Books and Media

Book Review: Joel Salatin’s “Folks, This Ain’t Normal”

I have been reading about 50 books at once about gardening and permaculture, and I wasn’t making headway, so I decided to choose a book. I have heard the YouTube Homesteaders mention Joel Salatin so often, I began to think of him as some kind of agro-cult leader. I watched a Ted Talk by him and found him entertaining, so decided to read one of his books. Bookshare had “Folk’s, This Ain’t Normal” so I went with it.

This book was published in 2012, I think, so it’s a little dated. But on the other hand, it was surreal to read it now, in the current crisis. It is alarming how vulnerable we are and how little we understand about where our food comes from.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book. It was educational, entertaining, and enlightening. As I have freely admitted, I have a lot of gaps in knowledge about agriculture. I am certainly one of the people he makes fun of in the book who don’t know how chickens lay eggs and the like (well, I actually knew THAT, but I have a lot of other majorly embarrassing gaps.) This is good in a way, because I have no preconcieved notions. I never knew who Monsanto was till I heard about them a few years ago, and only in the context of how bad they were. I have also heard of the problems with corn subsidies and high fructose corn syrup (I had read Omnivore’s Dilemma), so none of that stuff was surprising.

My main connections to anything agriculture related are from my first boyfriend, Kory and my husband, Nik. Kory was from deep in the heart of the Sandhills of Western Nebraska, and I lived out there for awhile as I had a job taking care of his little sister. To say that Western Nebraska was a culture shock would be an understatement. I can’t saw I learned anything in depth about ag, but I did see evidence of the level of actual real and practical skills that everyone had out there that we urbanites did not. This knowledge that comes from rural areas is what keeps all of us in the city alive, yet they continue to be looked down upon and under underappreciated. Kory’s grandparents farmed on hundreds of acres. Dinner was the main meal of the day and it happened in the middle of the day and you had to be prepared for whoever showed up. The milk was tinged green from alfalfa and the 4H steer was cuddly and sweet as a dog and would lick your hands and nuzzle against you, but everyone could simultaneously grow close to him and know that soon he would be sold to be slaughtered. Sometimes, Kory’s friends would bring over some sausage for us and be sure to let me know the name of the pig it came from, the one I met last week. I was probably the closest to the food I ate there as I had ever been. In my teenage naiveté, I asked people how they survived on the very small IGA grocery store they had there, that didn’t even have salsa! “Honey,” said the grocery lady amusedly, “we make our own salsa here from our gardens.”

Nik grew up in an island in the Baltic Sea. Gotland, which is part of Sweden. His family had a 200 acre dairy and potato farm. In comparison to Kory’s family, who I think did not think too hard about putting Roundup on the wheat crops, Nik’s dad, Hans sounds like an early revolutionary. Every time I told Nik about something in Salatin’s book, he would launch into a story about how his dad did the same thing or something similar and all the other farmers thought he was crazy. He rotated crops, used the cow fertilizer and compost to care for the soil, and never used pesticides or growth hormones. Hans’s farm was organic before Organic was a thing.

(Also, like Salatin, Nik seems to have some childhood PTSD about chopping firewood to heat the house. I never heard so much good natured bitching from Nik every time I said something Salatin said about chopping firewood.)

So, even though parts of the book were somewhat preachy, I felt like the first 3/4ths of the book were very informative and a good lesson about how we all need to be more responsible for ourselves and less uninformed about our food. The vulnerability that many of us are feeling right now during the Corona virus quarantine really slams this message home. Care of the soil was something that I was completely uninformed about and have learned a lot.

Like Michael Pollen in his book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I am also torn about vegetarianism. Salatin makes a strong case for the damage of soybean crops and monoculture, and the fact that you cannot have an animal-less bioculture and grow edible food. Herbivores like cows, sheep and goats are a vital part of the soil ecosystem and could not just be eliminated from our agriculture. And we humans are one of many omnivores in the world that also  keep a delicate food web balance running effectively.

