altEverything I Want to Do Is Illegal:  War Stories from the Local Food Front. by Joel Salatin (Polyface Inc., Swoope, Virginia, 2007)

Until now, I've written more about Joel Salatin than I've read by him:  almost a year ago in Strange Bedfellows?  Not Really, and three months later in my review of The Omnivore's Dilemma.  Wanting to correct that sin of omission, I grabbed the only one of his books available in our local library:  Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.

On every side, our paternalistic culture is tightening the noose around those of us who just want to opt out of the system.  And it is the freedom to opt out that differentiates tyrannical and free societies.  How a culture deals with its misfits reveals its strength.  The stronger a culture, the less it fears the radical fringe.  The more paranoid and precarious a culture, the less tolerance it offers.  When faith in our freedom gives way to fear of our freedom, silencing the minority view becomes the operative protocol. — Joel Salatin

Salatin wants to opt out of a little more of the system than I do, but I hear his cry.  You could call him bitter, but if you consider the miracle that is Polyface Farms, you have to wonder why our government is working so hard to stamp out such elegant, inexpensive, healthy, delicious, and truly "green" (in a conservationist sense) endeavors.

There's another whole blog post in the answer to that—involving sustainable agriculture, home education, midwives, family businesses, free-range kids, raw milk, and even the Duggar family—so for now I'll move on to the quotation section of this review. Otherwise I'll never get it back to the library tomorrow today, when it's due.

The quotes are selected from collection of pink sticky notes bristling from pages all over the book, as I marked passages I found especially interesting.  Unfortunately, they're rather random, and generally miss the most important thrust of the book, which is that

  • Both governmental regulations and societal expectations (i.e. the belief that governmental regulations guarantee safe food) have devasted small, local, sustainable agriculture, because they greatly favor large corporations and factory farming.
  • Governmental regulations and inspections do not, in fact, promote a healthier food supply, because the big guys (from Archer-Daniels-Midland to Wal-Mart) can afford high-powered attorneys and lobbyists, and because too many bureaucrats are more concerned with healthy paperwork than with healthy food.  (When you read about what the bureaucrats and  big companies did to the very word "Organic," you will no longer be so happy in that section of your grocery store.)
  • Small, local, sustainable agriculture is our best hope for producing safe (from salmonella to bioterrorism threats), healthy food.  And taste!  Don't forget about taste!

When it comes to trying to protect our food system, both from internal carelessness and external attack,

[T]he things we're moving heaven and hell to stop are not the things we need to be concerned about.  The stuff that we turn a blind eye to and don't even care about is the bigger problem.  We really do worry about the wrong things.  And we devote precious resources inspecting, measuring, and vilifying the antidote to the wrong things.

Did you really think food regulations were all about ... food safety?

I spoke with an attorney who represents one of the largest food businesses in the world.  He came to the farm for a visit, a delightful gentleman. ... He said he would put it to me straight, "People don't trust the large corporations.  If you're a large corporation, you need that trust to survive.  How do you get that trust?  You create a system that makes it look like you care.  People want to see you doing something that protects them. ... But, and here's the other part of the equation, if you're the chief executive of a large business, you don't want to pay for it.  Instead, you wine and dine politicians to convince them that they will curry favor with their constituents if they demand this program.  Now you have people's faith without having to pay for it."

 And what did you think an ambassador's job was supposed to be?

Allan Nation, editor of Stockman Grass Farmer magazine ... took a group of American grass farmers to Argentina to tour the world's best grass-based farms and ranches.  When the American ambassador found out a group of American farmers and ranchers was in town, he invited them over to the Embassy for refreshments.

"What are you all doing in Argentina?"  he asked.

"We're here to study grass-based agriculture and see firsthand how to finish beeef on grass instead of in feedlots," replied Nation.

At that point, Nation said the ambassador nearly kicked them out of the embassy, proclaiming, "Don't you understand why I am here?  I am here to make Argentina quit grass-finishing beef and begin using corn in a feedlot."  There's the good o' USA, friend of environmental agriculture, respecter of other cultures.  Yessireee.

Salatin may be strident at times, but he's not a conspiracy theorist.

At the risk of sounding completely naïve, I will say flat out that I do not sense a conspiracy behind this effort.  Like so many other government plans, this is another well-intentioned idea with incredibly terrible consequences.  I happen to believe that when the food police say raw milk will kill you, they actually believe it.  When they say my outdoor chickens are dangerous to the Tyson houses, they sincerely believe it.  When they say consumers are too stupid to make food choices, they actually believe it.  I think people sincerely believe a lot of stupid things.  This is just stupidity, not conspiracy.  It's a fraternity of stupidity, to be sure, but we need not label it a conspiracy.

I've never worried much about eggs and salmonella—always let the kids lick the cake bowl and eat raw cookie dough, if they beat me to it.  But I'm less worried about the eggs I scooped from under the hen myself at a local farm than about the free box of factory-farmed eggs I picked up at Target.  The recent salmonella outbreak, due to tainted eggs from large, federally regulated egg farms, makes even more significant the following story of Salatin's encounter with a health department representative who had accused his unwashed eggs of carrying salmonella:

Although she admitted that the regulations did not require washing, she simply sniffed and said, "An unwashed egg is inedible."  Then I told her we did in fact culture the eggs, including the manure, and they were clean.  It was like talking to a fence post:  "An unwashed egg is inedible."  End of discussion.

