Joel Salatin (America’s Libertarian Agrarian Intellectual) Reveals His Writing Secrets

As is true for most readers of garden lit, Joel Salatin entered my awareness in 2006 via Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While I had always been interested in farming and food production, I equated Salatin, a self-described “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic Farmer” with ranching, and so wasn’t compelled, right off, to read his books. After all, I was only an urban gardener who dabbled in growing a few edibles and raising a few chickens. Salatin was a real farmer. His Virginia farm provides grass-fed meat and eggs to more than 5,000 families, 10 retail outlets, and 50 restaurants.

In 2011, with the local food movement in full swing (and Salatin’s name on more lips than ever) I decided it was high time to educate myself. I checked out his well-known book The Sheer Ecstacy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. A couple of chapters in and a page-full of notes later, I was hooked. Over Christmas break I ordered four of his books, including his latest, Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. I opened it first to celebrate the New Year. Every single chapter resonated. This wasn’t about ranching, this was about everything. A big picture of America’s food, Folks covers agriculture, ranching, the food industry, our government, our culture. It was the perfect book for an urban gardener who dabbled in veggies and kept a few chickens.

As a writer, I also recognized that I was reading a book penned by someone who had mastered his subject matter and the art of writing. Each page was infused with his personal experience (four decades of it), an intense (yet humble) intelligence, insatiable curiosity, wit (sometimes sharp and often playful), and an Alpha male point of view that didn’t shy away from criticizing government or the corporate giants. Dang. I knew then that I had to interview him one day.

This interview originally appeared in Greenwoman Volume 6 in December 2013.

Knauf: You have a family history of farming; your father farmed and so did your grandfather. Where did the writing come from and when did you first decide you wanted to write?

Salatin: My mother is the theatrical communicator in our family. My paternal grandmother kept a copious diary and was known for her letter writing. My dad was extremely politically savvy and wrote so many letters to the editor of our local daily newspaper that they developed a “once a month” limit to letter writing. He cobbled together some friends who would sign his letters so he could continue to besiege the paper with his thinking, although they contained different signatures. One day the editor noticed that they were all coming from the same typewriter. Ha!

I think I’ve combined my mother’s dramatic talents with my dad’s convictions. Mom was the high school debate coach and I grew up surrounded by her debaters in our house—and I idolized them. Our family meals included current events discussions and political issues in which Dad was interested—and writing letters to the editor.

We never had a TV in the house. We still don’t. I read early, and much. Even in elementary school I would come home and sit at my desk cranking out handwritten, multi-page stories. In eighth grade, I joined the high school interscholastic debate team, competed in extemporaneous speaking, and played lead in the school plays. In college I debated intercollegiately and competed in numerous forensics tournaments.

As a junior in high school, I began working Saturday nights at the local newspaper (the one that censored Dad) as the night receptionist, answering the phone, listening to the police scanner for wrecks, fires, and crimes, and writing obituaries and police reports. I loved being “in the know.” The point of all this is that from my earliest self-awareness, I had a flair for stories, embellishment, drama, and communication. It is a God-given gift and talent, honed by much practice and sharpened by excellent mentors.

Knauf: I read about  your journalism work at The News Leader, typing obituaries and police reports while in high school. You returned to that paper for a time after graduating from college with an English degree. Why journalism? And how did that background serve you in your book writing.

Salatin: No question, the journalism work at the newspaper, both part-time during my two years in high school, and then for nearly two years after graduating college, made me the writer I am today. I also had two exceptional high school mentors. One was my senior year advanced composition teacher, whose standards for content and grammar surpassed most college English courses. I thought she was the sharpest lady in the world, and her no-nonsense approach encouraged me to excel, to be better. I had already won local essay contests and knew I had a gift for writing, but she challenged me to be better. I know she realized I had a penchant for writing, but she never let on. She just kept pushing me, and I desperately wanted to please her.

The second teacher was my high school journalism teacher and the faculty sponsor of the high school newspaper. The journalism class was also the newspaper staff. In those days, we used manual typewriters to create copy. We justified the right margin by typing slash marks at the end of each line from the last possible character until the return bell dinged. Then we retyped the copy, counting the slash marks and inserting spaces as necessary to justify the right margin. We’ve come a long way, baby. Again, this teacher knew she had a live wire in me—I was already working part-time at The News Leader—but never coddled me. Her constant admonition: “A banana is a banana is a banana. It’s never a long yellow fruit.” She instilled in me a directness in speech and writing that have stood me well.

