Joel Salatin on slow-local food, and politics

In his introduction to Joel Salatin’s recent book Folks, This Ain’t Normal, Allan Nation says Salatin pulls no punches, which “completely discombobulates” audiences who expect a slow-local food advocate to be a leftist hippie. In this book, Salatin proudly displays his religiosity, his social conservatism, and his political libertarianism — so much so, in fact, that these elements threaten to distract the reader from his central point.

That point is that a food system dominated by multinational corporations, in which local production is seen as eccentric and local markets are discouraged by heavy-handed regulation, is fundamentally abnormal and in the long run, suicidal. And that historically, extended, multigenerational families are normal. Salatin is arguing for old-fashioned values he calls “connection, heritage, tradition.” I agree with him on all these points.

The book is really a series of essays that all circle around this central theme. Some of them are excellent, and would probably work well as free-standing articles or as chapters to read in a class (Environmental History, for instance). “Children, Chores, Humility, and Health” is one of these. It begins with a discussion of firewood that dwells on the physical details and shows an intimate knowledge of the subject drawn from a lifetime of experience, and then continues to a discussion of freedom, responsibility, and growing up on a farm. And it provides this point, for grounding the discussion: “As recently as 1946, nearly 50 percent of all produce grown in America came out of backyard gardens” (p. 13).

In the next chapter, Salatin says “No long-term example exists in which tillage is sustainable. It always requires injection of biomass from outside the system or a soil-development pasture cycle” (20). This is an interesting claim, and it may well have an element of truth to it; but it (and the chapter) seems motivated by Salatin’s desire to debunk the vegetarians who argue against meat (especially beef) production and consumption. “Judgmentalism combined with ignorance is a dangerous combination,” Salatin warns (30). And he makes a series of points I agree with: CAFOs suck, and the fact “That a large percentage of landfilled material is animal-edible food waste” really should “strike us as criminal.” But he goes on to claim “nobody goes hungry due to lack of food. They go hungry due to lack of distribution” (32); which suggests that we could feed as many people animal protein as we could feed vegetable protein, if we could just get the system right. Salatin believes the whole world can be fed on meat, if we would just go back to pasturage rather than grain-feeding. Whether this is true or not, he’s clearly right that a lot of the marginal land that’s in crop production would be more sustainable as rangeland.

Talking about local food production, Salatin points out that it takes fifteen calories to get a calorie of food onto the average American table, and four of those calories are transportation (67). And he points out that the key to local food viability is “a seasonal eating commitment” (68). “Unless and until the East and North step up to their bioregional responsibilities,” he continues, “California will be unable to feed itself” (69) But again, “half of all the food fit for human consumption never gets eaten,” because of long-distance transport and warehousing. This is incredibly inefficient, and will seem more so as petroleum prices rise. And then there’s the frivolous use of resources instead of farming: “America has thirty-five million acres of lawn and thirty-six million acres devoted to housing and feeding recreational horses, and that doesn’t even count golf courses,” Salatin says (76). And if people “really wanted to save water, how about attacking flush toilets that use potable water?” (34) Another good point.

Salatin suggests as a rule of thumb “to only eat food that was available before 1900” (109). He has some very interesting things to say about the Progressive Era and its effect on farming, and also about writers like Edward Faulkner (
Plowman’s Folly, 1943) and Newman Turner (Fertility Farming, 1951) who argued against the agro-industrial model right from the start. These authors all deserve a closer look (129ff).

Salatin says “By denying the herbivores access to a paddock until the grass has rested enough to go through that middle rapid growth period of the S curve, we metabolize far more sunlight into biomass than would otherwise occur…And if every farm and ranch that has cows in the United States would practice this biomimicry, in fewer than ten years we would sequester all the atmospheric carbon generated since the beginning of the industrial age. For more information, visit Holistic Management International and Carbon Farmers of America—two groups doing the empirical analysis and demonstrating the efficacy of these principles” (195-196). If this is true, it is
very cool!

So Salatin makes a bunch of really good points, which for me are slightly marred by the number of times he says “Jesus never said” this or that. And I got the point about the food police without needing to read quite so much about how Salatin and his friends have been inconvenienced by the USDA and FDA. And calling Abraham Lincoln “an idiotic dreamer” is going a bit far beyond what was needed to make his point. This type of “pulling no punches” just annoys and alienates people. I’m surprised Salatin’s editors let him indulge himself to this degree. And when he goes after “the tax-and-spend crowd [who] dishonor hardworking Americans” and “government manipulation of the housing market, by demanding that high-risk loans be made to unqualified people,” Salatin is exposing his dependence on the Fox echo-chamber for his perspective on recent events. Again, how the editors thought these passages were a good way to advance his theme is just beyond me.

Maybe Salatin has become to big a celebrity on the speaking circuit, to the point where he thinks he’s got something to say on any topic, not just the ones where he has a lifetime of experience and a thorough command of all the details. The excesses he allows himself in this book detract from its force, but
Folks, This Ain’t Normal is still an important contribution to the slow-local food cause.