Friday, August 14, 2009

There was a hot time in the old town last night

Last night I went to hear Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms in Virginia, speak at a benefit for the Hollywood Farmer's Market. Salatin is featured in Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and more recently in the film Food, Inc. (BTW, if you haven't seen the film, go, this minute, and take everyone you know, even if you have to drag them kicking and screaming).

Salatin is a self-described "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-farmer," which gives you some idea of his philosophies and approaches to, well, just about everything. His talk was based on food safety and how governmental approaches to it are not only not making our food safer, but are also marginalizing and criminalizing small farmers who raise animals on a non-industrial scale. In other words, farmers who raise pasture-fed beef, pork and poultry, in numbers that are appropriate to what their land can handle, and whose animals are slaughtered locally (sometimes on the farms themselves) and as humanely as possible.

I didn't go to Salatin's lecture expecting to learn anything new; I've read several of his books, including Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, and I also know a bit about this subject from other sources and from my work in the food sustainability world. I went to the lecture to experience Salatin himself (I also hoped it might be a potential networking opportunity, which didn't turn out to be the case, but I did bump into a couple folks I knew). And he was definitely worth the price of admission.

Salatin is, among other things, an entertaining writer, with a love of language that pays homage to his Southern roots. In person he is even more so. I felt like I was in a tent camp revival meeting gettin' some old time religion. He exhorted, he roared, his energy couldn't be contained on the small stage, he overwhelmed the levels on the rather feeble amplification system he was using (that's the radio geek in me coming out, that I would notice such a technical thing). It was a pleasure to hear him trace back the history of our attitudes towards food safety, going back to Pasteur and germ theory (Salatin's redux on Pasteur's approach is that germs are out to get us, so we have to destroy them before they destroy us).

Instead, as Salatin pointed out, we should be focussing our energies on creating environments where these killer bacteria, such as salmonella, E-coli, campylobacter, listeria, etc. etc. can't thrive. In other words, outlaw feedlots and other concentrated animal raising operations that feed animals things they were never supposed to eat and that make them sick (corn, in the case of cows), force animals to live hip deep in their own feces, with no access to the outside (in the case of factory poultry) and no ability to move about freely. If the USDA outlawed these kinds of operations, the proliferation and spread of these dangerous germs would be drastically reduced and our food would be measurably safer. That, along with the myriad ways government bureaucracy sets up obstacles for small farmers who want to raise animals sustainably and in a manner designed for their maximum health (not to mention ours), was the gist of Salatin's talk.

I didn't agree with everything Salatin said. He's a true libertarian as far as his contempt for anything governmental is concerned, and he believes the free market and capitalism are a sufficient corrective to industrial food abuses (He cited Upton Sinclair's The Jungle as an example; after it was published in 1906, sales of meat products dropped by 50%). I'm way too much of a socialist to ever buy into that point of view, and my contempt for capitalism is almost as deep as Salatin's is for government. But it was great to sit in a room with like-minded folks (many of them young farmers) and share a sense of purpose, to renew our individual and collective commitments to raising, buying. eating and advocating for good (and I mean in every sense of the word) food. And it was balm to my spirit to hear Salatin describe that commitment as "noble and righteous." Amen to that.

1 comment:

Magpie Ima said...

I really wanted to go to this but, as usual, my pesky job interfered. Thanks for such a great write up!