Perspective: Modern ‘food evangelists’ sell sensationalism without the science


It was bound to happen. We (as a collective society) were ripe for modern-day agrarian evangelists to swoop in and remind us of the “good old days” in life and farming. And who wasn’t ready to trade in their cubicle and 9-5 headache for green grass, goats, and the glorious bounty of freshly harvested organic produce?

In an increasingly technologically-driven, fast-paced, fast-food, socially-engineered society, it didn’t take much to tell us to stop and remember the smells of freshly baked bread coming from Grandma’s kitchen or picking raspberries along a fence row in the warm summer sun.

So what’s the problem? Much of this romanticized scenario playing out in a wave of newly established sustainable homesteads across the country portray a reality that never was. Sure, Grandma’s cooking was incomparable, but she spent long, arduous hours in the kitchen in between other chores, which often included caring for livestock, cultivating crops, and doing so much more. Things were done out of necessity. Plain and simple. They made the best possible situation out of what was available and had no choice but to forego modern conveniences because they were unavailable, either through production or affordability.

The reality? We lead very privileged lives. Especially when we get to choose between which “farm-to-table” dining establishment to frequent or what brand of ethically produced groceries we prefer. We peruse farmers markets and have the ability to pick and choose the “best of the best.” The problem, especially when talking about food and basic human rights, is ignoring the huge population among us that doesn’t have a choice and still needs access to nutritious, affordable food.

The Salatin Spin

The one thing these “clean food” evangelists seem to ignore is that not everyone in the United States buying said food is upper middle class. Take a look at Joel Salatin, the operator of Polyface Farm who is known as the Lunatic Farmer. The title is self-ascribed and it is an absolute genius marketing tool that completes his persona as one farmer standing up to the “Industrial Food System.” (I feel I need to add here that the “Punk Rock Farmer” moniker was given to me by those I have worked with in urban agriculture, and I do appreciate the gesture.)

Little research is needed to see that both scientists and experienced ranchers have questioned Salatin claims. On his farm website, he describes his laying hens following the cattle as “mimicking egrets on the rhinos’ nose.” I think he is referring to the cattle egret and its symbiotic relationship with the rhinoceros. In Africa. Yeah. This description, along with his denial of climate change, making wild assertions about his soil health and acreage productivity with no evidence, makes me seriously question his knowledge of basic science. However, these claims to the average consumer without agricultural knowledge sound believable. I mean after all, egrets and chickens are both birds, right? It doesn’t matter that the modern chicken’s ancestor is actually the Red junglefowl, I suppose.

joel salatin
Image courtesy of friendsoffamilyfarmers, Flickr Creative Commons

If Salatin is looking to “mimic” nature, then I suggest thick cover and the edges of canopied jungles as more appropriate than a wide open pasture. Salatin is critical of any confinement-type livestock operations and claims that his “Salad Bar Beef”, “Pastured Poultry,” and “Pigaerator Pork” are far superior to the “factories” (as he refers to confined feeding operations).

These topics came one time while I was speaking with Trent Loos, a very experienced stockman and host of Rural Route Radio. Myself being a produce farmer and only experimenting with livestock, I asked Loos if Salatin’s accusations of confined animal feeding operations were appropriate.

“It [confined animal feeding] cuts out the tremendous labor, and our job as stockman is to eliminate stress. By utilizing confinement operations we eliminate all predatory stress. We actually are able to optimize nutrition while farming the forage, and feed using the most sustainable methodologies. Joel is doing 80 percent of it the right way, meaning it is the way he wants to farm. The 20 percent he gets wrong is his moral superiority in telling everybody if they are not doing it his way, they are doing it wrong,” Loos said.

The allegations of Salatin’s racist remarks as well as his downplaying of our current pandemic is well documented in media outlets. I was most surprised when I came across an article from a large media outlet that seemed almost apologetic for his remarks. You could tell they hated to have to write the story because he had been such a “hero” in farming. Wow! My opinion is ALL farmers are heroes, not just ones who choose to raise animals by resurrecting methods from 100 years ago.

I have been skeptical of Salatin for a while, not because I disagreed with his farming methods, but because he preached his system to make money. Well-meaning brand new farmers have jumped head-first into his plans only to discover that they may very well raise the same quality protein as him, but they don’t have book deals, paid speaking engagements, or low-cost “intern” labor to help make a living.

Craigslist is full of “hobby farms” for sale. (More on the privilege of establishing a hobby farm at a later date.) However, when I voice these concerns about him, I am met with almost religious ferocity from his followers. I’ve also noticed that when Salatin himself responds to criticism, he is aggressive, resorting to name calling and using moral superiority to explain his position. In short, he gets “preachy.”

