Joel Salatin has been writing books on biological farming for more than 20 years. Early on, in books like Pastured Poultry Profits (1996) and Salad Bar Beef (1995) he explained the details of specific types of farming enterprises, principally for the benefit of aspiring farmers. These books, along with speaking appearances and columns in magazines like Stockman Grass Journal made him a central figure in alternative agriculture. But when he showed up in Michael Pollan’s best-selling book Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the semi-related film Food, Inc., Salatin jumped from fame in the alternative farming world to just plain fame. By 2010, Salatin had largely (though not entirely) turned from writing and speaking about the details of farming to dealing with bigger-picture issues. In Everything I Want to Do is Illegal (2010) and Folks, This Ain’t Normal (2012; it was his first book published by a major commercial publishing house) he turns loose the social commentator and philosopher we could always see lurking in the background of his earlier books.
This year’s The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs marks another step in Salatin’s evolution as a public figure. In fact, he calls it his “coming out book,” since he has for years been, as he puts it, in two worlds. He’s an evangelical Christian (and a graduate of Bob Jones University), but he’s also an environmentalist. His experience is that evangelicals think very poorly of “creation-worshiping” environmentalists, and environmentalists think very poorly of Christians. So he’s never felt entirely at home in either world. This book is addressed to his own people—evangelical Christians—and aims to help them better understand and appreciate God’s creation. His Christianity is on full display, and the book is full of biblical citations and theological observations.
This emphasis, as he says, is new. Now, we could always see Salatin’s robust Christianity lurking in the background of his earlier books. For example, in Salad Bar Beef, he says, “Why is it so difficult for us to believe that God gave the cow everything she needs to know to be a successful cow? Certainly that has a comical ring to it, but there is a serious undertone to the question” (203). The “serious undertone” to the question is really the notion that God made the world and that it is good: if we let the cow be the cow, she’ll more or less know how to handle things. That’s still how Salatin views things, and in a sense, it’s the heart of this new book.
The book’s thesis, he says, is that “all of God’s creation, the physical world, is an object lesson of spiritual truth” (xiv). And Salatin thinks these lessons have been entirely lost on his brother evangelicals, who have largely bought into our modern factory farming: our shamefully abusive treatment of farm animals, our rapid destruction of this nation’s topsoil, our pollution-generating methods, the whole nine yards. If we look at how God made this world, we can see that it is fearfully and wonderfully made—that it is a forgiving system, on which we should model our farming systems. The environmentalists can see this, says Salatin. Why can’t the Christians? It’s a poignant question, and of course it’s not just evangelicals who should examine themselves on this matter.
The book’s method is to present a series of contrasts—beauty versus ugliness, pattern versus caprice, long-term versus short-term—through which we can see how God’s model works, and how the factory farm model works. The contrast is striking. Let me give a couple of examples. The first one is long, to give you a bit of insight into some of the details of Salatin’s views.
First, Salatin explains what he takes the biblical notion of Glory to be. He says, “It means the distinctiveness of something, the specificity and uniqueness…. And so the glory of God is His uniqueness, just like the glory of the pig is its uniqueness” (18). This passage gets to the theology behind Salatin’s well-known phrase, the “pigness of the pig” or the “chickenness of the chicken.” He’s long held that farming methods ought to honor the distinctiveness of the animals they involve. Here, he says why: it’s about honoring God’s creation. But because God’s creation is an object lesson in spiritual truth, it is through learning to honor God’s creation—honoring the pigness of the pig—that we can come to honor the Creator—honoring the Godness of God, so to speak. He calls this idea “Glory Consistency” (19).
Now, standard-issue hog farming involves the practice of tail docking—that is, shortly after piglets are born, their tails are cut off short. You might ask: why would we need to cut the tails off of pigs? Good question! Pig tails need to be cut off, in factory farms, because the pigs stand around all day in tiny, crowded spaces. Some of them seek to amuse themselves by biting other pigs on the tail. Often, the pigs being bitten are really just too listless to stop the biting. So their tails bleed. This can lead to infection, of course, but it could also lead to cannibalistic attacks on the bleeding hog—after all, pigs are omnivores! Now, having the tails docked won’t prevent tail biting, because there’s still a stump. But the stump is extremely sensitive, so even an otherwise very listless pig is likely to quickly put a stop to anyone’s gnawing on his stump. Hence, the infections or cannibalistic attacks can be prevented.
Now, tail docking is an extra task, requiring extra labor from pig farmers. So it would be nice if it were unnecessary. Fortunately, science plans to come to the rescue here—we’re working on isolating the stress gene in hogs, so that we can create new hogs that can be crowded into horrific conditions without becoming stressed out. If they’re not stressed into listlessness, they’re more likely to react quickly to anyone’s biting their tail. Problem solved.
