Please read Part I of Franklin Sanders’ interview with Joel Salatin.
Joel Salatin is at the cutting edge of the food freedom movement, the family farm’s rebirth, and the New Agriculture, holistic farming that works with nature instead of wrestling her to death with chemicals. On Polyface farm in Swoope, Va., he has developed techniques for raising animals that require very low inputs but return very high profits, overthrowing industrial agricultural orthodoxy. Through his books – Pastured Poultry Profits, Holy Cows & Hog Heaven, Salad Bar Beef, Family Friendly Farming — and innumerable columns and articles in “Acres, USA,” “Stockman Grass Farmer,” and other publications he has also taught his techniques to a new generation of farm families. Recently this “Christian-libertarian- environmentalist-lunatic farmer” published his latest opus, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, which we highly recommend.
However, as important as agriculture is, he represents something far more important: a colossal shift from the industrial to the household economy. Thousands, perhaps millions — of families across America are turning to the household economy to recover their freedom. This constitutes a pervasive sea change away from industrial economy and its inhumane social relations to a more efficient, self-examined, pleasurable, and humane society.
What follows is Part II of our interview. Please catch up by reading Part I.
Moneychanger There’s one aspect of the small farmer’s efficiency and character that nobody ever talks much. You discuss it in your book in relation to raising children and how much more forward, competent and responsible farm-raised children are. I have some stories that illustrate how inaccurately our society ranks occupations and their intellectual demands.
Last week my son, Justin, and I went to a timber framing class. The fellow that taught that timber framing class was very enthusiastic and very intelligent. He showed how to use a framing square, basically a big ruler bent at a right angle, to do the math necessary to figure the pitch on a roof so you can cut all the rafter angles correctly. Listen, it was way, way past what I could follow. But here’s a man, not in a professional or technical field the way we think of it —
Salatin A blue collar craftsman.
Farms create multi-talented people
Moneychanger Right, but as skillful and demanding a thinker as anybody I’ve ever met, just not belonging to a so-called intellectual profession. Maybe it’s the food that’s shaving points off IQs, but also people work at jobs and live lives that demand nothing from them. When we first moved out to the farm twelve years ago, what really landed on my head was, “Wow, you can never, ever raise people in the city to be as responsible, multi-competent, and multi-talented as you can raise them on a farm.”
The farm offers no choice but responsibility and competence. There’s nobody else to do it. Now add one little other story. Not long ago I went to our county, general sessions court which hears traffic and other offenses. No. you don’t expect to meet the social elite in general sessions court, but looking around scared me. “Wow, we’re really scraping the barrel’s bottom here!”
At least half of these folks had fallen face down in their daddy’s tackle box, first of all. Next, they didn’t have enough common sense to know that when you appear in court, you don’t wear your going-to-party, dope-smoking, half-naked beer-drinking clothes. Put a tie on! Give the judge at least some reason to suspect that a brain lives in your head.
Salatin Cut off your dreadlocks!
Moneychanger But listen: the stories they told made me feel like I was in a kindergarten for 25-year-olds. I pass over in silence the tattoos and wardrobes, or lack thereof. Looking at all these people I had to wonder, “Man, what has brought these people so low?”
It’s not genetics. I went down to the clerk’s office and found pictures taken years and years ago hanging on the wall. One was snapped at the annual electric co-op meeting, held in a school room with that old seat-to- desk furniture and a wood stove.
Lean, wiry, men gazed into your eyes, men you wouldn’t ever trifle with. From long days outdoors they had the two-tone farmer tan: white from the eyebrows up, brown from the eyebrows down. Intelligence and independence sparkled in their eyes — just plain farm folks, but they were sharp. Picture was taken in the early 1950s. All I could think was, “How have we dropped this far in 50 or 60 years?”
Salatin In the book, I ask if you can imagine finding people for the Lewis and Clark expedition today? They could have never gotten started. What if you offend the Indians? [Laughter] I am struck by our culture’s timidity that arises partly because we have abdicated any responsibility for self- reliance. We have become a mealy-mouth, timid culture, which ain’t normal, to the point that it makes you wonder —
Moneychanger Whether a society this abnormal at such a wide scale can survive, and I’m not a doom and gloom guy.
We’ve exempted ourselves from the rules
Salatin Neither am I. That’s one reason I wrote the book, to kind of grab everybody by the collar and shake them a little bit and say, “Look, folks!”
