Respecting food, respecting ourselves; or Put down that Hot Pocket before you regret it

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

Regret what, you wonder? No, not the searing pain that accompanies biting into the microwaved pastry filled with molten lava. No, no. To those who are passionate about wholly sustainable agriculture like Joel Salatin, processed foods like Hot Pockets and Cocoa Puffs are the gastronomic equivalent of a one night stand with a stranger, what he calls, “prostitution food.” A self-proclaimed “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic”, he says that eating is the most intimate act we do outside of marriage, and should be given the same respect and consideration. What modern industry has done, however, is distance people from their food and break that intimate connection, such that few people these days give any thought to what they’re actually eating and where it comes from. But for food, which we put daily into our bodies, there should be a courtship, a relationship – and a romance.

Photo by roboppy on Flickr

Photo by roboppy on Flickr

To this end, Joel has spent the last few decades continuing what his parents and grandparents started: emotionally, economically, and environmentally-sustainable farming. Their farm is called Polyface, and it is built around the concept of polyculture – emulating natural diversity and ecosystems to produce food. The traditional way of doing this is through planting multiple crops in the same space. Polyface does it by controlling symbiotic interactions between different food animals and their environment in a way that more closely resembles their natural relationships. This results in healthier, happier animals and habitats, and healthier and environmentally-friendly food.

Michael Pollan’s excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, highlights Polyface Farm and catapulted Salatin into the public awareness, such that Salatin now keeps a busy speaking schedule. He spoke with gusto at Stanford tonight to a packed auditorium riveted by his passion for sustainable farming and the eloquence with which he told the farm’s story. Nuggets of wisdom interspersed throughout his talk went hand in hand with irreverent illustrations of concepts and unrepentant jibes at the various evils of the status quo, including the “US-Duh” (USDA). A few of the more thought-provoking portions of the talk included:

The importance of multipurposing. Portable, easily adaptable tools that are still highly tuned to their specific environment but derived from multi-use components. This has corollaries to web-based and computational tool development.

The importance of community. Specifically a return of crafting, such as lumber milling and butchering, to the community and the consequent return of awareness, accountability, and appreciation for the products we consume that our industrialized society has lost. Like above, this also has corollaries to tool development, namely that transparency and an invested community are good.

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

The importance of disturbance for progress. Polyface does this by using the natural habits of animals to stimulate new plant growth. “Two steps forward, one step back” might be one way to encapsulate it; another might be the acknowledgment that things usually have to get worse before they get better. But it’s really that short term disruption is a good way to jump-start progress, whether it be ecological or social.

The importance of creating value. Salatin is all for preserving the environment, but he believes that the way to steward resources is to create value. He does this, for example, with wood by harvesting some of it (sustainably) for firewood which he sells to local customers who come by to pick it up.

Your users are your greatest allies. The way things are done at Polyface are still a minority viewpoint, even (or especially) in their local area. The neighboring farms don’t tend to approve of their practices, and so the Polyface community consists mostly of their customers, who believe in its mission and are invested in its success. This translates to any company or group providing a service or a product – build a good relationship with your consumers, because it’s going to be your users who are your friends, and likely not your peers.

The significance of group behavior. Cows act and interact differently with their environment and each other when in a group. So do people. We can use this fact to our advantage, and we have.

The folly of industrialized goals. “Bigger, fatter, faster, cheaper” are not necessarily noble, and are not always the traits you want.

Acknowledging all the steps in the cycle gives you better appreciation for the end product. Salatin illustrated this in two ways: one, by showing absolutely adorable pictures of baby bunnies – which elicited oohs and awws from the audience – followed by pictures of rabbits being dressed and cleaned, and two, by unapologetically stating that a favorite activity of theirs is to cook and give homemade sausages to the children of vegetarians at their food festivals. He says that they’ve actually converted a lot of vegetarians back to eating meat by convincing them that their philosophy of farming is sustainable and responsible.

Photo by questa on Flickr

Photo by questa on Flickr

In addition to these overarching concepts were a couple choice statements, such as:

“When your neck is bigger than your head, you’re a freak! And Nature weeds you out!” – qualifying a statement he made saying that the average age of death for NFL players is 57 years, which itself was said in regards to his statement against “bigger, fatter, faster, cheaper.”

“It’s a one night stand – it’s prostitution food!” – as explained in the first paragraph, in regards to modern processed food.

“Our pigs have a great life and one bad day.” – apparently how Michael Pollan sums up the life of a Polyface pig in his book.

“It’s how we respect and treat the least of us that determines how we respect and honor the greatest of us.” – commenting that we cannot truly respect ourselves until we respect the earth and the organisms that sustain us.

This is the gospel that Joel Salatin preaches, and it speaks to a growing hunger many of us have for meaningful and socially responsible living. It is still a minority viewpoint, but Joel’s hope is that a new generation of holistic, environmentally-conscious farmers will arise, elevate the once respectable vocation from the “redneck hillbilly” reputation it has come to wield, and bring romance back into people’s relationship with food. As I learned today, he’s a man on a mission, he does not shy away from controversy, and even if you don’t agree with everything he says, you can at least respect him for his respect for all of nature’s facets, no matter how ordinary they seem to us at first glance.

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

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