April 16, 2012. We taped a great conversation in Chico with Joel Salatin, whose Polyface Farm in Virginia actually builds soil, while raising beef, chickens, turkeys for sale. In 2006 we taped Joel’s a full day of presentations (Holy Cows, Hog Heaven). We were totally inspired by his philosophy, his respect for the animals, his innovative farming practice around what nature does. After our taping today, we joined a huge crowd for Joel’s evening performance from his latest book, Folks This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People and a Better World, where he aims his considerable wit and down-home honesty in a scathing critique of the industrial food system. My extensive notes are below. Thanks to Chris Kerston of Chaffin Family Orchards, our tour guide in “Innovation Bears Fruit for Family Farm” (episode 162), for fitting us into Joel’s tight schedule.Watch or hear our conversation, “The Straight Poop on Sustainable Farming” (episode 211).
We are no healthier than our soil. We are no more well than our food.
Our society has relegated farming to those who aren’t white, to hillbillies. What happened to the Jeffersonian intellectual agrarian? I believe our food system is only as good as the honor and respect we bestow on the people that are growing it. From the founding of our country for a couple hundred years, the primay occupation was to be a farmer. And those who weren’t farmers were craftsmen.They built an ecology/economy that was normal — it was integrated. The butcher, baker and candlestick maker were right in town, integrated into the community.
What’s abnormal now is a segregated food system. Economic apartheid. Not normal, and for sure not sustainable. In the future we’ll look at the principles that glued culture together in the past. What are the normal things, and what do they look like in a high-tech future? We’re going to march into the future with technology, but it’s going to have to embrace many of the normal things our ancestors had.
One is an integrated economy. Another is….when you study traditional diets, their foundation was either an herbivore-based or seafood. Yak, bison, sheep, cow, camel (including their milk), shrimp, seals, fish. Why not a food pyramid like US-Duh (USDA) tells us to have, with grain on the bottom. Americans are eating twice as much wheat today as we did 50 years ago. Why so much celiac disease and gluten intolerance now? In the old days, for grain you had to shock it up to let it dry down, and then thresh it. In the shock, the grain goes thru dewy mornings, get successively damp and then dry in the sun for a few weeks. During that time it would ferment a little — which would release enzymes that would make it more edible. Today harvesting with a mechanical combine, into a natural gas dryer — no time for grain to go through this kind of curing phase.
Why were traditional diets based on herbivores or seafood? Only nutrient-dense food that could be grown without tillage. Tillage meant working all day behind an animal with a sharp stick, laborious! End of the day, you might have a quarter of an acre stirred. Then you could hand-fling the grain, the seed, which would sprout. Then you’d have to hoe the weeds out. Scythe it down and put it in a shock to dry. Take the shock into a threshing floor, a hard surface. Tromp on it with oxen or beat it with sticks. Then put it in a breezeway, fling it in the air to blow off the chaff. For all this work and effort, you get a little grain.
Now we have to preserve it from mice and rats in the era before steel and mesh wire. Grain was expensive because it was laborious. It was way too expensive to feed to animals. It was for fresh bread and baking, and that was very expensive. In old testament book Hosea, a harlot was sold for the price of 2.5 bushels of barley — and not because harlots were cheap — barley was expensive! Civilizations based their diets on herbivores and seafood because it didn’t require tillage.
Today for the first time in history we’ve been able to break that parameter around tillage with cheap energy and mechanization. We can plow up everything and plant tillage. Which is what we’re doing — all the commodities we subsidize are tillage-based. Tillage is the fastest way to destroy soil. Perennials are the fastest way to build soil. They put their energy in the roots.
Before chemical fertilizers, it required several years of perennials. Food system was kept in pasture for long periods to build soil, and then a few years of annuals which depleted the soil, and then back to perennials. Which worked best when we had to feed so many draft animals. That draft power, all herbivorous, created an important value for pasture — those animals were the energy for the farm. So there was a limit to how much you could limit and deplete the soil, because you needed those draft animals for energy.
