Friday, October 3, 2008

Book Review: Holy Cows and Hog Heaven

Remember that chick, Burbanmom? The funny one with the blog, Going Green, about small environmental changes us average Americans can make? The one who hung up her keyboard last week? She's been nice enough to stick a toe out of retirement to write a review for The Blogging Bookworm on a recent Joel Salatin book. Thank you, Burbs!

I recently joined the Richmond buying club for Polyface farms and was surprised to see that, along with fresh, grass-fed beef and pigerator pork, I was able to purchase Joel’s books as well. I’ve been wanting to read his work, but alas, my local library doesn’t stock Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal or Pastured Poultry Profits. So I was beyond tickled when I picked up my order and saw that they had comped me the book, Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer's Guide to Farm Friendly Food, as a “New Customer Welcome Gift”. Truly nice folks, these Salatins!

Holy Cows and Hog Heaven gives you a peak into the workings of a local farm – very similar to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. However, one big plus to this book is that, in addition to detailing the difficulties faced by both consumers and America’s small farmers, it gives you – the consumer – definitive actions you can take to help ensure a sustainable food supply.

The book is a pretty quick read – I gobbled it down before I had even thawed out my first steak. It is broken down into bite-sized chapters that can easily be read while hiding in the bathroom – a big plus for a mom who likes to multitask while hiding from her kids. The writing is simple and colloquial, and Joel injects quite a bit of humor into the book. I felt as though I was sitting at the farmhouse kitchen table with him, enjoying a cup of coffee and discussing the ins and outs of his farm practices vs. the industrial food chain. In fact, many of the conversations felt eerily similar to ones I’ve had with my Dad – about how life was for him growing up and about how the government and big business has dramatically altered our relationship with food.

Some of the topics covered in the book include: What a farm friendly producer is - and how to tell if you’re buying from one; Why you should seek out farm friendly foods and, alternatively, why you should avoid the industrial food supply chain whenever possible; How to be a good farm-friendly patron; and How the industrial food manufacturers have created such a heavily regulated system that it is difficult, if not damn near impossible, for local farmers to sell their products directly to the consumers who want them.

Joel introduces a number of great ideas regarding policy shifts that he feels should be made to ensure a safer food system for America, and I agree with most of them. Decentralization of our food supply, transparency of our food chain, elimination of routine hormone injections and antibiotic in feed, returning our cows and pigs to their natural diet and so on. I was nodding my head in agreement through most of the book. There is, however, one point of contention I have with his ideals. Joel believes that the entire food industry is too laden with regulations to allow the small farmer to make a living selling his products directly to the consumer and so he calls for the removal of the current food safety regulations. His argument is that the good, clean farmers will do well because they will earn the trust of the consumers. As he puts it “I realize that many of you liberals who never saw a regulation you didn’t like may be suffering a stroke right now…”. Which, of course, made me laugh my ass off because I’m a huge bleeding-heart who does, in fact, love a good regulation as much as the next democrat. And I do disagree with his solution. I think MORE regulation is needed. Let me explain:

I shudder to think how many people will fall ill after buying from a “dirty” farmer before they decide he is not trustworthy. People should not have to play Russian roulette with their food and the government does need to bear some responsibility for checking food safety before the consumer pays the price. However, if the barriers to market entry are so great that a small family farm cannot operate, then I agree - something is wrong with the system. But we cannot remove the existing regulations that provide a minimal safeguard against the unhealthy practices of the industrial food industry. We’ve just recently witnessed what deregulation can do to a profit-driven Wall Street firm and I really wouldn’t want to see how that same greed and lack of regulation would wreak havoc with our food supply. Instead, what I feel we need to do is legislate a different set of regulations for the small, family-owned farm. One that takes into account the economies of small-scale farms and one that is based, as Joel suggests, on objective safety data, not regulations concocted in the sanitary confines of the House of Representatives. Similar to the differences between small businesses and corporations, we need to reduce the bureaucracy for family farmers, while still providing consumers with legislative rules for the large corporations who would have us dining on shit and hormones the rest of our lives, if it turned a profit.

Bottom line - I like this book a lot. He doesn’t talk down to me, doesn’t bullshit me, just tells me how a sustainable farmer sees things. He provides excellent resources for those looking to source out local foods and, again, I LOVE that he ends each chapter with specific actions YOU, as a consumer, can take.

Like me, Joel believes in the power each of us has, as individuals, to change the current system by simply opting out of the factory-farm food chain. He also is human enough to admit that “I enjoy a Snickers bar every now and then. And M&Ms won’t be hiding from me at a Christmas shindig. And I’ve even been known to eat a fast food meal – not at McDonald’s – once in a blue moon… But each of us, in some way, can affect the ultimate triumph of one of these two food systems.”

“My goal for each of us would be that we would at least think, at least break stride, before patronizing the industrial fare… we think about the environment, the plights of plants and animals, the nutrition of our families, we have a responsibility to act in accordance with some moral and ethical discernment. None of us will ever be 100 percent consistent. But we can aspire to be 50 percent. Or 60 percent.”

Sounds like a great goal to me. As I’ve said a million times – life is not an All or Nothing proposition. You do what you can to make a difference in this world – but you don’t make yourself crazy aiming for perfection.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking to opt out (or wonders why we should) of the American industrial food economy and needs a little direction. It also a great reminder to those of us who’ve already opted out that it’s important to shop LOCAL and not just organic.

Joel’s books can be purchased at or through Powell's Books. I think I’ll be donating mine to the County Library so others can enjoy it.

Rating: If I consider “To Kill A Mockingbird” a “5” and Danielle Steele novels to be “1”s, I guess I’d give it a 4. Entertaining and fun, but you probably wouldn’t get Gregory Peck to play the lead.


Donna said...

I read this book about a year ago and from what I remember, I agree with your opinion. The regulations have got to be adjusted for scale, but I'm not sure who's going to push that through. It's going to take a lot of lobbying from small farmers.

Joel must be quite a character, and it comes out some in the book. What stuck with me is his explaination of farm-friendly foods and how local doesn't necessarily mean the farm is well run. Makes it even harder to source food, but he's ultimately right.

The other thing that stuck is the story about the farmer who tried selling direct, but was such a klutz on the phone. He sounded exactly like the guy I bought eggs from for a while. :)

Kale for Sale said...

I love that they gave you a book and now you're going to donate it to the library. The pigerators are one of my favorite stories from the Omnivore's book. You'll have to write, after retirement of course, about how good or not the beef and pork are from the farm. And this is a must read book for me. Thank you for taking down the keyboard to review it. I appreciate it.

ruchi said...

Thanks for the review. They are starting something in India, and they have this in Britain as well, a "becoming organic" certification. So that way if a company is starting to practice organic (say they use no spray, but do use a little fertilizer), or is fully organic but can't afford to get full certification, they can get the "becoming organic" certification, and hopefully draw people to them so that then they can later afford full organic certification.