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.