Folks, This Ain’t Normal

15 Jan

I spent the summer of 2010 in St John’s, Newfoundland.

Sometime around mid-July that year, the normally abundant displays of fruit and veg in the supermarket started looking plundered. Within a few days, the shelves and fridges were half-bare. People got a little nervous.

It turned out there was a lock-out at the Port of Montreal, and fresh food shipments weren’t getting in. While things were resolved by the time I left, it was hard to believe that an incident over 2,000 km away could have left us feeling vulnerable.

North Americans rely so much on a complex industrialized food network in which everything is taken care of. This means we can get on with our busy lives. It also means that we’re at the mercy of a chain of suppliers and distributors when it comes to the nutritional value and safety of what we put in our bellies, the effects practices like crop-spraying and trucking food across continents are having on our natural resources, and the basic availability of fresh food on our grocery store shelves.

Organic farmer Joel Salatin just brought out a thought-provoking book called Folks This Ain’t Normal on this very topic. He asks us to take a long hard look at our modern food systems, which he blames, in large part, for the degradation of our environment, communities and health.

The plain-talking Virginian got on the phone with me last month to talk about his concerns and suggest solutions.

Please tell us what you think in the comments section.

Valerie Howes: How can families bond over food, other than on trips to the drive-thru?

Joel Salatin: Turn off the TV and get your kids into the kitchen. As well as using it as a place to cook together, you can use it as a learning centre for teaching your kids about everything from fractions to chemistry to history.

Outside, you can get them involved in gardening and fun things like composting with earthworms. You can replace the family paroquets with two chickens and get the kids to feed them kitchen scraps and gather the eggs.

VH: In Folks This Ain’t Normal, you make a strong case for us all getting backyard hens—even if we live in the city. Why?

JS: The impacts are profound. Firstly, when you feed your household scraps to hens, there’s a tremendous reduction in what ends up going to landfill. People living in cities with municipal composting programs separate their compostables to be taken 10 miles out of town to a composting site, only to be re-imported back into town and sold to them to feed their flower gardens. Why not feed your scraps straight to chickens: you get the manure and the eggs, and nothing has to go on a truck anywhere? That’s the way people have lived throughout history.

Secondly, you get better eggs. They’re not going be kept in a warehouse two months before you eat them; they’ll be nutritionally superior, and you don’t have to bring them in from a distant source.

Thirdly, home hen-keeping would certainly shut down factory farming.

And fourth, its just something fun to do: chickens are great creatures to have around and certainly as exciting as paraquets.

VH: One of your pet hates is excess food packaging; what can we do about it?

JS: Buy unprocessed food and prepare it at home so it doesn’t even come in a package. Buy loose sweet potatoes, carrots and celery instead of microwave meals.

When travelling, don’t patronize overwrapped plane food: it’s not worth eating anyway. You can refuse to drink water that comes in a plastic cup or at least re-use your cup on a long-haul flight; they give you a new cup every time they bring you a cup of water. Think about all the plastic cups on a plane and all the planes in the sky in one day. That’s truckloads of cups a day—and it all starts with one.


VH: Talking of planes, in Folks This Ain’t Normal you suggest we stay closer to home and tend our gardens and animals rather than jetting off to exotic destinations. How can stay-home vacations compete with cocktails, sand and sun?

JS: I’m not opposed to exotic travel per se, but exotic travel used to be a very special thing, not just something everybody assumes they have a right to do whenever they take the notion.

My point is to try to help people be aware that personal and physical involvement in their own environment is actually exciting and creates opportunities for discovery.

And to take a Caribbean cruise, and then say we don’t have money or time to can food, garden or buy local, that’s a problem. We’re not doing the things that are most important and historically normal.

VH: How can people build community around food?

JS: My idea of a food community is not a whole bunch of foodies sitting down and sharing recipes; it’s people in the city linking themselves to people in the country or linking themselves to urban farming projects, buying clubs, Community Supported Agriculture and farmers markets.

There are so many struggling food venues, from farms to farmers’ markets to independent food stores. What they need is patronage. What they need is for people to buy whole foods from them, not to run into the supermarket and buy frozen pizza.

VH: Much of Canada is bitterly cold in winter; aren’t we obliged to ship in our veggies at least part of the year?

