EVERYTHING I WANT to DO is ILLEGAL: War Stories from the Local Food Front

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    Although Polyface Farm has been glowingly featured in countless national print and video media sources, it would not exist if the USDA and the Virginia Department of Agriculture had their way. From a lifetime of noncompliance, frustration, humor and passion come the behind-the-scenes real stories that have brought this little family farm into the forefront of the non-industrial food system. Asked recently where he thought America’s food system was on a continuum of history, one observer responded: “We’re at Custer’s Last Stand. For all the foodie fluff and eco-local buzz, in the final analysis the embedded, heritage, transparent, truthful food system is in danger of annihilation.”

    Today, those farmers who are trying to heal their land, their neighbors and their food are marked for destruction. Using actual, factual stories as a springboard to the broader philosophical issues surrounding food choice and entrepreneurship, the author comes across as a modern-day food evangelist—but not a fanatic. You may not agree with all of his conclusions, but this book will force you to think about things that most people didn’t even know existed.

    Softcover, 338 pages


    “But is it legal?” This is by far and away the most common question I am asked after doing a workshop on local food systems and profitable farming principles. My blood boils every time that happens. Not at the fearful farmer, but at the system that thinks we’re a successful culture because we have more prisoners in America than farmers. To applaud ourselves for such a statistic is despicable.

    Would-be local food farmers literally spend their days looking over their shoulders wondering what bureaucrat will assault them next. And yet, what could be more noble, more right, more good than neighbor-to-neighbor food sales?

    If a little girl wants to make cornbread muffins and sell them to families in her church, why should the first question be “but is it legal?” As a culture, we should praise such self-motivated entrepreneurism. We should be presenting her with awards and writing stories about her creativity.

    Our farm, Polyface (the Farm of Many Faces) has been featured in countless publications and media. Most recently, we starred in the New York Times runaway bestseller Omnivore’s Dilemma by author extraordinaire Michael Pollan. All this notoriety has vaulted our family farm into the spotlight, the darling of local food advocates around the world, poster children of artisanal foods. Indeed, Pollan would never have written about us had we shipped him a grass-finished steak. That is how serious we are about local and bio-regional food systems.

    What many people do not understand, however, is that at every step on this journey toward success, government officials have unceasingly tried to criminalize us, demonize us, dismiss us, and laugh at us. We have fought, clawed, cried, prayed, argued and threatened. The point is that if it had been up to public servants, Polyface would not exist. And the struggle is not over. Some battles, as you will see, we did not win. Some we refuse to fight. The war goes on.

    My heart breaks for others who did not start as early as we did (1961) on this local food journey, or who are not as legal savvy, who get routinely pummeled by these government officials. Many give up. Survivors emerge battered and frustrated; often angry. And justifiably so.

    Supporters of local, heritage, artisanal, organic, ecological, sustainable, humane, bio-dynamic food need to know that every day, their food farmer friends receive visits, phone calls, threats, summonses, confiscation, and criminal charges. The harassment from government officials would make your hair stand on end. This book is about one such farmer’s lifetime of dealing with these issues. Real stories. Real thoughts.

    I am not an attorney. Do not expect this book to offer legal advice. In fact, I’m sure some aspects may be technically incorrect. Or my perception may be incorrect. But my perception is my reality. The fact is that if I believe it’s illegal, it affects my decisions. Most farmers won’t spend $500 to get an attorney’s counsel for these things. Besides, most attorneys have no clue because they don’t know about these issues.

    What I have tried to do is layout, as accurately as possible, my side of these stories. I haye purposely stayed away from legal minutiae in order to make it more enjoyable to read. If I have overstated something or missed a point, it is an oversight and not maliciously or consciously intended. I have also purposely stayed away from similar incidents involving friends and acquaintances. Some are currently being litigated or otherwise negotiated. The average person would not believe the things going on out here in the countryside. They are horrendous. But dumb small farmers don’t make the news much.

    I know that many small businesses deal with similar issues, but my background is farming and that is the context of my stories. And it’s a good context, because what could be more basic in any culture than its food? If this is the way we treat our food producers, heaven help the rest of the small businesses.

    I’m sure some people who know how upbeat and optimistic I am will think this book springs from anger and bitterness. Anger yes; bitterness no. But I do think anger aimed at evil is a good thing. I do not think it helps any culture to dismiss elements that deprive the populace of righteousness.

    I hope that this book will awaken deep within your soul a righteous indignation against the entrenched political-industrial-bureaucratic food fraternity and a deep love for farmer-healers who love their land, plants, animals, and patrons. Each emotion is necessary for balance.

    Another reason I wrote this book is so that my grandchildren will know their legacy. I don’t know if their farming world will be easier or harder than mine. Much depends on how this slug-fest between the powerful industrial forces and the grassroots local food movement turns out. Armed with this book, I hope our side will become more passionate and articulate in this struggle. And ultimately prevail.

    But I wanted to set the record down, in black and white, to preserve the stories, preserve the struggle, preserve the history. As I write this with tears running down my cheeks, thinking of those’ little guys growing up into a world more centralized, more globally-oriented, more Walmartized, I want them to know what was and what could be. I want them to catch a vision of a righteous food system, a healing agrarianism, a local farm food ministry. May it never vanish from the earth.

    —Joel Salatin, Summer 2007


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