Writing this review has bedeviled me. I was plugging away on the umpteenth draft, vaguely feeling I’d gotten hold of what I’d wanted to say, when I mentioned to a new acquaintance that I’d read Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice or Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. While I don’t share his fundamentalist Christian sensibility, I was taken in by his seeming openness to differing viewpoints.
This woman, who, like me, is the type of liberal that gives Berkeley, California its freak flag name, snorted derisively. “So his editors reined him in, huh?” She’d seem him give a talk, ostensibly about sustainable farming methods. The first part was fine, she said. “But then he started talking about abortion, and he was just nuts. And we were all stuck in that room.We couldn’t leave.”
So much for draft 75. Drink some wine. Check Facebook. Read Whitney Huston’s obituary. (Sad, sad, sad. Another lovely voice silenced.) Open a new, blank Word doc and try again.
Salatin runs Virginia’s Polyface Farm with his family, including mother Lucille, wife Teresa, adult children Rachel and Daniel, Daniel’s wife, Sheri, and their children, Andrew and Travis. Polyface Farm is world-renowned for its sustainable, innovative farming methods, which are strictly organic.
Salatin is an expert not only on farming, but on stewardship of our beleaguered planet. He willingly takes on agribusiness and the United States Department of Agriculture, a body that claims the safety of foodstuffs reaching the American people is their primary goal. After a series of food scares involving tainted meats and vegetables, many Americans are beginning to question the USDA’s mission. Hence, the urban farming movement, the return to gardening, the surge in farmer’s markets, artisanal home cooking, and the quest for local, organically grown food.
Salatin is with you on this. He would like nothing more than for you to patronize your local farmer, shop locally, and raise chickens in your back yard. He presents a series of immensely convincing ideas to support his idea of a better world. He’s also a Fundamentalist Christian, a graduate of Bob Jones University (an unaccredited Christian institution: see their website here, or read Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, for a recount of his visit to BJU). Indeed, Salatin is a man with highly conventional views on gender roles (the women of Polyface farm write a blog called “The Hen House”) and conservative ideas about government. He feels taxes should be abolished; the disabled and ill, apparently, will be supported through altruism.
All this to say, reading Folks, This Ain’t Normal will be maddening to liberal thinkers, who will be rapidly paging along only to be stopped short by any number of sentences. Here is Salatin, describing the nearly moribund tradition of hog killing:
“The womenfolk are putting together lunch… the oldest and wisest man kneels down to jerk a few hairs… One man dips a bucket of hot water from one of the kettles… An experienced man steps over and begins cutting down the belly to let the entrails roll out. Grandma stands to the side, because now we’re getting into the women’s business. She directs where the pancreas, lungs (lights), liver, heart and kidneys go… The men feast first, and then the women.”
The description of the hog killing flawlessly captures a dying tradition that truly honors the animal while wasting nothing. It’s also hopelessly chauvinistic. So are other expectations of the sexes.
Salatin is a widely sought speaker, meaning he spends much time in airports and in airplanes. Writing from an airplane, Salatin dissects his largely inedible meal and the waste that accumulates as he unwraps each item. Why not paper drinking cups (biodegradable) and two vats of soup, one vegetarian and one meat, for the long ride through the skies? Why not an unwrapped piece of fruit and a cookie? Consider, he writes, the styrofoam trays found in supermarkets. Styrofoam never biodegrades. Why not wrap meat in butcher paper? He observes, “When I sit in airports and watch these testosterone-exuding boys with their shriveled shoulders and E.T.-looking fingers passing time on their laptops, I realize that this is normal for them.”
In an ideal world, these boys would be muscled from good, hard farm work. To be a male muscled from farm work is certainly a fine thing, but where are the females in this picture? For years, Polyface farms refused to take female interns for fear of “unsupported sexual allegations”. Salatin was reamed everywhere, and begged his family to open their internship program to women. They finally acquiesced: the farm takes two women yearly. But those women are always sent out on remote projects, and always in groups of no less than three.
In fairness, Salatin writes that he loves women, and his abundant affection for wife Teresa is evident throughout the book. And although Salatin never baldy states his pro-life (anti-choice) views, they’re clear. The aforementioned ideas about smaller government are pervasive.
