“Folks, This Ain’t Normal” Book Review: Farming, Small Business, and Life’s Essentials

farming in Wisconsin
I first learned of Joel Salatin through the Align Podcast, and I was riveted by his powerful oration on matters of farming. I went on to listen to him on several other podcasts and watched the movie Food Inc., which his farm was featured in, before reaching for one of his several books, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World.”


If you are interested in whole, unprocessed foods and sustainable farming practices, then this book is definitely for you. Mr. Salatin goes into more detail about running a small, sustainable farm than he does in his speeches and interviews that I’ve heard. He discusses the importance of soil health, the harm that tillage (planting intensive crops like corn and wheat) does to the soil, and how he has rebuilt the soil at his farm. I especially enjoyed his explanation of the symbiotic relationship between the animals and plants on Polyface farm and how he leverages those relationships to keep the farm running in a productive manner. He complains about the ignorance of many individuals today regarding farm animals’ needs and how anthropomorphic sympathy towards farm animals can be very misguided.

Of particular interest, especially to anyone interested in supporting small, local farms, is the discussion concerning government oversight and how ill-suited it can be for dealing with small farming operations. Mr. Salatin provides a very vivid insight into the unreasonable, bureaucratic hoops small farmers have to jump through to sell their products. While I appreciate the intent of the food safety regulations at issue in his anecdotes, it does seem inane that a farmer who is already in the business of providing core food staples to the public cannot also process some of that food into other products without substantial bureaucratic hassles. He can sell pork fat, but would be subject to the added costs of additional scrutiny and regulations if he wants to render that pork fat into lard for his customers.

Mr. Salatin describes the long, tedious process of simply trying to remove MSG from the sausage processed for him by an abattoir. The spice mixes used by the abattoir all contained MSG, and the abattoir did not know where to get MSG-free spice mixes. Mr. Salatin, naturally, decided that he could solve the dilemma by creating his own spice mixes on his farm to deliver to the abattoir with the pigs that would become sausage. He was thwarted from this simple solution because the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) required the spice mixes to be blended in a licensed facility and transferred directly to the abattoir. I don’t know if it was possible or what the cost would be for Mr. Salatin to attempt to have part of his farm licensed for this operation, but it is not hard to imagine that the task would easily become overly burdensome. Simply adding different spices to his existing products would be unlikely to result in substantial increases in revenue to justify the cost.

On the one hand, I like the idea that there are regulations in place to keep each step of the food preparation process from being adulterated, but, on the other hand, it is ridiculous that an operation already licensed to produce and deliver the bulk of the product ingredients to the abattoir cannot simply add spices to its operations. I want my food to be safe, of course, but I also want my farmers to be able to innovate; fill voids in the market; unshackle themselves from mass-produced, low-quality ingredients and substitute their own preparations when feasible. I disagree with Mr. Salatin that the idea that a farmer would ever adulterate food is preposterous, as he seems to think. Absent regulation, some farmers would cut corners for the sake of profit and engage in the same use of cheap, unhealthy ingredients and deceptive advertising as happens in many industries, especially food services. But there must be a middle ground between presumed adulteration and licensed safety. I would bet that there are other ways besides those delineated in the food safety regulations for Mr. Salatin to guarantee the safety of the spice mixtures, and the regulations should be flexible enough to allow that.

One strain of thought I found particularly noteworthy was the idea that many of the United States’ food safety policies are premised on the dangers of food processed through major agricultural plants, which are inherently more at risk for bacterial contamination due to their methods. The USDA regulations presume all fresh food is unsafe because they are responding to the highly contaminated processing of Big Ag operations. Centralized animal feeding operations (known as CAFOs) are not only cruel, but intrinsically dangerous. As Mr. Salatin notes, keeping one species of animals confined in close, unhygienic, stuffy quarters with inadequate nutrition and minimal exercise all but guarantees unhealthy animals that are extremely susceptible to pathogenic epidemics. Because of the high probability of mass infections, these animals are treated preemptively with antibiotics (which, as you probably know, is developing into a major health crisis for us humans).

It really makes me wonder what it is doing to our population to try to nourish ourselves with sickly, unhealthy animals. If one ever had a choice to eat a sick animal or a healthy one, the healthy animal would be the obvious choice. And yet everyday, millions of Americans unwittingly reach for meat processed from ill, undernourished, drugged animals and expect to be able to nourish themselves and their families off of these products. Can we really thrive and reach our fullest potential feeding on animals treated this way? Mr. Salatin argues that food off the farm is not inherently risky or dangerous, and the fact that we treat it as such shows how divorced we’ve become from healthy food production. As a result of this book, I see our food system in a whole new light and agree with Mr. Salatin that we have unfortunately become inured as a society to a very abnormal manner of growing and handling food.

