Salatin raises livestock using holistic management methods of animal husbandry, free of potentially harmful chemicals, on his Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. Meat from the farm is sold by direct-marketing to consumers and restaurants.
In high school, Salatin began his own business selling rabbits, eggs, butter and chicken from his family farm at the Staunton Curb Market. He then attended Bob Jones University where he majored in English and was a student leader. He graduated in 1979. Salatin married his childhood sweetheart in 1980 and became a feature writer at the Staunton, Virginia newspaper, The News Leader, where he had worked earlier typing obituaries and police reports.
Tired of "having his stories spiked," he decided to try farming full-time after first getting involved in a walnut-buying station run by two high school boys. Salatin's grandfather had been an avid gardener and beekeeper and a follower of J. I. Rodale, the founder of regenerative organic gardening. Salatin's father worked as an accountant and his mother taught high school physical education. Salatin's parents had bought the land that became Polyface in 1961 after losing a farm in Venezuela to political turmoil. They had raised cattle using organic methods, but could not make a living at farming alone.
Salatin, a self-described "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer" produces high-quality "beyond organic" meats, which are raised using environmentally responsible, ecologically beneficial, sustainable agriculture. Jo Robinson, the author of Pasture Perfect: The Far-Reaching Benefits of Choosing Meat, Eggs and Dairy Products From Grass-Fed Animals (2004) said of Salatin, "He's not going back to the old model. There's nothing in county extension or old-fashioned ag science that really informs him. He is just looking totally afresh at how to maximize production in an integrated system on a holistic farm. He's just totally innovative."
Salatin considers his farming a ministry, and he condemns the negative impact on his livelihood and lifestyle of what he considers an increasingly regulatory approach taken by the agencies of the United States government toward farming. Salatin now spends a hundred days a year lecturing at colleges and to environmental groups.
Salatin's 550-acre (2.23 km2) farm is featured prominently in Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) and the documentary films, Food, Inc. and Fresh. His unconventional farming practices have drawn attention from the alternative agriculture community especially those interested in sustainable livestock management. For example, Pollan became interested in Salatin because of his refusal to send food to locations not within a four-hour drive of his farm, i.e. outside his local "foodshed." "We want [prospective customers] to find farms in their areas and keep the money in their own community," said Salatin. "We think there is strength in decentralization and spreading out rather than in being concentrated and centralized."
Salatin’s philosophy of farming emphasizes healthy grass on which animals can thrive in a symbiotic cycle of feeding. Cows are moved from one pasture to another rather than being centrally corn fed. Then chickens in portable coops are moved in behind them, where they dig through the cow dung to eat protein-rich fly larvae while further fertilizing the field with their droppings.
Some authors have criticized Salatin's goal of eco-friendly meat, citing studies by the Audubon Society that free-range and organic meat products have more negative environmental impacts than other meat products, since more methane is produced. Additional criticism claims that Salatin's farm is not scalable, since the Earth—which already uses 26% of ice-free land for grazing—does not have enough land to support free-range meat at current consumption levels.
In response to complaints about free-range methane production, Salatin has written, "Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world; herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration. Anyone who really wants to stop methane needs to start draining wetlands. Quick, or we'll all perish." In response to criticism on land usage and scalability, Salatin has written that most livestock producers still use "Neanderthal management" that exaggerates the amount of land required, and that modern technology allows for far more sustainable land usage.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Salatin has come under fire by the Center for Media and Democracy for speaking at the 2013 State Policy Network (SPN) conference. Salatin, who pushes for people to "quit patronizing all of the big food conglomerates" and criticizes the roles of industrialized agriculture and pharmaceutical industries by hingeing their success upon "antibiotics for animals and pesticides for plants", gave several presentations for the network that is funded by food businesses like Kraft Foods and drug businesses like GlaxoSmithKline.
- Salad Bar Beef. (1996). ISBN 978-0-9638109-1-5
- Pastured Poultry Profits. (1996). ISBN 978-0-9638109-0-8
- You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise. (1998). ISBN 978-0-9638109-2-2
- Family Friendly Farming: A Multigenerational Home-Based Business Testament. (2001). ISBN 978-0-9638109-3-9
- Holy Cows And Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer's Guide To Farm Friendly Food. (2005). ISBN 978-0-9638109-4-6
- Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front. (2007). ISBN 978-0-9638109-5-3
- The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. (2010). ISBN 978-0-9638109-6-0
- Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. Center Street. 2011. ISBN 978-0-89296-819-0.
- "High Priest of the Pasture," New York Times, May 1, 2005.
- Staunton News Leader, May 23, 2009.
- Vintage [BJU yearbook] (1979), 366. Salatin was a member of the Inter-Collegiate Debate team, the winner of the Daniel J. Carrison Americanism essay contest, and was named to Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges. In 2009, the BJU Alumni Association named Salatin "Alumnus of the Year." Staunton News Leader, April 28, 2009.
- Staunton News Leader, May 23, 2009. "I figured I'd become an investigative journalist like Bernstein and write my bestseller and then retire to the farm like Thoreau." "Mimicking the Cycles of the Creator,"Voice of the Alumni [Bob Jones University],82.4 (2009), 5-7.
- Voice of the Alumni.
- "High Priest of the Pasture," New York Times, May 1, 2005. Salatin's father worked as an accountant and his mother taught high school physical education.
- Salatin's description of one of his talks, "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal": "Despite all the hype about local or green food, the single biggest impediment to wider adoption is not research, programs, organizations, or networking. It is the demonizing and criminalizing of virtually all indigenous and heritage-based food practices. From zoning to labor to food safety to insurance, local food systems daily face a phalanx of regulatory hurdles designed and implemented to police industrial food models but which prejudicially wipe out the antidote: appropriate scaled local food systems. A call for guerrilla marketing, food choice freedom legislation, and empirical pathogen thresholds offers solutions to these bureaucratic hurdles." Polyface Farms website.
- Business Week, August 10, 2007
- Mike Tidwell, "The Low-Carbon Diet" Audubonmagazine.org Last Accessed April 1, 2010.
- Steinfeld and others, Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, (Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006), xxi.
- Salatin, Joel (2012-04-17). "Joel Salatin responds to New York Times' ‘Myth of Sustainable Meat'". Grist. Retrieved 2012-11-24.
- http://spnannualmeeting2013.sched.org/speaker/joelsalatin#.UpQVECjGaPU. Missing or empty
- Bechiri, Holly. "Joel Salatin reflects on city life, kitchen time and the Grand Rapids chicken fight".
- Salatin, Joel. "Small is Okay: An Excerpt from the Sheer Ecstasy of being a Lunatic Farmer". The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. Polyface.
- Wilce, Rebekah. "Exposed: The State Policy Network". Center for Media and Democracy.
- The 15th Heinz Awards (with special focus on the environment), Joel Salatin profile
- Polyface Farm, Inc.
- BusinessWeek article about Salatin
- "High Priest of the Pasture", a New York Times article about Salatin
- Video podcast of Salatin Lecture 24-Feb-2005 @ U.C. Berkeley (2hrs)
- Scribed talk notes of Joel Salatin 19-Feb-2009 @ Stanford
- Flavor Magazine (Salatin writes a column, "Rebel with a Cause," for this bi-monthly magazine focused on the DC foodshed)