abdicating our visceral participation with food is both expensive and risky. Use modern culinary techno-gadgetry to re-acquaint yourself with food.

2.  Grow something yourself. Whether it’s a rooftop, lawn, or patio container garden, you can re-connect with your ecological umbilical. Each household should have two chickens to eat kitchen scraps and lay eggs; these are far more valuable than a cat or dog.

3.  Purchase directly from farmers. View the supermarket as a bad addiction. You simply cannot abdicate an understanding about food as profoundly as our culture has and expect to maintain food integrity. Complete ignorance on the consumers’ part creates vulnerabilities to shyster marketing, corner cutting, and dishonorable business practices.

We have a lot of cooks in the farming kitchen in this country: the farmers, the government, and even Wall Street and big business. To that end:

—What would be your perfect Farm Bill?

Eliminate the USDA. Started by Abraham Lincoln to help farmers be successful, no government organization has ever so effectively destroyed its constituency. We now have twice as many prisoners as we have farmers. Every time the federal government manipulates a marketplace, it favors the largest players, subsidizes the status quo, and discourages innovation. I can think of no role whatsoever for the government to play in farming. From crop insurance to environmental protections, the result has been MRSA, cDiff, increasing pharmaceutical and chemical dependency, genetically modified organisms, increasing food allergies and a nation that leads the world in the five chronic non-infectious diseases. The USDA told us to eat margarine. It told us to eat hydrogenated oils. The famous food pyramid founded on carbohydrates like Twinkies and Pop Tarts directly accelerated the obesity and Type II diabetes epidemic. Indeed, we would be a far healthier nation had the government never told us what to eat.

The USDA food police tell us it’s perfectly safe to feed your children Coca Cola, Cheerios, and pink slime, but it’s unsafe to drink raw milk, eat compost-grown tomatoes or imbibe Aunt Matilda’s home-made pickles. When the government gets between my lips and my throat, I consider that an invasion of privacy. Official orthodoxy equates sterile food with safe food, and yet our biology is not sterile. Research into tomatoes does not seek more nutrition or taste—it seeks harder orbs to withstand jostling for 2, 000 miles in a tractor trailer. Hence, tasteless, nutritionless, cardboard tomatoes. I can think of nothing positive that the USDA has done that wouldn’t occur better in the private sector, and I can think of many terrible atrocities and abuses we’re currently suffering that would be less severe had the USDA not aided and abetted stewardship abuse. Yes, it is time to be angry about this.

—What role does and should Wall Street/big business play in how we grow and eat our food?

I have no problem with big business per se. The problem is when duplicitous consumers seek security from government, only to have that sincerely misplaced faith hijacked by big business to carve out marketplace preferential treatment. Scale takes care of itself when you have a truly open market. When two consenting adults cannot enter into voluntary commerce without a bureaucrat stepping between the transaction, you do not have an openly competitive market place.

We hear a lot about food deserts, for example. The answer to these places is not food banks and government programs. The answer is to allow food and farming entrepreneurs to grow food in vacant lots, prepare it into quiche and stews in their apartment kitchen, and sell it to neighbors in the complex. If some enterprising person actually did this, within an hour five government agents would be slapping cease and desist orders on the door for violating some code requirement: building, zoning, business, food safety, infrastructure, employee.

What we have right now is a fundamentally segregated food system as opposed to a truly functional one that is fundamentally integrated.

Is systemic change possible for our food systems, and, if so, how can Christians help lead the charge for that change?

1.  Realize that eating is a moral act. It makes a statement. Does God care if pigs express their pigness? Is life actually biological or just mechanical? Does where your food comes from honor the Biblical belief system you espouse? Would Jesus be happy with a Monsanto mindset? Here is an outfit that patents and owns life forms of its own creation that God’s Genesis patterns of sexual plumbing prohibit from occurring. Releasing these promiscuous beings into the environment creates egregious trespass violations on my farm. Not only does Monsanto refuse liability, but it actually has enough clout in our culture to get the courts to rule that I, as the violated party, the rape victim, must pay Monsanto for the privilege of being raped. Does that sound like thinking that would honor God?

2.  Lead by example. Turn church lawns into edible landscapes and gardens for parishioners to participate in food production. Use church kitchens every day of the week to launch local food into commerce. Use the power of congregating to form alliances with local farmers for food pickups and distribution. Quit using styrofoam at potlucks and quit assuming that if someone dares to pose these ideas they’re a Democrat pagan Gaia worshipping Commie pinko liberal.

3.  Make food as important a ministry point as happy marriages, Bible study, financial counseling, and filling the missionary barrel. The Bible is full of food and feasts. It starts in a garden and ends in a New Jerusalem sporting a fruit tree that that’s always full and bears different fruit. Do you really think we’ll have high fructose corn syrup and monosodium glutamate at the marriage feast of the Lamb? Really? I bet it’ll be raw milk, homemade sweet pickles, grass-fed beef and compost-grown veggies. Enjoy!

About The Author


Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a writer, editor, and semi-retired attorney currently working on her Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and the Religion Newswriters Association, as well as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Jamie is currently working on her first full-length book, The Telling Ground.

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