The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Preaching to the choir

Salatin preachingMark doesn't generally read along with our book clubs because I tell him the highlights of every text over the dinner table.  As I related Salatin's pointers from this week's selection, Mark replied, "So, he's a choir preacher, right?"

I hadn't thought of Joel Salatin that way (although his scattered chapters do feel a bit like daily sermons), but in retrospect, I think Mark might be right.  For example, take the essay "No Compost, No Digestion", the thesis of which is that real food will rot if left on the counter for a couple of days, while items souped up with preservatives are no better for our digestive systems than they are for the air-borne microorganisms that turned them down.  If you're not already sold on the idea that diet soda and ultra-processed food is bad for you, would Salatin's chapter open your eyes in any way?

Salatin with pastured pigsOn the other hand, can we ever do anything other than preach to the choir?  I'm curious to hear how you all (my choir, who I assume probably agrees with most of my rants or you wouldn't stick around) came around to this point of view.  Was it childhood indoctrination informed by reading and experimentation (my answer), or did you stumble upon the ideas of ecological food production as an adult?

If I were Salatin's adviser, I think I'd recommend that his next book take an entirely different tack if he really wants to change the world.  Include lots of glossy photos of happy pastured pigs, chickens, and cows and write a children's picture book with just the facts.  Or hire a publicity firm as Salatin reported one college campus did to train its students to enjoy chewing pastured meat.

Meanwhile, I'll keep reading his daily devotionals.  Tune in next Wednesday to discuss chapters ten through thirteen (up through "Grasping for Water"), and don't forget to read over the interesting comments on the first week's selection if you haven't already.

Several friends have told me that The Weekend Homesteader has simplified their Christmas shopping.  Maybe you have someone on your list who would enjoy a copy as well?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I was raised mostly on processed foodstuffs. My mom likes her mustard bright yellow, her cheese to come in individually wrapped tiny plastic film packages, and sucks down diet soda as though water did not exist. Eating in a way that is sane is definitely something that I was not raised with. For a year or two when I was very young, before my parents divorced, we had a huge vegetable garden in the backyard. I always knew that homegrown food tasted better than the stuff from the produce section of the supermarket, but always assumed the reason was primarily that it was so very fresh, and had little to do with varieties, ripeness, nutrients, etc. Probably largely because of this garden, growing food was something I wanted to do, but due to living situations, I couldn't. I didn't think much about food as a child, and neither did my mom. We were poor, so she bought cheap processed junk. I started becoming more aware of what I was putting in my body shortly after high school, when, at 220 lbs (5'2"), I decided to go on a diet. Initially, I was looking at Atkins, because some family members recommended it, and it seemed to get good results fast. I did that for one day. I ate one low-carb wrap and decided I could not go without real bread. So, I switched to SlimFast. At the time, they had a tool online to plan out meals that did not require you to buy their products. The idea was simply that you ate healthy, regularly. Three meals, three snacks, including chocolate. For about 6 months, I was on that diet and I have never eaten better in my life. Now that I'm no longer on the diet I don't eat as well as I did then. I knew what i was going to eat everyday, which was a great comfort to me, as previously meal planning consisted of puttering around the kitchen for a few minutes when I felt hungry. Even on SlimFast, my dinner still came out of a plastic tray from the freezer section of the grocery store. Then I went away to college. Wilson College is a fantastic school, and the food they give you is not an exception to that rule. They are home to the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living, and grow a lot of the food they serve students on campus. For monetary reasons, I only stayed at that college for one semester, but that semester spoiled me. I couldn't eat TV dinners anymore. If it came out of a freezer, I probably wasn't interested in it. After moving in with my husband, I started getting serious about gardening, though at that point, I only had a small concrete pad with buckets of dirt on it. I'm the sort of person who likes to research anything that I want to do before I start, so it was really the process of researching gardening methods that caused me to stumble upon the concept of eating real food. This past year, I've discovered so many new things about food. It's still difficult to go from a childhood tradition of cooking with processed foods to learning how to put a meal together using what i can grow and find at the farmer's market, but I'm sure I'll get better with time.

Comment by Angela Wed Dec 5 12:52:57 2012

I don't buy this thesis. (although I must admit to not having read the book; unsurprisingly, our local library doesn't have it).

