I recently read this book as part of a course requirement and decided I’d like to share my review of the book with the interwebs. Other reviews of this book have been overly kind and, in my opinion, have failed to offer any kind of critique. So here it is. Don’t hate me, Joel Salatin. You’re doing very interesting things that deserve attention and discussion, but your staunch libertarianism turns me off as a reader.
Perhaps my disappointment lies more in my assumptions about Joel Salatin’s perspective on local food markets , rather than the harsh reality of who Joel Salatin revealed himself to be in Everything I Want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. Expecting noble stories of perseverance in a challenging food environment, I was greeted with a rant-laced manifesto that bore sour fruit. Salatin fails readers by downplaying his ability to introduce changes to the laws, policies, and regulations that bind his operation and neglecting to present common sense solutions to the reader.
While wading through the incensed rhetoric of Salatin’s grievances against the government, it became clear to me that relating to his staunch libertarian views that advocate the complete absence of government influence on his, or any, farm would be difficult. Salatin attacks government policy and “bureaucrats” because he disagrees with the concept of government and makes no true attempt to abide by any law or policy, until the “bureaucrats” threaten to shut him down. It is then, and only then, that Salatin complains about big agribusiness laws encumbering the potential of his farm, and uses the excuse to skirt the law with defiant pride. Readers lose focus in the midst of Salatin’s bitter tirades detailing countless acts of insubordination and confrontation with authorities. Because of this, readers are left to infer the underlying theme of the book; most regulations are aimed at big agribusinesses and should not apply to a small-scale, local farm, and therein lies the need for separate, applicable regulations that allow the local farmer to remain compliant with the law in ways that make sense for their operations and not those of large agribusiness.
Salatin offered the reader little insight into why the various maligned policies exist, and what those policies serve to protect. A stronger argument could have been made with the support of facts and information. It is rather obvious that the musings in the book were not researched in any way and simply offered one man’s unbalanced perspective rather than a positions supported by facts. As a title, Everything I Want to do is Illegal accurately describes Salatin’s lifestyle; everything he wants to do is illegal, for arguably sound reasons! The average reader would not know why what he does is illegal, since he does not provide any thoughtful narrative regarding his legal issues. This is more of Salatin’s issue, because he refuses to entertain the fact that he may be wrong. The bureaucrat saying, “it is the rule, therefore it is so” is not an acceptable answer for Salatin, and it is not an acceptable answer to me. There are reasons why the rules exist, foregoing any arguments of validity, and those should be explored and reported to the reader. Some may argue that properly educating the reader about farm and food policy is not the author’s goal, but neglecting to provide a strong argument, intentionally or not, does not allow the reader to gain the context necessary to identify with his perspective. Salatin wishes to live in a modern world without having to submit to, or formally challenge, modern laws and regulations.
That being said, Salatin is arguably one of the most noted libertarian-minded farm pundits and successfully drafts an emerging perspective on the local food system. Salatin is confident in his perspective and is quite clear about who he is as an entrepreneur. He is a capable author, with a firm opinion and determination to match. Salatin’s finest moment came from his experiences with the war against raw milk. He was insightful, providing historical examples of the issues surrounding the consumption of raw milk, and why the government regulates milk production. However, Salatin both gained and lost credibility in the same chapter when he implies that “rolling in the dirt” will make a person more able to consume the contaminants that could be present in raw milk products. Baselessly implying that “gardening” and “skinning animals for supper” are immune system boosters is superfluous and a potential public health concern. Salatin also states, “Virtually all of the processed foods currently sold at supermarkets could be supplanted with community-based entrepreneurial fare. Does your heart ache for this? Mine does.” The defining nature of processed foodstuffs does not allow for it to be “supplanted” by the local market. Yes, a local farmer could conceivably create lasagna flavored Hamburger Helper, but it would not be the same. The resulting meal would be a delicious, local, and fresh lasagna that loosely resembled the packaged version from which it was based. The local “entrepreneurial fare” could not provide shelf-stability and certainly could not compete in terms of cost. Salatin has developed strong opinions based upon information that is factually inaccurate. Fact and opinion are endlessly intertwined within the narrative of the book and some readers may be inclined to believe all opinions as fact because Salatin’s tenacity makes his arguments dangerously believable.
Readers must be willing to invoke a politically neutral mindset when engaging with Salatin’s text. If an inquisitive mind is able to consider Salatin’s political views as a means to appreciate his perspective, then there are plenty of real issues concerning the local food system to be found in Salatin’s stories. Unfortunately, the systemic issues are for the reader’s consideration only, as Salatin only speaks of issues that he faces on his unique farm, under the laws in his county in the state of Virginia.
It is this observation that leads the reader to question Salatin’s true motives. Is Salatin a crusader for farmer’s rights? Does he even claim to be as much? Put simply, Salatin’s negative attitude towards government involvement in his food system may be self-serving. It is a vain attempt to cover what I believe to be his true motivation: the desire to run his farm as cheaply and profitably as possible. Salatin’s perspective becomes marred when he mentions that he cannot charge schools for tours of his farm because of current health and safety codes in Virginia. The issue, from Salatin’s perspective, is that he is being denied the right to profit from allowing a group to tour his land. To the reader, the issue becomes more about why Salatin feels the need to demand a cover charge from a group of second-graders who came to pet farm animals and play in a corn field.
Salatin introduced himself as a “third generation Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic” and his narrative was true to himself and his beliefs, even if he was unable to build a compelling argument as to why readers should believe that his beliefs are valid. However, beliefs are the precious belongings of one person and validity does not have a place in a belief system, with the exception of your beliefs directly affecting the health and safety of those who consume your products.