Lit Review: Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin

Lit review week here at the Science Cabinet is brought to you by the letter “P” (for procrastination) and a need to think about something other than programming languages.  This book was finished several months ago, but I’m just now getting around to writing it up.

Joel Salatin is an American farmer was brought to many people’s attention through the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. He owns and operates a successful, sustainable farm in northern Virginia where he raises both animals and vegetables.  I also had the privilege to hear him speak at an OzHarvest event in January. 

In his book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, Salatin details in his direct and plainspoken style what he sees as a deviation from normalcy in the American food system. No stone is left unturned as he tackles agribusiness, monoculture farming, feed lots or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and even the farm lobby and estate law. For the record, “normal” to Salatin is eating meals from ingredients your great-grandmother would have recognized as food, animals eating things they evolved to eat, and capitalizing on nature’s biological processes to sequester carbon and provide nourishment up the food chain.

My favourite part of the book came at the end of each chapter, where Salatin details things the reader can do to help change the system. These things range from small to large, and I was happy to see that many suggestions were attainable by someone like me: a poor PhD student with a nomadic lifestyle. Starting a backyard garden is wonderful, but just isn’t a realistic option for me at this point.

I also appreciated that several of his suggestions were truly interesting and novel. For instance, he suggests that land preservation groups and farmers start to work together. If a farmer has to sell land to pay taxes (or, more realistically, his children have to sell land to avoid inheritance taxes), and that land is bought by a developer, that goes against the land preservationists goals as well as the farmer’s. Both consider good land stewardship to be important, why aren’t they working together?

So many of Salatin’s suggestions make perfect sense. For instance, he describes taking a long-haul plane flight, and the amount of waste generated from his meal: he has a disposable cup. His disposable silverware is wrapped in a packet, which also contains salt, pepper, and sugar. Each item on his plate is individually wrapped. When he’s finished with his meal, the pile of waste is piled higher than his original plate. There are 300 people on his flight with the same issue, and hundreds of planes in the air (with the same issue) at that moment. That’s a lot of waste. As a solution, Salatin proposes that airlines switch to offering stew, in washable bowls, for a meal. One bowl, one spoon, a napkin or two, and you’re set. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.  Cookies on a large plate for dessert. And before anyone starts to fuss about it not being hygienic, consider the number of potlucks you’ve attended where no one was sickened from taking a portion of a large dish of food.

Of course, the book isn’t without its’ flaws, but I found them minor in comparison, to the whole, or, say, Kingsolver’s. I thought the sections surrounding the farm lobby, industrial agriculture, and estate law dragged a bit, and the suggestions of things to do weren’t particularly applicable for most individuals.

Still, this one’s a very good read. More engaging than Kingsolver, and there’s more for you to do at the end of the day. Definitely worth a look. 

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