Of all the labels tossed at Joel Salatin -- farmer, movie star and local food hero -- "lunatic" is the one he's most proud of.
"I don't do anything like average farmers," boasts the native of Swoope, Va., who calls himself a "grass farmer."
Catapulted to fame by Michael Pollan's bestselling book "Omnivore's Dilemma," and by a lead role in the award-winning film "Fresh," Salatin and his Polyface Farm have captured national attention for his commitment to Earth- and animal-friendly methods, including rotation grass grazing, humane treatment of animals and local processing on a large scale.
Salatin, on a multi-city speaking tour promoting local artisan-based food as a viable alternative to the industrial food system, will be in town Sunday to kick off a series of Earth Day events with two lectures at the Bell Museum. We caught up with him by phone to talk about his upcoming visit.
Q You were in Northfield, Minn., last spring as the keynote speaker at the annual Sustainable Farming Association conference. What do you think of our area? How is our local food system doing?
A Great! This area is a hotbed of local food. There's a lot going on. I have an affinity for the region; it's like ours. It's in the same growing zone as North Dakota. We northern farmers have more time on our hands in the winter to think about things, big things.
Q Are you seeing positive changes here?
A You've got an amazing array of sustainable farmers and producers. We need 10,000 Todd Churchills of Thousand Hill's Cattle Co., more Will Winters of Traditional Foods Warehouse, and farms like Riverbend, Featherstone and Gardens of Eagan.
Q What do you see for the future of our food system?
A I'm not a prophet, but I am an optimist. I'm seeing a lot of individual interest and collaborative effort. People are working together to move the local food system forward. But local, sustainable food is still only about 2 percent of food sales. Yet clean food, local food, is a viable alternative to industrial, corporate genetically modified food.
Q Can this alternative system really produce the quantity of food we need?
A If we are serious about having real choices, we need to look at the obstacles that prohibit clean, local food. We need to deal with the government regulations, licensing and insurance requirements that make it impossible for small farmers and producers to get their goods to the consumer. We've got to dispense with farm subsidies and expose the hidden costs in industrial food.
Right now it's illegal to buy pickles from your neighbor or milk from the farmer down the street. Yet humankind has been eating this way for centuries.
We also need to look at our priorities. Most people are willing to pay more for quality. We spend money on plenty of things we don't need. Think about designer jeans with holes in them. Why do we expect to get more for less when it comes to food?
Q Are you seeing change, though?
A Yes. There's far more availability of high-quality, locally raised and produced food, and there's tremendous potential. The demand is high and the interest is there. It's really about choice. That's my mantra: choice. That's why I'm pouring 110 percent of my energy into raising awareness around what a sustainable system can look like.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis freelance writer and cooking instructor.