Another rushed day; another rushed meal.
I grabbed the remnants of the previous night’s oven pizza in the refrigerator and quickly ran back to the computer. Chomped through crust and emails, I felt a quick pang of guilt. Did I know where the ingredients in this pizza came from? The spinach? No idea. Chicken? Beats me. Wheat? Huh. But the package said organic, and that's good enough. Isn't it?
Not even close, according to Joel Salatin. The Virginia farmer and author of seven books who gained widespread notoriety through his appearance in the 2008 documentary Food Inc., and who food author Michael Pollan held up as an example of back-to-earth basics in The Omnivore's Dilemma, thinks people don't take enough responsibility for their food choices. We’re all seduced by clever marketing and big words instead.
“Anytime there's a marketing trend, the big players try to move in and co-opt it,” he observes during a recent swing through Toronto, “but I want people to be able to do it themselves.”
Barring the modern constraints of time, Salatin’s latest book is Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World (Center Street). It’s a back-to-basics argument for a return to earth-centered living and eating.
“My definition of ‘normal’ involves looking for the ecological and social glue that has held ecology and civilization together throughout history,” he says over the phone, his Virginia accent a soft twang of Green Acres-meets-folk-wisdom.
“Food always tended to be local historically, as transportation was expensive. We didn't worry quite so much about all the pathogens and diseases simply because we didn't have them - things were clean by virtue of being produced differently.”
It’s this call to produce “differently” -or rather, the way things were done over thousands of years, as opposed to the recent modernizations in farming -that Salatin endorses. His unique mix of folksy wisdom, science know-how, and business smarts have propelled him to the frontlines of local food heroism as well as healthy eating and living. He only sells his food to locations within a four-hour drive of his farm. Along with vegetables, he also raises livestock and sells meat which has been described as “beyond organic.” His holistic, sustainable, community-minded approach means that the wait list for interning at his Polyface Farms is years long and has earned him thousands of fans across the continent.
Salatin’s views, however, don’t mean that he supports stricter government regulations on how and where food is grown and produced. Quite the opposite. True to his libertarian views, Salatin argues that government needs to get out of the way entirely in order to allow people to not only make their own food choices, but to allow small-scale farmers like himself and his farm to thrive.
“No civilization has ever trusted their government to take care of them. Even peasants in feudalism -they had home kitchens, their cow, they made their own soap,” he says bluntly. “They didn't expect the nobility to feed them. They preserved and made salt pork.”
Does this mean we should all drop what we’re doing, get up from our computers, and go plan a garden? Yes, according to Salatin, but local governments can help with their own food initiatives as well.
“Why can't (city) trees be fruit trees instead of merely ornamental?” he ponders, admiring the changing colors in a Toronto park, but simultaneously showing more than a trace of annoyance. “I like beauty as much as anybody else, but can't we get jazzed up enough about surrounding ourselves with abundance?”
This abundance provided by city/food initiatives would work in tandem with home gardening efforts, and, he feels, aid in alleviating growing urban (and especially suburban) food poverty. We wouldn’t rely on the supermarket or “the Costco warehouse,” as he puts it, if there’s a food emergency. We’d rely on ourselves and the gardens we plant and share with our neighbours.
But how realistic is this vision? Busy friends I’ve spoken with say they just don’t have time to get into the garden, what with kids, work, family and running a household, there’s nary a moment left for leisure time. The care and growing of food is one thing people leave to the government to take care of. One busy friend told me he thinks it’s the government’s job to make the right choices for his health based on regulation and food-forward initiatives.
“Understand the historical abnormality of that,” he told me forcefully. “If you're betting on the future, the historical track record has not been any government taking care of you, it's, ‘We roll up our sleeves and take care of ourselves.’ That's the track record. I'm not going to tell a guy he's in sin, but you're betting on a horse that's been in the race maybe sixty years, not the horse that's been there for millennia.”
That brand of back-to-earth basics -that normalcy, as Salatin sees it -extends itself to modern distractions, and the ways they remove us entirely from connecting with the things we should be focusing on: home, hearth, family. Much of the scorn in Folks, This Ain't Normal is directed at video games and the hours children spend playing them. You can practically hear him shouting, in that distinct Virginia drawl, “Go outside and pick berries!” The farmer’s views may be romantic in so far as living a pure life in rhythm with the earth and its seasons, but his delivery is anything but dreamy, and it’s punctuated with plenty of blunt assessments about what he sees as the perils of 21st century life.
“Gardening allows one to self-actualize,” he states, without a trace of New Age flakiness, “but (in modern life), self-actualizing involves being the top video game-points player on a screen that has no bearing in the physical world -it's just cyberspace. To define what I can do and who I am... to experience something I can smell-touch-taste...that is powerful to defining personhood.”
So how to rip young people away from the siren calls of video games and the internet? School gardening programs are ideal, what Salatin calls “one of the most profound spiritual/emotional things.” He advocates for a wider range of academia that incorporates real-world skills and respect for food systems and production.
“There's no reason you can't incorporate rudimentary math, chemistry, geometry, all of that, into gardening.That is learning associated with real life,” he says, his voice rising in indignation at what he sees as the ineffectual nature of modern learning. “It’s not disconnected, cerebral stuff. It’s not disassociated with life. You won’t get, ‘Why do we have to learn this?!’ If you incorporate that learning with a visceral experience, suddenly it creates importance.”
That isn’t to say Salatin wants everyone to throw away their computers and live in a cabin. “It’s not about ‘barefoot-and-pregnant-in-the-kitchen-with-hoop-skirts’,” he chuckles, “but there is a lot of space between that and assuming the future is all going to be a vacuum-packed, single-serving, pre-cooked, processed unpronounceable thing.”
So that cold organic pizza? Not good enough. Not by a longshot.
Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World is currently available in bookstores. Go to the Polyface Farms site for more information.