Finally, my editors at The News Leader made sure that my weakness toward storytelling did not cheapen the facts in news stories. I especially enjoyed muck-raking work, investigative research, and making politicians squirm. The negative was having stories spiked. It happened several times and made me ready to leave as soon as possible. Because some local politician was an officer at the Kiwanis club, or because a large advertiser’s wife believed such and such, I had numerous stories spiked. Unprintable because they violated some mucky-muck.

Even today, I’m still looking for that young person to operate a hard news weekly. People do not get the news, especially from local papers where fraternization, civic clubs, and advertising relationships overwhelm the newsroom. It’s the same way on a national level, but harder to correct. With today’s publishing software, a person could create a hard news weekly that would turn the average community upside down. A whole network of informants would keep the phone ringing with hot tips of shenanigans to expose. In only one year I developed several informants that led me to expose things that eventually led to some powerful local bureaucrats having to resign in ignominy. That felt good.

Finally, I would say that the newspaper experiences gave me the discipline to write. When it’s 11:30 and the presses run at midnight and you’re feverishly finishing a late-breaking story, the editor doesn’t want to hear about writer’s block. Just banging it out is important. Today, when I write books, I schedule a multi-day period and immerse myself in it from dawn until bedtime, just banging through it. I’m sure other people have different techniques, but I think the discipline of newspaper work, and hard news specifically, has given me the tools to efficiently crank out material.

Knauf: While America has long had a tradition of self-publishing (Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain come immediately to mind), there’s been a particularly snobbish attitude toward self-publishing in America for decades and until recently. Yet, always the maverick, you’ve self-published seven books in the last two decades. (As an aside, I hope you’ll write a book for writers one day. Seriously. I will buy it.) In the meantime, and in the unfortunate case that you don’t write a book on self-publishing, would you give us your thoughts on the subject? What would you say to those writers who are thinking of going down that road-less-traveled?

Salatin: Self-publishing has been good to me. But like most things, I didn’t figure it all out at once. Let’s set the context. Teresa and I got married Aug. 9, 1980. I left the newspaper Sept. 24, 1982 and returned to the farm full time. Dad passed away in 1988. By that time, Teresa and I were sure the farm would make it. We weren’t rich, but we sure weren’t starving and we were even putting some money in the bank for savings.

In about 1989 we hosted a farm day for the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. I had edited their quarterly newsletter for a couple of years after leaving the newspaper, and then was elected president. A Pennsylvania fellow who wrote a column for the bankrupt and brand new magazine Stockman Grass Farmer (SGF) came to that day and was so taken by our farming methods, he wrote a long article about Polyface for the magazine. The editor was so taken by the article that he called me and asked if he could come for a visit.

Allan Nation, my mentor and hero, visited in 1989 (or thereabouts—who’s worried about particulars?) and immediately asked me to write columns for him. I was overjoyed to be back writing something again after a couple of years’ hiatus. He was bankrupt and couldn’t pay anything, but I obliged happily. That year he hosted his first national conference and asked me to do a speech about pastured poultry. I did. It brought the house down. Suddenly we were getting calls from around the country: “How do you do this pastured poultry thing?”

In 1991 I typed out a simple “Pastured Poultry Manual” and offered it for $15. Held together by brads, it was about 50 pages, regular 8½  x 11 typing paper, and we collated them by hand in the living room. In one year, we sold 1,000 of them, primarily through the SGF readership. Wow, there’s money in them thar new ideas. Allan encouraged me to turn the manual into an honest-to-goodness book. Here’s the awesome part: knowing my desire for value adding and do-it-yourselfing, Allan offered to either publish the book for me (the magazine operates its own in-house publishing brand called Green Park Press) or shepherd me into doing it myself. Once I found out that the author got less than 10 percent of the cover price, I couldn’t imagine having him publish it.

After all, I’d just taken in $15,000 on a simple loose-leaf how-to manual; why would I trade that for $1,500? Allan and his wife Carolyn were as good as their word, sending me sample bid sheets, particulars on ISB numbers, Library of Congress, and potential short-run paperback book printers. I typed the manuscript on the typewriter and sent it to a friend who could make a camera ready copy. In 1993, we self-published Pastured Poultry Profits: Net $25,000 in 6 months on 20 Acres. Now nearly 20 years later, it is still selling better than ever, with total sales about $60,000.

The argument for using a publisher is always about total sales. Publishers will argue that they can sell way more than the individual because they are connected to industry standard marketing pathways. But they have to sell a LOT more to win the argument. I knew this how-to book would not be a best seller, so I figured I’d rather sell 30,000 at a $10 margin than 60,000 at a $2 margin. That assuming, of course, that the publisher actually doubles your sales.