But the conditions are very much different between composting and digestion. The hydrochloric acid and and enzymes in gastric acid are quite adept at breaking down food into smaller bits and even proteins into amino acids. Only after this has happened and the gastric acid has been neutralized are the remains processed by bacteria in the intestines.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Dec 5 13:12:42 2012

Hi All,

Place a 'store bought' tomato on the windowsill next to one grown in 'healthy' soil.

The one rots, the other dehydrates!!

Measure the Brix of each. The store one 3-4 the 'healthy' one 8-10. The one tastes great, the other not very interesting. I haven't paid for tissue analysis yet, but that would also tell a real story!

Probably a good idea to test your soil for minor elements as well as the conventional sort of test and add rock dust, sea salt, sea weed and other nutrients to get it up to par.

Health soil -> healthy plants -> healthy animals -> healthy humans


Comment by john Wed Dec 5 13:21:36 2012

John --- I was simplifying Salatin's thesis --- your experiment isn't valid by his standards. He actually wants you to rehydrate anything that's dried and cut up whole fruits and vegetables, then do your rotting test.

But I do tend to agree with Roland also to some extent --- that the ability of foods to rot/mold is going to have a lot to do with moisture levels and other factors that wouldn't be relevant in the digestive tract.

Comment by anna Wed Dec 5 13:35:22 2012

Hi Anna and all,

I didn't mean to imply anything critical. Its a pretty well understood experiment at this point. And pretty amazing. Its related to the observation that with healthy mineral balanced soil, bugs and fungi are not a problem.

While the bugs and fungi are not a problem, people and higher animals get very healthy, recover from dread diseases, etc. Again, pretty well established though not popular with the pill providers and other medical types :). If you want I can give you a few references? Pretty interesting stuff IMHO :).


Comment by john Wed Dec 5 14:03:02 2012

I was raised by wolves so no concept of store bought food till I was a teenager and started eating out with friends. Got so sick it put me in the hospital multiple times. The docs couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. 5 years of being sick, randomly, off and on, and through multiple allergy tests, diet changes, eliminations, tracking and ... we pegged it to.... hamburgers.

Back to eating the way the wolf-pack did growing up ;) I buy my meat from a friend that raises her meat the way I can eat it.

As for the choir issue: a children's book, a teenager's book etc. etc. I highly recommend tracking down Paoulo Baligaluppi's (sp?) work and telling him what you want. He's an amazing writer that might have fun with a teenage level book.

Comment by c. Wed Dec 5 14:07:29 2012

The idea of ecological food production is definitely something that I have only become interested as an adult. Really, its only been during the past few years, as my views on several topics have changed, have I really became more interested in eating whole foods, and have started eating less highly processed foods.

Much like Angela, my family was poor when I was growing up and ate primarily cheap processed foods, with some garden fresh produce mixed in. My parents were still eating this way until last year, when my mom decided to drastically alter her diet in an attempt to lose weight.

Even today I find myself hesitant to mention certain things to my Dad, as I know he'll just scoff and talk about it being a waste of money. My wife and I recently visited a farm we had just learned about. While there we bought several pounds of grass fed beef. The price was less than that of any store I'm aware of, but I knew if I mentioned it to my Dad he's ask how much it cost, and then compare it to his super cheap supermarket ground beef. For some people, cost is the primary motivator above all else.

Comment by Jonathan Wed Dec 5 14:53:46 2012
I grew up on processed food. My mom was single and a smoker. I add the smoker part cause I think her taste buds were messed up. She grew up on a farm and had raw milk but yet actually seemed to beleive that powdered milk was the same. She was not a good cook so canned raviolis were welcomed.When I got my own place I had to learn to cook real food. I liked cooking but I did use canned soups and boxed stuff once in a while. Then when trying to lose weight I got Jillian Michaels book, "boost your metabolism" where she explains in graphic detail how the chemicals in packaged food cause a lot of health issues including thyroid problems, that I have. Sooo now I grow my own stuff mostly and get some at the Upick place and can it or freeze it myself. I have been able to lose weight now and even reduce my meds.
Comment by Irma Wed Dec 5 21:19:49 2012


So I am VERY curious. You were raised by wolves. What did you and your wolf pack really eat. Which plants? Which animals? How often did you eat. Were you hungry in March or other times of year.

What was you general health?

Any comments appreciated.