It is hard to argue with Salatin’s position that tail docking and stress gene manipulation do not honor the pigness of the pig. Modern factory farming creates a huge problem: the infections and potential cannibalism caused by tail biting, which is itself caused by the conditions we shove the hogs into. But factory farming doesn’t look to change the conditions, it looks to change the pig!
How would we farm hogs in such a way that their pigness is honored?
Well, they’re animals. So they want to move. Also, they’re animals with a plow on the end of their noses: they’re made to root stuff up. The pigness of the pig involves their moving around, digging in the soil; you know, acting like pigs. Salatin honors the pigness of pigs through his “pigaerator” program. It starts in the fall, with the cattle. (It’s always multi-speciated with Salatin’s farming—just as it is in nature.) Once all the fresh forage is off the pastures, Salatin feeds his cows hay in a (very large) shed. The cows drop their manure and urine into ever-deepening layers of carbonaceous bedding laid down by the farmers. The bedding acts as a “diaper” to absorb the manure over the winter—if it were spread on a field during the biologically inactive season, it would just become run-off, polluting the watershed. By storing it in the diaper, the nutrients are saved, and can be distributed when they’re needed. The nutrients are stored and the bedding is trampled down tight by the cattle, creating anaerobic conditions in the bedding.
And that’s where the pigs come in. When the farmers are laying down the bedding, they lace it with corn. In the spring, the cattle move back out to the pastures, and the pigs are turned loose on the bedding. The hogs, with their built-in plows, tear up the tightly-packed bedding in no time, searching out the nicely fermented corn. This feeds the hogs and aerates the bedding (hence “pigaerator”)—prompting the composting process to begin in earnest. When the hogs have finished digging out the corn, they move off to other jobs, and the farmers gather up the bedding to spread on the fields where and when it can be used. This is a system that honors the pigness of the pig. Indeed, they are as happy as pigs in manure, doing precisely what God made pigs to do. It also, by the way, saves vast amounts of labor and time for the farmers, and it’s environmentally sound.
When we compare the pigaerator model of farming to the factory farm model, it is not difficult to see which one is more respectful of the pigs—which one treats them as biological entities, and which treats them as lumps of material to be molded to our uses. And this is the first point of contrast: the biological versus the mechanical. Pigs are the former, not the latter. They are God’s creations, and they have their own glory. Farming should treat them as such. But factory farming treats hogs as “just a pile of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however cleverly human hubris can imagine to manipulate it.” We can treat machines that way—they’re our creatures. We shouldn’t treat God’s creatures that way.
A second example of how the book’s argument works: the contrast between the “narrow way” and “the broad way.” Salatin stresses the exclusivity of salvation—though of course it’s offered to all, it’s only those who (given Salatin’s theology) accept Christ as their savior who will be saved. Christians are a minority. Christianity is a narrow way. He draws the inference from this that: “The Christian striving for philosophical and biblical consistency should assume that what ‘everybody says’ is wrong. A contrarian view is the hallmark of the discerning person when the whole world is drunk on its own conceit” (218). If the mobs are doing something, perhaps Christians should be doing something else. Not out of contrariness or orneriness, but because Christianity is a narrow way. If everyone around us is taking for granted that factory farming is the right kind of thing to do, then perhaps the Christian should start out with the supposition that it isn’t. This is not some kind of blanket rejection of “the world.” Bear in mind that Salatin is largely criticizing his evangelical friends here, and on the whole, praising secular environmentalists for how much they get right. The claim isn’t that we should reject what the worldly do, it’s that (perhaps) Christians should suppose that if the culture is tending strongly in one direction, maybe we ought to be seriously wondering if that’s really the right direction.
So much for my two examples: that’s just a whiff of how the book’s main line of argument proceeds. It contains many little gems that lie outside that main line. For example, as I’ve said, Salatin offers much praise for environmentalists: you might, consequently, expect to see him waving the anthropogenic global climate change flag as part of his case. He doesn’t. And I don’t know if that’s because he doesn’t buy it, or because he really thinks it’s irrelevant: “It doesn’t matter whether the earth is heating up or cooling down. It doesn’t matter whether the changes are man caused, volcano caused, God caused or Gaia caused. Abundance grows out of participating with a carbon-centric scheme” (88). In other words, he’s not presenting a consequentialist argument here: farm as I say, because otherwise the earth will blow up. He’s arguing that God designed the earth to work in a certain way, and we ought to be doing our best to conform ourselves with that way, rather than trying to force the earth to fit our preferences.