I got really concerned how many young people — 40 and under — reveal by talking to them, by the way they live, by the way they think, and by the way they describe their lives, that they inwardly believe (I don’t think they would say this out loud) that we are the cleverest, the smartest civilization ever. So smart, in fact, that we will be able to exempt ourselves from the rules of ecology, the rules of economics, the rules of domesticity, the rules of community, casting off those anchors and sailing to cosmic nirvana, eating some Star Trek pill for breakfast and playing on a cyberspace computer all day. We won’t have to worry where our water comes from, where our soil comes from, where our food comes from, where our energy comes from. It comes out of the ether.
That’s an extremely dangerous outlook.
I wanted to write this book so that at the end a person puts it down and laughs, knowingly, at our hubris and concludes, “Guess what? This is a facade! A charade! This is not real. You can’t live by depleting the soil. You can’t live on old fossil fuel forever. You can’t live with your head buried in Hollywood celebrity culture all day.”
Moneychanger Don’t forget the video games. [Laughter]
Salatin You just can’t survive living that way. All right, so buck up here. Get some backbone. What is the real glue that holds culture together, ecology together, economy together? Can we get real here and return to normality before we are completely destroyed?
Our transition to normality & ‘Agrarian Challenge’
Moneychanger Has that return to normality begun? We’ve already made that transition. You’re in that transition’s second generation, I’m in the first, but now we have the third, my grandchildren. The oldest ones are 12, 13, and 14 — boys. They can do anything. Literally — I would trust them with my car or my life sooner than I would most 25-year-olds.
Salatin From day one we saw that with our kids. Our kids were 7 and 12 or so, at the time we started taking apprentices and interns. I can remember, like yesterday. If I had my pick of a lineup here, and you gave me my kids at 7 and 12 or 8 and 14 against a lineup of 20-somethings, I’d take my kids two to one every single time.
Moneychanger For several years we did a four-day event we called the Agrarian Challenge. People came and stayed four days in June and did whatever we did. If we hayed, they hayed. If we fenced, they fenced. The women did whatever the women were doing, canning, gardening.
One fellow was a weight lifter. At first day’s close, he thought he was going to die. He said, “I’ve never done anything like this.” [Laughter] It’s a different pace and a different kind of work, and takes getting accustomed to.
Salatin Sure. We take eight interns a summer for four months. We tell them, “This is an axiom. We’re not making a joke here. You will be sick for two to four days in your first three weeks.” Like clockwork it happens to every single one. Whether they come strong or weak, flabby or slim, every one is sick two to four days in their first three weeks. Then the rest of the time they’re fine. They have to get used to working in the sun, the schedule, the pace, but by summer’s end, they trim up and look buff.
Moneychanger A confidence comes into their countenance, too, that you don’t see in most kids. Most kids can’t look you in the eyes when they talk to you because they don’t have any self-confidence.
I’ve gotten off point. I was asking “Is it starting?” You’re in the second generation going back to the land. We’re not just talking about merely being bodily transferred back to the land but about changing lifestyles, adopting a lifestyle that’s meaningful in your work, meaningful in your family relationships and with your children, and meaningful in your community.
Mini farms crop up on campus
Salatin I say guardedly that it is starting. I don’t want to make it sound like everything’s going to be rosy tomorrow, but I can give you personal examples. I speak at a lot of college campuses. In the last four or five years, more than you can imagine, before an evening lecture I’ll go early enough to meet a couple of classes. The key professor wants me to spend time with students. “The kids want to cook for you and they want to bring a potluck and we’ll eat it in the classroom while you talk with us.”
That was unheard-of when I was in college. Nobody would have been interested, but these kids are. At Stanford they’ve planted vegetables in the little triangles where sidewalks come together. These kids belong to CSAs [Community Sponsored Agriculture where members subscribe in advance to a farmer’s vegetable production. – FS]. They have campus farms. In the last five years I don’t know how many brand new campus farms I’ve visited, and now there’s a sustainability club on campus, or a farm sustainability club. They’re growing their food.
From industrial economy back to agrarian
A lot of young people today are far more interested in doing something meaningful with their lives than something merely monetarily satisfactory. That’s a real positive. Our culture was founded in agrarianism, the agrarian economy. Then we moved to the industrial economy. Then we moved to the information economy. Now, we’re into the regenerative economy.
