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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Joel Salatin, Part 1: “Folks, This Ain’t Normal”

In part one of the Earth Eats interview, farmer, food activist and author Joel Salatin talks about his new book "Folks, This Ain't Normal."

Joel Salatin and his new book Folks This Ain't Normal

Photo: dabdiputs (Flickr)

"Folks, This Ain't Normal" is Joel Salatin's latest book. Four of his previous books were how-to manuals for farmers.

Joel Salatin is a farmer, a nationally engaged speaker and the author of eight books. His latest book, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” is released today, and he has high hopes that it could become a best seller.

“Anyone who wants my pulpit to be bigger, this is what you can do to enable me to touch more people,” he says.

Earth Eats spoke with him from his office at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia.

Back Home In Indiana

Annie Corrigan: If the title is any indication, it sounds like you don’t pull any punches in this book.

Joel Salatin: Not too many, no. It’s fun.

AC: In the book, you mention that some of your most poignant and precious childhood memories came from visiting your grandmother and grandfather in Anderson, Indiana. Do you remember any specific memory that sticks out?

JS: He had a 1/4-acre garden, which is a pretty big garden for a couple to have in their backyard. Of course it looked massive to me as a child. The thing that I remember was that around three sides of this large garden was a teak trellis grape arbor. These grapes would just hang down. The teak top was probably four feet-five feet wide, and I could just barely on tiptoes reach them as a little child.

The sense of going out in that garden and just sensing being in a nest of abundance is one of my most poignant memories. I’ve never gotten away from that visceral love affair with ecological security.

There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction and confidence in surrounding yourself with a larder and knowing how to grow food, knowing how to process food, knowing how to take raw food and turn it into culinary delights; including even harvesting rainwater off your roof, and making a solarium to get solar energy. All of this stuff is about self-sustenance, and that’s very much a lost art in this country.

Advice From The Farmer

AC: Let’s talk about one particular quote from the book: “You cannot have a viable local food system without a seasonal eating commitment.” That sentence really speaks to us here at Earth Eats because that’s what we’re all about. But here’s the problem that I’m hoping you can address for us: Our fantastic farmers market has only a few more weeks before it shuts down for the season, and our winter market is great but it’s small and sells mostly meats and cheeses. Like many of the colder weather states, our local options really dry up when winter hits. What do people like us do who want to continue to eat locally and seasonally in a climate like Indiana’s?

JS: Well, there are a couple things. We are not even tapping the surface yet on season extension. Hoop houses, whether they’re double or single, heating with compost piles — my goodness, people even heat them with radiators.

Eliot Coleman raises mesclun mix in Maine in January in as many as triple-covering hoop houses, each one getting 10- to 20-degrees temperature barrier. We have the technology now with high-tech hoop houses and our understanding of thermal mass. We can make season extension type things.

If every house in Indiana and every office building had a solarium on the southern side, they could heat themselves with passive solar and use that room to grow mesclun mix and — not tomatoes and peppers — but certainly cold-tolerant things, like lettuces and cabbages throughout the winter using a house as a reverse-thermal mass in the winter to keep it warm.

Secondly, root cellars. There’s no reason why you can’t root cellar a tremendous number of fall type crops, from sweet potatoes to potatoes to cabbage to winter type squashes (acorn squash, butternut squash, pumpkins).

And then third, I would say what we need to be doing is buying in bulk from the farmers during the season and preserving that in our larder for winter. Most people aren’t thinking about that. When’s the last time you heard someone come up to a farmer at a farmers market and say, “My family is going to can green beans next week. Can you bring me three bushels?” If someone said that, the farmer would fall over in cardiac arrest, because farmers markets typically are people buying right now. Yeah, it’s great they’re making the connection with the farmer, but we need to go beyond that and connect to our ecological umbilical and realize that part of this is creating a seasonal larder preserved ahead from the seasons’ bounty for going through the winter.

We’re the first culture in history that hasn’t had to think about these things, and that’s the basis for “Folks, This Ain’t Normal.” It’s to try to help people understand that we, at our own peril, cavalierly go through our culture today and think that we’re so smart and so clever and so luxurious that we can be the first civilization in the world to not have to think about seasonality, to not have to think about energy, water, soil. You cannot abdicate this level of understanding about our ecological parameters and survive.

AC: I like the suggestion of buying a whole bunch from the farmers now and preserving it. I think that’s a brilliant idea.

JS: Have you had frost yet in Indiana?

AC: Yeah, a couple frosts.

JS: Are tomatoes still coming in or not?

AC: Not really.

JS: We’ve had a light frost here, but not a killing frost. We’re still getting tomatoes in the hoop house, and they’re just producing right along. I’ve always had this joke that tomatoes seem to talk to each other. The week before a frost, they all just produce like crazy, the best of the season right before frost. Farmers throw a lot of those out because people are tired of tomatoes. Now they’re into winter squash and parsnips and whatever. We could take those tomatoes and turn those into salsa and ketchup and tomato juice and chunked tomatoes. That’s what we eat on in our house.

We can about 800 quarts of stuff per summer, and the basement at this time of year is full. We get bushels of apples. We grind them down and make applesauce and can them. That’s just the way we live. In fact, that is the way all people have lived normally throughout history until just this last little abnormal blip of our civilization.

Local Food Rock Star

AC: This is not your first book, but it’s probably going to be the first book that’s widely distributed and that many people are going to see. A lot of the people I talk to through Earth Eats are very excited about your new book because you’re a prominent voice in the local food movement and growing in popularity even outside the foodie world. What does that feel like for you, to now be a voice for this movement?

JS: I still have to pinch myself. I feel like a Cinderella, you know. Teresa and I just wanted to farm. We didn’t have any aspirations for anything. We just wanted to be successful farmers.

My life’s tragedy is I feel like I should be normal. There should be hundreds of thousands of farmers like me, and the tragedy is that there are so few ecological and profitable operations.

Now, yes, that reality is really beginning to dawn on me now, that I have to be careful about what I say because people are listening, people are watching. I have to deal with that.

But the main thing is I’m spending half my time not farming now, so I’ve had to schedule my time differently. I’ve had to think about physical exercise, things like that that I’ve never had to think about because I’ve been real active and our on the farm. But, I absolutely do appreciate that my years on the high school debate team and the college debate team and my drama, theater, forensics, extemporaneous speaking and all those things that I did instead of playing sports throughout school are certainly standing me in good stead today.

I’ve been I think uniquely positioned and blessed with a very eclectic background of political and economic wide thinking. With the debate teams numerous topics and appreciation of other sides, to be able to articulate these positions and give people sound bites and encouragement in a time when frankly there is a tremendous amount of pushback form the mechanical food system that is trying to pooh-pooh, make fun, even marginalize, demonize and criminalize what I call a biological approach to life.

More: Read part two and part three of the Earth Eats interview with Joel Salatin.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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