JS: We are currently using who knows how many barrels of petroleum trucking mesclun mix and brussel sprouts from California and Peru. We could take a lot less of that fuel to make plastic and put solariums on the southern exposure of our buildings. Then we could grow all of our cool-season vegetables, especially lettuce and salad greens, so in the winter we could shut down all that transportation.

Those leafy greens we import are 95% water; you simply can’t afford to ship water on a truck 3,000 miles. Historically we only shipped things that were nutrient-dense, like coffee, spices and cheese. And so to think we can sustainably continue to ship lettuce leafs across the continent in winter is insane. We need greenhouse season-extension solariums.

VH: There’s a chapter in your new book called “Let’s Make A Despicable Farm.” What is so despicable about modern industrial farms?

JS: The worst thing is the fecal particulate [dried-poo dust] that the animals are ingesting. You cannot confine thousands of animals in a building like that: they’re not potty trained. And so what you end up with in industrial farming buildings is essentially a fecal particulate cloud that animals are breathing in 24/7. This creates lesions in their respiratory mucous membranes and creates wounds that let the fecal particulate pass straight into the blood stream.

Next worst: mono-cropping and the amount of chemical fertilizers and insecticides used. The workers in the field on industrial farms are basically wearing moonsuits. If you have to wear those to visit your food, you might not want to eat it.

VH: You suggest we all pay more for our food to support farmers with healthier practises. What if our budget is already tight?

JS: My question back is: Are you spending money on anything that you don’t need to spend money on? Most of us are buying lots of things, from Starbucks lattes to $100-dollar designer jeans with holes already in the knees to Disney trips to Chinese trinkets to African safari vacations.

Ninety-five percent of us are spending money on things we don’t need. And to buy things you don’t need and then blame that for why you can’t eat responsibly is simply not facing up to your responsibilities to out ecosystem.

That said, the number one way to bring your grocery bill down is to buy unprocessed. You can buy 2 lbs of grass-fed beef and a bag of potatoes from our organic farm for less than you’d spend on a family-sized Burger King meal.



16 Responses to “Folks, This Ain’t Normal”

  1. Cindy Chong January 15th, 2012 at 3:25 AM #

    Greetings from southern Alberta. (Canada, for those who do not recognize the province, hahaha).
    I would like to know, exactly, the province and municipality that you are referring to, when suggesting we have chickens in our back yards. In my community (of aprox. 75,000) we are so over burdened with by-laws, that the thought of even having a clothes line, let alone “farm animals” (as I have been forcefully informed) is an absolute taboo! Hefty fines is a common occurance. I have had to fight for my “umbrella” clothes line and compost box, but I won the battle on both of these issues (as neither are an eyesore, nor does the composting smell and works very well without chemicals.) I would love to have animals – chickens included, but I have been informed that my property is too small to have the adequite housing and noise dampering and manure treatment, necessary to comply with the by-laws and the comfort of the neighbours. I have been informed by the governing bodies that if I want a “farm life”, then it’s best if I relocate into a rural setting. Our finances prohibit such a manouver, so I must comply with the urban single mindedness. How sad that “city kids” continue to pollute the ground with all the chemicals needed, to have a beautiful yard. Chickens love ants and there is a bonanza of those little critters here. Ducks love dandy-lions and weeds. (although you have to have a mobile fence to keep them out of you vegetable garden). Rabbits absolutely love garden green waste.
    May I reiterate. Where or which city allows this? I/we need to move there.
    Respectfully yours, Mrs. Cindy Chong.

    • Valerie Howes January 15th, 2012 at 9:59 AM #

      Hi Cindy,
      It’s true that most municipalities do not allow hen keeping in backyards. It is legal right now in Brampton, Guelph, Niagara Falls (in Ontario), and Victoria, Vancouver and Surrey (in British Columbia).

      However, I know that in my home city, Toronto, there is a big push right now to change the city bylaws, which were introduced 30 years ago, and things are looking promising for the backyard hen-keeping brigade.

      Our Reader’s Digest food stylist, Signe Langford, created this funny slideshow on clandestine henkeepers: . The story has generated dozens of interesting comments about the pros and cons, the myths and the realities.

      If you are interested in changing the bylaws in your own hometown, the best way to go about it is to band together with other like-minded locals and head to meetings at City Hall.

