How It All Started: The Story of Polyface Farm by Joel Salatin at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Joel Salatin

Host: Our next speaker will be Joel Salatin who is a farmer, lecturer, and author, whose books include “You Can Farm”, and “Salad Bar Beef”. Salatin raises livestock using holistic methods of animal husbandry, free of potentially harmful chemicals, on his farm in Virginia. His farm is featured in the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the documentary film “Food, Inc.” Please welcome Joel Salatin.

Joel Salatin: Thank you. A lot of people wonder, “How did you get to where you are?” And so as I’ve thought about this presentation, I’ve decided to just give a story of exactly how we got to where we are. It doesn’t start at the beginning necessarily, but it does start with the need of people fleeing their Dilbert cubicles being a cog in the wheel of a corporate, global elitist, wanting to have a pleasant life in the country and asking us to grow ready-to-lay pullets for them.

Now a pullet, for you uninitiated, a pullet is a non-laying, female chicken. OK, like a virgin, or a heifer, or something like that, OK. So we started raising these pullets for people who wanted them in their backyard for their McMansion farmettes out in the countryside. So we raised these 100 for this lady that called and said, “We want 100 pullets.” We raised it for five months – they don’t start laying till five months – they’ve got to go through puberty and all that sort of thing.

So they started laying, and I called the lady, and I said, “OK, your pullets have begun laying, now you want to come and pick them up?” She said, “Oh, my plans have changed, I’m not going to pick them up.” Well, we had 100 pullets. You know, you don’t tell these ladies to just stop laying eggs. You don’t say, “Put a cork in it!” I mean, they just start laying eggs. There’s nothing to do except collect eggs. We had a customer at the time that was a Washington lobbyist, actually, and he came down, and we were doing all this … “Buy ten dozen, get one free” promotional things.

Now, you’ve got to understand, when we raise chickens, we provide a habitat that allows the chicken to fully express its chickenness. The number one question is what is the essence of chicken? Because it is in answering that question, the chickenness of the chicken, that you actually get the best egg. Just like you get the best bacon from the essence of pig. You get your best T-bone, you get your best tomato from the essence of tomato.

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See, we live in a culture today that doesn’t ask about the essence of pig; they simply ask how can we grow it fatter, faster, bigger, cheaper. That’s all the matters: faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper. And so we have this very mechanistic, in our Greco-Roman, Western, reductionist, linear, fragmented, compartmentalized, disconnected, democratized, individualized, parts-oriented thought process, we never think about the whole!

And so what happens is, as a culture, we basically view that pig or that chicken as just an inanimate pile of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however cleverly hubris can imagine to manipulate it. And I would suggest that a culture that views its animals and plants from that type of manipulative, arrogant, disrespectful attitude, will also soon view its citizens the same way, and other cultures the same way.

So it is asking the chicken, “How can we fully allow you to express your chickenness?” that gives us not only the essence of chicken but therefore, the essence of egg. So we had these eggs, and this customer comes down, and he says, “It’s immoral for you to be doing sale-priced stuff to get rid of these eggs.” He says, “I’ll take a case.” Now this was a truly entrepreneurial guy, you know, grandpa; he and his wife live down in Gainesville, near DC. And the next week, he calls and says, “I want two cases.” Now, a case is 30 dozen. The next week, he calls and says, “I want three cases.”

Now I knew that he and his wife were not eating 90 dozen eggs a week. So I said, “All right, time to fess up. What are you doing with these eggs?” He says, “Well, I’m taking them into these chefs in DC, and they’ve never seen an egg like this, and they’re just going euphoric, and they want more eggs.” So he said, “I’ve got a business proposition.” He says, “How soon can you get me 500 dozen a week?” I said, “Well, I’ve got to buy the chicks, I’ve got to raise them up, five, six months, we can probably do that.” He said, “OK, well,” – this is the greatest lie ever invented by man – “you raise them, and I’ll sell them.” That’s why farmers go out of business, believing things like that.

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But, before you’re old and wise, you have to be young and foolish. So, we were younger and foolish. And we said, “OK, we’ll do it.” So we bought 1,000 little chick pullets, raised them up, they began to lay, right when he got very busy with lobby efforts. You know, fluoridation of city water systems, and vitamins, trying to make them into prescription drugs, and all this stuff. And he just got too busy to market them. Well now, instead of 100 pullets, I had 1,000 pullets. Big problem!

So I realized, you know what? If it’s going to happen, it’s going to be me. If it’s going to be, it’s up to me. So, I had a retired chef friend, who was cheffing in Charlottsville, VA. So I called him up, I said, “Hans, I’m in a problem here. I need a hit list. I need a hit list of restaurants that are interested in the essence of egg.” And he said, “Oh, no problem.” This was in the days before computers. So he got on his typewriter, he typed me out about 12 restaurants in the area, and mailed them to me, so I just started down the list. I said, “Hello, I’m Joel Salatin. I’ve got the world’s best egg. I’d like to show it to you.”

I’ve never had a chef turn me down. Because chefs are very artistic, you don’t see salt shakers in a white tablecloth restaurant, they’ve got bowls so they can feel it and pinch it. They don’t have little Tupperware white and yolk separators, they crack the egg in their hands and let the white dribble down through their fingers. They get into it; they’re sculptors and so they love a new medium. And so my son and I – he was a little chumper – didn’t have a business card at the time, you know, so we put some eggs in the car, I called these six, and I said, “I’ve got the world’s best egg. I’d like to make an appointment with you.”

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So we made six appointments in the day. That was what we could compress between morning chores and evening chores. Got in the car, put a couple of cases of eggs in there, and some sample dozen, and drove off to the first appointment. We made them one hour apart for six hours. And the first place we went to, we went in – this was a small, 50-seat, white tablecloth, nicely appointed, chef-owner-operated restaurant. He was busy, he had burns all up and down his arms. You can tell when a chef is a chef; their body’s full of burns.

So, he’s there; he’s got a stove there, and he’s a man of few words. I walked in and introduced myself. And he said, “OK,” and I opened up a sample dozen. He took an egg out, and he had a little, six-inch saucepan there, about half-full of water, sitting on the stove, not boiling but almost. And he cracked the egg into it, dropped in it, and it floated. And he began studying the essence of egg. And it captured his attention. And waited a few seconds, 30 seconds or so, then he takes a slotted spoon, a white saucer, and he gingerly pulled it out.

By this time it was clear that he was having an epiphany. He pulled it out; he dropped it on the saucer. And then he put the spoon down, and he began to stroke it. Like you’d pet a kitten. Daniel and I are standing there, my son, he’s about six years old, we’re looking at each other, ‘Whoa, what have we gotten into here?’ And so, of course, I couldn’t stand it, I asked the chef, I said, “So, what are we doing here? What’s the deal?” And again, a man of few words, he says, “I’ll show you.” Of course, they all have some exotic accent because they’ve all been trained in Europe, and Switzerland, and all this.

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