Ever meet a farmer who opposes farm subsidies? Or a Christian who’s against donating food to developing countries? Or an environmentalist who believes we have too many trees in the US? How about a forward-thinking innovator who wants to do away with sewage plumbing and go back to a hole in the ground? What if all of this described one person, and that person had the nerve to publish a book accusing everyone else of not being normal?
Meet Joel Salatin, the self-proclaimed “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic” farmer from Polyface Farm, and author of Folks, This Ain’t Normal – A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World.
Quick background if you don’t already know Joel Salatin. He runs Polyface Farm, located just a couple of hours drive from Washington, DC, in Swoope, VA. On his farm, Salatin practices a truly biodynamic, regenerative method of farming based on rotating animals on the land. Although Polyface Farm sells meat and eggs, Salatin claims to ultimately be farming sunlight, which energizes the grasses, which are eaten by the cows, whose manure is later sanitized and aerated by the chickens, whose droppings nourish the soil and allows more grass to grow, thus completing the cycle. I’ve vastly oversimplified, of course, but you get the idea.
While Salatin does go into his farm management approach for those who haven’t read his other books, that is not the focus of this book. Instead, this book is a set of (often humorous) rants about some societal behaviors we’ve adopted in the last 100 years, which go against our “ecological umbilical” and are causing catastrophic unintended consequences. These are things like our modern approach to parenting, education, construction, water management, land usage, government regulation, taxation, our legal system and of course food production, processing, packaging, safety and distribution. He attributes most of our problems to society’s shift from individuals being responsible for themselves to our modern entitlement and protectionist views as well as the fattening of our government.
If you’re only interested in some of these topics, you can just jump to those chapters. And if you want to skip all the background and get to his recommendations on what to do about all of these problems, each chapter has a nice, bulleted list of things you can do to “get back to some semblance of normalcy.” Some are easy things to do, like composting your food scraps, taking your kids on a farm tour rather than Disneyland, preserving and storing foods yourself and packing your kids’ lunches in re-usable containers rather than disposable plastic bags. The further you get in the book, however, the more difficult and controversial his suggestions. For instances, he proposes that we institute a Japanese-style loser-pay system for civil lawsuits and also allow anyone to be able to sign away their rights. I’m guessing the lawyer lobbies will never let these ideas fly. If you think he detests lawyers, wait until you read what he thinks of government bureaucrats and our tax system. For instance, he states that, “Any tax rate more than 10 percent is immoral, indecent, obnoxious and outrageous.” He’s also got an entire chapter devoted to personal responsibility where he concludes, for instance, that we need to take charge of our own wellness rather than depending on government healthcare and that we should start new business ventures without depending on any government assistance. I’m sure that if Ayn Rand were still alive, she and Salatin would be best buddies.
Before buying the book, I questioned the title, feeling that it wasn’t descriptive enough. After about the third chapter, it occurred to me that a more descriptive title might have been, “Folks, this ain’t sustainable,” since that’s really the gist of his message. I thought about it and concluded that it was probably a very deliberate decision to not use the “s” word in the title because it’s become so bastardized by the world’s leaders in unsustainable practices, such as the large food producers and oil refiners, so he probably wants to disassociate from all of that. Besides, Salatin is never one to use the standard lexicon.
Speaking of lexicon, it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly articulate, entertaining and even poetic Salatin can be. Not once did any of his sentences cause me to “zone out” like so many other books do. You know what I mean…like when they use too many “buzzwords” or obscure words that you know were inserted just to show off their vocabulary? Although he doesn’t mention it in the book, Salatin was a literature major. I think that any of his literature professors would be proud to read his writing today. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book:
- In talking about the invention of chemical fertilizer, he postulates, “…had we had a Manhattan project for compost, not only would we have fed the world, but we would have done it without creating three-legged salamanders, infertile frogs, and a dead zone the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf of Mexico.”
- His description of our industrial agriculture system: “…we send armies around the world to ensure cheap petroleum to energize chemical fertilizer factories to inject acidulated elemental Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus into tilled soils to grow grain to be harvested, gas-dried, then transported to animal factories. And now that the landfills are filling too fast, we routinely incinerate these wet, edible wastes in energy-intensive systems that run at a net energy loss.”
- “When it comes to food, not only are we pouring junk into our bodies’ engines, we don’t seem to care when we blow a gasket. Like blowing a gasket is supposed to be common or something. If our car engine blows a gasket, all our friends come around sympathetically offering condolences and we enjoy being depressed together. But if our bodies have an equivalent breakdown, we assume we’ve been the victim of faulty genes or the disease fairies, sprinkling their disease whimsically from the heavens.”
- Here’s Salatin’s description of the microbe interactions in healthy, compost-rich soil: “Wandering into the viewscape, a six-legged grazing microbe, lollygagging along on hairlike cilia, comes into view. Without warning, a nautilus-looking four-legged predator rockets in from two o’clock, impales the grazer with the saberlike spear affixed to its head, and sucks out the juices from the soft belly of the grazer …the visible, touchable, hearable world is literally tethered to a vibrant, moving, communicating, interacting, relational invisible community foundation.”
- Some nutrition advice: “Your pets probably have a much better handle on nutrition than your doctor…they are not funded by industrial food conglomerates. They don’t have political alliances. They are not peer-dependant or swayed by hours of TV advertising. They are just primal beings whose sensory safeguards still function… So ask your cats [because] cat-repugnant burgers [e.g. supermarket burgers] are not normal.”
I’d like to conclude this review with a few of the more spiritual passages from the book:
- “Delayed gratification is a powerful emotional reality, and tempers many things. Perhaps even things like road rage would lessen if we all tuned in to seasonal [food, business, economic, etc] cycles. “
- “I think the reason we need to travel more is because we don’t have anything exciting to do at home anymore. But if we’re gardening, cooking, and cottage-industrying – home can be as exciting as any discretionary destination.”
- In describing why he didn’t immediately explain to his children how the moon works, he says, “Maintaining a sense of awe and mystery toward the universe, and cultivating a profound sense of dependency on something bigger than ourselves, seem to be a fundamental responsibility we adults should have toward our children.”
- “Nature can only be tricked for so long, however, and many of today’s problems like plant diseases, erosion, compaction and water repulsion indicate that nature will eventually force a day of reckoning to balance the needs of the soil.”