      I’m sure the argument about saving money on garbage disposal programs, which Joel Salatin raises, would interest administrators.

  2. Linda Trainor January 15th, 2012 at 8:39 AM #

    Dear Valerie & Joel

    Loved your interview. I am presently living in the Town of Liverpool, NS, therefore I am unable to have hens & chickens in my back yard. I also have limited amount of yard to grow my own garden. But my youngest daughter lives in the Valley & has a small farm. She had two huge gardens last year. As well she has pigs, turkeys, goats, hens, roasters, chickens, etc. While visiting her I have had goat’s milk, goat cheese, fresh eggs, and for Christmas she gave us a turkey (35 lb), which she helped kill. I love visiting the farm. I spent 4 days with her this past August and I spent part of my time weeding the gardens, loved it. I also prepared meals right from the garden, delicious. I would love to move to the Valley, some day. Thanks again for the information. I am seriously considering purchasing Joel’s book “Folks This Ain’t Normal.


    • Valerie Howes January 15th, 2012 at 9:42 AM #

      Hi Linda,
      Your daughter’s farm sounds lovely, and it seems you are very well fed when you visit. I wanted to let you know that in the April issue of Reader’s Digest, we’re running a story on container gardens to give ideas on how to grow some of your own food if you have limited space. And here’s a link to a story I did last year on kitchen gardens: . Just make sure your kitchen gets plenty sunlight if you try this; or invest in grow lights. Community gardens may be another option, and some people even do backyard sharing, an agreement in which homeowners with a large garden they are unable or unwilling to tend share their land with people who’d like to garden but don’t have a place to do it. Everybody shares the spoils. . Good luck and thanks for your comment.

  3. Bob January 15th, 2012 at 10:25 AM #

    I think that everyone should read this book. I worked for a period of time for a local farm at one of their vegetable stands. People have totally lost any knowledge of what is happening to the food that they buy in the store. They don’t know that the food is chemically enhanced. They don’t know even what should be in season at any given time of the year. I actually had a person tell me that we weren’t very good farmers because we didn’t have any fresh strawberries in September ( local ones run out the first week of July around here). I was told that they must be in season because the supermarket had them in stock. We believe our governments because we don’t want to think that the food that we are eating is one of, if not the main reason that things like cancer have become rampant today. Stop eating chemicals people and start growing food for yourself. You will not only be healthier, but, better educated as well.

  4. Daphne Goold January 15th, 2012 at 11:14 AM #

    In St. John’s, the by-law states you’re allowed 3 hens per household (, and I know one of my uncle’s neighbours has some. I think it’s a great idea for those that can eat eggs.
    I’d also like to point out that even if you live in an apt building with a balcony, you can grow your own fruit+veggies if they get sun. I had hot peppers, bell peppers, tomatoes and cherry tomatoes growing on my balcony in Toronto without a problem. Many newer apt buildings are also starting to have rooftop gardens, which I think is great. It’s definitely going to be one of my considerations when looking for a new place this year.

  5. signe January 15th, 2012 at 11:18 AM #

    Yup, everyone needs to read this book. Hey, I’ve got a crazy idea! Families could turn off the computer, T.V., xBox, all of it and sit down together and read this book – night after night – right after dinner…a dinner you all shared together, made together, even grew together. I’m old enough to remember a time when kids knew how to amuse themselves – without hip hop dance classes or video games or Facebook. We helped in the garden, we helped around the house, we had chores, we knew our place in the family and we felt like we were a vital part of something. And none of us had things plugged into our ears – we were connected to each other, we could hear what was going on in the house, the yard, the world. I think it’s a tragedy that kids have lost this and parents have been reduced to short order cooks, ATM machines and chauffeurs. This summer, instead of signing your kids up for this camp and that class, tell them you’re all digging up the back yard and putting in a garden! Tell them you’re all building a coop and going to get some chickens – let them give the hens names. Just do it! You will talk together and do things together that make you feel connected to the earth and each other.

  6. The Greater Goods January 15th, 2012 at 11:47 AM #

    Great piece! And several of the reasons I currently subscribe to LUFA, Montreal’s greenhouse-grown veggie delivery program.

