Joel Salatin is a larger than life character. In his own words, he is a “gregarious, outgoing schmoozer.” If we’re relying on stereotypes to judge him, he is also the the opposite of what you’d expect from a farmer; intelligent, outgoing, and opinionated. Breaking the stupid farmer stereotype is just one facet of what he is trying to accomplish. His larger goal is to start a revolution that changes the way that we grow and eat our food. I was fortunate to see Salatin speak two weeks ago at the Bring Food Home conference in Kitchener Ontario, where spoke to the eager crowd on the idea of building a strong local food economy like the one that has sprung up around his family’s Polyface Farms in rural Virginia.
Perhaps the most important point that Salatin made about the industrial food system is that it can be differentiated from a healthy local food system by the concept of transparency. Industrial food production is not transparent, primarily because it tends to be a bad neighbour. Factory farms and processing facilities are noisy, smelly, polluting, and unpleasant to look at. Instead, farming in the manner practiced at Polyface concentrates on being aesthetically and aromatically pleasant, and invites people to visit. By putting the constraint of transparency on the operation, a farm is forced to be beautiful and community friendly.
In Salatin’s mind, the quest for farm transparency consists of a few key concepts:
- Diversity: Single-species environments don’t appear anywhere in nature, so it holds that single-product farms are unnatural. Companion planting can give the farm something to produce at all times of the year, and helps to reduce weeds, animal, and insect problems.
- Respect: We need to respect “the pigness of the pig.” To view animals as inanimate objects is to dishonour them, and the way that we treat our farm animals belies the way that we treat the weaker members of our society.
- Balance: Everything in nature seeks balance, and the rise of food-borne diseases like e-coli correlates nicely with the rise of factory farming. Perhaps these newly rampant infections are nature’s way of saying “enough!”
A big part of the problem is that our society has been geared to drive its top thinkers away from the farm. The business knowledge of Wall Street holds that when the average working age in a company is over 35, it’s marketplace viability beings to decline because new ideas aren’t being brought to the table. Compare that with the fact that the average farmer in the USA is over the age of 60, and the problem starts to become clear. We need to bring brains back to the farm, because our current system implicitly entrusts the quality of our air, soil, water, and food supply to C-level students. Farming should be regarded as a sexy profession, with plenty of exciting problems that need to be solved by smart people who are driven to succeed.
Alright, so we can create a responsible and aesthetically pleasing farm. But what of the large factory-based processing facilities that package the majority of the products that we consume? As far as Salatin is concerned, in an ideal world, we would process our food right on the farm. In most every other resource-extraction industry, we put processing facilities near the source of the resources that they need to function. Economically then, it makes little sense to process our food hundreds of miles away from where it’s grown. On the other hand, the government will tell you that it is safer to process our food in highly-regulated government-inspected medically-sterile facilities. Unfortunately, like everything else in life, food safety is a subjective thing. The latest research into diabetes shows without a doubt that eating massive amounts of sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup is a life-threatening habit, but our government allows it anyway. The following infographic from Andrew Price at Good Magazine shows an interesting comparison of the food pyramid and what North American governments tend to subsidize:
The biggest lesson to learn from our experiences with factory-based food processing is that sterility is not necessarily equitable with safety. The vast majority of bacteria are essential to sustain life; Bleaching our meat to get rid of them is not. Further, the prohibitively high entrance costs to the food processing business that are created by such strict regulations tends to starve the market of innovative ideas. This isn’t to say that we should allow just anybody to process and sell meat; safety checks are necessary to ensure everybody’s health. Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma tells the story of Bev Eggleston, an acquaintance Salatin who tried to open a small meat-processing plant for production of grass-fed beef products. He nearly bankrupted his family farm under the costs of building the facility and getting the approvals and licenses required by the USDA, only to have the plant shut down because it wasn’t processing enough animals to justify the time of the USDA-required on-site inspector.
As we know it, the factory-based food processing system also has a number of ethical issues. According to the documentary Food Inc., workers are generally underpaid semi-legal migrant workers from South- and Central-American countries trying to make a living to support their families back home. The factories know this and exploit them with low wages and unhealthy working conditions. The bottom line for workers is that it is not emotionally acceptable to have to kill animals all day, every day. Repetitive killing is a physically and mentally unhealthy chore that should not be the sole task of any person in a responsible society.
We live in abnormal times. In most cases, less than 5% of our food is grown locally, even though we have lots of farms right here in south western Ontario. As the following video sponsored by Hellman’s Mayonnaise Eat Real, Eat Local campaign illustrates, our local food system is in shambles, with the average item on the plates of eaters here in Kitchener-Waterloo having travelled well over four thousand kilometres before coming to rest on our plates:
The distribution system that has been created to serve the needs of the supermarkets and fast food restaurants has only existed for about 60 years. If we want the best food for our families, it needs to change. The supermarket is the great equalizer – the place where all food is made to look the same, with price as the only differentiating factor. The truth is that all food is not produced in the same manner, and some is better for you than others. The supermarket fails to preserve the integrity of the production behind the product, and fools people into thinking that the system isn’t broken. Good food is worth paying for, and incredibly cheap food should raise red flags with the shopper before it even enters the grocery cart. Of course, there have been efforts to create alternative markets for responsibly-produced local foods, like speciality stores and farmers markets. Unfortunately, farmers markets require that both the farmer and consumer make a commitment to get together and exchange goods. This is unproductive for the farmer and inconvenient for the customer, so it doesn’t really stand a chance of gaining widespread adoption.
Salatin finished his speech by noting that we need to bring cooking back into the home. An astounding number of families eat frozen food out of a box every night of the week, and thus create no demand for healthy, local, responsibly produced foods. Thirty years ago, every woman knew how to cut up a chicken. These days, many people have never seen a piece of chicken with skin or bones still attached. There is a sort of courtship romance to the experience of preparing food to share with your family, but somewhere along the line, we lost the idea of the family dinner; a time to share the day’s experiences over a plate of delicious nourishment prepared together and for each other.
The new food revolution doesn’t require us to give up our high-tech lifestyles. We just need to let our technology enable the local foodshed. In Salatin’s words, “We need to re-insert the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker into our communities.” Let’s learn from our mistakes – will we have a richer culture that we can be proud of with an industrial food system, or with a local food heritage?