I had the opportunity to be at a small dinner function one time with Salatin. I had always wanted to meet him, and even though I disagreed with some of his methodology, I found him interesting and had a lot of respect for what he had built.

In the midst of the dinner conversation Salatin simply stated that “the single mother living in a food desert” was low-hanging fruit and that his target customer was “the suburban soccer mom who mowed the lawn with a brand new John Deere riding lawn mower.” Again, wow! Salatin just called my number one client “low-hanging fruit.” I wanted him to expound, but I was too angry to ask, and he was surrounded by his cult-like followers. Any respect for him I had stayed at the dinner table when I left.

I listened to him continue to speak about “factory farms” and “lagoon blow outs” and those faceless corporate farmers who hate the animals in their care and recklessly wreak havoc on our environment. Something that those who listen to Salatin rarely get to hear is a response from one of these so-called “corporate farmers” like Jeanette Merrit, who is also a hog farmer near me and works for Indiana Pork. I asked Merrit about his claims. Her response?

“Hog farmers are heavily regulated by IDEM (Indiana Department of Environmental Management). As farmers, we have inspections of our barns. Before we ever build a barn there are numerous permits to file. When the barns are built, there are state inspections. Manure application is heavily regulated! Before we ever apply manure to the ground, we take into account the weather, if rain is approaching, the wind conditions, etc. I won’t deny that there are farms who have had manure spills. But the fines are tremendous, and it does no one any good to operate with a ‘who cares’ approach that would cause fish kills or lagoon blowouts.”

And when Joel calls them “corporate/factory farms”? Merrit responded: “Nintey-seven percent of Indiana pig farms are family-owned. Those barns are owned by family farmers who work for companies who place piglets in the farmers barns for their growing cycle, but the barns, care of the livestock, and feeding is done by the farmer. Compare a contract barn to a McDonald’s franchise. The franchise is owned by a local businessman who hires, trains, promotes, and does the work of his store. But McDonald’s is a bigger company who has franchises in many areas. Contract barns work the same way.”

Salatin also is a proponent of “local,” a word that these food evangelists throw around a lot. But our own hog farmer had a few things to say about that, too, depending on your definition of local. My definition, geographically, has usually been state lines. Some regions make more sense, like Kentuckiana or Illiana, depending on where you’re from.

Merrit’s definition is that, “Grocery store pork is from local farms. Indiana has two major processors in the state and two just over the state lines. Pork from local farms is on the grocery store shelves of Walmart, Kroger, Meijer, etc. It may not say Indiana pork on the label, but some do. Indiana Packers has the Indiana Kitchen label. Indiana Packers processes a large number of pigs — 86 percent of their supply comes from Indiana farms. So, if you buy Indiana Kitchen bacon, which is delicious, there’s a good chance it’s from Indiana and maybe my family farm.”

Interestingly, a review on Salatin’s website stated that the customer regularly drove “150 miles” to ensure he had access to Salatin’s “clean meat.” That doesn’t sound very sustainable.

Image courtesy of info-graz, Flickr

Further Down the Rabbit Hole

But Salatin is not the only “evangelist.” Vani Hari, who goes by the moniker Food Babe, is on a mission of misinformation. She is aggressively anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-chemical. Man, she hates chemicals. (And yet, all humans are made of chemicals!) Her followers are militant and her attack on American farmers, while not always direct, is troubling.

Hari has a very large following, though if she continues to push her anti-vaccine agenda, I think those numbers will shrink via natural selection.

I was speaking to a friend, Scott Caldwell, who is an instructor and Program Chair for Agriculture at Ivy Tech in Richmond, Indiana. I brought up Joel Salatin, Food Babe, Dr. Vandiva Shiva, and others who are less well known, but still influencing agriculture, like Gabe Brown. He told me something very profound.

“Our generation has done a huge disservice to our kids and to those we serve in agriculture,” he said. “We were in our bubbles, on the farm. We heard about vegan ideology and animal-rights organizations, and these people who at the time were on the crazy fringe talking about banning chemicals and only growing or eating organic food. We thought they were crazy and what’s worse, we thought nobody would take them seriously.”

Caldwell has an important job and he is most assuredly the right person for the mission. A steady stream of young people come into his Ag program, some of them with zero Ag exposure, other than food and farming documentaries and ideas spread by these “evangelists.” He has the incredible opportunity to show them how research, data, and independent thinking are critical to science and then how to apply it to agriculture.

Earlier, I mentioned Shiva, and she’s worth taking a look at. She has criticized aid in the form of crops from the United States to India after a natural disaster, calling them poison and saying that starvation would be better. Her best line by far is comparing conventional farmers to rapists.