    • Valerie Howes January 15th, 2012 at 10:42 PM #

      I got the chance to visit Lufa Farms last month ; what a great program! I hope their rooftop farming model is introduced to other Canadian cities. You’re lucky to have access to their beautiful veggies all winter. I heard it was -27 in Montreal today; hope you cooked up a good soup or stew.

  7. January 15th, 2012 at 12:59 PM #

    Excellent article! I am going out to get this book this week. I don’t think the average Canadian realizes how compromised our food security is, the ideas that Joel recommends will improve the overall accessibility, our affordability and the overall nutritional quality of the food we eat. Well done Joel and thank you Val for posting this.

  8. vicky weiss January 15th, 2012 at 6:53 PM #

    Great article and the book sounds amazing as well.

  9. Mary Lumsden January 15th, 2012 at 10:33 PM #

    sigh my Mom sold her farm and moved to a retirement apartment so no more low acid tomatoes in abundance for me sigh-my husband had 500plus cattle and worked hard- I picked fruit on farms-we each grew gardens that are now considered organic-had the life- naturally and LOVED IT!!!!would absolutly be a farmer if we could get the land-so respect and envy farmers-$$$$ for land $$$ to buy your goods—but wth my family will one day get that back and add to it as kids are Veggans!!!!and have a book started:)

    • Valerie Howes January 15th, 2012 at 10:45 PM #

      What is your book about, Mary?

  10. Voula Halliday January 16th, 2012 at 9:11 AM #

    It’s so great to hear an inspired voice of reason speak about how to heal our very unhealthy food system. So many positive solutions provided here! I feel that we are finally making the most of the abundant access to information that we have at our fingertips to do SOMETHING RIGHT.

    I’m finding comfort and great relief in the fact that Joel Salatin and others are writing books that are getting through to people (another great book is Sarah Elton’s LOCAVORE); that Valerie Howes is blogging about this; that there are sites all over the internet providing tips, truths, and ideas on how to cultivate a sustainable life; that there are hens in backyards around me; that more and more people are growing food in their backyards, on their balconies, in containers on the ledge of their windows; that we are coming together to learn how to preserve our skills, our land, and our local food heritage; that we are canning and preserving our bounty….

    Thankfully, in the midst of the damage caused by industrialized food systems, there are positive changes happening all around us driven by individuals who are truly and meaningfully dedicated to living a good life. But we must continue these efforts without missing a beat and kick it up a notch every day. By doing this we can help other folks open their hearts and minds to the truth about our broken food system and about the value and importance in all individual acts of mindful sustainable living practices.

    Even the smallest steps will make a huge difference. Pick one of the great suggestions from this blog post and go with it!

  11. Kim January 18th, 2012 at 1:36 PM #

    It is not just kids that need to bond with food. I was telling an adult that I had planted potatoes and guess what he asked; ” Do you plant them from seeds?” I said; ” No, you do not. You plant another potato to grow a potato…”.

  12. Stella Sehn January 20th, 2012 at 8:12 AM #

    “And to buy things you don’t need and then blame that for why you can’t eat responsibly is simply not facing up to your responsibilities”

    I think we are seeing a shift in time where conscious buyers are seeing for themselves quanity is no longer acceptable over quality. Where conscious buyers want to know the history that went into growing and harvesting thier food. This is just as important as the quality of the food itself, eating and buying food has become an experience to live that life of a farmer (even if it is just while you are picking up your food from the farmers market or directly from the farm!). It is happening, and the courage it takes for an individual to make this shift, if you were not raised this way is HUGE! It is a SHIFT in LIFESTYLE, but it is happening. Just like this book will open eyes and ears!

    I have been addicted to food my whole life. I have also been a conscious being who once shown the truth cannot go back. I think we have many food addicts waking up in time when telling the truth about food is now the NORM. It takes real honesty to open your eyes and see and listen to truths around you. I do not want to make anyone feel bad about the choices they are making, I want to help open my and thier eyes to the truths of food and farming. The truth is once you become body conscious (like listening to your body when you give yourself whole foods or processed foods) you yourself make neccesary changes to begin your food and diet transformation. Right now is the time to inform and help friends and family around you by gently sharing your changes you are seeing in yourself in your children in those around who choose to eat whole foods. Share the benefits of what it was like buying direct from the farmer, how that food smelled and how your senses came alive when you cooked and ate the FRESH food.

    Still GROWING, Stella*

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