Suddenly with cheap oil, we could break that parameter of raping, pillage and destruction — and could destroy it three times faster than any other civilization, and subsidize that destruction.
In the Shenandoah Valley, settled before California, we’re about 100 years ahead of you in destruction During the first 100 years, between 3-5 feet of soil eroded out of the valley. But it was held in check because people needed pasturage for their draft animals. In the last 100 years, we’ve destroyed 50% of the last topsoil in Iowa. “If we keep going where we’re going, we’re going to end up where we’re headed.”
In the early 1900s, there was no more westward expansion because people couldn’t move any further west as their soils were depleted in the east. How are we going to farm? There were two approaches that arose: the mechanical (Justice von Leibeg who said all of life is a rearrangement of N, P and K), a big break from the historic spirit world, the biological world. The backlash was the Romantic poets that spawned the early environmental movement (Thoreau, Muir). These two schools of thought grew together for awhile…then WWI, then WWII. N, P and K [nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium] are what you make bombs and ammunition from. The war effort spent billions developing N,P, and K mining, processing, packaging, etc.
At that time a knighted Britisher Sir Albert Howard developed the aerobic composting process in India. In 1943 his book An Agricultural Testament he documented his career developing aerobic composting. So scientific composting is about the same age as chemical fertilizers. After WWII, the biological and mechanical systems were both at the starting blocks, but the latter had a 2-lap start because of the Pentagon. It took 20 years for the biological composting systems and protocols to metabolize. The mechanical chemical system had a big head start — front loaders, machinery, rural electrification, etc. to make composting efficient.
In the early 1900s the big newspapers were decrying the end of cities because of so much poop buildup. The only way to move it was with a fork — and that was work! They were tired of shoveling! If you can just use something from a small bag. Then in 1950 we got machinery that could let you pull something — a PTO chef behind. By mid-1950s all those pieces were in place. It took that long for the biological composters to catch up. If we’d had a Manhattan project for compost, not only would we feed the world, but a lot of three-legged salamanders and more would still be extant.
By that time, our culture was ready to cast off all the normal aspects of…Like breastfeeding — and a generation of asthmatic and weakened kids. What a colossal waste of resources — to waste all those breasts! No civilization has been able to do that before
We daily have the luxury of eating unpronounceable food that you can’t make in your kitchen. We call that “modern.” We can routinely buy and consume food that won’t rot. That’s a real test of real food. If it won’t rot, it won’t digest. Ever squeeze velveeta on the table? It’ll still be there weeks later. It’s not food. But we call this “progress.”
Last year I met these three women in Ft. Bragg who do a farm-to-school program. They have this big bin of worms. They have kids bring food — and they bring sugary food like wonder bread and twinkles — and put it at one end. At the other end the women put in an apple, sprouted whole-wheat bread, spoonfuls of ground beef. Two weeks later the kids come back and check the worm bin — don’t see anything on the real food side, just worm castings. At the other end, the food substitutes are still there, undecayed. So the obvious question is, why would you want to eat something the worms won’t eat? Folks, this ain’t normal.
Sally Fallon figures we’re the only part of the population that can procreate, because we’re the only ones eating live food! So we’ll take over the world.
This ain’t normal. The frustration for somebody like me over forty — I’m 85 but I eat well — is we have short memories. People under forty can’t imagine life without TV dinners, without TVs, no supermarkets (the first one officially occurred in 1946). Can’t imagine a day without a cell phone. When I was a kid, eating out was something special you did about 3 times a year. Now, about 50% of all meals are prepared outside the home.
We don’t even use the word “larder” anymore. Fifty years ago, most of the food in Chico would’ve been in our houses. Today it’s in the supermarkets and 1000 miles away distribution centers. People used to go to the store about once a month! Early civilizations lived in visceral connection with earth’s provision. When I go to Jamestown, I like the recreated native American village next to it. The bit sapling house covered with buffalo skins. In the saplings in the roof hangs the larder: smoke collects up there. Meat, parched corn, squash, dried beans, honey, dried berries. Can you imagine lying with your beloved each night looking at earth’s bounty. Imagine denying ourselves stocking our larder with natural abundance and provision!
