Still out with flu today.
Still out with flu today.
4 min read
Joel Salatin. Folks, this ain’t normal. New York, New York: 2011. Hachette Book Group. 351 pages. Price: $15.99 paperback. ISBN 978-0-89296-820-6
“Lunatic farmer,” in his own words, seems an apt description of Joel Salatin. He weaves his staunch environmentalist, libertarian, and Christian ideologies throughout Folks, this ain’t normal in its volume of practical advice for organic nutcases like me. Journeying through the day-to-day operations of his wildly successful Polyface Farm, this text delves into the interconnectedness of food production, ecology, politics, and ideology.
Salatin’s main obsession is local, small-scale agriculture. The rationale: it’s significantly better for the environment than commercial agriculture, produces nutritionally superior food, and promotes self-reliance – my main interest in the text.
In a world of ever-increasing socioeconomic uncertainty, taking steps toward self-reliance seems a prudent measure. If the tap water turned off tomorrow and supermarket shelves were empty, most Americans wouldn’t know how to get food and water. Historically, that kind of occurrence is common in countries pursuing inflationary monetary policies, such as the United States at the time of this writing. The keys to securing basic needs dominate this book, accompanied by voluminous social commentary.
Chapters that begin with instructions for important tasks such as gathering firewood, securing clean water, creating natural fertilizer, and even building a home take frequent divergences to explore interconnected social issues. Parenting techniques, spiritual opinions, health, nutrition, ecology, and politics: no topic is off limits.
This total irreverence is pure gold for the critical thinker: Salatin is blunt, sincere, and will almost certainly challenge the gentle reader’s beliefs in some way. “It does your mind good to get your heart rate up,” (pp. 40) he insists in a justification of the often-confrontational tone of the piece. Just when the reader’s blood pressure is getting uncomfortably high, the witticisms peppered throughout the text provide welcome comic relief; however, the wording is often so severe it may alienate readers.
Sustainability is a key component of the kind of self-reliance and localism the author encourages. A significant amount of carbon and other pollution is a consequence of industrial agricultural methods and practices – especially long-distance delivery. Relying on local agriculture would reduce the carbon footprint of the food supply by removing long-distance delivery from the equation. Additionally, he provides ample evidence that grass-feeding cows, as opposed to grain used in commercial agriculture, provides an effective carbon sink. Employing grass-fed animals and local food sourcing on a massive enough scale could reduce and offset manmade carbon emissions dramatically.
As with the author, I also prefer to eat food that isn’t poisonous. Evidence of the damage from transgenic plants on human health and the ecosystem accumulates daily. As Salatin notes, all the consequences aren’t fully obvious in animal testing until the third generation of offspring. Transgenic plants have also been proven to wreak havoc on soil quality, a critical determining factor in the nutritional value of food. The “beyond organic” system Salatin proposes increases nutritional value of food dramatically, as documented by empirical testing (pp. 251.)
While frequently diverging onto the antics of interns and charged polemic makes the text read a bit like the ramblings of a madman, the treasure trove of practical ideas at the end of each chapter deserve special mention. Salatin makes up for lack of focus in individual chapters by providing steps the reader can take to move toward health, self-reliance, and reducing their impact on the environment. For example: don’t eat food with ingredients you can’t pronounce, or that won’t mold after a few days; use biomass waste at home and start a compost pile; go hunting; knock off the video games, already; take up gardening; and, of course, replace your parakeet with chickens.
In addition to the self-reliance aspects of the book, Salatin places heavy emphasis on interrelated social issues. The first chapter, “Children, Chores, Humility, and Health” is largely commentary on contemporary social problems, with specific suggestions on raising children as a potential remedy to those problems. It’s also worth reading simply to learn the phrase, “child labor opportunities.” Government and agriculture have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning of civilization, the story goes, but Salatin slathers on the polemic to the point it can be distracting from the more practical aspects of the book.
Nevertheless, those practical aspects make the mad farmer’s manifesto worth attention. While it’s less a blueprint for sustainable self-reliance and more of a highly annotated roadmap to it, it’s still a decent map for a reader who wants to move in that direction.
(Author's note: I produced this book review for UNST 421, Grantwriting, with professor W. Tracy Dillon, at Portland State University, in summer 2013.) #literature #review