“Saying farmers should be free to grow GMOs, which can contaminate organic farms, is like saying that rapist should have the freedom to rape,” Shiva has said.

This comment was met with outrage by both the scientific and agriculture community, but it did exactly what it was supposed to do: It energized her most avid followers. As an anti-science activist, that statement was her Molotov cocktail, and when it landed, her base was cheering her on.

Data is simply not important to her base or that of most food evangelists’ followers. Their confirmation bias is revealed in every statement they make. They control the mob. That is why we as farmers need to speak to every individual who asks a question about our livelihoods and give them the answers, backed by science and experience, behind our agriculture practices.

The Rise of ‘Regenerative’ Activism

Speaking of confirmation bias, the latest “evangelist” to arrive on the regenerative ag scene is Gabe Brown. In short, he claims that regenerative Ag will save us all. I’ll be honest, when I first heard about Brown, I wanted to believe. But after listening to his claims and methodology that worked on HIS farm being applied to every farm, I had to dig deeper. Were there any qualified voices questioning these extraordinary claims? There are several, and I got the opportunity to speak to one of them, Andrew McGuire, an agronomist with Washington State University who is continually asking the question, “Where is the extraordinary evidence?

I didn’t contact him so he could explain Brown’s lack of evidence for claims made. He and others have published plenty on the subject. It was in reading those findings and seeing the responses that I saw that not only Brown, but his many of his followers outright attacked McGuire. Why? Because he asked for evidence.

Brown was recently featured in the documentary Kiss the Ground along with Woody Harrelson and Tom Brady. Celebrities? When the CERN Team discovered the Higgs Boson Particle (aka the God Particle), I don’t recall them standing there with Payton Manning or Tom Cruise to shore up any misgivings about the science surrounding the evidence. The evidence spoke for itself. There was nothing to “sell.”

I asked McGuire why they came at him like that for simply stating his position using sound scientific principles. His answer? “Confirmation Bias.” They are living in an echo chamber with each other, in real life and on social media and other platforms.

And let’s be clear, McGuire is not saying that they are wrong; he just wants to see evidence. The regenerative Ag community has a de facto leader in Brown. He makes some pretty extraordinary claims, and like Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Brown has yet to provide that while proselytizing his methods as the end all to save humanity.

Brown and others also leave out the fact that no/minimum till, cover crops, rotating crops are not new to agriculture. There is definitely something to them, but Brown is farm from the first farmer to use this methodology. These “food evangelists” seem to want to rename or rebrand methodologies and then say, “Look at this brand new revolutionary mechanism that is the answer we have been searching for.” Regenerative Ag has gone by other names, and one person’s definition of regenerative Ag is different than what Brown’s definition may be.

While all food evangelists may come from different paths and backgrounds, their messages run together: “Technology is bad. Go back to the old ways. Science has no answers. Animal agriculture is cruel unless the animals are running around an open pasture.” All of them seem to talk about animal cruelty on the farm. Yet Merrit , the pig farmer from Indiana, shared with me an experience she had recently when I spoke to her about animal welfare:

As for animal abuse or mistreatment, this one drives me bananas,” she said. “Pig farmers work towards industry standards on animal care. The Pork Quality Assurance program from the National Pork Board sets the care standards we abide by. I’ll use the example that on Thursday night, last week, my husband called me at 9pm and needed help in one of our barns. He needed to give some vaccinations to 400 baby pigs. Just like newborn babies get vaccinations, so do our pigs. So I loaded up our three kids — ages 17, 14 and 10 — and we all went to the barns to help. We finished at 11:30 p.m. Somewhere during that time I saw my 10-year-old son laying on the floor of one of the pig pens laughing like crazy as a bunch of pigs climbed all over him. There’s no abuse. We take great care of our animals. Many farmers are people of great faith. We do the work God has given us. Animal abuse is not part of that culture.”

Why do people turn to the likes of these evangelists, when there are farmers like Merrit and Loos who will answer any question they ask? Or instructors and scientists like Caldwell and McGuire trying to make this world a better place through agriculture? Simple. As Caldwell said, we stayed in our bubbles too long and let someone who is selling something set the narrative.

If you are a farmer with 1 follower or 5,000 followers, it is time to stand up and be an advocate for agriculture. These people have “mobs” that follow them. Mobs are unintelligent and illogical. Individuals are intelligent and logical. Talk to as many individuals as you can, and those mobs will begin to dwindle.


Jonathan Lawler operates Brandywine Creek Farms in Indiana and is an advocate for hunger relief and agriculture. He is working on a TV show called Punk Rock Farmer coming in the spring. His motto is FARM OR DIE.

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