High priest and lunatic farmer
On Sunday evening I went to listen to two talks by Joel Salatin. For me Joel is something of a super star – he was described by the NYTimes as the “high priest of the pasture” (though he describes himself as a Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic). The holistic methods and ideologies used at his Polyface farm are described in detail in the Omnivore’s Dilemma and featured in Food Inc and are at once simple and logical and yet totally revolutionary (given the general status quo in the food industry) – Polyface is a place ‘beyond organic’, a chemical free paradise that celebrates the pigness of pigs, builds a strong soil teaming with organic life and opens its doors to consumers to see where their food comes from.
When Joel got up to speak he was neatly attired in a suit and tie, in muted colors, not really what I was expecting (he later explained this was deliberate, based on a desire to show that farming is an intellectually stimulating and serious profession). Once he got started talking it didn’t matter what he was wearing, the words flowed out of him full of passion and enthusiasm, they came at an astounding rate without once missing a beat and were punctuated quite often with a mischievous smile.
The first talk was intended to answer the oft asked questions: Can this type of farming feed the world? Isn’t organic food just the purview of the elite? I took copious notes from which here are a few main points; if you want to read more, Joel has published several books and has a new one due to come out shortly.
- Yes, the food is more expensive. It costs more because it is better: both better tasting (with better texture, color, etc) and better for you: healthier and less likely to end up in costly hospital visits. Joel gave several examples of what better meant empirically: he described how tests done on one of his chickens and a supermarket bought bird had completely different nutritional profiles.
- The food is more expensive because it costs more to produce: the workers are paid well and are given a variety of jobs to do – a vivid contrast w/ the mistreated food workers depicted in Food Inc.
- Joel discussed at length the problem of the ‘food police’ — as a libertarian he firmly believes we should have freedom of food choice and nobody should tell us what we can eat. He describes the following scenario: if meal types range from a 1 to a 10, with a 10 being a fast food meal and a 1 being a feast prepared by your aunt Millie from her backyard gardens, her home canned relishes and her own flock of chickens then do the two require equal policing? For me, as for the audience, a resounding no. Yet when Joel had discussed this with one of his congressional representatives the answer had been that yes, even your aunt Millie’s canned goods should be regulated, which means that unless Millie was prepared to spend $50,000 on a commercial kitchen she’s out of luck. And Joel mentions just a few of the many farmers he knows who have been shut out of business because of the exorbitant costs of food regulations on a small outfit. A woman at the farmers market was heavily fined for selling washed mesclun lettuce because the act of rinsing off the dirt led this to be classified as a processed food and therefore one which required the aforementioned $50,000 processing license. I can’t help thinking of all the big food scares to come out of large, ‘well regulated’, industrial production: the e-coli in the spinach and the peanut butter, and it seems obvious that the system is not working anyway. As Joel asks, how can it be ok to feed your kids twinkies and soda and not to give them some home-made pickles?
- Joel advocates forcefully for food freedom of choice believing that food safety should come from trust: knowing your farmer, being able to visit his farm, allows you to trust him. Joel doesn’t trust the government at all: the people who came up with the idea of feeding ground up cows back to the cows, scientifically bringing us mad cow disease should not be telling him how to run his farm.
- His next point about the cost of food is that he believes that for many, many people the money is there, it’s simply being misdirected: people say they have no money for food but they manage to find money for flat screen tvs, designer sneakers and cable tv subscriptions. (I already knew that the proportion of our income being spent on food has substantially diminished since the 60s and 70s along with the percentage of home cooked meals and the rise of convenience and fast foods.) And buying whole foods rather than processed is more affordable: compare the per pound cost of potatoes with that of a bag of chips. Joel wants people to cook more – at least there I feel I’m on my way!
- Joel also believes that if we eradicated food subsidies we’d go a long way to making the right foods affordable. Not only should we stop subsidizing corn production (and by association the production of high fructose corn syrup and its ilk) but we should stop artificially keeping the prices of gas low which is what makes it seem economically sensible to ship the average meal 1500 miles from farm to table.
- But can we feed the world on this type of artisinally grown food? Joel explains the flaws behind some of the studies showing that organic farming is not capable of sufficient yields to meet growing demands. For starters if the studies were funded by large industrial food producers we should not need Joel to tell us to be sceptical. He describes tests comparing beds raised with ‘cutting edge chemicals’ with the organic beds in which seeds were planted and left untouched until harvest. This is not a valid comparison and does not take into account the myriad ways in which farmers like Joel are building their farms and their flocks and their food. A fair comparison should include farming at the cutting edge of chemicals compared to the best and latest of organic farming.
- Joel rattles off descriptions of poly-thises and hydro-thats and gets really excited about breakthroughs in technologies for farming. He also uses some methods that just sound like common sense: his pigs graze and fertilize his fields, his chickens scratch around in the manure spreading it around, his crops are rotated to carefully replenish the soil, at every step of the way he leaves the farmer richer after working on it. Joel points out that the use of compost is as recent as the use of chemicals in farming and that this ‘breakthrough’ technology is one of many that can create high yields in organic farming but is discounted when comparisons are made between pre and post chemical farming typologies.
- Further more feeding the world doesn’t all need to come from the farmer: in 1946 40% of U.S. vegetables were grown in people’s backyards and we need to do more of this again (I went home really committed to planting more herbs and hopefully some fruits and vegetables this year).
- Finally our current food system leads to 40% of food being wasted: some thrown away rotten in our own kitchens, and massive quantities discarded each day at supermarkets and restaurants and school dining rooms. If we could harness this wasted food we could feed a lot more of the hungry with no extra farming needed at all.
I will finish by quoting Joel who says that the well-worn expression: ‘If its worth doing, its worth doing well’ is quite incorrect, he prefers, ‘If its worth doing, its worth doing badly at first’. Nobody expects a toddler to get up and run their first day on their feet, neither should we ask of ourselves perfection in our initial efforts to change this very entrenched food system. But if you can buy a little more local food, eat a few more home cooked meals, choose a little more pasture raised or organic food, then you are getting started down the right path.
Joel’s visit to NYC was part of a promotional week for the movie Fresh which starts screening friday at the Quad cinema. I’m going to go see it and so should you, it sounds inspiring!