Joel Salatin: ‘Folks, This Ain’t Normal’

One of the food movement’s pioneers shares his back-to-basics road map for creating healthier communities and a better Earth.
Joel Salatin on his 'Polyface Farm' in Swoope, Virginia, near Staunton, in the Shenandoah Valley. (Photo: Getty Images).
Oct 12, 2011
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.

He's been called "the High Priest of the Pasture" by The New York Times. And anyone who saw Food, Inc. knows him as the down-to-earth, friendly, third generation family farmer from Virginia who is one of the leading lights of the create-a-saner-food-system here in the States. 

Joel Salatin says that his Polyface Farm is "in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture." And his latest book, Folks, This Ain't Normal, which hit bookstores this week, is the easiest way for people who can't make the pilgrimage to the Shenandoah Valley to find out how they can get involved.

Joel's folksy, unpretentious style conveys the gravity of the ecological and cultural crisis our country is facing, without sounding preachy. The book bursts with advice for changing our eating habits, getting closer to the land, and learning about how food is grown. But he also draws on his childhood, and his experience as a father to offer insight into creating more quality family time, and offering kids an alternative to iPods, PlayStations and the Internet (and yes, we know we run a website here).

Our favorite part? Every chapter of Folks, This Ain't Normal ends with a helpful list of steps readers can take right now to take action and start making a change. TakePart spoke with Joel about his latest book, the state of the food movement, and what we should be excited about in the years since Food, Inc. come out.

 Photo: Center Street

What's the overall message you were trying to send with Folks, This Ain't Normal? Why give this book this title? What's "not normal" right now?

The basic concept is that we live in an abnormal blip of civilizational history. Never before in history has a culture routinely eaten food it can't pronounce, eaten food that can't be made in its own kitchen, and eaten food that travels 1,500 miles from field to fork. [Never before has one] had cheap energy which it didn't have to be involved viscerally with accumulating—whether it's cutting firewood splitting wood, digging coal or growing fiber. And never in history have we had a civilization in which we had food police who tell us that Twinkies, Cocoa Puffs and Mountain Dew are perfectly safe, but you have to worry about raw milk, Aunt Matilda's pickles, and compost-grown tomatoes. These are absolute civilizational and historical abnormalities.

And that's the point of the book—that when you close it, you'll laugh and say, "I thought that our culture was so smart and so clever that we were gonna be the first one to pull the umbillical [cord] on our ecological womb." And the point of the book is we won't, and neither will anybody else. So get used to it, buck up, and re-find your responsibilities to this Earth we call our nest.

What do you say to people who might say, "Well, Joel, I really sympathize with you, I really believe in what you're doing, but this is just too hard for me to do"?

Everybody can do something. We haven't gotten where we are overnight, and we won't get out of where we are overnight. So you can do something, whether it's growing a tomato plant on your patio, whether it's going down to the farmer's market or joining a CSA, or cancelling that Disney cruise and crusing around your area to do a farm treasure hunt.

I have run into hundreds of thousands of urban people who have made these changes, or a few of these changes, whether it's two chickens in the backyard, whether it's two chickens in a parakeet cage, whether it's vermicomposting in the kitchen, whether it's cooking a meal from scratch for their family, or getting a pressure canner and preserving seasonal vegetables and fruits. You know, these skills are not archaic; they're not barbaric. We now have the coolest techno-glitzy stuff in our kitchens from Cuisinarts to slow-cookers to canners to timed ice cream makers. Grandma would have given her eyeteeth for the sexy glamorous stuff in our kitchens. I'm not asking us to fly to the moon. I'm not asking us to do something impossible. What I am asking is that each individual who has abdicated our visceral connection to our ecological womb to say, "Where in my life can I reattach something so I'm not just irresponsible.

Looking at where the country has gone since Food, Inc. came out, are you more hopeful today or less hopeful at the direction you see people moving? Is this a time to be excited or more depressed than ever?

I tell you this, certianly Food, Inc. and Omnivore's Dillema, and King Corn, [and the other documentaries and books] were big deals. But everywhere I go...I ask cabbies, I ask stewardesses, I ask hotel attendents, and you'd be surprised [by the number of people who haven't heard of the film]. In your world and my world, this was an absolute cultural tsunami. And I think history will record that it was, indeed, a cultural tsunami. But the fact is McDonald's is still building restaurants. Walmart is still putting together globalized deals, and Burger King is still doing fine, thank you very much.

I am very much hopeful for the awareness that I see. But at the same time, there a tremendous lack of understanding, ignorance, and a glazed over look. That's part of what this whole book is about: for people to realize: "Wow, we've been told that Monsanto will take care of us, we've been told Kraft will take care of us." And what I want people to understand when they come to this book is "I've been snookered!" As a culture, we're still demanding cheap fuel, we're still willing to sacrifice our military to keep cheap oil. The President has just approved GMO alfalfa, the first perennial GMO from Monsanto. This kind of stuff still goes on like a juggernaut, whether Food, Inc. is viewed by 10 million people or not. That's what's frightening and frustrating, frankly.

What is the single most pressing issue, or single most important action that someone can take today?

I think it's to withdraw patronage form the food processors. That's going to take you buying unprocessed food. Michael Pollan talks about shopping the outside of the supermarket, not the inner aisles. I would even go a step further and say: buy seasonally. Whether it's a CSA or a famer's market, a buying club or a food co-op. The thing you can do today is quit buying processed food. You don't need microwavable boxes and processed food. Get in your kitchen and enjoy being jazzed up by domestic culinary arts.

What for you has been the single most encouraging development that you've seen in recent years?

No question, for me it is the accelerated interest and actual power of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. This was an outgrowth of the Weston A. Price Foundation, modeled on the Homeschool Legal Defense Assocation, which 30 years ago created legal wiggle room for the homeschool movement when parents were being taken to jail for truancy violations.

Today, education has been left alone by the government and now it's food. And generally it's indigenous artisnal food. The kind of food that's encouraged in Food, Inc. And there's a full-on assault by the food police against this kind of food, to either marginalize it, demonize it, or criminalize it. And so the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund is now a real-time 24/7 hotline for farmers like me—we've already used them three times in two years—for farmers who who are being intimidated by food police, whether it's "your eggs can't be in this restaurant" or "your herd-share raw milk can't be consumed in your house." You'd be amazed at the kinds of things that the industry and the bureaucrats are throwing against us. They're not winning every case and they're not losing every case, but they're absolutely making the food police think before they make another step.

What are you hoping someone gets from the book when they finish that last page and close the cover?

I hope theat they they are infused with a warm fuzzy feeling that comes out of their soul saying, "You know what? My family and I, we're going to return to a more historically normal position." That's the way to bet long term, that's the way things are going to go, so we might as well start now and enjoy this wonderful journey back to normalcy. 

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