I haven't seen the movie, "Food, Inc.," so I didn't know what sustainable farmer Joel Salatin looked like until I saw him take the stage Monday night at the 92nd Street Y.
I was immediately struck by his crisp gray suit and his red power tie. For all his subsequent talk about poop, Salatin's corporate look announced that he means business. And that business is returning our culture to what he calls "historical normalcy."
For Salatin, that means farming a variety of vegetables and fruits, instead of creating mini-monocultures of just-one-thing orchards or hundreds of acres of farmland devoted solely to corn. It means returning a variety of animals to the farm, too, and having them live in a way that allows them to express themselves fully. Pigs should be rooting around freely outdoors in heaps of composted food scraps, not confined in a barn with thousands of other pigs, eating antibiotic-and-hormone-laced feed while standing on a metal grate, so their poop can fall into a large collection system below.
It also means everyone growing their own food. Even us city-dwellers.
"Get a chicken! hey're better than a dog!" he told the packed auditorium at the 92nd Street Y.
In his new book, Folks, That Ain't Normal, Salatin said we could break the back of our industrialized, mechanized, homogenized food system by growing our own food in backyards, abandoned lots and fire escape containers. He quoted another sustainable farmer, Michael Ableman, telling the crowd that "we suffer from a crisis of participation." If more people grew their own food and canned their own vegetables and made their own dinners, "rather than getting it from a box," we'd get back to historical normalcy.
A major obstacle to Salatin's vision is, where would New Yorkers put the cows? Cows — herbivores — help fulfill what Salatin calls the "farmer's mandate" to convert solar energy into decomposable carbon, or poop. That carbon, in turn, feeds the soil that feeds us. "In nature," he writes, "no system exists without animals. And by far and away the most productive systems involve herbivores."
Well, my system, for one, would not allow a cow. The co-op board wouldn't approve it.
Besides co-op boards, kids may not agree with Salatin's notions of "normal." In his book, he encourages young people to stop wasting time on "recreation entertainment, and playing around" — especially on the computer — and to get to work on chores that youth have undertaken since "time immemorial": cutting wood, feeding the chickens, trapping small critters to feed to those chickens during the winter, and growing things.
That family vacation to Disney World? Forget it. Salatin suggests going on "an extremely rustic wilderness adventure where you make some traps and hunt for food."
Okay, try getting your 14-year-old to do THAT.
I was intrigued by Salatin's call for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of food choice. "Carve out a spot for artisanal food commerce, like we did for home schooling," he said. "We have a government that says it's okay to eat Twinkies and Cocoa Puffs and Mountain Dew, but it's illegal to drink raw milk and eat compost-grown tomatoes and Aunt Matilda's pickles."
He also spoke glowingly of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. He sees the three-year-old organization as the "NRA of food," going after "overzealous food inspectors" and helping small- and mid-sized farmers like him who are developing dynamic, local food economies. There's a lot on the website about raw milk, which I blogged about recently.
Joel Salatin said "historic normalcy" is a "domestic culintary delight." Food tastes better. He said that, judging from the number of rock star farm-to-table chefs and sustainable, happy meat butchers, people are already discovering this, He said he wants to take it to the next level.
"I want to see rock star farmers."