The Locavore’s Bookshelf: Holy Cows and Hog Heaven

This self-published book, subtitled, The Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm Friendly Food, by Joel Salatin is probably one of the most important books a locavore can own. In a mere 129 pages, Salatin, the self-described Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist farmer of Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, explains the hows and whys of supporting local farmers who use sustainable methods of production. He lays his thesis out in readable, if fiery prose, then backs it up with facts and experience.

If, after reading this book, you don’t want to make the effort to run out and find farmers in your area and start eating the best food you have ever tasted, I fear there is no hope for you. Get thee to a McDonald’s if thou are not swayed by Salatin’s arguments, and never look back.

Salatin is a bit of a media celebrity these days, thanks in part, to Michael Pollan featuring him in a few magazine articles and most importantly, in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (Yes, I intend to review Pollan’s book soon, I promise.) But, don’t let Salatin’s “celebrity” status lure you into thinking he’s just another expert out to berate you by telling you what to eat, how to eat it, when to eat it and why to eat it.

Of course, he does all of those things, but his tone is not one meant to inspire guilt; rather, he just works to inspire the reader, period. He breaks down the process of turning away from the corporate grocery-store Wal-Martized food industry and opting into the alternative economy of locally grown food from farmers you can know and trust. He helps us re-humanize the food chain, in simple, straightforward language that is friendly, open, honest, and sometimes out-loud laughing funny.

Now, here is where I have to tell you something. Salatin’s rhetoric at times may make you think he might be a wee bit anti-government. Well, now, remember that second word in his self-description: “libertarian?” Yeah, you know, the folks who think that the government has a tad bit too much power? Well, in Salatin’s case, just when you think he might be coming off as a little shrill and paranoid, all you have to do is look up the laws and regulations he is talking about, and there they are, in black and white. He’s right–agricultural regulations and some “food safety” laws are detrimental to the small farmer and food producer. And being as he is one of those little guys who has made it part of his life’s work to agitate and try and get some of those regulations loosened up so that small farmers have a chance at making a decent living growing clean, healthy, sustainable food–you can bet he probably -has- drawn some government official’s ire here and there.

But even if you cannot get behind him on his deregulation crusade, what you can get behind is the enthusiasm he has for growing food following the footsteps of nature. Don’t let his talk of the Creator bug you overmuch, because you can insert “Nature” in place of that and go the non-theistic route in your head and find yourself still with Salatin, walking along beside him as he explains some of his philosophy of farming to you. As you grow to understand the elegant simplicity of Salatin’s methods, it makes so much sense that you wonder why more farmers aren’t doing the things he does.

What you will find out, if you go to your local farmer’s market, is that there are a lot more folks like Joel Salatin out in the countryside than you thought. Talk to your farmers, learn about what they do. They probably don’t do everything Salatin does at Polyface, but they probably use methods similar to his. They are probably just as passionate as he is about their land, their crops, their animals. Get them talking, and you will learn a hell of a lot more about your food than you thought possible.

That is the single most important theme of Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: the human connections that personalizing the food chain gives us.

When we buy food at the grocery store, we might know the clerks, or the produce stockers or maybe the guy at the meat counter, and we might chat with them, but if you ever ask them questions about this apple or that cut of beef, they really cannot tell you very much. They didn’t grow it, or cut it. They just took it out of a box and put it on a shelf, and they probably aren’t too excited about that. (Can you blame them?)

But a farmer who grew the food you are buying–why they can tell you the entire life cycle from seed to sprout to flower to fruit, from calf to cow to steak. And they lget excited when you ask them questions. They love it, because they have a passion for it; farmers who sell directly to the consumer almost always are driven by a great love for what they do. They have to be passionate, because they certainly aren’t making tons of money doing it.

So, Joel Salatin and I want to know–where would you rather purchase your food? From someone who doesn’t know about it and doesn’t care, and who is just the last link in a chain of faceless drones who brought this food to you across countless miles, in a condition that is probably not very well-filled with nutrients?

Or would you rather buy from the guy and gal down the road, who know each cow by name, who can tell you the pedigree of each apple tree on their farm, and who picked their corn fresh this morning and brought it five miles to market?

By now, you probably know which venue I try and choose every time.

If you are still sitting on the fence of the issue of local food, I hope you get your hands on this book and give it a read, and see if it sways you to give local, farm-fresh food a try. I am of the opinion that once you try buying from your neighbor, the experience of talking with them, of making a connection with them, and then eating that delicious food, will bring you back for me.

I know that is how it has worked with our family.


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  1. Sounds very interesting. Thanks for reviewing this book!

    Comment by Gabriella True — May 26, 2006 #

  2. One of the beautiful things about openminded activism is that it allows us to talk and plan and form coalitions with folks who are on a different location on the political mapy in any other issue. I really welcome thinking out of the box and looking for allies in unexpected places.

    Comment by Hadar — May 26, 2006 #

  3. Sounds very intersting… reminds me when I grew potatoes in our kitchen garden during my holidays, and my mom distributed it in our neighbourhood… Pleasure of farming…..

    Comment by Tony of the Bachelor cooking Blog — May 28, 2006 #

  4. You are welcome, Garbriella. It is really a worthwhile book.

    Hadar–it is hard for some very secular or very Pagan liberals to accept allies who are Christian. But, I have said for years that Christianity, at its heart, is a very revolutionary religion, and one which makes it a natural place to find people who are very socially progressive, liberal and concerned with social justice and other life-affirming causes.

    The rise of the religious right in the US has obscured my point somewhat, and it has hardened many of the secular liberal left against Christianity, much to my dismay. It is always refreshing to me, however, to meet, whether in person, or through writing, Christians who truly seem to reflect the spirit of Christ, and who are concerned with the same values I hold.

    Tony–it is a great joy to share produce with others–there is pride in it, and also generousity. It is a wonderful thing–to give food to others, food that you grew yourself.

    Comment by Barbara — May 30, 2006 #

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