Like me, you may disagree vehemently with Salatin’s views. You may think the abolition of taxes and federal aid to the elderly and disabled is a bad idea. You may think a group of women who have been working their asses off since daybreak deserve to sit at the same table as the menfolk. Or even….eat with them! But Salatin has a great deal of critical information to offer regarding sustainable farming and why we need to be doing more of it. He deeply respects the earth and the lives that tread upon it, human, animal, and vegetal. He’s willing, at least in this book, to step over the barriers of Right and Left thinking so fracturing contemporary American society and talk to whoever is willing to listen.
So while I could devote the entirety of this review to citing instances where Salatin makes remarks that make my liberal flesh creep, I would be missing an important point. We can all agree that agribusiness practices destroy small farmers, American health, and the earth. So if you’re a liberal and you’re going to read Salatin’s work—- This Ain’t Normal is only one of his numerous books—you’re going to have put aside your views long enough to listen to those ideas—and ideals—that you share with him.
Salatin opens with an idyllic view of life on Polyface farm. The family has no television set and lives largely off the grid. All of their food comes directly from their farm. Teresa Salatin cans fruits and vegetables by the quart. She bakes their bread and desserts. Salatin describes being given a grocery list by Teresa, whereupon he descends to their basement and pulls the jars from the shelves:
“...most modern Americans can’t conceive of living like this…The United States has too few farmers to merit counting on the national census form. As a culture, we don’t cook at home. We don’t have a larder. We’re tuned in, plugged in, addicted to electronic gadgetry to the exclusion of a whippoorwill’s midsummer song or a herd of cows lying down contentedly on the leeward side of slope, indicating a thunderstorm in the offing.”
Salatin goes on to offer 351 pages of facts, information, and advice, most of it worth serious consideration. This Ain’t Normal is a comprehensive examination of everything from childrearing to healthy soil practices to the insidious ways the United States legal system does its best to keep organic and raw foods far from a desperately malnourished population. Yes, most Americans have plenty to eat. The problem is the nature of what we have to eat: far too much junk, laden with corn syrup and unpronounceable additives. Like Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and Michael Pollan, Salatin warns consumers away from fast food and frozen meals.
He explains why organic produce costs more, but also why it’s a worthwhile investment (in case you require convincing.) He suggests giving up flat screen televisions, designer clothing, and luxury vacations to free up food funds. He also suggests getting rid of alcohol and coffee, two substances dear to my heart. I can—and do—live without the flat screen TV, spa vacations, and flashy clothing. Without coffee I would die. Without wine I would be a nastier person.
Seriously, though, what can we give up in favor of better quality food More to the point, what are we willing to give up? Something does need to ‘give’
Salatin waxes eloquently about the need for larders, noting that most cities, dependent on supermarkets and enormous chain stores for their food supply, do nothing to put anything by. Of course, not many of us have a lot of living space for such luxuries as large food storage areas. Also, I’m not sure how aware Salatin is of the resurgence of home-canning, preserving, drying, and pickling these days, though it might hearten him to know I canned so many tomatoes this year that the jars overflowed my tiny kitchen and many are now stored under the bed. He does note the uptick in urban farming and large-scale gardening by a populace scared of the commercial food supply.
Salatin notes that young farmers looking for land are often approached by elderly farmers whose children aren’t interested: in upstate New York, prime farmland lies fallow for lack of interested workers. Salatin corresponds with inmates. One wrote him that he contacted farmers in his area, explained his situation, then asked to work on their farms upon release. Several responded, offering the man more than just a job. They offered their farmland.
Salatin feels the eastern and northern United States, rather than looking to temperate California for their winter produce, must engage in season-extending farming. Plastic sheeting, hoop houses, and cold frames all work to keep people eating fresh food well into the colder months (what used to be the colder months, anyway). This would mean far less trucking and gasoline use transporting foods eastward. Yes, you would have to give up Pacific coast fish and tomatoes in January. But if you are a good food citizen, you already have. Not because you want to, or need to feel righteous. Believe me, those Mexican hothouse tomatoes I saw at my local market last week looked damned tasty amidst yet more local butternut squash. But we’re in frightening need of rain here in Northern California, and gas costs $4 a gallon. I bought the squash.
