Recently I've developed some unlikely heroes, at least for a physicist. One of them is Joel Salatin.
If you run with back-to-the-landers or the Mother Earth News crowd, you'll recognize Joel as the the man behind Polyface Farms. He and his family have been pioneers (since the '60s) of natural methods of raising livestock. Today, in addition to running Polyface, Joel is the voice of the anti-industrial farming movement. If you are into local food, if you want to be able to buy food directly from the farmer, he is your advocate.
Joel spends a great deal of time fighting what he calls "the food police" or, in his colorful way of phrasing it, the "US-duh". If you couldn't already gather, he has some pretty strong feelings about food regulation. His thesis: food regulations favor the large producers that can afford to comply, and the little guy - aka the small farmer - goes out of business due to the high overhead of compliance. He details this in his book Everything I Want to do is Illegal. It is an entertaining read, and the only book I know of that appeals to both "save the environment" liberals and "small government" conservatives. Perhaps appeal is the wrong word, because he lambasts both groups, but it beats the hell out of Ann Coulter or Al Franken. And it is about farms.
Anyway, my point: Joel is a hero. He strongly believes in his cause, he is working tireless as an advocate for small farming and local producers and he gets a lot of flack for it...from environmentalists and the government. But still he fights on.
And here is the thing about heroes. We like to read about them. What are their lives like? What do they believe in? How can I aspire to be more like that guy? After all, heroes are role models. We look up to them. We believe in them.
I picked up his recent book Folks, this Ain't Normal, an analysis of everything that is wrong with our current food system. And I am with him 100%. The CAFOs and slaughter houses, the drugs, the feed, everything about the current system is broken. Then he says something surprising: food regulation is the problem, not the solution.
Hold on a minute? Food regulation is the problem?
I have to stop here and say that I am not a small government person. I like government. I enjoy paying taxes. My taxes give me roads, and trips to the moon, and Mars exploration, and educates students, and pays my salary. The government provides assistance for the poor. They protect the environment. And my food.
Turns out there is a different perspective. You'll have to read the book, but he makes a pretty compelling case for exemptions for small producers who can demonstrate their products are safe, and that full disclosure about big industry practices would put them out of business. That you don't need the USDA.
Ok, I can take a little small government talk with my eco-friendly farming practices. So I press on.
I learn that the reason Joel is such an effective speaker and communicator is his training on the university debate team. Bob Jones University, to be exact, in Greenville, S. C. Now, I don't take issue with private religious education per se, but I am not accustomed to my environmental heroes coming from evangelical backgrounds. In fact, my stereotype for christian evangelicals is of the "God has given me dominion over the Earth so I can do whatever I damn well please" variety. One look at the Religious Right's stance on climate change or drilling for fossil fuels will reinforce that pretty quickly.
Ok, my environmentally savvy and local food promoting hero turns out to be an evangelical Christian. I can deal with that. Stereotypes are always wrong, right? Then, the bomb drops. I'll quote Joel from Folks, this Ain't Normal, out of chapter dealing with some of the science and dangers of GMO food:
"For the record, I'm a strict creationist -- I mean six days and the whole 'God spoke' thing."
What? Now my environmentally savvy, local-food promoting, GMO skeptic is a Creationist?
Now, stereotype or no stereotype, I am of the firm belief that anyone who holds to a strict interpretation of the Bible's creation story (or any other, for that matter) is simply ignorant. But Joel Salatin is far from ignorant. He is knowledgeable and thoughtful about his farming. He has bold ideas and is not afraid to find new ways to do things. His experimental approach is, dare I say, almost scientific in the way he tries something, refines it, excludes that which doesn't work, and continues to improve his methods and solutions.
And here I am, a big-government-environmentalist-liberal-atheist admiring the ideas and work of a small-government-evangelical-conservative-creationist.
Is that even allowed?
And suddenly I realized how unaccustomed I am to really delving deeply into the beliefs of others with whom I disagree. I've read all of Al Franken's books, but I wouldn't be caught dead reading anything by Ann Coulter. I only watch the wacko Glenn Beck clips on YouTube. I have unfriended many Tea Partiers on Facebook.
And yet, I can't let go of the good that Joel is doing for the planet by promoting his ideas and his farms. He is, after all, my hero. And I've learned a lesson. Joel's advice:
"Read things you're sure will disagree with your current thinking. It'll do your mind good and get your heart rate up."
I still have problems with the creationist thing, and if I ever meet Joel in person, we'll probably have a conversation about how you can't buy into breeding and selection and not allow for evolution, or that evolution is driving the antibiotic resistance in farm animals. But I imagine we'll have that conversation over drinks - I'll have a beer, and I imagine he'll have an iced tea, but you never know. And I doubt either of us will be swayed by the other's most compelling arguments.
But I bet it would be an interesting conversation.