I hung up and immediately the phone rang, even before I could take my hand off the receiver.  I answered and it was Allan Nation. ...  He and his wife, Carolyn, had just returned from a fact-finding trip to Europe, with a heavy emphasis on range poultry in France.  Without any prompting from me, he started the conversation with, "Hey, guess what?  In France, you can't sell a washed egg.  If it has to be washed, it must go into a pasteurized product in liquid form.  Only unwashed eggs are legal to sell as shell eggs."

More about eggs in Europe:

I was showing my eggs to a chef once and he wanted to buy them right away.  To be perfectly transparent, I warned him that in the winter they wouldn't be as deeply orange as they are in the green grass season. ... He immediately cut in.  "Oh, that's no problem.  In chef's school in Switzerland we had recipes for March eggs, recipes for June eggs, and other recipes for October eggs in order to accentuate the nuances of that particular season's eggs."

Of animals, people, and politics.  One reason I like Salatin is his rejection of the political boundary lines that are hardening like arteries in our society and constricting the healthy flow of ideas:  Republicans and Democrats are both helpful—and hurtful—to his cause.  His views land him squarely on both the Left and the Right.

When the only interaction between people and animals is in a pet situation, it jaundices the historical and natural relationship between the two. 

Amazingly, the [animal rights activists who object to] abortions in the third-trimester of a bovine pregnancy tend to support that action in humans. ...

... It's as inconsistent as the pro-lifers eating disrespected, factory farmed meat out of Costco ... The people who should be most concerned about respecting and honoring animals are the members of the religious right.  Instead these folks defend the right to abuse animals, to disrespect their chickeness and pigness.  And they even applaud their own ability to find the cheapest food.  I wonder if they think the best church comes from hiring the cheapest pastor.

What good is the freedom to worship, the right to keep and bear arms, and the freedom of the press if we don't have the freedom to choose what to feed our bodies so we can go sing, shoot, and speak?  The only reason the founding fathers did not grant the freedom to choose our food was because it was such a basic, fundamental personal right that they could not conceive that special protection would be needed.  Granting citizens the right to choose their food would have been similar to granting them the right to see the sun rise, or to breathe.

We believe that our pluralistic society is stronger for allowing home schooling and private schooling alongside public schooling.  Our culture is stronger by letting people buy different kinds of cars or none at all; have health insurance or none at all; build a house or none at all.  The freedom to opt out of the mainstream paradigm is the cornerstone that preserves the minority view, differentiating between top-down societies and bottom-up societies.  Our opponents favor coercing consumers to buy only government-approved food, thereby denying opt-out freedoms.

[Modern society thinks] we can save things from the top down ... but ... the only safety comes in our communities, our homes, our families, from the bottom up. And these institutions must be free to experiment, to innovate.  I confess that I do not hold optimism for our culture as a whole.  Indeed, we are destroying agrarianism and seeing the same political graft and moral debauchery that brought the Roman culture to ruins.  I am, however, optimistic about the power of one.  The strength of you and me and others, touching our spheres of influence, taking individual responsibility.

And finally, this is a minor side story, but I love it:

I have a friend who at 13 decided he wanted to cut firewood for a living.  His family had an old 1965 International loadstar dump truck with a two-speed rear axle.  A little big for his age, he began cutting firewood—yes, with a chain saw.  He could drive that truck as well as any adult, and delivered a load to a customer in Waynesboro about 15 miles away.

A neighbor saw the load being dumped and walked over to ask for one himself.  The boy said he'd be there the following Saturday with the load.  He cut the wood after school and in a week had another dump truck load.  He arrived at the man's house on schedule.  The customer was dubious about the boy's ability to back the truck around a crooked driveway, swing set, picnic area, and dump it onto a concrete pad in the corner of the back yard.

The boy assured the customer that it was no problem and proceeded to back the truck expertly right up to the pad.  He dumped the load and pulled out.  What I didn't tell you was that this man happened to be a city policeman, and this week happened to be in uniform because he was getting ready to go to work.  When he got ready to pay the boy, he asked him:  "Son, how old are you?"

My friend, who confesses that his heart skipped a beat when he pulled in and realized he was delivering wood to a policeman's house, just looked down from the cab and confidently but with a mischievous grin responded, "How old do you want me to be?"

Taken aback, the policeman asked him, "Do you have a license?"

To which the 13-year-old replied, "I have a couple, but I'm not sure I have the one you're interested in."

Completely enthralled by the whimsical youngster, the policeman said, "Listen son, I'll follow you to the edge of the city limits.  And please, please don't drive that truck back into this city."

Two weeks later, the boy had another load to deliver to Waynesboro.  As luck would have it, when he entered the city, there on routine traffic patrol was his firewood customer friend.  They locked eyes, and the policeman just shook his head, took off his hat, and covered his eyes.  Now there is a true public servant.  That boy could drive that truck as expertly as any adult.  Ho could anyone deny this self-motivated, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed boy his firewood business?  To be honest with you, I wouldn't let my 13-year-old do this.  And it probably wasn't the wisest thing to do.

But for crying out loud, must we criminalize everything we don't think is wise?

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, September 11, 2010 at 9:21 am | Edit
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Here is an article (h/t Stephan) on the anti-Salatin. Any system that attempts to shut down Polyface Farms' eggs and lets Jack DeCoster prosper is clearly broken. I'm not afraid of the Lake Meadow Naturals eggs I removed myself from under their local, free-range, obviously well-cared for hens, but was careful to hard-boil the free dozen I got from Target, provenance unknown.



Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 6:35 pm
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