Thursday, May 8, 2008

Everything I want to do is Illegal

Yep. I'm sure to be on some governmental watch list now, I thought, as I checked this one out from the library. Great.

When I signed up for Green Bean Dreams "Be a Bookworm Challenge," I pledged to read two different books in the month of May. Everything I want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front, by Joel Salatin was the first one I read (it had the earliest due date at the library). Some of you may recognize Joel Salatin's name. He's the owner of Polyface Farms (Virginia) which was featured in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma.  

What is amazing about Polyface is not only the level of production, but that it's all done in the name of sustainability. They have created an incredibly intricate ecosystem with plant and animal life (i.e. the cows graze and poop on the ground; a few days later, about the time the bug larvae is hatching in the poop, the mobile chicken house comes for a visit; the chickens eat the larvae and in doing so spread the poop all over the ground allowing the grasses to be refertilized, helping it to grow so that eventually, the cows can graze again). He has endless such cycles operating at all times. It's absolutely fascinating! As a result, on 100 acres of land, they produce "30,000 pounds of beef, 60,000 pounds of pork, 12,000 broilers, 50,000 dozen eggs, 1,000 rabbits, and 600 turkeys" (source). Now, I'm not Ms. Farmer Know-it-All, but my Dad has 100 acres so I have an idea of the size. Wow, that's serious meat!

So back to the book - Salatin introduces us to the wonderful creation that is Polyface as he vents his frustration with the current US agricultural system.  Regaling the tales of his absurd experiences with governmental process and the individuals that represent it, he names instance after instance where, in the name of food security, goverment has made it almost impossible for small scale farms to operate under all the rules and regulations that are meant for large business; rules and regulations that in no way ensure the security that they say they provide. If it actually meant that people were safer, so be it, but the opposite, he says, has be shown. In the meantime, small businesses just can't compete and the government, who is supposed to be looking out for the little guy, seems to have made everything illegal. Those things that are actually possible can only be achieved with endless loads of paperwork and thousands of dollars in infrastructure requirements. In the end, all that is achieved is the further distancing from man and nature; ourselves and our food.
"The result of all this nonsense is that it divorces the farm from everything that used to be done there, processing, marketing, education, recreation. And when the farmer divorces everything farther up the food stream, he bears no responsibility. And on a grander scale, when a society segregates itself, the consequences affect the economy, the emotions, and the ecology."
Though his frustration is clear, his story-telling puts a hilarious spin on some of the ridiculous situations in which he has found himself. For instance, the 1,000,000 mile chicken - a story of his attempts to sell at a Washington DC Farmers Market only 150 miles away but across state lines. When taking into account all the rules and regulations with which he had to comply, he had to send the chickens hundreds of miles in one direction to be processed (in a federally approved facility) and hundreds of miles in another direction to be packaged (in a federally approved facility), before going the 150 miles to the farmers market. After about a year of this, he found that although the chicken was wildly popular at the farmer market, he had lost serious money on the deal. What's silly is that he has the ability to both process and package the chicken right there at home (just as safely and far more humanely) and could have made good money. But, of course, that would be illegal!

But Salatin is a fighter and I suppose that's what makes his story so unique. He's willing to fight the system.  In fact, the book ends with several funny stories of individuals who decided to work the system instead of being defeated by it.  Victory, it seems, can be had with a little luck and creativity.

Read more about Polyface here or here. Or check the book out for yourself. It's a great read!


Green Bean said...

Hmm, sounds interesting. I know Crunchy didn't like it but it sounds like you did. I loved Polyface and Salatin in OD and have a friend who raved about this very book. It is heartening to hear about the small farms and their fight to put decent food on our table. Thanks for the post and for participating in the challenge!

Anonymous said...

I have added this book to my library request list. I loved reading about Salatin and Polyface Farm in TOD. Thanks for a great review!

Beany said...

This book has been on my to-read list forever. So many books to read!

I read an article by Salatin in a magazine a few months back where he stated most of the info you wrote about in this post and I found it to be very enlightening esp. since it was from a food grower's perspective. He sounds almost exactly like another farmer who spoke at an event I attended a short while back - where he was mimicking the eco-system as much as possible...i.e birds following large animals. Its a fascinating insight into how fruitful an organic operation can be.

Some of the meat I've purchased has odd place stamps on it....but they're within the 100 mile radius of me...but I can't help wondering why its so difficult to process meat in the same place its grown. Maybe this will change in the coming years? Who knows. I've been talking about having a slaughter house in the farmers' market itself. The main obstacle would be vegetarians and while I count myself as one...I don't have a problem with a cow hanging from a meat hook while patrons decide which cut to get. Maybe fewer people would eat meat if they are squeamish about a live slaughter? I'm not sure that that's entirely a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

It is important to note that his production is not done on 100 acres but on 500 acres. The 400 acres of woodland and ponds are a vital part of the production of his meat. The meat just feeds on the grass growing on 100 acres.