By Lorrie Baumann
Every society has its orthodoxies, and some of them look foolish later. One of today’s is that cheap food and high quality can happen at the same time, says Joel Salatin, a full-time farmer in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and a leader in the American sustainable farming movement. “Five hundred fifty years ago, you would have been laughed out of the room if you’d dared to suggest that the Earth was round. The flat Earth idea was quite ubiquitous in the world and that was the orthodoxy of the day. We look back and laugh,” he told an enthusiastic audience during a keynote speech in Baltimore at this year’s Natural Products Expo East.
Americans spend a smaller percentage of their total consumer expenditures on food than do the residents of any other country in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are countries where residents spend less per capita on their food, but they’re the likes of Colombia, Bulgaria and South Africa. On the other hand, Americans spend more on health care than do the citizens of the vast majority of other countries, according to the Global Health Observatory Data Repository. “We suggest, the weirdos, the heretics of our culture, dare to suggest that maybe we would be a healthier culture if we spent more on food,” Salatin said. “Think about how the experts told us to eat hydrogenated margarines instead of butter and lard. It should not be a surprise to us that we would be a healthier culture if the government had never told us how to eat.”
As a nation, American farmers have decided to invest in drugs, capital expenditures and energy intensity rather than farm management strategies that require people on the ground, and that has resulted in declines in the number of farmers and in their economic and cultural status in our society as well as in increasing pollution. What Americans should be doing instead of reducing food costs through these strategies is to manage their food expenditures by buying high-quality fresh foods and cooking them at home rather than buying processed foods, according to Salatin. “You don’t need to pay $3.99 a pound for potato chips,” he said. “Just go home and slice it up and fry it, and then you’ve got real nutrition – especially if you fried in lard,” he said.
Another way to reduce food cost is to move food supplies more efficiently from farms to consumers, Salatin said. He predicted that brick and mortar grocery stores are becoming obsolete, and electronic aggregation and distribution like that practiced by Amazon will become the way of the future. Already, he’s selling 40 percent of his farm produce through an electronic shopping cart maintained by a metropolitan buying club that’s able to drop the price of that produce below that offered by local warehouse stores because the buying club doesn’t have to pay for the brick and mortar infrastructure of a retail store.
Another myth that will seem foolish in the future is that organically and naturally produced food can’t actually feed the world’s population. That’s not a new myth, according to Salatin.
In 1910, the world had run out of unexplored regions, and what happened was a worldwide fear that the planet was overpopulated and would run out of food, he said. Experts thought that we were running out of soil, and that meant that we were going to starve to death, he said. Out of this developed two parallel schools of thought about how to deal with the situation. One school of thought said that all of life was a reconfiguration of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. Then there was another school, the naturalist, who said that life was not fundamentally mechanical, it was fundamentally biological, according to Salatin. “Both sides moved forward with their approaches,” he said. The process for describing aerobic composting was described in 1943 by Sir Albert Howard, but by then, the world was distracted by World War II. “What the world was wanting at that time was not compost; they needed explosives,” Salatin said.
Then, after World War II, the factories that had been using nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus to make explosives turned to making cheap chemical fertilizer that farmers could use instead of composting animal manure. “Sir Albert Howard had another idea, but we were tired of shoveling,” Salatin said. “It took a while for our side to develop all of the infrastructure necessary to come up to speed with the requirements of Sir Albert Howard’s gift of compost.”
“Life is fundamentally biological not mechanical. The soil is not lifeless, inert material. The soil is the most amazing foundation of life – the foundation being invisible. When do we think about that in our lives? Nobody ever thinks about it,” he said. “The orthodoxy out there is that Nature is a reluctant partner that we must subdue. What we have learned is that Nature is a benevolent lover that responds to caresses and wants to bless us with abundance beyond anything we could imagine.”