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But food is just the gateway to Salatin's radical philosophy, which asks us to take what's generally considered progress and throw it in reverse. He knows that hard-core localization--and the beyond-organic, fertilizer-free methods he uses--would require far greater quantities of farmers at work. Industrial agriculture is no different from any other modern manufacturing process: machines and chemical energy have replaced human hands, which is why each remaining American farmer can support more than 140 people. Salatin's way results in a far smaller ratio, and he doesn't see a problem with that. "People say our system can't feed the world, but they're absolutely wrong," he says. "Yes, it will take more hands, but we've got plenty of them around."
Salatin is a hero to young Americans who are taking up the farming lifestyle. His apprentice program--a year of training at Polyface--attracts applicants from around the country and has an acceptance rate on par with that of Ivy League schools. "Joel's work is definitely the inspiration for tons of young farmers who are getting started," says Benjamin Beichler, a 24-year-old former Salatin apprentice who now runs his own farm near Polyface.
Of course, human development has mostly been a movement away from the farm, family and village. It's hard to see us giving up free enjoyment of the fruits of the modern world so we can go back to tending them. Yet at a moment when the global economy is in a deep freeze, a quarter of Americans are obese and over a billion people worldwide are going hungry despite half the produce going to waste--well, maybe progress isn't all it's cracked up to be.
At the end of Pure Meadows Lane, where an always sunny Salatin banters with longtime Polyface customers and new fans while grandchildren scamper underfoot, classical agrarianism has never looked so good. "I am a proverbial optimist," says Salatin. "I don't think it's going to be easy, but the future is bright and promising." Spoken like a man who's ready for the harvest.