‘What Can I Do?’ – Farmer Joel Salatin Answers This Important Question

Flickr - Gardening - USDAGovJoel Salatin, Guest for Wanderlust
Waking Times

“What can I do?”  Perhaps the most common question people ask me, this simple request is filled with angst and hidden perceptions. Often a sigh accompanies the question, kind of a resignation to the power and position of the current food and farming paradigm.

Often the question indicates a the hopelessness of a single person fighting city hall. When we look out on the Monsantos, the Archer Daniels Midlands, the McDonald’s from our little household vantage points, it can surely take the wind out of our sails.

But consider this.  Whatever is, is a cumulative manifestation of all the individual decisions made by the majority of the people in the culture for a period of time. When your 1950s mother decided breast feeding was archaic, barbaric, and Neanderthal, that decision set in motion a host of results. Infamil and Similac led to increased risk for asthma and arguably fostered higher health care costs. Today many studies link breast cancer risk to lack of breast feeding. Disempowerment through dependency on formula rather than self-reliance in breast feeding–always available, always the right temperature–catalyzed a nation into fast food and industrial food customers. I could go on, but you get the picture.

The point is that our decisions are not made in a vacuum. When we decide that participating in the soccer league is more important for the children than eating a locally-sourced, home cooked meal around the dinner table, we build a certain kind of farm and food system. When lots of people do that, it changes the face of food, rural economies, farm families, wellness, and familial cohesion. It might even affect our children’s attitudes toward aging parents–send them to the old folks’ leagues, rather than fixing up the back bedroom for elder care.


  • “What can I do” is such a pregnant question that whenever someone asks it, I have a hard time pinning down what she’s really asking.  Is she asking for information? Many times, today’s epidemic of domestic culinary ignorance intimidates would-be food connectors from even trying to fix something from scratch. A beet grown in the garden or purchased at the farmers’ market does not look like the Harvard beets in the microwavable  heat-n-eat meal package. When that real unprocessed beet looks at you, “what can I do?” takes on new meaning.

    What do you mean, “what can I do?” You can participate. You can connect. You can get actively involved in the process of turning that beet into Harvard beets.  Yum.  You can turn off the TV.  You can cancel the Disney vacation and buy bushels of tomatoes to can or turn into salsa. You can get some pots and grow a pot garden . . . of vegetables. You can put a beehive on the roof of your house, two chickens in the foyer instead of that aquarium or parakeet cage.

    Just like today–whatever today looks like–is the manifestation of billions of individual decisions accumulated over time, tomorrow will be too. And if you, I, we don’t start making different decisions we will end up where we’re headed, only it may be worse because we’ll be farther down the wrong road.

    We must stop this incessant victimhood mentality. Somebody else will not fix things.  Somebody else will not make me healthy;  somebody else will not make me happy. These things are my responsibility. Not the neighbor’s, not the government’s, not the church or civic club. If I don’t know what to do with a beet, I need to find out. Knowing what to do with a beet begins a long chain of events that ends up creating a soil in which earthworms happily procreate. And that is a good thing.

    I wish–oh how I wish–I could snap my fingers and things would be different. Farms would grow soil instead of depleting it. Food would be nutrient dense instead of deficient. People would fall in love again with domestic culinary arts. Domestic larders would supplant the entertainment center as focal points for domestic tranquility and security. But it doesn’t happen when I snap my fingers. It happens when you, you, you, and you–and I–begin making different decisions. That is what I can do, and ultimately, that is all that really matters. Now let’s go change the world.

    About the Author

    Joel Salatin founded Polyface Farms, a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. All photos courtesy the wonderful bloggers on the PolyFace HenHouse Blog.  Keep up to date with all-things Polyface on their very active Facebook page, and stay up to date with Joel’s speaking dates here.

    This article originally appeared at the Wanderlust Journal.