Comment by john Thu Dec 6 03:35:39 2012

Some would argue I'm not in the choir today, as we still eat processed foods in our family. Our transition isn't complete. We're still struggling to figure out what to do with vegetables that keep, and how to avoid our favourites that somehow end up in the store. We just don't know enough of how to cook seasonally. However, I do find myself predisposed to be receptive to Salatin's rants. There's just something about the way things were created that, the more I read, I feel has been distorted. Perhaps it's just a trust of the creator and a mistrust of man that draws me, but I do find myself drawn towards the choir.

What keeps me from joining the choir? Ability and knowledge. I may yet get there.

Comment by Dan Thu Dec 6 07:46:34 2012

Salatin has a forceful style that seems most easily swallowed by people who are already followers, or who have already read more popular books that point in his direction (Omnivore's Dilemma, for example.)

He points out how he deals with questions that challenge his solutions-- "I don't have the answer to all the fringes." Yet, the examples he gives aren't exactly fringe; people living in urban apartments wondering about how to compost, single parents who don't have time to cook, low-income families who can't afford the expense of local foods (boutique foods, to be honest), etc. He goes one to say don't challenge him with the "most fringe possibility," where his solutions might not be applicable. Are these examples really all that fringe? Combined, it sounds like more than half of the population of the US falls into at least one of these "fringe" groups.

So for that reason, it feels like unless you've been doing this for long enough to set yourself up in a way that you can take his advice and run with it, then he's gonna leave you in the dust. Not that it's his responsibility to bring us all into the new sustainable food system, but, well, that is what he's ultimately calling for.

As for me, I grew up on a mixed diet. My granddad raised chickens and had a garden. My dad kept a garden while we were living with him. We enjoyed fresh eggs and veggies because of that, but we also went through some (long) periods where most of our diet was store-bought or processed stuff-- especially when my mom was always working (parents were divorced) and no one was home with us.

I didn't really get interested in food myself until I was about 14 and learning about vegetarianism. I started studying permaculture and foraging then. Like Angela, I went to a college that had its own farm and garden (Warren Wilson) and that experience solidified my interest in ecological farming, and also introduced me to the concept of sustainable meat production. We're actually vegetarians in my household again, mostly for economic reasons.

So I've been involved in the discussion about food/farming for over a decade now, but I can imagine at least some of his arguments appealing to me even in the early days of my research.

Comment by Sara Thu Dec 6 09:19:58 2012

I was raised partly with good food, partly un-real food. I remember eating alot of Vienna sausages and canned ravioli, but my Mom also loved veggies and esp home grown tomatoes. When I got into college, I fully regressed to mostly fast food. Young adult-hood, lots of Hamburger helper etc.

Eventually though, I started to come around back to the flock. For environmental reasons mostly, I joined a CSA and got to know Farmer Fred and worked on his organic farm a bit. I started growing a garden again (as a kid I loved to grow all sorts of plants.) I cooked and stuff I never had before that came with the CSA (greens!) I read more and more about where our food comes from, and have been slowly eliminating processed food from diet. It's a mixed bag still. For example yesterday we made 4 gallons of turkey stock, but I still use gravy mixes sometimes to save time. Each year I try add a few new homemade skills and eliminate a few more food items that come in boxes or envelopes.

So it helps me alot to keep hearing the same sermons over and over again. Probably there are plenty of people like me, that start off going to church on Easter and Christmas - eventually progressing to weekly church, going to extra services on Wednesdays, and finally joining the choir. Folks like me need to keep hearing some good rousing sermons now and again to stay on track and progress to choir-hood.

Comment by De Thu Dec 6 09:36:04 2012

I agree with De, hearing the sermons a few times over is helpful when you feel your motivation slipping. Truthfully, it's a tough lifestyle and for most of us who haven't dedicated ourselves full time and seen the rewards, it's probably good to have passionate reassurance every once in awhile.

Anna, I wanted to mention that I almost always get this "Please wait..." message when I go to comment. I love the pic :) But just wondering if that's something that should be happening often. Sometimes I give up and leave without commenting, because it doesn't reload. Other readers might be having the same issues.

Comment by Sara Thu Dec 6 10:09:43 2012

I've enjoyed reading everyone's experiences, especially De's, who reminded me that even preaching to the choir has its selling points.