Just look at resources: aluminum and cobalt and potassium and phosphorous and oil,, if you’re into peak oil. We’re in the hockey stick graph. No civilization, no hockey stick graph runs on to infinity. It always collapses. So I think people subconsciously understand that you just can’t keep doing what we’re doing. They’re’ asking, “What we hit that precipice, what does the other end look like?” Cuba’s a good example right now. Just finished a book about when the Soviet Union broke down. Cuba basically went from oil and subsidized industrial agriculture one day to no oil and no subsidies the next. They went into freefall for three years. The average Cuban lost 30 pounds, and then they got so healthy that Cuba’s the number one doctor exporter in the world. Farmers make more money than surgeons. They’re growing food everywhere. Havana grows 80 percent of its food within the city limits. Essentially, they have gone to a free market organic processes or some word for these quasi-free market co-op farms. They’re just amazing. Now, the country’s still poor, there’s still communism, and a lot that we can certainly find fault with still, but it does offer an example of what a post-cheap energy, post-cheap resource economy and culture looks like. It’s quite amazing.
Moneychanger A picture of what an economy looks like when it’s “Root, hog, or die!” What happens when there’s no choice except to do something to feed yourself.
Salatin That’s right. Many of us can’t believe that our economy is still ticking like it is.
Moneychanger [laughter] It’s not ticking any more, it’s [laughter] tocking. Slowing down significantly!
Salatin Yeah, but those of us who read Howard Ruff and these old books predicting everything would collapse thought that by the 1980’s, then by the 1990’s, then by the – but it’s hanging in there still. Who knows? In the book I try to explain that nobody knows how long the present economic system can hold together, but if you’re betting on a horse, the horse to bet on is the one that has survived and won races for a long, long, long time. That horse is not modern America, on a lot of levels, not just in resources, but on social levels and the level of what forms the glue for sane people living together.
Moneychanger Besides reading your book, which I certainly recommend all my readers do, what steps can people take in their own lives? They hear they ought to live more efficiently and eat more nutritiously, but how?
Your new living center: the kitchen
Salatin First, get in your kitchen. This is all about making the home the epicenter of what’s important to you rather than simply a pit stop between everything really important in life that’s out there somewhere. Essentially, we’re talking about coming home. About getting in our kitchens and eating and fixing our own food. Quit patronizing processed food.
If you took all the money in this country that is spent on coffee, soda, beer, and wine, and Starbucks, and spent it instead on really high quality, locally grown food, there would be plenty of money for all of us to eat like kings. The fact is, even the most expensive locally- grown artisanal heirloom variety potato will still be cheaper than Lay’s potato chips. [Laughter]
Processed food is what’s killing us,not just nutritionally but also economically. Processing is where additives come in, flavorings, and de-nutrification to create shelf life and all those other adulteration. So number one, get in your kitchen.
Number two, grow something yourself, even if it’s a patio potted tomato, a beehive on your apartment roof or whatever you can do. Grow something yourself just to get your hands in the dirt and have some visceral understanding of this sacred relationship that we call food communion.
Third, begin building your support group or your lifeline. Turning off the TV and take your year’s educational entertainment budget and cancel the Disney vacation and instead get in touch with your food treasurers – the farmers around you.
In meals, communion
Every single area, urban or rural, has a handful or more of really top notch farmers running their operations on solar energy, carbon cycling, and ecological integrity. Get in touch with them. Become friends with them. Learn how to encourage them. Anchor yourself to them as part of your sustainable normal lifeline. If everybody would do those three things, it would fundamentally change our food system – and completely change the powers that be and profits of the current big players.
Moneychanger You used the words “food communion.” I don’t want to make more of this than it deserves, but in the Scripture every time that man meets with God in peace, a meal takes place. That implies something sacramental in every meal. Sitting down to eat, remembering with thanksgiving how that food reached the table, especially if it’s meat from animals or vegetables you raised yourself, genuinely connects us to all creation, not merely physically but spiritually as well.
Salatin I would go this far: we need to inculcate in our lives a visceral understanding that life requires sacrifice, whether it’s a chicken or it’s a carrot, you masticate it with your teeth and add your saliva to and send it down into your bacterial community that decomposes it so that it becomes flesh of your flesh and bone of your bones. Something living gives its life that you may live.
That is a profound foundational truth of body and soul, but in our world of microwavable bags and boxes, we don’t see the blood. We don’t see the dirt. We don’t see the sprout and the life. We don’t see that we must nurture life and then sacrifice it that we may live. Life requires sacrifice. The more we immerse ourselves in that fact, the more forgiving we will be for each other.