My son is a vegetarian and I respect that to the point where we often make two versions of things like chili, and we eat vegetarian way more than we would if he weren’t in the family. But I don’t think vegetarians totally have it right when they say “cruelty free” food. Monoculture crops picked by poorly paid and abused migrant workers is not cruelty free, and Salatin claims that it kills more animals (of the micro bacterial sort mostly) than does responsible Omnivorism. From a bio-ecosystem perspective, I don’t think we can eliminate herbivores and other animals from the system and survive. However, certainly we could utilize animals in a responsible way and end the horrible conditions of factory farms. We certainly could eat a good deal less meat than we do now as well.

Still, the moral dilemma of killing animals for food is troubling for me. Salatin and the homesteaders cast it off to the side a little too easily, even though I do believe they treat their animals relatively well while they are alive. But they are killed upon adulthood and it is hard to cast that aside. Would it be possible to utilize animals for their grazing and soil building essentials to our web and not kill them? Nik says no. In some ways, we have to control for population and decomposition. This is something I still ponder and is still troubling to me. I eat meat. I know some of what I do and say is hypocritical. But I am trying to learn more about this. Right now, I feel torn.

I’m not so torn about the last 1/4 of the book. I simply disagree with Salatin. He goes off on a several chapter libertarian rant about regulations and taxes. I am glad to better understand some of the ridiculous regulations that put small farmers at an impossible disadvantage as compared to industrial farms. I did not have any idea of this, and I can relate, believe it or not.

In my world of disability, I see another version of this all over the place. Regulations put in place to “protect” the disabled actually protect big business. For example, nursing homes are largely for-profit businesses that make money by having bodies in beds and getting reimbursed by insurance companies like medicare. To make a profit, which is their goal, they cut costs as much as they can. They don’t hire enough staff, they don’t feed enough food, and they don’t have enough medical supplies to help prevent disease. Disabled people who need care can be assisted better at home or in small community setting that they control. The costs are lower, the quality is higher, the self determination is better. But the legislation and rules are set up to favor nursing homes instead of community care. The rules are scaled for large nursing homes, not small home settings so it is really hard for an individual to comply with all the rules. People end up being imprisoned in nursing homes against their will. They try to change the regulations, but they are up against a strong, well funded nursing home lobby.

Salatin describes something similar with small cottage industry farmers. The regulations are set up for industrial scale farming. A small business cannot afford to follow the rules, but also shouldn’t need to. For example, animal processors are supposed to have a metal detector, which is a huge expense, to make sure their meat doesn’t contain metals from the assembly line. But at small butchers, they hand process one animal at a time, there is no chance of a stray piece of machinery getting into some random piece of meet. but they are still required to buy this huge, expensive machine.

These types of regulations are problematic and need to be changed. Perhaps a different set for small scale farmers, or an outcome-based inspection where meat is tested for pathogens would be more effective. But I do not think regulation should be eliminated altogether. There is a working theory that some of the viruses coming out of Asia are coming from Wet Markets, where animals are sold live and butchered right in front of the customer with no regulation. (This is not meant to be anti-Asian, as these markets are in many places throughout the world. I would rather deal with the actual issue than blame an entire race/ethnic group.) It seems that some type of regulation of wet markets in the future might be in order to prevent virus pandemics like we are seeing now.

Salatin believes that we should just be responsible for ourselves and get informed about food and “let the buyer beware” and that would solve any problems of de-regulation. But I don’t think everyone can be expected to be educated about everything. Its true, we should be more educated about our food because that is so fundamental to life. But I cannot be an expert on all types of food, water, sewers and the best way they should be run safely. People go to school for a long time to learn these things, or have a lifetime of experiences. Sometimes, you want to turn things over to people who know more than you. I can’t know everything about cars, cardiologists, heating and air conditioning, pharmaceuticals, etc. etc. to make good decisions. I have to delegate some of this to someone. Its probably a little stupid to say a person can’t sell the milk that just came from their cow, or that people in Colorado can’t catch their own rain water and use it. Regulations can get to a point of ridiculousness. There has to be some checks and balances. But I don’t agree that deregulation is the answer to everything. Deregulation is actually just a different form of regulation.