Notice that before self-publishing I already had a following. I was writing columns in SGF, speaking at conferences, and was considered the go-to expert, worldwide, on pastured poultry. That was a huge leg up. I always tell people considering self-publishing to get their name out there first. Write articles, do speeches, something to get name recognition. Then the book sales will follow. Remember, half of all books ever published in history have never sold more than 1,000 copies. That’s tough odds unless you have an incredible talent (Dr. Seuss) or an incredible idea (pastured poultry).

Self-publishing has become much easier with desktop publishing software, PDF and everything computer-based. Interestingly, many of the old bricks-and-mortar marketing pathways are also breaking down. After Salad Bar Beef came out in 1995, Ben Watson at Chelsea Green Publishing saw the two books at a conference in New England, took them home, and realized these were exactly the kind of books Chelsea liked to handle. He called me and asked if they could distribute them. I became a distributed publisher for Chelsea and it was one of the best decisions I could have ever made.

Chelsea handles bookstores, libraries, schools, Amazon.com, etc. SGF doesn’t handle any of my books any more because Amazon undersells them. Allan has made a strategic decision not to allow any of his Green Park Press books on Amazon—if you want one of his several titles, you have to get it from SGF or ACRES USA magazine, another of my special media friends. Allan and I have gone around and around about my decision to let Amazon carry my books versus his decision to not participate. Neither side is right or wrong. I’m frustrated that Amazon has so changed the face of book marketing. But I’ve gone with the times and am very pleased. My Chelsea checks today are 10 times bigger each month than they were from SGF bookshelf section. Have I sold my soul? Time will tell. I hope not.

I think I’m Chelsea’s number one distributed publisher now. My only beef with them is that they don’t really market books they don’t publish. They offer them in their catalogue and ship them, but nobody actively markets them. The advantage to me, of course, is that I don’t have to worry about all that shipping and packing. If I were more computer savvy and wanted to hire someone to do it, I probably could, but I don’t want to. That’s not my talent. So I help employ people at Chelsea and they write me a nice big check every month. Seems like a good tradeoff to me. I don’t think my reach or success would be half as far without them.

The last self-published book we did, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer (late 2010) has already sold nearly 20,000 without a single review or any marketing effort. I am blessed indeed.

Knauf: How is your  book Folks, This Ain’t Normal, published by Center Street, different from your self-published books?

Salatin: It was certainly wonderful to work with an editor. I’ve never had a really good, hard-hitting editor. It’s definitely the best book yet. Lots of my faithful readers say it flows better, is more cogent, etc. That’s good editing. If I self-publish the next one, which I probably will, I’m definitely planning to find an editor who will yell at me. I’m thinking one of my old high school teachers would be good—they’ve both retired now, but are still in the area. Friends just won’t be honest because they are too afraid of offending. You need someone that’s impartial. I know the good editor made it a much stronger book.

Fortunately, my biggest fear—that they would force me into political correctness—did not occur. Again, my fans say they can’t tell the content and overall style is any different than any of my other books. That was a relief.

Knauf: Who are your favorite authorsand why?

Salatin: My favorite authors—that’s hard. So many great ones. Probably the writer I most admired was Charles Walters, editor and founder of Acres USA magazine who passed away two years ago. His command of the English language, his depth of literary understanding was so far beyond anyone I know that I was in awe every time I read his stuff. Here’s one of my favorites: “monuments to the stupidity of man” —his description of pesticides, etc. “Toxic rescue chemistry”—chemical-based farming. He was a wordsmith beyond anything we’ll probably see again. His grasp of literature, both English, classic, mythical, European—was incredible. I miss him terribly.

Second is probably Wendell Berry. Whenever I read him, I’m constantly saying to myself: “Now why couldn’t I think of that?” Arguably the voice and founder of the modern sustainable agriculture movement, or the new agrarianism, he writes simply and clearly, an elegance that never leaves you wondering what he means or what he said. He writes roughly 3-4 hours every day with a number two pencil in his tree house studio on the bank of a wide river. He writes on the right side of a spiral notebook. The next day, he reads what he wrote and makes corrections on the blank left page. Then his wife or assistant types what he wrote. Some 57 books and counting—not bad for a number 2 pencil in a spiral notebook.

Third is Allan Nation, editor of Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, not really for his writing style, but for his eclectic approach. Allan reads a book a day, and he reads widely. From history to business to railroads to farming, the depth and breadth he brings to my world refreshes and challenges me. I always tell people I’m trying to be a “Jeffersonian intellectual agrarian.” Allan’s writing helps me be intellectual. When I use his distilled ideas, people think I’m extremely smart. I’m not really smart; I just have a talent for knowing who to plagiarize.

