Posted by: beyonddinner | January 11, 2009

Middle ground

My favorite section of Michael Pollan‘s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the part about sustainable agriculture and it featured Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. It intrigued me to learn about a farmer who was so thoughtful about his work and by paying attention to the needs of the land he could heal it and still produce a living from farming. I’ve never lived near a working farm or have had interactions with farmers, so I’ve never really thought about farming very much until I read that book. So Joel Salatin has provided an introduction for me to healthy farming.

For Christmas I got one of his books, You Can Farm and read it eagerly. He is a character and it comes through loud and clear in this book. The point of the book is that it is possible to make a decent living from farming without living off government subsidies. Importantly, he believes you can do this in a way that improves the health and well-being of the environment. I devoured the book in a few days and my husband read it right away too.

Joel Salatin is a meat farmer (though he calls himself a grass farmer) and he raises cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and rabbits on his farm. He has set up an intricate, interwoven ecosystem that allows each animal to do what they do best. By setting up the timing really well, the animals end up doing a lot of the work, the land provides most (but not all) of their feed, and they give back to the land by providing their wastes and keeping insects and other harmful organisms down.

It’s fascinating stuff – really!

It’s kind of funny that I’m inspired by a meat farmer, since we eat a mostly vegan diet, but I’ve said that we occasionally eat meat, on holidays, special occasions, or if we are away from the house and that’s what is available or what we like. The reason we don’t eat much meat is that animal protein is not the best way for human beings to get their protein. Major studies have been done (see The China Study) that show as you increase the percentage of your diet from animal protein, the frequency of cancers and heart disease also rises. The cause and effect is very, very clear. The studies show that if a person’s diet is comprised of less than 10% from animal protein, there are no correlations to higher rates of cancer and heart disease. So that’s what we are after – less than 10% of our diet should come from animal protein. And if we are going to have animal protein, we want it as healthy as possible and to come from sources like Joel Salatin’s farm – where the animals are raised in healthy, sustainable ways, without harmful chemicals.

All that being said, however, Joel Salatin is a died-in-the-wool meat farmer and while I admire many things about him, I don’t admire how hyped up on meat he is. I ran across this interview him at Mother Earth News where he talks about handing out Weston A. Price Foundation brochures like religious tracts to his formerly vegetarian customers. At first glance the Foundation looks pretty reasonable – they promote eating a nutritionally dense diet that doesn’t include refined foods or factory farmed meat. But they also seem to over-zealously promote a meat-based diet that is based on very old and skimpy reasearch. They are also quite strident at criticizing vegetarian and vegan diets.

Frankly I believe that humans can eat a large variety of diets and be healthy, but I also believe that the standard American diet is very, very bad for us. So the healthy, sustainable answer is somewhere in the middle of the very extreme views. The middle I choose (and try imperfectly to implement) is for a plant-based, whole-food diet, with animal products as a minor part of the big picture. If you look at the typical American diet, my middle looks pretty extreme. But if you look at the difference between die-hard vegans and die-hard Weston A. Price Foundation people – my middle is pretty much in the center.

Sometimes I find it challenging to learn where my heroes aren’t totally heroic, when they turn out to be human beings after all. But this is part of being a grown up and thinking for myself. Occasionally I need to remind myself to always be thoughtful about what I read. So I’ll take what makes sense to me from both Joel Salatin and The China Study. More and more of what I read affirms what I read in Joel Fuhrman‘s Eat to Live book. He doesn’t advocate a vegan diet only – he is for eating a very nutritionally dense diet. As long as low-nutrient food (compared to leafy green vegetables which includes animal products and oils) is kept to less than 10% of my intake, and the bulk of my diet is from vegetables, I can be sure that I am eating healthily and protecting my body from disease.



  1. Tracy,

    Wanted to point you to the link: The article highlights how Kraft is using pharma-type methodologies to develop “functional foods.” As you note above, we can get the nutrition we need from mostly eating a plant-based diet. I find food as pharma quite scary!


  2. Very scary, Joel! It’s amazing that all that we really need are in simple whole foods, yet there is so much energy spent in the world on efforts like Krafts! The “functional food” push is very scary to me too!

  3. Hi, I’ve been searching the web looking for people to comment on the extreme diet I am enjoying, nothing but meat and eggs for six weeks. You seem like you would have an opinion and I would appreciate hearing it. Thanks! Matthew

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