A Thumbs Up Book Review
Everything I Want to Do is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front
By Joel Salatin Polyface
Reviewed by Katherine Czapp
“The instant I enter on my own land, the bright ideas of property, of exclusive right, of independence, exalt my mind. Precious soil, I say to myself, by what singular custom of law is it that thou wast made to constitute the riches of the freeholder? What should we American farmers be without the distinct possession of that soil? It feeds, it clothes us; from it we draw even a great exuberancy, our best meat, our richest drink; the very honey of our bees comes from this privileged spot. No wonder we should thus cherish its possession. . . it has established all our rights; on it is founded our rank, our freedom, our power as citizens, our importance as individuals of such a district. These images, I must confess, I always behold with pleasure and extend them as far as my imagination can reach; for this is what may be called the true and only philosophy of an American farmer.”
J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, a naturalized American citizen of French heritage wrote this rhapsodic hymn of the early American freeholder that became part of his Letters from an American Farmer, published in London in 1782. The book immediately became the first American literary success in Europe, and was translated into several languages; its author became a celebrated figure. Old Europe was keenly curious about the new American experiment in which equal opportunity and self-determination were the guiding lights of the new nation’s social structure, along with its utter rejection of the feudal tyranny of monarchist regimes.
“It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one, no great manufactures employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. . . . We are a people of cultivators scattered over an immense terrain. . . united by the silken bands of a mild government, all respecting the laws without dreading their power because they are equitable. . . . We have no princes for whom we toil, starve and bleed; we are the most perfect society now existing in the world.”
Crèvecoeur spent several peaceful and prosperous years on his farm in New York, living the ideal shared by Thomas Jefferson and others who believed that a truly self-governing, democratic society must be composed largely of small, independent farmers. In fact, Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, also published in 1782, insisted that agriculture, not manufacturing, should form the economic basis of the new nation (although, prophetically for the nation, he was to change his mind after the War of 1812). Working directly with nature, “looking up to heaven and [down] to their own soil and industry,” instilled in these citizen-farmers the very qualities of independence, equity and justice for which the new republic ideally aimed.
These shining principles, of course, never quite became reality, and Crèvecoeur’s Letters describe not only the noble visionary model for a new society free from institutional oppression, but also the very real destruction caused by the immorality of slavery, the bloody skirmishes between colonists and native residents, and the nightmarish turmoil of the Revolutionary War, which was not universally embraced by all the colonists and led to neighbors murdering neighbors. Crèvecoeur (whose name means “heartbreak” in French) watched his own American experience end in tragedy. At the time of the Revolutionary War he was unable to take sides, and while called away to France by his dying father, his farm was burned to the ground, his wife murdered and his children scattered. a farm. Nonetheless, Letters from an American Farmer continued to hold the imagination of European readers and was reprinted numerous times. The book has never attained the same popularity on these shores, however.
Picking up Joel Salatin’s newest literary endeavor, this reader felt the emotional resurrection of the founding agrarian ideals of Jefferson and Crèvecoeur in full, modern-day force. Everything I Want to Do is Illegal is an impassioned cri de coeur of a beleaguered member of that onceennobled population of American farmers. No longer a freeholder on his own land, restrained and fettered by regulatory agencies that seem to have his total eradication as their goal, the American small farmer is an endangered species. Although there are barely as many small farmers now as inmates in U.S. federal prisons, the fate of farmers is intimately tied to all of us who believe that we still have the right to feed ourselves and our families as we choose.
Salatin has chosen to illuminate the climate and geographical terrain of the “war zone” he inhabits as an entrepreneurial farmer by relating actual encounters with regulators that he and his family have endured while trying to make a living and providing their customers with the best food possible. The blood-boiling encounters are many, and the reader quickly becomes familiar with the Gordian Knot-style obstacles the regulatory agencies throw in Salatin’s path.
If anyone could be a match to their monstrously confounding, illogical rules and regulations, it is Salatin, and occasionally he was able to win the day through creative solutions that were grudgingly, though often only temporarily, accepted. However, as Salatin points out time and again, if the true aims of the endless regulations were actually clean meat, public safety, and a healthy food supply, Salatin’s Polyface Farms would long ago have been held up as a golden model for study and replication around the country. In fact, these legitimate aims are merely smokescreens for much more sinister motives. “If it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure that no person can ingest a morsel of unsafe food, then only government food will be edible. And when that happens, freedom of choice is long gone, because the credentialed food will be what the fat cats who wine and dine politicians say that it is. In the name of offering only credentialed safe food, we will only be able to eat irradiated, genetically adulterated, inhumane, taste-enhanced, nutrient-deficient, emulsified, reconstituted pseudo-food from Archer Daniels Midland, ‘supermarket to the world.’”
