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Racial Matters

America's Racial Reckoning Catches 'World's Most Innovative Farmer' in Its Grip

The stain of racism continues making itself felt in all corners of our culture. There have been widely publicized examples in areas from sports broadcasting to high tech and places in between. Even among American Buddhist meditation centers, there have been accusations from black teachers and practitioners about a lack of racial awareness among white participants.


Now it's hit the foodie movement, where politics and social concerns have traditionally been tied mostly to concerns about over regulation and the corporatization of farming. And it's hit me in the gut, because it involves accusations of disturbing racism against America's most famous small farmer, Joel Salatin, who also happens to be a long-time friend. I've known Joel at least since 2008 when I was writing my book, The Raw Milk Revolution. I was a near unknown in the food and farming publishing world, while Joel had already written a handful of books and had been made famous by a profile within Michael Pollan's best-seller, The Omnivore's Dilemma. When I reached out to Joel, sort of on a lark, to ask him to write the preface to The Raw Milk Revolution, he couldn't have been warmer, and he proceeded to write a super insightful beginning to the book. He did the same for my next book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights.

Our paths would cross many times in those years. There would be speaking gigs at Mother Earth News conferences, I refereed a debate between him and supplement kingpin Joseph Mercola as part of a fundraiser for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, and I visited his farm in Virginia probably half a dozen times for gatherings he hosted. Going on a guided tour of Polyface Farm with Joel is always a major educational experience for everyone along, no matter how often you may have heard about "salad bar beef" and "pastured chickens." And anyone who has seen Joel speak knows he's a gifted orator, full of wit and farming wisdom, as well as sarcasm for his favorite fall guy, "US Duh" (for USDA, or U.S. Department of Agriculture). He's used his books to build on the rebel persona with classics like Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal and The Sheer Ecstacy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. His growing fame led to speaking gigs at America's largest corporations, universities, and before groups as far flung as Europe and Australia.

I've had much more sporadic communication with him the last couple years, so it came as a big surprise to learn he's gotten himself into a boat load of pig manure in the foodie community over race. He's the subject of a major profile in the magazine Mother Jones, in which the heading clearly reveals its direction: "Joel Salatin's Unsustainable Myth: His go-it-alone message made him a star of the food movement. Then a young black farmer dug into what he was really saying." It's authored by a highly credible food writer, Tom Philpott, and I strongly suggest you read it to appreciate it for what it is-- a sad modern-day saga about racial stereotyping and miscommunication similar to other episodes we've seen in too many places.

A key moment in Mother Jones' lengthy narrative comes when Salatin, for no obvious reason, brings race into an online discussion about farming economics launched by a black Virginia farmer, Chris Newman.  Had Salatin simply taken issue with Newman's arguments that sustainable farming for the small operation is economically unsustainable, this whole brouhaha wouldn't have happened. But Salatin in his comments ignored Newman's economic and business arguments and instead launched into a racially-tinged diatribe. That led to Newman calling Salatin "a world-class bigot," and the whole thing just snowballed to the point where dozens of prominent foodies were petitioning Mother Earth News to break its ties with Salatin, which it finally did; Salatin has been barred from writing for its publications and speaking at Mother Earth News conferences, which is a huge development, since Salatin was probably its most popular speaker. For many years, he led a super-informative demo of how to slaughter a chicken—the only time this city slicker has seen a chicken slaughtered.

To me, the main tipoff that this whole situation had likely gotten away from Salatin comes in his refusal to provide comment to Philpott for the Mother Jones article. When have you known Joel Salatin to refuse to answer any questioner at an open talk? I've never seen it.

It's tempting when something like this occurs to try to affix a label to the individual who has offended—he's "a racist" or "a misogynist." I'm going to avoid that temptation because I don't feel that applying labels is very constructive. I've spent a fair amount of time around Salatin, and the closest thing I've heard him come to a racist remark is when he jokes in his talks about his Polyface farm being "in the bread basket of the Confederacy." I can chuckle as a northerner, but I can imagine a person of color being offended, since it was slaves harvesting the fruits and grains of the bread basket, and the Confederacy's main goal in seceding from the Union was to continue the enslavement of blacks indefinitely into the future. And even after the end of slavery, the South has been a place of continuing economic suppression against blacks, such as via share cropping.

My guess is that when Salatin challenged Chris Newman on racial terms, Salatin thought he was being provocative, challenging politically correct dogma to turn a dull discussion into something much more entertaining. As I said, I don't think he had any idea the whole thing would explode the way it did.

I don't offer that assessment to excuse Salatin. He should know by now that using race in an insulting way in a discussion about the economics of farming carries a lot more weight in our culture and is more deeply offensive than ragging on USDA bureaucrats, especially at a time when young black men are putting their lives on the line simply by jogging or going out to the corner store or driving around in cars to see friends.  

But maybe, like nearly all whites (myself included), he still doesn't fully understand what it means to grow up as a person of color in the U.S. He doesn't fully appreciate how seriously racial conflict continues to eat at our national fabric. The "Black Lives Matter" movement didn't originate from a sudden increase in police murders and brutality against black men, but from the fact that such brutality is now caught on cell phones and video cameras that lurk everywhere. The police brutality has been going on for decades on end, nearly invisible to the world at large because the police reports have explained such violence by saying the victim "resisted arrest" or "attacked a police officer"…..and no one questions the police account.

I know more whites are genuinely disgusted, and want to do something positive to address the problem. Hence the many demonstrations over the summer after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by police, and the organizing by white foodies who got together to publicly object to Salatin's remarks about Chris Newman and pressure the owners of Mother Earth News to act against Salatin.

My suggestion to Salatin: Take this terribly painful episode as a learning experience. Use it as a vehicle to learn more about the history and experience of African Americans in the U.S. I know you've read widely and, after all, you live practically down the road from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, with its slave quarters still preserved.  

But as someone who has gone through his own racial re-education, I can tell you that you need to go further. When I was writing Gouster Girl, my historical novel about white flight on Chicago's South Side, I showed late drafts to several individuals who are well versed in America's racial challenges, including a white sociologist who teaches about racism at a major university and a black publishing agent. They pointed out numerous places in my manuscript where I had made racist statements without even being aware (such as by making assumptions about the backgrounds of black characters who had become violent, as just one example).  I was glad for having taken that step because I was able to do some serious revision. I've received encouraging comments from black and white readers alike for helping them think more deeply about racism.

One good place for you to start in your own reeducation is with the best-selling book by Isabel Wilkerson, Caste.  It argues very effectively that America's race problem is really a caste problem…..that African Americans have long been America's lowest caste, just like the Dalit are India's lowest caste, or like the Jews of Europe were for centuries Europe's lowest caste. She skillfully draws from America's sad racial history to explain how the dominant caste schemes, maneuvers, and abuses to keep itself in control.

Once you've done some of that work, I suggest you open yourself up for serious discussion about race. You might begin by trying to engage those you've offended, like Chris Newman or Clara Coleman (daughter of celebrity Maine organic farmer Eliot Coleman). You don't need to agree with them or apologize, but rather show you understand where you may have offended.

I have faith in your seriousness as a farmer and compassion as a person to know you can turn this sad episode into something positive.


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