In the course of a career as a reporter, you get to interview a lot of prominent people.
“Thought leaders,” as pundits like to call them.
Many of the actors, politicians and CEOs who are the subject of magazine articles and online profiles have gigantic egos that are impossible to ignore. The operative phrase of such encounters is: “I’m a celebrity . . . and you’re not.”
As a writer, however, you can’t let personal reactions to somebody’s inflated sense of self-worth interfere with getting the story, because unless you’ve sunk to the depths of tabloid journalism, it’s supposed to be about the message, not the messenger.
Presumptive presidential nominees notwithstanding.
Here’s what’s challenging about the high-profile people who love listening to themselves talk: What they have to say is often valuable; unfortunately, it’s often delivered in an obnoxious manner that’s hard to ignore.
One such personality who fits that profile is Joel Salatin. He’s the self-proclaimed farmer-philosopher at the forefront of the local food movement, the popularity of grassfed beef, and several more socio-economic developments that have impacted agriculture. In fact, he basically kick-started those trends.
Just ask him.
Having heard Salatin on several occasions hold forth about how farming and food production needs to evolve, I’ll give him this: He’s entertaining. He’s articulate. He’s provocative.
And despite the inflated sense of self-importance that colors everything he says and does, he’s got a point.
When he hops on the “factory farming is evil” bandwagon, it’s tough to take. When he touts the viability of direct-to-market food production, he seems willfully ignorant of where Americans actually live and work. And when he rips into producers who aren’t raising grassfed beef, he sounds downright unhinged.
But he also makes the point that when any industry refuses to objectively examine its operations, the results are generally not very good.
With confinement production, for example, he loves to claim that, “You couldn’t come up with a more pathogen-friendly system.” Over-the-top? Absolutely.
But the growing controversy over the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is rooted in the reality that there is a serious problem with resistant pathogens. It’s not solely the fault of the livestock industry, of course, but to pretend that animal husbandry can simply proceed forward without making any changes is as short-sighted as the activists who demand the immediate cessation of all antibiotic use in farming, like, yesterday.
Listening to lectures
Likewise, Salatin takes to task anyone who doesn’t practice rotational grazing.
Not just in theory, but in actual practice.
Do as I do, he likes to lecture producers, or else you’re part of the problem.
The “problem” being the conventional system of feeding and finishing beef to maximize weight gain and marbling.
In his book “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” Salatin waxes eloquent about the glories of his pasture-based system, which sounds really wonderful when you’re a consumer on the outside looking in. If you’re the person on the farm who actually has to section off acres of pasture and move a herd of cattle to a new grazing area on a daily basis, it might not be quite so appealing.
Again, though, he’s got a point. The reason that so much beef production has slowly disappeared from most of farm country east of the Mississippi isn’t because the climate, pastures or topography of the eastern United States is incompatible with livestock production — not to mention that the country’s meat-eating population is highly concentrated in that region.
But to raise cattle on a small-scale, pasture-based system requires not only infrastructure — auction yards, packing plants, agricultural advisors — it requires people. Farmers. Producers willing to put a tremendous amount of time and labor into a business where markets are unpredictable, where profits are shifted downstream and where critics constantly assault even the most conscientious of practitioners.
The highly productive yet labor-intensive system of farming that mouthpieces like Salatin love to insist is the only way forward has numerous challenges that likely preclude its widespread adoption.
But the issues of animal well-being, antibiotic resistance, and sustainability that are swirling around conventional livestock production aren’t going to disappear anytime soon.
Salatin may not have all the answers, but like plenty of other voices that communicate with a smug certainty that is highly irritating, it’s worth ignoring the messenger.
And paying attention to the message.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator