Provocative ideas about agriculture from a Christian farmer

In The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, Joel Salatin – farmer, author and popular speaker – proclaims the underlying principles of faith that undergird the farming practices of his Polyface Farm. Salatin farms in contrast what some call “industrial” agricultural practices. Instead he raises livestock – poultry, hogs, cattle, rabbits – in ways that he considers more in line with God’s design for the world.

When I first read the title, I couldn’t help remembering Platonic philosophy: Was this writer going to talk about Ideal Forms, the Chairness of a chair, and now the Pigness of a pig? Wrong.  

Salatin is a Christian who believes that faith “has legs,” that it leads to agriculture that stands in opposition to a more exploitive way of producing livestock. Faith in the Creator, says Salatin, leads him to encourage animals to express their creatureliness, hence the pigness of a pig, for example. Salatin is quite strong on this point: he believes that the “glory” of the pig – its creaturely meaning – is expressed when one allows it to graze, socialize and root.  

Salatin is quite familiar with charges that he is somehow subversive, a “Democrat, liberal commie pinko earth muffin.” Often these charges come from people espousing the same evangelical tradition with which he associates. Canadian readers may not face quite the same pressures from fellow Christians, at least not in those terms, but my experience with mainline “industrial” agricultural finds that quite often Christian farmers oppose or dismiss Salatin’s style of farming with words like “unrealistic” or “hobbyist” or “backward.”

Salatin is not afraid of tough talk, drawing daring implications from some basic principles. His book is full of provocative, maybe even controversial questions like these:

“Why do Christians think nothing of dumping Coca-Cola into their kids? High fructose corn syrup is far different from sugar, despite what the corn lobby says. Can you imagine a youth pastor leading his charges into an examination of why Doritos damages our internal community of bacteria? I find it fascinating that sexual abstinence is front and center on the youth Bible study agendas, but junk food orgies are perfectly fine.”

And more broadly: “What are our homes, families and land for? Are they just pit stops between life out there somewhere: the office, the school, the church building? Is our daily life a floating island segregated from the activities God desires? What does an integrated physical life look like that exemplifies integrated spiritual life?”

Less controversial, more fundamentally, Salatin asks us to consider: “What does a beautiful farm and food system look like? If the hand of the Christian is to touch the world with beautiful artistry that illustrates the creative genius of a magnificent God, what does such a farming and food system look like? Does it look like the bowels of a factory chicken house?”  

I just went to an agricultural conference attended by a varied crowd of farmers. No one, not workshop leaders, not organizers, not beef ranchers, not dairy farmers, not small farmers, not agriculturalists and not me: none of us asked, “What should a farm look like?”  What are the characteristics of our agricultural methods that treat the earth gently, with respect?  There were many Christians at the meeting but none of us raised a question about honouring the Creator. Had there been First Nations representatives, I have no doubt that either traditionalists or Christian members of the Nations would have mentioned the Creator.  

There is no doubt that Joel Salatin has caught the attention of a significant part of the North American public. There is no doubt, either, that the book under review will make it clear that Salatin’s farming practices arise not out of a vague spirituality but out of a consciously-lived Christian faith. Whether he infuriates you with his certainties or gives you encouragement, it is worth your time to give him due consideration as a Christian who is not afraid to confront agricultural-scientific principalities in the name of Christ.    

Curt Gesch thinks that Mr. Salatin does not directly address the work done by farmers who grow vegetable crops – conventional and organic – in an earth-friendly way.
See sunrisepotato.com, for example.

Author

  • Curt Gesch

    Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc.

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