Those of us who do farm tours are amazed at the lack of agrarian information. Kids get off the bus and ask “where’s the salsa tree, I want to pick some.” Most Americans cannot name five vegetables that grow below ground, and five that row above ground. “How do you lay eggs without roosters?” And we think we’re an educated culture. Until the last two generations, every person in history would’ve known the answers to those questions.
We’ve become so disconnected that we have a food-police contingent saying that it’s okay to eat Coca Cola, Twinkies, and Coco Puffs are considered safe, but raw milk, compost-grown tomatoes, and Aunt Matilda’s pickles are considered hazardous substances. We hire an entire bureaucracy to determine what we can and cannot eat. These Monsanto lackeys decide what we feed our three million-strong internal communities of bacteria! We’re the first culture that has had enough cheap energy & machinery to have concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) because draft power was too cumbersome to bring all the grain in and the poop out. We can disconnect our ecological and moral anchor. We’re so clever we can overrun our own headlines. We overrun our skis trying to solve the problems from what we’ve created. High-fructose corn syrup. When a person or animal gets sick, US-Duh (USDA) thinks they’re pharmaceutically disadvantaged! Is that any better than 500 years ago when they thought the spirits were upset? Of course not.
In the future…I think there’s several principles and patterns. In a time of energy descent or peak oil, when energy is more expensive we’ll see a food system moving towards perennials rather than annuals. On our farm we’ve priced our food (beef, pork, chicken) — for the first time in history, we’re the cheapest on the block. A localized food system using internet technology to connect with the trip becomes a competition to the supermarket.
We’ll see fertility driving the carbon cycle. Animals are the natural movers of the carbon — nature moves it down the hill, but animals who harvest plants at the bottom of the hill then go up to the top of the mountain to rest, and poop — they move the carbon up.
We’ll get a handle on energy use. All homes will be built with southern exposure with solariums to heat them. It’s unconscionable that we’re not doing that today! If all the petroleum spent to transport California mesclun mix to New Hampshire. We’ll see an embedded food system, and local. And edible landscapes –at golf courses, campuses, everywhere. There are 35 million acres of lawns in the U.S. The practice of cultivating lawns originated in France and Britain to prove they were so wealthy they didn’t need to grow food.
Food is going to be up close to where the people are. You couldn’t ship water 1500 miles! Instead of green awards, schools will have chickens next to the kitchens to eat the kitchen scraps. If all houses had a chicken coop, we wouldn’t need an egg industry. Chickens give good poop we can use, far more than dog poop — and it’s not a toxic product.
In China they built a 250,000 person city. The stipulation: in its footprint it has to grow the same amount of food as it did before there was a city. All the roofs are flat, growing plants. The rainwater is collected in cisterns and pumped up to the plants. No air is conditioning needed because of the plants on the roof. Can’t tell there’s a city there.
We could do this! Our weak link is constipation of imagination! A failure of action! We love to be victims. We grow up that way. We don’t want to take responsibility! Our culture, our cities, our lives are the results of our decisions. We’ve got all these kitchen techno-gadgets but no time to cook.
The future is going to require a passionate rediscovery and participation in culinary arts. Energy is going to be more expensive. As we worry about more toxicity in the environment, we’re going to cocoon around our secure, abundant wigwam, and fall into this nest. We’ll dance with this amazing creation that wants to love us right back, if we will embrace it. But this dance partner, we’ve decided not to participate with. When we participate in this sustaining community of life beings then we’ll be part of a regenerative, sustainable and healing culture.
May all of your culinary experiments be successful.
The NRA of food choice: The Farm-to-consumer defense fund.
The green revolution: weren’t those petrochemicals necessary to feed the world? The green revolution, if it had been biologically driven, it would’ve done the same thing without the negative consequences. Backyard gardens are 7x more productive than speciated farm fields in California.