Salatin is angry and with good reason. He and his family have struggled for years with inane regulations that were written with only industrial-scale food production technologies in mind, and that demanded small-scale operations either match or go out of business. This last option is, of course, exactly what thousands of small farmers have succumbed to over the years and still do. As Salatin says, “the systematic dissection of small, local food systems” is the obvious agenda of bureaucrats who are in bed with big ag.
Everything I Want to Do is Illegal contains chapters on food safety issues that will permanently turn the reader off any food from centralized, industrial sources. Salatin’s examination of the current state of oversight within this system proves it to be exquisitely vulnerable to bioterrorism with absolutely no effective government or industry precautions in force. The regulators are too busy overseeing small farmers out of business, while consumers’ food options dwindle.
Chapters on other farm-related activities invoke regulation fiascos in such areas as zoning, child labor, housing, insurance, and taxes, and are fertile topics for Salatin to develop his theme. A farm is not just a producer of raw materials, he repeats, but a vital, living organism that enriches and is enriched by the community it belongs to. “I would suggest that it takes a community to preserve a farm. To divorce a farm from its neighbors, its customers, the body of knowledge regarding ecological land stewardship and earthworm activities, is to destroy the farm. It cannot exist separated from the rich cultural soup that sustains it. . . . A farm includes the passion of the farmer’s heart, the interest of the farm’s customers, the biological activity in the soil, the pleasantness of the air above the farm—it’s everything touching, emanating from, and supplying that piece of landscape.”
Polyface Farm has managed to prosper in spite of ongoing run-ins with institutional oppression, and over the years has blossomed into a veritable oasis of healthy food production, innovative land management, and out-reach education as the next generation of Salatins becomes established. Innovative thinking, study, and devising elegant solutions are clearly pleasurable pursuits for Salatin and his family, and one wonders where they and other farmers like them might be if they had been actually encouraged, supported and championed rather than brutally ambushed at every turn by autocratic government agencies. More important, where might our society be? Our communities would be dotted with numerous small farms, made prosperous by the close proximity of their customers. These customers would keep their communities robust by investing in their local food systems, and keep themselves and their families healthy by choosing food they can see being grown by farmers they know and trust. Further, Salatin points out, “without the expensive labeling, packaging and processing infrastructure requirements, this food could be sold at regular supermarket prices, and it would be infinitely better. Virtually all of the processed foods currently sold at the supermarket could be supplanted with community-based entrepreneurial fare. Does your heart ache for this? Mine does.”
As someone who “makes his living by thinking,” Salatin is an inspiration not only for other small farmers with entrepreneurial dreams, but for this country’s citizenry as well. Salatin’s stories remind us of our freedom and power as citizens to act without the hobbling shackles of fear, and to be suspicious of government laws enacted “for our security” that restrict our freedoms and impoverish our health. “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 from free societies. . . . When faith in our freedom gives way to fear of our freedom, silencing the minority view becomes the operative protocol.”
Perhaps even worse than the viciousness of the regulators is the complacency of the populace, Salatin believes. The matters he airs in this book are emblematic of an autocratic government allied with the military- industrial complex; Salatin is merely describing the scene from his perspective as an entrepreneurial farmer. He clearly wants to involve all of us in finding another way: “. . . the goal of this book is to give Americans an insatiable appetite for something they don’t have. I want folks to leave these pages angry that they’ve been denied something righteous, something healthful. I want folks incensed that their government has sold our collective freedom birthright for a bowl of global corporate pottage.”
A bright development that emerged just after the publication of Salatin’s book has been The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (www. ftcldf.org). Formed in response to the need to protect small farmers from excessive government interference as well as preserve consumers’ rights to clean food purchased directly from the farm, the Fund has already provided legal counsel in several cases around the country. For anyone concerned about the corporate-owned, industrialized food supply, the spectre of GMOs, consumer rights to food choices, and other food, farming and health freedoms, joining the Fund is a first priority. The existence of the Fund is surely one strong means for the will of the people to unite to recover, as Salatin suggests, their “appetite for something they don’t have.”
“We should all dream for such a day,” Salatin urges. “Let the revolution come quickly.”
This article first appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2008.