But we don’t conform ourselves. We do try to force the earth to fit our preferences. And the results are awful, both to the world, and to our ability to reach out to the world as Christians. Here’s a sample:
My heart breaks for the Christian testimony when we’re universally perceived as planet destroyers. My heart breaks for gully-scarred hillsides and farmers struggling with antibiotic resistant super-bugs and herbicide-induced super weeds. My heart breaks for animals confined in fecal particulate quarters, unable to express even their most rudimentary uniqueness. This is not to replace an evangelistic heart towards the lost. It is to augment it, to put feet and hands on it. And to build God’s claim to everything—my soul, my food, my vocation, my farm. Ultimately, they’re his. (257)
It’s hard for me to argue with any of this. It all seems quite correct and important. And as I say, it’s not just evangelicals on the hook here.
But despite his deep insights and his wonderful contrariness, he certainly doesn’t get everything right, including some things he really ought to see. One thing I kept waiting for him to address is our human fertility. He speaks compellingly about our abuse of the divine gift of this planet, or our need to recognize God’s patterns and work with them rather than against them, of taking the narrow path and questioning the status quo. But nary a word is uttered about the near-universal acceptance of chemical birth control, including abortifacients like the Pill. Does God’s claim to everything extend to our own fertility? Everything Salatin says in this book should make him say “yes” to that question. But there’s nothing. It’s all the more striking since he lays so much stress on the point that God works with patterns, not caprice. And “God’s patterns work very well. They aren’t broken” (37). (This is why we should assume that the cow knows all she needs to know to be a cow: she’s not broken. She’s fearfully and wonderfully made. As a cow.) Well, the natural human fertility cycle isn’t broken, either. It doesn’t need medication. And we don’t need to be dumping such incredible amounts of unnecessary medication into our water. When everyone takes for granted the greatness of contraception, maybe the Christian should suppose there’s something terribly wrong with it.
Another objection, though this one will actually become my point of highest praise for Salatin. He takes a few cracks at our dominant Western science-oriented worldview, as in: “As a Greco-Roman Western reductionist compartmentalized fragmented disconnected democratized individualized systematized parts-oriented culture, we’ve become good at figuring out the how of things, but not the why” (9). Yep, that’s a real sentence from the book—and I’ve heard him say it out loud in some recorded talks. It’s long. It’s also at least a little bit confused: I mean, can we really be both fragmented and systematized? But the main thought, as I take it, is that there’s something about the Western mind that is fundamentally reductionist. We Westerners murder to dissect. Salatin rejects this approach.
I will grant that his account of the Western mind is accurate enough, but only back so far into the past. He’s describing the modern mind—the mind since the Reformation and the scientific revolution. But he’s not describing the medieval mind—the mind of Christendom. And this is why I say this quibble becomes praise: because I think Salatin is struggling to find his way to the mind of the Church. His discovery—still unnoticed by him—of the evil of contraception is one good indicator of this.
Let me give you another example. Chesterton wrote
The medieval philosopher would have been interested in the motor because it moved. He would have been interested (that is) only in the central and original idea of a motor—in its ultimate motorishness. He would have been concerned with a monkey only because of its monkeyhood; not because it was like a man but because it was unlike. If he saw an elephant he would not say in the modern style, “I see before me a combination of the tusks of a wild boar in unnatural development, of the long nose of the tapir needlessly elongated, of the tail of the cow unusually insufficient,” and so on. He would merely see an essence of elephant. He would believe that this light and fugitive elephant of an instant, as dancing and fleeting as the May-fly in May, was nevertheless the shadow of an eternal elephant, conceived and created by God. (William Blake, part 2)
Chesterton thinks the essence of the medieval mind is the seeing of the elephantness of the elephant as a wonderful divine gift. This is, in some sense, the kind of Glory Consistency that Salatin defends. If we’re to cherish these divine creations as their Maker would have us do, then surely we ought to treat them more or less as Salatin suggests.
It’s also worth pointing out that in many respects more immediately connected to farming, Salatin is endorsing approaches long advocated for by prominent Catholics, such as in the classic Rural Roads to Security by Msgr. Luigi Ligutti and Father John Rawe, SJ. Catholics won’t share Salatin’s libertarian leanings, of course, but they should—and historically have—shared his concern for God’s creation. And more recently, Marcus Grodi’s Our Life from the Land has stressed, from a Catholic perspective, the spiritual lessons we can learn from a life on the land. Salatin’s work, as excellent as it is, should be read in the company of Catholic works old and new to keep it in proper perspective.
To the standard objections to alternative farming (“But we must feed the world!”) I will offer here no answers. Salatin and many others have done so elsewhere. Whether you will find those answers satisfying, as I do, I do not know—but I hope that you will seek them out before shutting Salatin down. He should be heard.
The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs
by Joel Salatin
Hardcover, 288 pages