Being led on a tour of Polyface Farm by owner Joel Salatin is a special experience. Not only is it entertaining (like hearing Salatin explain how his methods differ from those of “U.S.-Duh”, as in USDA), but it’s instructive (to learn that Polyface has achieved its lush pasture used by cows, pigs and chickens not only without artificial fertilizers, but without any plowing, ever).
I had the good fortune to join about 100 supporter of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund on the tour he conducted Saturday for the organization’s annual fundraising event at the farm in Swoop, VA. It was the second time I’ve taken the tour (here’s my account of the first three years ago).
The main changes I saw are in the growth of Salatin’s farm and his influence (by virtue of starring in recent movies like “Food Inc” and “Fresh”). Standing in front of a group of about 50 romping pigs, he proudly revealed that Polyface has hit the the $2 million annual sales level, while sticking to Salatin’s policy of not shipping food outside a 100-mile radius. The effect, he says, has been to strengthen local businesses–everything from a local breakfast diner serving visitors to his farm to local feed and supply companies.
Salatin is more convinced than on my previous visit that his approach can replace the feedlots and monoculture operations and “feed the world.” He credits two simple innovations with helping make the dream ever more possible: easily movable electric fencing (to herd the pigs, chickens, and cattle to new pasture digs every day or every few days) and cheap flexible piping that allows water to easily be brought to the animals.
One of the biggest obstacles to achieving that goal? The obsession with food safety regulations. As just one example, he pointed to regulations that did away some years ago with the ubiquitous smoke houses that were once part of many farms, allowing them to smoke their own meats. Now, he says, his pigs and chickens must not only be slaughtered off the farm at federally inspected slaughter houses, but then the meat for curing must go to federally licensed curing facilities that generally treat smaller farms as nuisances (and charge premium prices for curing and labeling), and then be shipped back to the farm. “That’s why my bacon is $9 a pound,” he says. “If we could do our own curing, I could sell it for much less.” And there’d be a smaller carbon footprint, to boot.
The shadow of so-called “food safety” seems likely to rear its ugly head within the next couple weeks, when legislation designed to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration vast new powers over the food supply, Senate Bill 510, comes up for debate and a vote, Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation and Pete Kennedy of the FTCLDF told the gathered crowd. (Yes, Lola Granola, we’ll take a reprieve from the heavy sex to discuss S510.) While there have been negotiations over an amendment that would exempt many of the smallest food producers from the most draconian provisions of the S510 regulations (like the requirement to complete extensive HACCP plans), the provisions designed to give the FDA control over farming regulations (known as “Good Agricultural Practices”) “won’t exempt you, Joel,” Sally Fallon stated in her remarks.
It sure is difficult to imagine Joel Salatin quietly accepting the recommendations of FDA inspectors for changing his agricultural practices. In fact, he may want to give them copies of his latest book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, which follows on his previous book, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. (I’ll have more about his latest book upcoming.) If S510 passes, and is merged with similar legislation that has already passed the U.S. House, expect Salatin in his tours to be railing against F-Duh as well as US-Duh.
One other outgrowth S510 could be many more food “resisters” –farmers and others in the food chain refusing to go along with government edicts supposedly designed to improve safety. They may want to read my latest article at Grist, “Six Things You Should Know Before Defying the Real Food Police”. There are some excellent comments following the article from Tim Wightman of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Foundation and from Teddi Bechard, whose family has been sued by the state of Missouri over distribution of raw milk.
It’s difficult not to conclude that S510 will narrow further our options for personal decisions about food safety matters. I’m not just talking about consumption of raw dairy.
I spent my week away during late August at a meditation retreat in central Massachusetts, the Insight Meditation Society. While meditation was the main focus, food issues cropped up even at this out-of-the way place, in an unexpected way.
IMS serves mostly vegetarian food, with a few (pasteurized) dairy selections, like yogurt at breakfast and cheese in some casseroles. So vegetables are as important at IMS as dairy might be at a Weston A. Price Foundation event.
On the bulletin board outside the large dining room was this notice: “INFORMATION ABOUT EATING RAW BEAN SPROUTS AT IMS…Although IMS has never had a health problem related to the consumption of eating raw bean sprouts, please be aware that the FDA has a warning out on raw bean sprouts due to cases of food-borne illness resulting from their consumption…While IMS takes ever precaution it can to make and serve healthful sprouts to you, including buying seeds from a distributor that frequently tests its seed (called seed sampling), we cannot guarantee their safety.” It concludes that any attendees who are elderly, very young, pregnant women, and “those with compromised immune systems” should be “particularly mindful of this warning and exercise caution with regard to consuming sprouts.”
I piled the sprouts on my salad plate. I am fine with such warnings, whether for raw milk or bean sprouts. But I worry that if S510 passes, that sprout distributor supplying IMS will be harassed out of business, and there won’t be any choice about whether to consume sprouts.
Now is the time to contact your U.S. senator, before the election, and let him or her know how you feel about the food safety legislation.
If you’re on a raw food diet, food safety fears are a here-and-now proposition. I was out to dinner with Max Kane on Friday evening in Staunton, VA, preceding the gathering at Joel Salatin’s, and watched Kane try to order his meat uncooked. We were at a very nice restaurant, mind you (specializing in local produce–it even carries chicken from Salatin’s farm) and Kane tried to order the chicken uncoooked. Nothing doing, said the waiter. So Kane tried to order some steak, also uncooked. At that point, the chef appeared to explain he wouldn’t feel comfortable serving raw chicken or beef to anyone. Kane’s offer to sign any waiver of liability was refused as well. It was all very friendly, just that the chef seemed to not to have total confidence in his raw meats, and had visions of being sued if he didn’t serve it cooked.
Eventually, there was a compromise–the chef agreed to serve Kane raw beef “cooked” in lime juice. Kane said it was excellent.