Joel Salatin is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Self-described as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer,” you’re probably more familiar with him as the “beyond organic” owner of Polyface Farm featured in Michael Pollan’s landmark book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary Food, Inc. (note: if you haven’t read/watched those do so immediately).
I sat down with Joel recently to talk about his latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. On the outside, Joel does not appear abnormal in the least. He was well dressed, well spoken, extremely polite and fiercely intelligent—a gentleman in every way. But once you get him talking you quickly see that his ideas make him an anomaly in modern society, not because they are far-fetched, but because they come from so many different sides of the political and societal spectrums. People are rarely this thoughtful and well-rounded, and after finishing the book this is the point I keep coming back to.
You are almost certain to disagree with some of Joel’s ideas. Folks, This Ain’t Normal runs the gamut in controversial topics. He touches on politics, religion, the environment (including global warming), sustainable agriculture, big business, peak oil, taxes, protectionism, meat eating, government regulation, women’s role in farming (he told me to my face he’s “sexist”) and likely a few more subjects that will get your blood boiling. But this is not your usual liberal-conservative political banter.
Joel is a thinker, and just a few pages into the book it is clear that he has a more intimate understanding of these topics than most experts and advocates could even dream of. Folks, This Ain’t Normal is by far the best ecology lesson I’ve ever had, and I try to be a responsible person and keep up on sustainable food issues. While most people discuss this subject academically, Joel actually knows how an ecosystem works, because he works with one every day back at Polyface Farm. For example, despite the cries of some environmentalists to do away with cows and replace them with tofu (aka soy beans), Joel explains in detail why a tillage-based crop like soy depletes soil, while a grass-based system of herbivore feeding builds and protects soil, and is necessary for environmental sustainability.
Food politics is another topic where Joel’s position runs flatly against conventional wisdom. Most of us in the food movement agree that Monsanto is the devil, and Joel is no different. But while most foodists lean liberal and think more regulation is the answer, Joel explains why those very regulations are what protect the big companies and put small farms like his out of business (exactly what Monsanto wants). So contrary to what you might guess, his position on this topic is strictly laissez faire.
As mentioned above, there’s almost certainly something that Joel writes that will offend you. (Yes, he takes more than a few shots at urban farmers market goers with award winning poodles—Joel, in my defense I at least use my fancy kitchen and make my own sauerkraut). But I’ll argue that this is precisely why you should read the book. When crafted by a thoughtful, intelligent person, opposing viewpoints are among the most valuable thing in a thinking person’s arsenal. Even if he doesn’t convince you to change your opinion, at least it forces you to question your beliefs, think a little harder and refine your position. There are no worthwhile topics that don’t have valuable insights from both sides of the fence. Thinking is good for you, and it is something that is sadly laking in our current political environment.
In this spirit, the types of people who would certainly benefit from reading Folks, This Ain’t Normal include: vegetarians, carnivores, environmentalists, McDonald’s patrons, farmers market shoppers, Chipotle patrons, Tea Partiers, liberals, Christians, scientists, atheists, politicians, big farmers, small farmers, city folks, country folks, the 99% and the 1%. In short, everyone who eats.
What Joel wants us to understand is that it isn’t him who is historically abnormal. What’s not normal is having no idea where food and water come from, nor how to keep them healthy and safe. In other words, it is the rest of us who have lost the basic life skills necessary for survival. This, he argues, is what isn’t normal.
Note: The audio version of the book is particularly wonderful, since Joel reads it himself.
What’s your normal?