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Reason: I’ve heard people criticize you for using unpaid interns or for writing books. Their claim generally boils down to the notion that what you’re doing isn’t scalable because you’ve got the advantage of free labor and off-farm income. How do you respond to those critics?
Salatin: Anybody who says interns are free labor has never had them. To get this level of education, they should actually pay us. I could keep you up all night regaling you with stories about all the “oopses”: in short, nobody can possibly imagine all the creative ways someone can louse up a simple task. The sheer energy we put into these young people, to teach and bring them along in their quest for proficiency, is hard to quantify. I personally do lectures for them. We hire a full-time chef to prepare communal meals. We room and board them, wipe their noses, deal with their juvenile foolishness, relational squabbles, and a host of other things, including the notion that farmers can sleep until noon and enjoy coffee on the veranda at 3 p.m. We take complete novices who don’t know a chicken from a calf, and in one season make them self-confident enough to go farm for themselves. Now what’s that worth?
Books. The farm financed the first two and I wrote them because people were desperate for the information we had. Ask anyone who is now farming full time because they found what they needed, both inspiration and how-to, in my books and then tell me it’s an unfair advantage. While the naysayers are watching movies, reading People magazine, and twirling lint in their bellybutton I’ve been working 80 hours a week my whole life. No TV. No vacation. Driving a $50 car. Wearing thrift store clothes. Never going out to eat. Sleeping with the chicks, baseball bat in hand to ward off an infestation of rats. This is the stuff people need to know to be successful. Because I’ve done it, the books have credibility.
Everyone thinks the other guy has some advantage. The other guy is smarter, has a prettier wife, better machinery, better parents, a better side of town. The truth is that we make our way, and if the government were a tenth the size it is and we could keep our tax money, it would be a lot easier for a lot more people to make their way. It’s much easier to tear down than build up. So I don’t put much stock in people who tear down. They don’t have a clue what the Salatins do to make Polyface run. Today I got up at daybreak, moved the eggmobile and stoked the wood furnace, got the oil changed in the car, spent the day over at a new rental farm putting in a water line and sharpening fence posts for the electric fence grid. Then I came home and cut firewood, ate supper, did a half hour radio show, a pile of emails, and then answered these questions and it’s 9:18. I haven’t turned on a TV (don’t have one) or a video game (don’t have one of them either). Anyone who thinks I have some unfair advantage should come and follow me around for a day—I dare you. Matter of fact, we don’t allow it because it always slows me down. Ha!
Reason: Farmers are subject to regulations by many federal (i.e., USDA, FDA, EPA) and state agencies. From a food-safety perspective, does all this government oversight make our food safer? If not, could it possibly make our food less safe if, as I argue, government oversight offers a false veneer of safety?
Salatin: Government food safety regulations ultimately do not make anything safer; they simply institutionalize a cultural paradigm. For example, government land grant colleges are the de-facto standard-setters in food and agriculture protocols and have been establishing Best Management Practices—BMP (sometimes called Generally Accepted Procedures in some states—GAP). These are now being used to admit access to markets and as a protocol for insurance companies.
These protocols codify a certain mindset that is of course prejudicial toward innovation or alternative thinking. The BMP for manure is not compost but water-based slurry lagoon systems. The BMP for laying hens is not pastured poultry, but confinement animal feeding operations. And perish the thought that anyone would think their animals capable of health without vaccinations. The BMP for sickness is either eradication (kill the herd, flock, whatever) or administer pharmaceuticals. It certainly isn’t homeopathy, herbology, or any of a host of other alternative remedies.
As a result, with government’s injection into the system, it narrows the sanctioned offerings to a veritable non-choice. Such simplicity reduces innovation and creativity. In times of epochal change, according to Peter Bane, editor of The Permaculturalist magazine, the most important thing to preserve is variation and alternative paradigms—dissensus rather than consensus. When everyone agrees, it’s easy to head off down the wrong path. Prophets have always been out of step with the mob.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than the government’s confusion over safe food being primarily a matter of sterilization. Coca Cola is considered safe because it is sterile, without life. Raw milk, because it contains life, is considered unsafe. Chemical fertilizer is safe because it is sterile; compost piles are dangerous and hazardous because they are not sterile. This thinking indicates a profound mechanistic view toward life, rather than a biological view toward life. The whole nation is being pulled into this erroneous paradigm due to the one-size-fits-all approach from the federal bureaucracy.
If there is a role for food safety regulation, it should be done at the highest level by states and ideally by localities. That way different areas could try different things and keep the experimentation ongoing. While some would argue it would still squelch innovation, at least different jurisdictions could try different food safety protocols so that the body of practice and thinking could be more diversified rather than more simplified.
Reason: What are some of the groups advocating for farm or food freedom around the country you support?
Salatin: I call the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund [FTCLDF] the National Rifle Association (NRA) of the food movement. Modeled after the Home School Legal Defense Fund (HSLDA) which 30 years ago created wiggle room for parents who were taken to jail for truancy violations and had their children taken by government agents and placed into foster care to protect youngsters from such socially deviant modeling. At that time, the entire credentialed expert educational establishment vituperated against this aberrant idea, declaring that the culture could not build enough insane asylums or jails to house these miscreants and socially deprived waifs. Here we are, 30 years later, and even the most dubious people now agree that our culture is richer by having decriminalized home schooling.
This is exactly where we are with the food system. Different times, same issues. Then it was who owns the child. Now it’s who owns the individual. Then it was the risk of social maladjustment. Today it’s the risk of physical maladjustment. Then it was jails. Today it’s hospitals.
The attorneys working with FTCLDF are not winning every case, but they are getting more skilled by the day. They are definitely creating wiggle room for all of us. And they win lots of things. Just being able to have real time 24/7 legal counsel gives farmers a hand-holding comfort to move into gray areas. As an example of what FTCLDF brokered, Florida now has a pet food law that allows anyone to register their item as pet food. Florida is experiencing an explosion of local, artisanal cottage industry farming and food as a result. In fact, when you talk to foodie afficionados in Florida now, they say that if you want the good stuff, you always look for the pet food label, marked “Not for Human Consumption.” Everything else is second best.
Another organization is the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA). An outgrowth of the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (VICFA) that I helped found some 15 years ago, NICFA has moved the mission to a national level. The goal is simple: unregulated direct food commerce between producers and consumers. In other words, if consenting adults want to do business, a bureaucrat does not need to get in the way of their transaction. This is a permutation on the right of private contract and dates clear back to the Magna Carta. That we, as a society, have given away these basic societal underpinnings so quickly should give us pause.