Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World
Hachette Book Group, 2011
By Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin is well known to readers of Wise Traditions and always delights audiences when he speaks at WAPF conferences. Farmer, lecturer, author and owner—along with four generations of family—of Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Salatin has been likened to a modern Thomas Jefferson. An endlessly creative and fearless innovator, Salatin and his intelligent farming models have captured the attention not only of other farmers who are eager to replicate his successes on their own farmsteads, but of consumers searching for real food. His methods reach far beyond the fashionable catch-phrases of “sustainable” and “organic,” and point the way of the future for family-based agriculture in America. Owing as much to creative initiative as to a reverence for long-established agrarian traditions and the wise ways of nature, Salatin’s models excite the imagination and enthusiasm of all those who reject the deplorable methods, morals, and products of industrial animal factories.
Yet unalloyed paradise does not reign on Polyface Farm, as Salatin’s most recent books reveal. In fact, more’s the miracle that Salatin and his family have done so brilliantly in the face of regular predations by regulatory agencies intent on shutting down this or that function of the farm due to specious and arcane violations. Salatin revisits some of these scenarios in his eighth book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal—an exclamation Salatin finds dozens of opportunities to use in his philosophical excursion, which includes everything from modern childrearing follies to the Kafkaesque machinations of the FDA.
Salatin’s readership is likely to expand since he has had recent exposure in The New York Times and his current book is the first to have been published by an international publisher. Much of his commentary is directed to the sympathetic reader who can stand to benefit from a guided introduction to the normal and the abnormal in modern life, especially in how this dichotomy pertains to food production, animal husbandry and biological life on earth. We desperately need an educated and engaged population of citizen-consumers to help propel and support the fledgling initiatives of small farmers all across the country. Consumers must have a relationship with the production of their food at least by learning and experiencing directly as much as they can about how it is raised and made ready for table. As Salatin ironically asks, “How little can a person know about food and still make educated decisions about it?”
It is no secret that most Americans today have little visceral connection with the biological life around them—they don’t get their hands dirty with real dirt, are only familiar with animals as pets, and would be surprised to learn that a carrot is a root or that lettuce flowers and makes seed. The American carefree ignorance of history and geography is legendary, yet our collective indifference to rudimentary biology and food production may be suicidal. How can someone who doesn’t understand that it is normal for higher life forms to have only two parents be wisely wary of organisms with three or more (as in genetic modification) or with only one (cloning)? “One of my messages in this book,” Salatin says, “is to try to awaken a thirst and a hunger for some basic food and farming knowledge before our appetite for cerebral and academic technosubjects crowds out all of this historically normal knowledge.”
This “historically normal knowledge” includes such things as knowing the difference between a heifer and a cow, a steer and a bull, hay and straw. Chickens are birds and do not suckle their young; they lay eggs regardless of the presence of a rooster. Green beans are annuals and asparagus is a perennial. Don’t laugh—Salatin goes on and on, enumerating and explicating the natural world teeming with diverse life that ought to be familiar to all of us, young and old. In fact, this “common agrarian knowledge”—and the vocabulary specific to it—is something that has slipped away only in the last hundred years, and has estranged most of us from the magic and marvel of the food that sustains us. It has also made us sitting ducks (if anyone can picture that metaphor anymore) for the diabolical goods fabricated by biotech food industries.
True to form, Salatin has lots of creative ideas to help educate and involve many more of us in reclaiming our contact with farming life. Many of these suggestions surround raising children, who, after all, will someday be in charge. “I fear that we are bringing to our world a whole generation revved up on hubris,” says Salatin, speaking of young people who can learn nothing of the real world solely from their experience of video games. It may nowadays seem normal for “these testosterone-exuding boys with their shriveled shoulders and E.T.-looking fingers [to pass] the time on their laptops,” but not so long ago farm children were molded by early work responsibilities that developed their resourcefulness and pride in contributing to the family’s well-being. “Rather than an adolescence of coddling and endless recreation” parents can give their children opportunities to engage in truly meaningful occupation and enjoyable discovery as simple as a home garden plot. Both children and adults can make a point of regularly visiting the farm that produces their food and spending time getting to know the routine. Salatin also suggests that youngsters go hunting with a capable hunter and learn to dress game and prepare it. “To interact with nature and food in this visceral way is foundational to developing common sense. . . Staying grounded, very literally, and staying anchored in sensibleness requires relationship with food production.”
Raising children so that they may inherit an enthusiasm for our traditions of agrarian wisdom and experience will go a long way to enriching all layers of American society. It may be what is necessary for the future of American agriculture—an agriculture that creates more jobs, a lovelier countryside, and healthier food—all without government funding. “Injecting ourselves into our ecology is part of our mission,” says Salatin, “and truly a connection to our human birthright.” Folks, this is normal.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2011.