Moneychanger If you don’t do that, how will you reverence God’s presence and respect the world around you? Grabbing stuff off the shelf, and gobbling it out of a plastic bag can’t convey that reflective experience.
Beginnings and ends — in the garden
Salatin I find it fascinating that humankind began in a garden and when Jesus ultimately sacrificed himself, bearing humankind’s sins, he concluded his earthly ministry before the cross in a garden as well. It all starts and ends with a garden. A garden surrounds me with abundance. When I walk in a garden, my first thought is this overwhelming sense of abundance. I can eat that. I can eat that. I can eat that. I can eat this. I can eat this. It’s abundance. Isn’t that just like the mercy and grace of God coming to us, wanting to surround us with his abundance? It’s a powerful metaphor.
Moneychanger One last question. You’ve been very generous with your time, and I have, indeed, gone back on my word and talked to you longer than I promised. [Laughter]
Salatin I didn’t expect it – [Laughter]
Moneychanger I vacillate in my own mind. The only place I have much authority and much ability to make changes is my own family and my own life. I vacillate between that and the desire to do something at our state level to change the laws to get these people out of our way! That’s all we’re asking for, just get out of my way! I don’t want you to subsidize me or do me any favors, just leave me alone!
But it took us more than four years to get raw milk sort of legalized in Tennessee. It’s not totally legal yet, because they only legalized cow share contracts. State won’t let you kill and sell even one chicken, let alone 20,000 like the USDA exemption allows. Is it worth spending your time trying to get the laws and regulations changed, versus working with your local community to persuade them to change?
Go where heart directs; it may not be lobbying your senator
Salatin That’s a powerful question. My answer is, go where your heart directs you. That’s not a cop-out answer. Some people really thrive on political activism, others don’t. I do it reluctantly only when people beg me to go and testify at a hearing, for example. Real change comes from the bottom up: the power of convictional lives, a light set on a hill. If you can touch 50 families or 100 families, personally or from one family to another geometrically, and see them make these changes, the strength of that, ultimately, has more effect in our culture than running down the road carrying placards and signs for things political. Nothing changes politically until you get enough grassroots people interested. Changes start from the bottom up, not from the top down, and that means my most efficacious avenue is getting more warm bodies. [Laughter]
Look, when you walk into that state legislature with 1,000 families arm in arm, they’ll listen. Our side still represents such a tiny portion. Even the best statistics say that local food makes up about 1.9 percent of the food right now. The problem is that so many people are completely hooked on Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
I speak to some pretty decent crowds, 500 or 600 people, and I’ll say, “Isn’t this great? Look at all these people. But within five miles of where we are tonight, ten times our number have eaten at Burger King, McDonald’s, and Hardee’s.” [Laughter] And everybody goes, “Raaaaaawr!”
We need to work in the trenches with neighbors and communities, people that we know, discreetly encouraging these changes. I have a much stronger voice sitting down and writing an article or writing another book than I do, for example, participating in some weeklong UN-sponsored think tank on how to solve world hunger. I get asked to those things all the time. I just turned down another one today. Participate in the Symposium of Food Security at some big deal. I look at it as a time waster. [Laughter]
People say to me, , “You should run for office!” I say, “No, if I’ve got time to run for office, I’d rather write another book or two.”
Moneychanger Good decision. [Laughter].
Salatin Don’t worry. Both the Democrat and Republican sides grab me about different things when they see how people are moved by my story. It really is very bipartisan. The issues that you and I are talking about have nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans.
Moneychanger And nothing to do with right or left. These are issues of life and death. I deeply appreciate you giving my readers this interview.
Salatin Well, I appreciate it very much. It’s enough favor for being interested and spreading the word and touching your sphere of influence. I’m glad you enjoyed the book and I hope you got some chuckles out of it, too.
From the November 2011 Moneychanger. Used by permission. Franklin Sanders is publisher of The Moneychanger, a privately circulated monthly newsletter that focuses on gold and silver and the application of Christianity to economics, culture and family life. We have subscribed to this newsletter for more than 20 years, and consider it a must read. F$99 a year. Franklin is an active trader in gold and silver (he’ll swap your green Federal Reserve rectangles and give you real money in return). He trades with savers and investors outside Tennessee. Subscribe to his daily price report and market commentary on the website. F. Sanders, The Moneychanger, P.O. Box 178, Westpoint, Tenn. 38486 Tel. 888-218-9226.