Concern lately about Aluminum buildup in the soil due to chemtrails. How do deal with it? The number one detoxicant is nature. Luftke farm in Austria in the path of Chernobyl. Went in with geiger counters in this truck farm region. One farm in the region had no radioactivity in their soils (just in their plants). For 25 years they’d been fertilizing with compost, not chemicals. Organic matter is the tilth, the sponge of the soil, and its anti-toxicity. Tillage and chem fertilizer burns that out, cannibalizing stuff.
Advice for beginning farmers: grow what you like to eat, because you might have to eat your inventory.
Is it ignorance or intentional that we don’t have rooftop gardens in American cities? Look folks, innovation is disturbing. All innovation comes from disturbance. Disturbance brings up new possibilities. Destruction before creation. Phoenix arising from ash. The more government regulation/bureaucracy you have, the harder it is to innovate. It disturbs the perceptions of the powers that be. In China, they don’t have British perceptions of what houses should look like. They’re not far from Mongolia, which has yurts. In a time of epochal change, it’s important to preserve dis-sensus. If we didn’t have building inspections, suddenly people would start building amazing energy-efficient houses. When you regulate, you stifle innovation and creativity come
The govt that says you can’t smoke dope also says you can’t drink raw milk.
Humanure? Sir Howard Albert — said that people would see the folly of water-based sewage treatment. He envisioned housing complexes with 25 units with humanure to grow the food living there.
How to bring local food to campus, esp. during financial crisis? If we took all the money we spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, just one month’s expenditures, all of our students could eat local, eat well. It’s a matter of priorities!! There’s a huge overhead of insurance issues, like SYSCO, in spite of people wanting local food.
Soil is built with brush. Sepp Holzer grows on thin, fragile soils (Permaculture). Puts brush in windrows, it’s warm, can grow citrus.
Will natural building materials happen in my lifetime (asked a young person)? Tipping points can happen fast. Look at how we eroded human privacy rights within a month after 9/11! Could be a $2/gal spike in gas. Or a major food-borne illness outbreak. Think of Cuba. If they happen, we would tip over into normalcy very fast. There’s a sense in the countryside that this is happening. Gardens getting made. Seed companies out of seeds. Mother Earth News is on ascendancy again. But it will take major disturbance to get the couch potatoes to kick the habit.
Cottage industries. I don’t know what the answer is for food regulations in an impersonal transactory setting. That’s not my world. My world is personal — I sell to individuals. Relational. When the government gets between consenting adults who want to voluntary want to do informed consent business between each other, that’s an invasion of privacy. It’s also an abrogation of English common law dating back to the Magna Carta. We need to preserve a sanctified place for neighbor-to-neighbor commerce, to preserve opportunity for people to opt out of government-sanctioned food. If that scares you, don’t play. Go buy government-sanctioned food. The justification for that is that society owns my body. We’ve done that thru universal health care. If the govt is required to keep you healthy, then it has a vested interest in what we eat, etc.
My great aunts, Nazarene Pentecostal gals who brought in Prohibition in the 1920s would disown me when I say that that created the legal precedent for the government to interceded between what I put in my mouth and what goes down my throat. Teddy Roosevelt setting up food regulators after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle — who would’ve thought this would led to raiding raw milk dairies. A government strong enough to protect you is strong enough to prevent you.
Tell Grandma with her “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right” — tell her she’s wrong. Joel says: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly first.” We don’t do anything well first. We gotta learn all this stuff. When times are hard, tumultuous — remember to do it poorly first. Start where you are. Walk before you run. Don’t be a purist. Do the best you can right now, enjoy where you are, continue connecting dots, building that team.
What about the homeless, the chronically ill? That’s where philanthropy kicks in. I wish I could fix every hardship. You cannot ultimately have charity based on violence. When we enforce charity at the end of a gun, it cannot ultimately be charity. If we had our billions of dollars taken at the point of a gun and siphoned off to govt bureaucracies, we’d have the money to be charitable to our neighbors. It has worked throughout history — how to care for families and neighbors. Maybe if we got dependent on our neighbors, maybe we wouldn’t sue them so fast.