Mr. Salatin also provides anecdotes to show how difficult it can be for small businesses to expand by contracting with larger entities. These large businesses are accustomed to dealing with other large entities whose policies almost ensure that smaller outfits are excluded from participation in the market. A notable example Mr. Salatin provided was that of the local university that wanted to purchase food from his farm to provide local food to its students.  Its dining services company contractually stipulated that food could only be provided through approved vendors. To become an approved vendor, the farm would have to comply with company protocols and insurance policies that were burdensome and sometimes antithetical to the small farming practices of a local farmer. It seemed that the very qualities that made food from small, local farms desirable are the same characteristics that these large companies would eviscerate with their policies.

And even when such hurdles are surmounted, other difficulties present themselves. Mr. Salatin notes the disregard for seasonality and the resulting expectation that seasonal items should be available year-round. He also describes the inequitable demand for different parts of farm animals as opposed to purchasing the whole animal. The reluctance of people to utilize the whole animal makes it difficult to sell unpopular parts of farm animals, which can lead to food waste and financial losses for the farmer. The tension between farming with integrity and complying with the demands and policies of larger corporations was well-illustrated in the book.

“Folks, This Ain’t Normal” book cover, courtesy of Amazon
Mr. Salatin is certainly at his best when he discusses farming and small businesses, but his discussion of other subjects like shelter and water were also illuminating. I am so accustomed to flush toilets, having never experienced any other kind, that before reading this book it never seriously occurred to me that there are other options available. Mr. Salatin makes a compelling argument against the utter waste of using gallons of potable water per flush to wash away excrement. He argues that it could be put to better use as fertilizer rather than polluting our water supplies. He proposes composting or moldering toilets as alternatives.
Another concept he presented was the topic of food security, something I never considered in depth before reading this book. Mr. Salatin argues that most of us have become so dependent on others for the food we eat that if a crisis cut us off from our food supply, we would be unprepared to sustain ourselves for more than a few days. He invites the reader to acknowledge the latent costs of the centralization of our food supply and other resources. As the title of the book suggests, Mr. Salatin does an effective job of making the reader question the practices we consider normal concerning life necessities– food, shelter, and water in particular.
Unfortunately, the book has some major drawbacks which keep me from recommending this book without reservations. Unassisted by the charm and affability of his speaking voice, Mr. Salatin can come across as grating and often alienates those who would be his allies. He has a virulent contempt for idealistic liberals who want to support environmental causes but may be ignorant of the best way to do so. Instead of trying to build ground with them, he conflates them with all the other villains he delineates in his book. In his examples of things he does not like, he frequently supposes completely superfluously that the bad actor must be a Democrat. Moreover, his reliance on sarcasm throughout the book was not only wearying, but at times confusing since a statement that seems obviously ridiculous to him is not as ridiculous to someone who does not share his farming experience or political ideology.
Additionally, the further Mr. Salatin strays from the topics of farming, ecology, and small business, the shakier his arguments get. I laughed out loud when, after spending the whole book complaining about government corruption and the inability for small businesses to get a fair shake by bureaucrats beholden to Big Agriculture, he proposed that private litigation should be replaced by some form of government mediation program. Why he believes that the same government that sends him jumping through insane hoops just to sell locally made sausage and which enforces, as he describes them, completely illogical regulations will suddenly come to its senses and discern fairness when he is directly up against Big Ag in some dispute is beyond me. Actually, the disconnect between his apparent cynicism about government and his desire for it to be the conflict dispute mediator probably arises because his complaint about litigation is wholly separate in his mind from his complaint about government regulation. He does not envision a mediation setting in which some big corporation will be able to use its muscle to twist an arm of government against him; he sees himself prevailing against some disgruntled individual whose claim is so frivolous that the government mediator, unencumbered by any due process requirement or rules of procedure (scary thought!), will have no choice but to throw it out.
But the worst part of the book for me was Mr. Salatin’s take on sexual harassment. To be sure, there are hints of chauvinism underlying Mr. Salatin’s nostalgic waxings throughout the book. One gets the sense that part of the good old days that he misses is the woman’s place being firmly planted in the home, apron-strings tied to the hearth. But this is so subtle as to be tolerable. What is not tolerable is his pride at having discriminated against females for years by refusing to hire them as interns because of the possibility that they might bring a sexual harassment complaint against his farm. Let me restate that: his solution to avoiding sexual harassment complaints was to eliminate the women from the equation. As bad as that is, what makes it worse is Mr. Salatin’s seeming disbelief that sexual harassment or assault ever occur. He in no way ever acknowledges that these are real problems that women face. He explains in a very matter of fact manner that upon resuming his hire of women, he made sure to schedule tasks so no woman was ever alone with a man, not to prevent harassment or assault of the women, but to prevent the possibility of a harassment claim against him and the male employees. That Mr. Salatin seems to believe the concept of sexual harassment itself to be oxymoronic and cannot conceive of harassment actually occurring to women is a huge insult to women everywhere who face harassment on a near daily basis.
Despite these issues, I have substantial respect for Mr. Salatin’s expertise and would still recommend this book to others. Mr. Salatin’s insights into farming, government regulation of farmers, the difficulties of small businesses, and our modern-day disconnect from the essentials of living are too important to be missed. However, if you have never encountered his ideas before, I recommend holding off on the book and listening to him speak first. Check out the Align podcast interview or his talk at Google.

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