Salatin writes tellingly of his encounters with Sysco and the USDA in anecdotes rivaling David Foster Wallace’s IRS descriptions in The Pale King. It’s but a short leap from these food bureaucracies to describing the way highly processed foods attack human digestion, upsetting the delicate balance of microflora and fauna we rely on not only to digest what we eat, but to keep us healthy in the bargain.
“Meditate for five minutes about what you think your intestinal community would like today. Feed it.” To that end, Salatin invokes unprocessed foods like raw milk, fresh eggs, and freshly baked breads. He compares the spoilage rates of these foods with ultra-pasteurized dairy and commercial breads. Anybody who has ever baked bread or a cake knows how rapidly the delicious freshness fades, leading Salatin to comment :
“...it occurs to me that perhaps God—my preference, or if you prefer, nature, or Gaia, or the cosmos—designed things this way to give us a litmus test on what to eat…If it would grow mold quickly, it was edible…if it would decompose it was food…If today we returned to such a test, it would eliminate more than half the food ingested by Americans.”
All said, Salatin readily admits he doesn’t have all the answers. He’s regularly confronted by people who cite single working mothers, the undeniably high costs of organic foods, and those living in rural areas who can neither sell locally produced foods nor purchase them. These problems are very real. I am married, childless, and have a husband willing to lend a hand in the kitchen. Yet my commitment to cooking fresh, local, largely organic food means I spend my weekends preparing and freezing our dinners. I spend insane amounts of time plotting leftovers and lunches. Today is Sunday. I can tell you what we’re eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner through next Friday. You might think me insane, but without such meticulous planning, we’d be living on takeout.
The latter half of This Ain’t Normal moves into the need for broad-based solutions to deal with the ecological devastation we’ve wrought. Salatin offers ideas for dealing safely with urban wastes—vermicomposting, anybody?—along with a scathing critique of American water use. Many are the ways to flush a toilet without using fresh water. He takes on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—CAFO’s—in depth, making a convincing argument regarding the need for herbivores munching grasses rather than grains; chicken, once a dish of the wealthy, should return to being just that. Vegetarians, cover your eyes: Salatin makes an excellent argument for consuming more beef. Mind you, that’s pastured, humanely slaughtered beef.
Political policies, eminent domain, inheritance taxes, and land use rights are all discussed. Labyrinthine descriptions of insurance coverage and a fruitless effort to work with Sysco to supply food to a local university are depressing examples of what small farmers face. At one point the Salatins allowed hunters of their land, but this became impossible for insurance reasons, leading Salatin to a chapter titled “I Hereby Release You From Being Responsible for Me”. He traverses raw food, informed consent to eat food from small purveyors, and leads into health.
For every fanatic handwasher, there is a theory positing all those anti-microbial handcleaners are breaking down our natural immunities, making us more prone to illnesses our grandparents never contended with. After killing everything in our systems, a drink of raw milk may not sit so well. Salatin takes this opportunity to rail against government subsidized healthcare, asking why he should have his money violently taken from him (i.e., taxes) to underwrite caring for a nation of overweight, junk-food guzzling couch potatoes. He cites Jesus, but then goes on to say even Jesus couldn’t save everybody. “He invoked His followers to be Good Samaritans, and to help the needy, to make room for children.”
The book’s final chapters are nearly entirely political nature. Off the farm and into the political arena, I found This Ain’t Normal more difficult to read; the book is stuffed with markers and dog-eared spots where I found something especially annoying or upsetting. Yet I still think Salatin has numerous valid points. If your “normal” needs some tweaking, or you don’t understand much about how big agriculture works, Folks, This Ain’t Normal is a good place to start. If nothing else, it will get you thinking about what your normal is and whether it can be improved upon.
It may also wrench you from the safety of your worldview, however you label it. And reading from the unique vantage point of simultaneous mutual agreement and violent disagreement forces you to think. A lot of people in power would prefer you wouldn’t think like this—about who runs the country, about American action in the world, about what you put into your body, from birth control to the food you swallow.
Salatin is right when he says we must accept some responsibility for ourselves. He’s right about a lot things not being normal, these days—but he’s not right about everything.