In response to readers’ requests, renegade farmer Joel Salatin provides pointers for how to engage politicians about Earth stewardship and a sustainable food system.
Author Joel Salatin deploys his political talking points at a public hearing in Augusta County, Va., to support a measure allowing backyard chickens there.
Photo by Norm Shafer
We live in an era of sound-bite messaging. Bombarded with information, we feel pressure to make snap judgments and move on. Nowhere is this demand more apparent than in the political arena. The sheer number of words in a piece of legislation frequently precludes elected representatives from actually even reading a bill before voting on it!
Legislators need real-world information about issues in order to clearly understand how the laws they pass affect the day-to-day lives of citizens. Instead, much of their “education” comes from paid lobbyists. Homesteaders and advocates for a sustainable food system generally don’t have the resources to buy such access, so it’s up to us to lobby for ourselves. But most of us have no training in how to lobby and don’t know where to begin in developing our own political talking points.
My first experience with this conundrum occurred several years ago, when a member of the Virginia House of Delegates asked me to accompany him on a lobbying effort in the state’s general assembly building. The two of us spent the day visiting offices in an attempt to discuss with legislators a bill to exempt direct farmer-to-consumer food sales from government licensing.
Each time we could actually get 10 to 15 minutes with a senator or delegate, we got good vibes. But when a legislator was too busy to see us for more than a minute, we couldn’t make any headway. Plus, we couldn’t even begin to get around to all 100-plus legislators. At the end of the day, I commented to my host that if we could’ve had half an hour with each legislator, our bill would pass.
Shaking his head, the delegate gave me a piece of wisdom I’ve never forgotten: “That’s not how the system works,” he said. He went on to tell me that the system’s current design actually prohibits meaningful conversation. The often hectic pace and frenetic number of hearings require that politicians make up their minds in an instant. “This process doesn’t encourage thoughtful contemplation — that takes too much time. Usually, you have to figure out as quickly as possible which side you’re on so you can move on to the next bill,” he said.
That’s not great news for a deliberative process, but there you have it. It is tremendously important that we engage in the political process, however. No matter how frustrated you may be with the system, I’m confident that if you keep at it, you’ll manage to wrangle a few minutes of conversation with a policymaker.
It’s important that you go into any meeting as prepared as you can manage and then do your best to stay on topic. To help you prepare, here are the talking points I’d use if I could have 10 minutes with any elected official to discuss a particular policy or piece of legislation. Please use or adapt as you see fit.
1. Nature is more powerful than humans. The rules of nature trump Wall Street, the White House, every elected official, and even the Pentagon. Try as they might, all the posturing of legislators and all the military muscle in the world can’t build soil out of chemical fertilizer. Nature runs on carbon; it always has and it always will. The immutable laws of nature require that solar power be converted through photosynthesis into food for the creatures in the soil — and for us.
We’re not divine; we’re dependent. We should practice more humility and less hubris. We should do what supports our planet’s vital natural systems and enact laws that align with those processes. Nature respects no political party, no lobbyist, and fears no media headlines. Nature doesn’t run on petroleum and synthetic chemicals. Every healthy ecosystem in the world is full of animals. They don’t live in factories and they don’t do drugs. Nature demands multi-speciation, integration, diversity, complexity and symbiosis. We need to support those demands.
Given our dependence on soil, every policy should start with a simple benchmark: “Does this policy help or hinder the building of healthy soil?” No civilization can be successful if it disregards nature’s most basic rules.
2. Don’t only ask the experts. Politicians rely on experts, but these experts are frequently paid by the industries they’re being asked to comment on (or at the very least are steeped in the orthodoxy of the day). I remember testifying a few years ago before the Virginia senate agriculture committee and the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture. A group of fellow farmers, local food advocates and I had put forward a bill to allow the sale of raw milk to consumers. The commissioner, who grew up on a dairy farm, said he drank raw milk religiously until he went to college, where he learned how dangerous it was. So he quit drinking it.
Now, he advised the senators, not only should you not drink it, but you should make it illegal for anyone else to drink it. He was oversimplifying, of course. (On another occasion, his undersecretary said consumers were too ignorant to choose which foods to eat.)
Readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I contend, are far more knowledgeable about safe foods than are many bureaucrats. We didn’t buy into the hydrogenated oil recommendations of the “experts.” Most of us didn’t believe the margarine myth. After we realized the facts, we didn’t regard Wonder Bread as the correct nutritional base for our government-sanctioned food pyramid. We haven’t abandoned our kitchens for TV dinners and processed food-like substances. In many cases, folks who had been eating in that manner found their way to much healthier food choices here in MOTHER’s trusty pages.
So ask your legislators these questions: “On this policy, have you sought counsel from nonexperts, those ‘in the trenches,’ and without financial ties to industry? Have you tried a process of discovery from the ground up, rather than the top down?”
3. Freedom and innovation require protecting the lunatic fringe. We know that innovation comes from those who dare to question the orthodoxy of the status quo. Strong societies embrace wackos, knowing that the fringe doesn’t jeopardize overall stability. And that’s just what we food-growing, pastured-animal-raising folks are in today’s society: the fringe. Our culture is prone to tyrannizing the innovative outliers with regulations, bureaucracy and licensing that limits the participation of small businesses and small-scale farmers.
Is our society so weak as to fear the few heretics who dare to undertake such “radical” actions as drinking raw milk or dining on compost-grown tomatoes? Farmstead self-reliance blesses society with the tinkerers and oddballs who likely will generate many of tomorrow’s breakthroughs.
This inventive fringe must be free to build houses out of straw, live off the grid, dwell in tipis, experiment with herbal remedies, and engage in other behaviors not sanctioned by mainstream society — including home schooling, home butchery and home craft — without having to meet excessive demands for licenses or overly complicated zoning regulations.
The questions to ask of any policymaker are, “Does this legislation protect and make room for people who aren’t mainstream? Does it allow for experimentation and innovation? Does it allow citizens latitude in the way they choose to live, as long as they aren’t harming others?”
4. Modern economic health calculations are preposterous. Our technologically sophisticated culture measures economic health based on gross domestic product (GDP). This can mean that if society has more criminals and we build more jails, GDP will go up. If we have more drug addicts and need more rehab centers, that will be considered positive economic activity. The idea that all of our ills, and the costs associated with mitigating those ills, go on our balance sheets as positive economic activity is absolutely absurd.
But beyond that, we don’t subtract externalized costs. Soil erosion, polluted water and nutrient-deficient food never show up on the negative side of our country’s balance sheet. Collateral damage, such as polluted waterways and dying pollinators, Type 2 diabetes and cancer, aren’t negative economic figures. In fact, they’re viewed as positive because of the economic activity their remediation instigates.
Folks, could this situation be any more absurd?
We need to engage with our elected leaders and we need to demand some answers to these essential questions: “What does such a system do to the common good? Does a proposed policy add to or detract from the commons? Does it actually heal or hurt?” Ultimately, if a policy is not supportive of life, it’s not acceptable.
There you have it. Of course, I’d like to say a lot more. Goodness, I’m just getting warmed up. But I hope my sound-bite explanation of how I represent my vision to politicians will help you develop your own political talking points, so you feel confident lobbying for Earth stewardship and a more sustainable food system.
Then, get involved. Creating a strong, resilient food system is well worth the trouble.
Joel Salatin raises chickens on his family farm in Virginia and raises Cain wherever he thinks he can influence policy in the direction of better soil and food production on our planet. His most recent books are Fields of Farmers: Interning, Mentoring, Partnering, Germinating; and Folks, This Ain’t Normal.