I’m not a big fan of polemics in general, since, regardless of subject matter, they all tend to share two traits: They are poorly written and lightly evidenced. Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World fits that description perfectly, with a complete lack of footnotes and scant detail even in anecdotes that should, in theory, help prove his points, and while Salatin is clearly a bright guy, he’s no writer, and whoever edited his book didn’t do him many favors. Yet despite those glaring flaws, and the clear bias with which he writes (one to which I’m sympathetic), there’s still a fair amount of value to be had from reading Folks… because of the questions his arguments on agriculture and our modern, unsustainable food supply will raise in your mind.
Joel Salatin is a self-described “environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer,” as well as a libertarian, a Christian, and to some degree a bit of a chauvinist, so 350 pages of his thoughts will inevitably contain something to aggravate any reader – a tactic, however, that can have the positive effect of causing readers to investigate Salatin’s claims further to try to debunk them. He runs an extensive, traditional farm in rural Virginia called Polyface, pasture-raising livestock; eschewing the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and genetically modified crops; and employing a holistic approach to land management that relies on natural processes and diets to maintain soil quality, limit water usage, and minimize his carbon footprint.
Salatin follows three main tracks, ignoring some of the extraneous rants in the book such as his thoughts on child-rearing, that are relevant to the consumer:
- He explains why industrially-produced food is inferior in quality, safety, and environmental impact to food from individual farmers practicing his style of agriculture.
- He blames government regulators, generally in cahoots with large-scale industrial food producers, for masking the true costs of industrially-produced food, making it less cost-effective for small-scale farmers to start and grow their businesses, and limiting those local farmers’ access to markets through suffocating regulations. He even saves some ire for the government’s relationship with Big Oil, since cheap fuel distorts the market for local food, to say nothing of cheap fertilizers.
- And he ends every chapter with advice to the consumer on how to improve his/her impact on the food supply, including many admonitions to grow as much of your own produce as you can, as well as to raise chickens in your backyard for their eggs*, feeding them kitchen scraps and using their manure for compost.
* One of our daughter’s best friends in kindergarten has chickens in her backyard, and her mom gave us a half-dozen of the eggs last week. I have never come across any egg with shells that strong, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a greenish egg, which apparently means the hen was an Araucana. The yolks were also very well-defined. If my daughter and I weren’t both so allergic to feathers, I’d set up a coop right away.
As I mentioned earlier, however, Folks, This Ain’t Normal ain’t a great read. He backs up virtually none of what he says unless he can discuss a specific experience at Polyface; at one point, he mentions a centrally-planned city in China that grew up practically overnight, with 250,000 people and gardens on nearly every rooftop, but never mentions one minor detail – the city’s name – without which the story is much tougher to verify. You may nod your head at first to his arguments about corrupt regulators, market externalities, nanny-state policies, or the hijacking of the term “organic,” but his arguments consistently lack evidence. I think most of what he says is right – our government is way too involved in the food supply, and our policies on food and oil have led to poor land usage, soil mismanagement, the inevitability of water crises, and substandard products at the grocery store* – but it would be tough for me to carry out any of these arguments myself based solely on his book.
*Another rant: Have you ever had a truly pasture-raised chicken? The chicken breasts are small, while the legs are larger, because the chickens are more active, building muscle in the thighs and drumsticks (well, what eventually become the drumsticks), while burning off the calories that, in a caged bird, would otherwise lead to larger breasts. (Stop snickering.) I happen to prefer dark poultry meat anyway, since it has more fat, leading to better texture and less dryness, but it’s also a lot more natural; industrally-raised birds’ organs can’t keep up with the muscle growth in the breasts, so they must be slaughtered earlier so they don’t die of organ failure. And, as it turns out, pasture-raised cows and chickens produce more healthful milk and eggs than feedlot or caged livestock does, just as compost-raised produce contains more nutrients than fertilizer-raised produce.
Folks, This Ain’t Normal at least encouraged me to continue what I’ve started in our yard, composting and growing regionally and seasonally appropriate crops, and to be smarter about what I buy and where I buy it. Salatin mentioned The Cornucopia Institute, which ranks organic dairies and organic egg producers on how true their claims of organic practices are. (In Arizona, the executive summary is: Organic Valley and Clover = good, Horizon and Shamrock = bad.) They’ve also led the fight on behalf of almond farmers who want to sell raw almonds to the public, winning a lawsuit allowing California almond farmers to challenge a USDA regulation that forbids the sale of almonds that haven’t been treated with a toxic fumigant or at very high heat, a regulation in response to a salmonella outbreak at one of the nation’s largest industrial nut producers. This kind of policy – where the sins of a large corporation lead to regulations with fixed costs that crush smaller producers – is exactly what Salatin targets when he rants about intrusive, anti-farmer regulations. I had never heard of the Cornucopia Institute before picking up his book, or many of the other books he mentions (such as Gene Logsdon’s memorably titled Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind), so Salatin’s book did at least achieve one goal – forcing me to reexamine the food my family eats, from how it’s grown to where we get it. But had he researched and supported his book with more hard data or secondary sources, Folks, This Ain’t Normal might have become a classic in its narrow field.
Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m working my way through Raymond Carver’s short story collection Where I’m Calling From – and yes, I’m aware of the controversy over his editor’s role in changing some of the text.