Sara --- Unfortunately, I don't think that two people can be doing something to the site at the same time. So if you're trying to comment at the same time as someone else (or even as a spammer), or when I'm letting comments out of moderation, or when someone's making a post, the picture may load for quite a while before letting you comment. I'm not sure if there's anything we can do about it, but I'll put it on my wish list to ask my brother when he needs something to program.

Comment by anna Thu Dec 6 10:40:20 2012

John - what a hoot.

My pack roamed the northern plains think the border between Ojibwa and Sioux territory. We're now legally hunted as of this year and going into hiding. I think this might be a very hungry March and April. ;)

I was raised by back to the land hippies in a rural farm community. We were the only ones there and the lack of TV and being kicked out of the local bible study at age 5 meant for an interesting childhood (my mom tried to get me to fit in with the local community). (Dad taught me gravity too early and that meant the allegories they used to teach didn't fly with me).

Every so often I think I should write my story because so much of what is being talked about and done today and almost moving into the mainstream is literally ALL I knew growing up. My husband, a very kind and tolerant man, says to our friends that I was "raised by wolves" because I don't get common cultural references. TV/movies. If the references come from books I get them but not from TV and movies and I'm from the MTV generation, ironically.

What we ate: fresh, frozen and canned everything from about an acre to two acre garden (zone 3). (depending upon how you count the fruit trees, raspberries, chokcherries, squash etc.) We raised chickens and bartered for a bit of beef from time to time. My mom and dad both baked bread, took turns, and we got milk from the neighbor - about 1/3 of a mile walk. We'd put money in the can and turn the spigot ourselves to fill our containers. He'd always post a note when he had to use antibiotics (rare, maybe once or twice a year) and then my mom, who is allergic, wouldn't have milk or yoghurt for awhile.

I don't remember a lean time as far as food was concerned. I remember lean times as far as money to fix cars, finish building the house, etc. I now know that I was bullied and taunted at school in part because we were so poor but I never had a concept of being poor or having a lack (other than the TV issue). Wood heat - I was helping haul spilt logs by age 8 or so.

oh and I ran around half naked, fell through more ice than I care to remember, rarely fell out of trees but always made it to the top, built rafts, went "diving for seaweed" aka duck weed in the slough, was as covered with mud as the dogs, played hide and seek in the jelly rolls (smaller means you can squeeze in better), played hide and seek in the corn, alfalfa, build more treehouses than you can imagine (had a better structural sense than the neighbor boys because I grew up with my parents building our house), and in general ran, observed and played a lot.

Comment by c. Thu Dec 6 11:22:11 2012
Okay, just wondering. I used to never see that notice, but now I see it all the time. I guess you've got a lot more traffic now!
Comment by Sara Thu Dec 6 11:34:00 2012
College friends who love you are obligatory choir.
Comment by Heather Thu Dec 6 15:09:59 2012


I guess I took you a little too seriously. I too have demons. Sharing your real story is a serious good idea which I have done. It helped me to move past my stuff.

It can also be good stuff for books but that is a whole different issue :).


Comment by john Fri Dec 7 12:53:25 2012

It started with a friend of mine doing too much LSD and DMT, going on about Reptilian aliens and greys. I got curious, wound up on David Icke, came across Aajonus Vonderplanitz on Vaccines in the Icke headlines, went on the Primal Diet for 1 year hard-core, backed off, introduced to Nourishing Traditions by a meat vendor at a Farmer's Market, and now am mastering NT with ferments and all the works. It's a long strange trip.

On preaching to the choir: ain't nothing wrong with doing drills; cuz when the time comes to preach outside your tribe, your skills are honed.

Comment by Alex Sat Dec 8 02:15:43 2012
I heard your husband on TSP, learned that we are both in VA and so decided to check out your site. Our family is also about 2 years into homesteading with no previous experience. Someone like Joel Salatin is greatly appreciated by folks like us. Folks, This Ain't Normal has to be one of my favorite books and I LOVE to read. We are desperate for a perspective like his and experience like his to shake us from the brainwashing we are all enslaved to and trying to break free from. A desire inside must be matured and those with more experience than us are a must. I thank God for him. Maybe a difference of worldviews has something to do with your opinions of his writing --- because EXCELLENT writer and speaker he clearly is and the facts of his popularity bear that out. I personally like to know why he believes what he does and respect him for including it in his work, unafraid of what sales or popularity it may cost him.
Comment by Jamie in VA Wed Dec 26 07:58:49 2012

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