Thoughts on Joel Salatin

I’m about to step in it, I’m sure.


I’m finally reading this book. I have known about it for a while, but I like to shop at local bookstores when I can, and I couldn’t find a copy anywhere.  I finally just ordered it myself. I even bought You Can Farm (also by Joel Salatin) at the same time because I felt that he is an important voice and that what he’s talking about is right up my alley.

So here are my thoughts on this book, and here’s where I step in it: I find it reductionist and somewhat disingenuous. There, I said it.

Look, it’s not that I don’t think Salatin is a revolutionary genius when it comes to sustainable farming practices. It’s not that I disagree with him that over-regulation hurts small farmers and benefits large corporate agri-business.  It’s not even that I doubt that every anecdote he tells about run-ins with regulators actually happened, or that every example of absurd regulations is really accurate.  I am ON BOARD with this message.  Hear, hear, I say.

What I don’t like is a story told in black and white, good and evil.  Maybe that makes me one of the ‘liberals’ he’s always on about.  I appreciate that he is very transparent about the fact that he is a political person and that he is a religious person, and that his strong opinions come from those values.  People often hide their biases, and that makes them much more insidious.  Salatin doesn’t do that, and I find that honorable. But I don’t find it particularly helpful or compelling to read over and over again that regulators are mindless, corrupt, vindictive, idiots, that government is useless, and that basically ANYONE who gets in his way is a corporate shill and a hack and doesn’t deserve to share his oxygen.

It’s not that I’m pro-government.  As a defense attorney, I duke it out with the government every day, whether it be an Attorney General or the Department of Homeland Security.  I see the warped sense of righteousness on the part of government employees and the absurdity of the laws they defend all the time.  But at the same time, I find that simply believing that my opponents are stupid, wrong, or evil does not automatically make it so. The world is a lot more complicated than that. My job is to defend against government overreach into the lives of everyday people, the government’s job is to enforce the rule of law and make sure criminals get punished.  Who is the bad guy here?

At the end of the day, Salatin is right that the regulations around food production have largely lost sight of the real goal, which is achieving food safety.  He’s right that bureaucracies, once established, become self-preserving entities that often focus as many resources on keeping the institution alive as on the original mission the institution was created for.  What he’s not right about is that these things and these people are evil and that they’re out to get him. And he’s not right that with less government there will automatically be less dysfunctional, self-preserving institutions.  They just won’t be run by the government anymore.  Maybe that’s good enough for Salatin, but it ain’t good enough for me.

As a self-described capitalist, Salatin should understand that businesses invest in and create systems and rules because they require a certain amount of consistency over the long term, to protect capital investments and as a ballast against the risk that comes from innovation.  Businesses that find the right balance between risk/innovation and consistency/institutional knowledge will do better, but not all businesses are like that.  As we have all experienced in this recession, when those who control the capital try to reap all the benefits of innovation while shifting the risk onto others, a few get rich while many others get hurt.  But banks aren’t the only industry to do this, they’re just the most pervasive, most powerful, most recent.  History is full of business who have profited off the harms they have done to the general public – power plants and industrial chemical companies who pollute groundwater for generations after they’ve moved on, Walmart who moves into small towns, drives mom-and-pop stores out of business, and then pays its employees a less than living wages and helps them to get on welfare, and yes, food producers who cut corners and end up sending tainted food into the food chain and harming the land for future generations.

Salatin repeats this observation several times as proof that farmers get screwed by regulators: If you read an article in the newspaper about a regulator shutting down a food producer for contaminated food, you would assume the regulator is telling the truth and the producer was to blame.  Well why do people think that, Mr. Salatin?  People think it because at least part of the time it’s absolutely true.

Because he refuses to acknowledge that regulation or government in general is ever right about anything, Mr. Salatin does a disservice to his own argument.  In order to dismantle absurd regulations or institutions it helps to understand – really understand – why they exist.  Regulation is too complex to just write off as being a big conspiracy against small farmers.  I have no doubt that the system is rigged in favor of big agribusiness.  Of course it is!  But not every regulator is a sell-out, and not every regulation was created to hurt small farmers.

People who disagree with you often have truer, more honorable intentions than you would like to believe.  And even when that person’s perspective seems to be intentionally cross-purposes from yours, that doesn’t mean one of you is right and the other is wrong.

In our area, we had a big brouhaha when a developer came in and wanted to take an old ranch and turn it into a hybrid residential/agricultural community.  The developer had the best of intentions, wanting to make a sustainable housing project, with low and middle income units, where residents would have access to an organic farm and could produce food for themselves and the community.  Those opposed to the development had the best of intentions, feeling that the zoning changes the project required would so change the nature of existing community, which is largely small, single family farms, that people who have been living here for generations would be driven out.  These people challenged the environmental impact report, the zoning changes, the business model proposed by the developers, every step of the way. The debate got heated, vitriolic.  The project stalled, and then, as far as I know, died altogether.

Who is the villain in this story? I don’t know the answer.  Does there have to be a villain? Certainly not. In fact, no matter which side you were on in this debate, vilifying the other side did nothing.  Those landowners who used the regulator to get the project stalled now have an abandoned farm as a neighbor. The developer lost a ton of money.

I’m sure from the developer’s point of view, it was the damn zoning laws and the EPA and the NIMBYs that got in the way of their well-intentioned plan.  If everybody would have just trusted that they knew what they were doing, things would have gone perfectly.  We were trying to create a new model that will be better for the environment, they might say.  We would have brought business, diversity, and vitality to this unused piece of land.  Maybe that’s true.  I can tell you that I was pretty excited for this project to go forward.  I thought it was a great idea.  I liked the pretty pictures of horses pulling plows through the fields and modest, tidy, energy efficient homes in earthy colors.  But then again, I wasn’t a neighbor. My farm wasn’t about to be next door to a high density housing development, a big untested experiment in urban farming and real-estate, that just happened to be located two hours from any major city.

I bet those neighboring farmers who got the regulators involved were thinking, well okay, if this thing works then great, but does this developer really know what they’re doing? What if their financials aren’t in order and they get halfway through the project and go bust (which has happened in other places in the county several times already)?  What if the experiment doesn’t work and people don’t farm the land and the developer just says okay fine and fills the fields with more houses after 10 years? What about road congestion and sewage impacting our farms?

So the neighbors used zoning, used regulations, to stop the project, because it seemed like there was too much risk being shifted onto them by this development.  Again, I don’t know whether the outcome of this scenario was for the better or worse.  Was innovation and sustainability killed by regulations, or was a disastrous real-estate scam averted?  Maybe it would be more satisfying to make one side into a bad guy and be able to either lament or celebrate.  But I don’t think picking teams will provide any insight into the issues that arose from this situation.

So again, I agree with Salatin that the absurd laws need to be changed or done away with.  I am glad that he is so outspoken and that people are listening.  People need to bang the drum, for sure, because if the money is behind the status quo, and it is, the Christian libertarian capitalist lunatic farmers need the people power to make change happen.  But as a reader of this book, I have no more insight into the complex nature of the problem or the real solutions than I did before.  I just have another biblical story of good versus evil, and I know that’s just a myth.

Okay. My two cents. Now you can have at me.

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