Fourth is Sir Albert Howard, inventor and researcher, who developed scientific aerobic composting and explained it to the world in An Agricultural Testament in 1943. Of all the classic biological farming texts, Howard’s works are both timeless and passionate. He doesn’t write like a scientist. He writes like a lover of life. Probably more than any other writer, he created a fire in my belly to love the land, love the life in and around us, and to question every credentialed scientific finding from government sources.

Fifth is George Henderson, whose Farming Ladder book grew out of his own entrepreneurial farming experiences in Great Britain during the mid-20th century. A wonderful writer, he was eccentric enough to be a genius, yet practical enough to be duplicated. He is a farmer’s farmer, writing from the heart but with fingers calloused and muscles hardened through use.

Sixth is Charles Dickens. I read so much—as the previous list attests—for my life’s work, my own understanding of my vocation and craft, that sometimes I want to take a detour. I don’t read much fiction, but have found great enjoyment in the classics. I never read them in school because my reading pleasure always involved debate research. So at this point in my life, I’ve discovered the great classics and am captivated by the power of their stories. In my opinion, no one captivates me like Charles Dickens. And to think he wrote with a quill pen. I read David Copperfield on my last trip back from Australia—14 hours on one flight. I didn’t go to the bathroom, sleep, or get tired. The story was absolutely consuming. I laughed and cried as I lived this wonderful tale leaping out to my imagination, across the decades, across the cultures. His ability to criticize his culture is unparalleled. I wish I could make up a yarn like Dickens.

Knauf: What do you think has played the biggest part in your book selling success (aside from writing great books)?

Salatin: Passion. Writing from the heart. Wanting, above all else, for people to act right, do right, think right. I believe strongly that there are right ways and wrong ways. I certainly don’t have an opinion about everything, and in my books I mention some of them that I frankly don’t know what position to take. But I have strong beliefs about a few things, and those I passionately articulate.

I think one of the most important elements of good writing is openness. The reason nobody likes to read bureaucratic stuff is because it can never be transparent. People who write that stuff have to be wordy and unclear because they are always thinking about a hundred agendas that must be satisfied. I think my strength is just expressing my Joelness. I’m a passionate defender of the pigness of the pig. A corollary is the Joelness of Joel. You might not like me, but at least you’ll know who I am, where I stand, and that I’m trying to think and do the right things.

Perhaps the second reason for my success is that I always write for someone, or to someone. I’m always thinking: “how can I sound bite this more clearly, more cleverly?” I’m an idea salesman. Marketers are always working at saying it simpler. Making the message fun. Creating a good time. Theater. I don’t call my speeches lectures; I call them performances. I love it when someone tells me at a book signing that they feel like they know me, like they’ve been sitting down just talking with me through the written word. I assume that posture when I write—like I’m sitting with the reader and we’re having a conversation on the sofa in front of a fire. I find that helps me be conversational and real.

When I’ve tutored young people on writing, I always tell them to read their paper back to themselves in front of a mirror. If you find yourself boring or confusing, so will your reader. Does reading your words aloud to yourself evoke emotion? Do you laugh? Cry? Get angry? Want to do something right now? If your own writing does not move you, it won’t move anyone else.

Do not write anything until you’re moved about something. We live in such a wimpy culture, where strength of idea is routinely wrestled down to some weak common denominator. I think people like strong ideas, strong pictures. Great writers have deep ideas that move them and consequently have the power to move others. If what you want to write about really moves you—if you’d rather talk about it than eat—then you’re ready to write. When you write, don’t think that it’s anything different than a conversation. I’ve never understood how people who could prattle on for an hour suddenly clam up with a pencil in their hand? What’s any different about writing than talking? Perhaps it’s the gravity of indelible history. Of commitment. But really, it’s a written record of a conversation. Often a one-way conversation to be sure, but a conversation nonetheless.

Knauf: What advice would you give to authors in regard to promotion/sales?

You have to be both expert and showman. Look at the talk shows, both radio and TV. You can’t be mediocre about your craft. I read constantly, and I mean constantly, to stay up-do-date with farming, food, economics, etc. My reporter background stands me well when I meet people because I’m always asking questions. This is what struck me about Michael Pollan when he came to the farm prior to writing Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’ve routinely described him as a curious 8-year-old in a grown-up body. But that’s how he finds the tidbits that make for a great story.

