You can find Joel Salatin's soul in his slaughterhouse. Just behind the oversize shed that serves as his farm's shop is what Salatin calls the chicken-processing center, where the living birds that squawked in the field this morning are killed, defeathered and cleaned in swift succession by a bucket brigade of young farming apprentices. The bloody work of slaughtering is usually hidden away from those who will one day eat the meat, perhaps in nugget form. But at Polyface Farm in rural Swoope, Va.--where Salatin and multiple generations of his family have tended the land for decades--the processing is performed in open air, and customers who've driven out to pick up a bird can and do wander around back to take a look for themselves. Salatin is a firm believer in the disinfecting power of sunlight, even if government officials haven't always agreed with him. "We think it's important to create that visceral connection with food," says Salatin as he stands over a tub full of freshly slaughtered chickens, the ice water turning crimson. "It helps you appreciate food--and life too."
If you haunt farmers' markets and know what CSA stands for, then you may think you know Salatin, the rebellious Shenandoah Valley farmer who has emerged as a sage and celebrity in the sustainable-food movement. Salatin taught Michael Pollan how to chop a chicken in The Omnivore's Dilemma, and he was the beating heart of the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc., in which he emerged as a one-man symbol of an alternative food system. Even while selling a quarter-million self-published books on sustainable farming and giving talks around the world, Salatin has continued to raise some of the nation's best grass-fed cattle and "beyond organic" chicken and pork, all without using a single barrel of fertilizer. In the brewing culture war over food--which pits big Midwestern farmers and food companies against advocates for small-scale organic farming and food--Salatin is supposed to be on the side of the liberal good guys, eager to see stronger regulation of the industrial-agriculture system that they blame for pollution, animal abuse and just-plain-bad food.
Except that's not quite true. In his new book, Folks, This Ain't Normal, the 54-year-old farmer-philosopher emerges as a true American throwback: an agrarian libertarian who wants both Food Inc. and Big Government out of his fields. He thinks the ills of America--unemployment, obesity, disaffected youth--can be cured by going back to the land and its values, a return to what he likes to call "normal." It's about better food, yes, but what Salatin is really calling for is responsibility: a declaration of independence from corporations and bureaucracy. He wants us to be full citizens of the food system, like the Jeffersonian citizen-farmers who founded the country. "I differ from most foodies because I don't think factory farming should be regulated out of business," says Salatin. "It's up to people to step up and think responsibly about their food."