Which gets us to his rant on taxes. I don’t deny that there are problems with taxes, especially for folks that are land rich and cash poor like most farmers. But it is interesting to hear a libertarian view of taxes. It seems to require denying a great deal of actual reality.

Salatin says that we should be more responsible for our own health. And that by eating better, being closer to our food and understanding and being responsible for what is in it, we will be healthier. I agree with him. However, he seems to think poor eating and lifestyle choices are the only reason people may need medical care. In my world, where probably 4/5ths of my social circle are disabled people, I think he is denying a big part of what health care actually is for.

The vast, vast majority of the disabled and chronically ill people I know are disabled and have needed health care through no fault of their own. I think there is a possibility that some chronic diseases are caused by environmental factors (such as factory, processed food or pollution) but most people who have a chronic illness and have gone on a whole food diet may have improved their health, but still are in need of medical care for their illness. At this time, food and pollution do not account for epilepsy, type one diabetes, cerebral palsy, most blindness and deafness, most kidney diseases, spinal cord injuries, aging, etc. My Deafblindness and kidney disease are congenital, there is no known thing I or my parents could have done to prevent my need for medical care. For those suffering from Corona virus right now, there was little they could have done in say, Germany, to have prevented a zoonotic spreading of the virus in a wet market in China. Washing hands may help, but it is not a guaranteed preventative. If we are going to send our young people to war, we are going to have disabled people. We are learning more and more about causes of cancer, but as my biology professor once said, cancer is a necessity in nature, if nothing else kills you, cancer will. Health care is something where we do have some limited control, but by no means do we have any kind of definitive control. I am not responsible for having kidney disease. I can do things to help myself stay as healthy as possible, but I cannot cure myself through will alone. The vast majority of the sick and disabled people I know and know of are in the same boat.

Aging brings disability. Every person, unless they die suddenly of a heart attack or in a tragic car accident or some sort, will get sick, disabled and need medical care. Everyone. You will become disabled unless you die suddenly first. This is just a natural part of life.

Taxes are not forced charity as Salatin believes. Taxes are a form of cooperation and collaboration to better handle things that benefit all of us in a more efficient way than any one person could handle alone. Survival of the Fittest for humans has not been so much about who was the strongest physical specimen or the smartest, it has been about how well we collaborated. This collaboration is how our little, puny bodies were able to hunt huge wooly mammoths. And then, after teaming up for the kill, the bounty was shared. Not just for the actual hunters, but for the women who gathered and cooked for the village, gave birth to its children and cared for the sick. For the children, themselves, have contributed nothing yet but who were the future, and to the elders who don’t contribute anymore, but who were the wise past.

Since EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON who does not die suddenly will become sick and/or disabled in their lifetimes, taxes for healthcare is a form of collaboration that is meant to help all of us. It does not matter how healthy and from scratch you eat, how much country air you breathe, or how much firewood you chop to get exercise. Sickness and disability are part of the human condition, and thus, healthcare is something we all share a need for. There is no getting out of it. The “community” cannot care for a spinal cord injured person’s lifetime needs with bake sales and chili cook offs. It requires the participation of everyone to make any kind of quality of life for people who are sick. And although it may be true that the government over regulates some things and does not tax fairly on others, taxes are in general the sign of a healthy, functioning collaborative society.

So, I am happy to have been introduced to Joel Salatin and learned much from his book. I am very glad I read it and will probably read more. His book was easy to understand, folksy and entertaining. I learned a lot and he has an immense amount of information to bestow upon us. But, although I agree with a lot of what he claims “ain’t normal” in our society, he lost me at the end with the deregulation and taxation is forced charity crap, which just read like a privileged white man who thinks he is infallible and immortal. (Also, a heavy dose of sexism dots around this book often enough to give you a headache from eye rolling too much.) Although I would call him a Grumpy Old Man, I get the reason he is called a Lunatic Farmer.


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