I wish I had better advice for sales. Really, I haven’t marketed my books at all. They’ve just sold because they scratched people where they itched. I’m sure I could have sold more if I did more active promotion, but I’ve always been a bit scared of anyone thinking I’m in it for the money. As a little child, I stole some money, and I’ve never gotten over it—the heartbreak and agony of it, from punishment to restitution. I wish I could live without money. I’ve never wanted to be rich. I still wear thrift store clothes on the farm. I’m naive enough to think that people still salute powerful ideas, truth, and righteousness.

Knauf: I’ve read that you write during the winter, when the farm is not quite as active. What is your writing regimen?

I think I answered this above with the daylight to bed-time regimen. It’s intense. All my books have been written in a few days. The longest, You Can Farm, took nearly 6 weeks. Folks, This Ain’t Normal took just under 3 weeks. I create a chapter outline, then set a goal for the day: these two chapters, or whatever. Then I just march through. I have my stack of stuff that I’ve been collecting for a year or so, and plug it in as I come to it. It’s very much stream-of-consciousness type stuff.

But remember, by the time I actually write, I’ve been stewing, meditating, talking about this topic for years. The outline gives me a skeleton and a direction. A book is never actually finished. You can edit forever. I find that if I just crank through it, let it sit for two weeks or so, then go back through to add in things I’ve missed, or take out repetitive things, it doesn’t do any good to just go over and over and over. Perhaps growing up with a manual typewriter helped me to think through things before I write. At any rate, I always figure that if I forgot something, I can put it in the next book.

The wonderful thing about books is that it’s the only medium I know of where I can truly develop a thought. A magazine article does not afford the time. Video definitely does not afford the time. We live in a sound bite culture. But a book allows me unfettered time to look at every angle. I can’t believe the number of people who have told me they’ve changed their thinking because of my books—people I know who would never give an idea the time of day in a magazine or on a TV show. But in a book I can lead up to it, set context, admit the other sides. If it takes 20 pages to develop the idea, so be it. If these pages are full of story, they will compel the reader to stay with it to the bitter end. Story is still the most powerful type of persuasion. Story that requires you to use your imagination because it’s not all laid out in 3-D and color forces more thinking, more engagement, and ultimately, a deeper relationship.

Knauf: What is your favorite book out of the eight you have now published, and why?

Folks, This Ain’t Normal because it’s the last one. The last one always benefits from the highest evolution of thought, the greatest number of stories, the deepest wisdom of age.

That said, each is very different. You Can Farm is by far and away the biggest seller.

But Everything I Want to Do is Illegal is the most important, in my view. It’s the one everyone needs to read more than any other.

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer was the most fun to write. It’s probably the funniest. And lots of non-farmers read it for pure enjoyment. If you ever wanted to know how to look at a rural landscape with discernment, this is the book.

Finally Family Friendly Farming is my soul book. It has sold the least copies—only about 12,000. I thought it would be gobbled up by the homeschooling crowd, but it has languished. I don’t know if it’s because the topic is too personal. Perhaps most people think their family can’t be improved, or if they buy it, they are admitting it can’t be improved. But it’s the closest to my soul.

Knauf: Do you know what you’ll be writing about next?

I have about 8 titles dancing in my head, but I think the one that’s most pressing is about internships, apprenticeships, and mentoring. As this local food tsunami gains strength, thousands of young people want to learn how to farm. Institutions can’t or won’t teach these skills.

Because we home schooled our own children—when parents were being taken to jail for truancy violations—I am steeped in non-institutional education-think. I am always fascinated by how people learn things. And being pretty libertarian, my independent rebellious streak has always had trouble submitting to institutional protocols like “because I say so.”

Everywhere I travel, farmers are desperate to institute intern programs. Young people want to learn. I believe I’ve been uniquely prepared, both by experience and interest, to address this topic in a vibrant, pro-active, yet highly practical way. I wrote a little pocket-sized apprentice manual for our Polyface folks a couple of years ago, and whenever I bring it out and share it at a long seminar—the only kind that allow the time to delve into this subject–the audience howls with laughter. Afterward, people mob me to see if they can get a copy. So I know it’s a hot topic, which sounds like a market. Time to sell some more ideas.

Postscript: And, indeed, Salatin wrote his next book about farming internships.

Sidebar:

Joel Salatin’s Books

Salad Bar Beef (1996)

Pastured Poultry Profit$ (1996)

You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise. (1998)

Family Friendly Farming: A Multigenerational Home-Based Business Testament (2001) Holy Cows And Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide To Farm Friendly Food (2005) Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front (2007)  

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer (2010)

Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World (Center Street, 2011)

Fields of Farmers: Interning, Mentoring, Partnering, Germinating (Polyface, 2013)

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