Joel Salatin speaking in 2010

Joel Salatin is horrified at how ignorant Americans are about what’s in their food and how it’s made. Photo: cheeseslave/flickr.

It’s not only Sarah Palin who thinks that America is the world’s essential nation because Americans are exceptionally worthy. All too many of us Yanks continue to believe that we’re the smartest, hardest working and most self-reliant people on Earth. And that God or evolution or just history has rewarded us with superpower status and super riches because we deserve it.

Well, if you believe any of that, Joel Salatin has come to give you a good spanking.

Geniuses at Xbox — At food, not so much

Salatin, a sustainable farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, has made a second career as a cultural critic by goading people who live in big cities into caring not merely about food but also about farms and farmers. Quite an accomplishment, given that several branches of the US government have decided that farming is no longer a valid profession.

But if you’ve seen Salatin in such documentaries as Food, Inc. and Fresh! or read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then you know differently.

Now, America’s Most Famous Farmer is taking us all out to the woodshed to teach us some humility. In Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World, Salatin reminds us of what we shouldn’t need to hear again but do; namely, that since people need food, we shouldn’t be so cavalier about how we get it or what it’s really like.

“I fear that we are bringing to our world a whole generation revved up on hubris, who think they have the whole world by the tail,” Salatin writes. Basically, easy living has made us soft and stupid.

That so few in our generation have a visceral experience with any deprivation is why, in the face of mounting water shortages, soil erosion, atmospheric changes, and chemical toxicity most people can still drink their Coca-Cola, munch their nachos, and spend hours glued to sitcoms, oblivious to catastrophes building around them.

Following the injunction of King Solomon that all wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, Salatin shows us how dumb we’ve been about food to shame us into better behavior. He starts with the kids, suffering as they do from childhood obesity, diabetes and a host of other diet-related disorders, as well as massive food ignorance:

  • How about the kid who, while touring Salatin’s Polyface Farms with a school group, asked to see the “salsa tree”?
  • Or the kid who stared at the aquarium looking for the fish stick.
  • Or the kids who asked “What do we do with these?” when confronted with chicken containing bones as part of a Farm to School initiative.
  • Or the college students who complained, on trying grass-feed beef for the first time, that they weren’t used to having to chew their burgers.

Yup, American kids are dumber than spit about where their food comes from these days. But you can hardly blame them, given that American adults have set up perhaps the world’s most confusing food system, where most food is made and processed in a black box entirely opaque to consumers.

As one student explained to a high school art teacher, his family didn’t have a cooking pot at home because the family just opened the box and put it in the microwave. That family could be any of our families.

“Why have a kitchen?”

Which gets to the crux of the problem. Americans have sold our birthright to healthy food for a mess of convenience. By outsourcing food production to Cargill and ConAgra and our meal preparation to Kraft and McDonald’s, we’ve reached the end of the line, where it even becomes reasonable for families to ask why they need a kitchen at all these days, even while they built pristine showpiece kitchens during the era of cheap credit.

Salatin warns that this way leads not merely to bad health and tasteless food, but to slavery.

These huge food processing facilities where everything goes through miles of stainless steel and cooling towers are not the friend of an empowered food proletariat. They are the monuments to an elitist hierarchy that wants ignorant consumers, an industrial-dependent class too afraid and too confused to discover the joy and taste of their own kitchen.

Such a system gives us confinement animal feeding operations, concentration camps for cows, pigs and chickens that produce cheap meat only by creating what Salatin calls “a despicable farm,” where animals are quick fattened on GMO grains and hormones while being pumped full of drugs to prevent an outbreak of avian flu or E. Coli.

If you know anything about Salatin, who describes himself as a ”Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer,” you’ve already guessed that his answer will not involve joining a group like STOP Foodborne Illness and lobbying the FDA or USDA for tighter food safety regulations. Nor will it involve shopping at Whole Foods so you can buy more organics, which you can’t trust anymore.

Given his deep-seated distrust of government regulation, I’m not sure I’d want Salatin in charge of the banking system or financial markets. But on food, he makes an excellent case that when some guy appears who says he’s from the government and is here to help, you should head for the hills. Salatin blames not only agribusiness protectionism, but also well-intentioned consumer advocates for squelching small sustainable farms like his with expensive health regulations that fail to protect the consumer but succeed only in controlling market access.

Instead of trying to reform it, Salatin urges eaters to boycott the industrial food system altogether.

He wants us all to fill our fridges with as much clean food as we can pick from our own gardens and buy at farmers’ markets, farm stands and buying clubs. In Salatin’s America, everyone would follow Michael Pollan’s advice to eat no food invented after the year 1900. Salatin even wants big city people to keep their own backyard chickens, as their grandparents did.

Let’s make a peak-oil farm

On the national level, Salatin wants policymakers to stop touting industrial agriculture’s efficiency.

Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under Nixon, famously told farmers to “get big or get out” because he shared the technocratic view that only high-tech mega-farms could feed America’s growing population. Salatin answers back that not only can small farms like Polyface produce better food, but they can actually make it more efficiently too.

A big factory farm may appear efficient, with acres of land under cultivation or thousands of head of cattle penned up in a few buildings. But when you consider all the off-farm resources, especially energy and manpower, needed to keep the cattle fed and the crops fertilized, then agribusiness’ vaunted efficiency disappears. And in an age of peak oil, such an energy-hogging farming system becomes downright insecure:

If any piece of this abnormal model breaks down, it can’t function. If energy became expensive, grain transport to these animal factories would be too expensive. If energy became expensive, the chemical fertilizer would be too expensive and fertility maintenance would revert to long rotations of pasture between cultivations. If drug development can’t keep up with increasingly adapted and virulent pathogens, the animals will get sick and die…The only, and I repeat only for emphasis, reason that the current grain-fed beef and dairy factory system works is because petroleum is cheap. Take that out of the equation, and the whole thing collapses.

Perhaps this nightmare scenario is hard to accept for the soccer mom who can pump gas into her Ford Explorer for $3.10 a gallon while picking up a chicken wings dinner and rolls at the deli inside the station. But anyone who understands energy need not be told twice that a food system requiring ten calories of fossil fuels to make one calorie of food is not sustainable.

All the more reason to follow Salatin’s advice and secede from the industrial food system as much as you can and as quickly as possible.

Plant some veggies on your front lawn. Get a couple of laying hens for the backyard. And buy a chest freezer for the basement that you can start to fill with meat from sustainable local farmers to build your family’s larder. How else can you enjoy food security in a just-in-time-inventory economy where grocery stores carry only a three-day supply of food?

And as you become more of a practical foodie, watch your self-esteem and sense of mastery grow along with your good health.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice