Everything I want to do is illegal

[I loved this article. I feel the exact same way. Just being an employer I get letters all the time from the various layers of bureaucracy. I worry every time I open one. Will this be the one that sinks my entire operation? Something I didn't know about? I've had it, just like this guy. I'm sick of playing Mother May I? with the Feds.]

by Joel Salatin
Everything I want to do is illegal.

if a highly bureaucratic regulatory
system was not already in place,
9/11 fueled renewed acceleration to
eliminate freedom from the countryside.
Every time a letter arrives in the mail
from a federal or state agriculture department
my heart jumps like I just got sent to
the principal’s office.
And it doesn’t stop with agriculture
bureaucrats. It includes all sorts of
governmnet agencies, from zoning, to
taxing, to food inspectors. These agencies
are the ultimate extension of a disconnected,
Greco-Roman, Western, egocentric,
compartmentalized, reductionist,
frag-mented, linear thought processs.
I want to dress my beef and pork on the
farm where I’ve coddled and raised it. But
zoning laws prohibit slaughterhouses on
agricultural land. For crying out loud,
what makes more holistic sense than to
put abattoirs where the animals are? But
no, in the wisdom of Western disconnected
thinking, abattoirs are massive
centralized facilities visited daily by a
steady stream of tractor trailers and illegal
alien workers.
But what about dressing a couple of
animals a year in the backyard? How can
that be compared to a ConAgra or Tyson
facility? In the eyes of the government,
the two are one and the same. Every
T-bone steak has to be wrapped in a
half-million dollar facility so that it can be
sold to your neighbor. The fact that I can
do it on my own farm more cleanly, more
responsibly, more humanely, more
efficiently, and in a more environmentally
friendly manner doesn’t matter to the
government agents who walk around with
big badges on their jackets and
wheelbarrow-sized regulations tucked
under their arms.
OK, so I take my animals and load
them onto a trailer for the first time in
their life to send them up the already
clogged interstate to the abattoir to await
their appointed hour with a shed full of
animals of dubious extraction. They are
dressed by people wearing long coats
with deep pockets with whom I cannot
even communicate. The carcasses hang in
a cooler alongside others that were not
similarly cared for in life. After the
animals are processed, I return to the
facility hoping to retrieve my meat.
When I return home to sell these
delectable packages, the county zoning
ordinance says that this is a manufactured
product because it exited the
farm and was reimported as a valueadded
product, thereby throwing our farm
into the Wal-Mart category, another
prohibition in agricultural areas. Just so
you understand this, remember that an onfarm
abattoir was illegal, so I took the
animals to a legal abattoir, but now the
selling of said products in an on-farm
store is illegal.
Our whole culture suffers from an
industrial food system that has made
every part disconnected from the rest.
Smelly and dirty farms are supposed to be
in one place, away from people, who
snuggle smugly in their cul-de-sacs and
have not a clue about the out-of-sightout-
of-mind atrocities being committed to
their dinner before it arrives in microwaveable,
four-color-labeled, plastic
packaging. Industrial abattoirs need to be
located in a not-in-my-backyard place to
sequester noxious odors and sights.
Finally, the retail store must be located in
a commercial district surrounded by lots
of pavement, handicapped access, public
toilets and whatever else must be required
to get food to people.
The notion that animals can be raised,
processed, packaged, and sold in a model
that offends neither our eyes nor noses
cannot even register on the average
bureaucrat’s radar screen — or, more
importantly, on the radar of the average
consumer advocacy organization.
Besides, all these single-use megalithic
structures are good for the gross domestic
product. Anything else is illegal.
In the disconnected mind of modem
America, a farm is a production unit for
commodities — nothing more and
nothing less. Because our land is zoned as
agricultural, we cannot charge school kids
for a tour of the farm because that puts us
in the category of “Theme Park.” Anyone
paying for infotainment creates
“Farmadisney,” a strict no-no in agricultural
Farms are not supposed to be places of
enjoyment or learning. They are commodity
production units dotting the landscape,
just as factories are manufacturing units
and office complexes are service units. In
the government’s mind, integrating farm
production with recreation and meaning-
Reprinted from
September 2003 • Vol. 33, No. 9
Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal
ful education creates a warped sense of
The very notion of encouraging people
to visit farms is blasphemous to an official
credo that views even sparrows, starlings
and flies as disease threats to immunocompromised
plants and animals. Visitors
entering USDA-blessed production unit
farms must run through a gauntlet of toxic
sanitation dips and don moonsuits in order
to keep their germs to themselves. Indeed,
people are viewed as hazardous foreign
bodies at Concentrated Animal Feeding
Operations (CAFOs).
Farmers who actually encourage folks
to come to their farms threaten the health
and welfare of their fecal concentration
camp production unit neighbors, and
therefore must be prohibited from
bringing these invasive germ-dispensing
humans onto their landscape. In the
industrial agribusiness paradigm, farms
must be protected from people, not to
mention free-range poultry.
The notion that animals and plants can
be raised in such a way that their
enhanced immune system protects them
from kindergarteners’ germs, and that the
animals actually thrive when marinated in
human attention, never enters the minds
of government officials dedicated to
protecting precarious production units.
I have several neighbors who produce
high-quality food or crafts that complement
our own meat and poultry. Dried
flower arrangements from one artisan,
pickles from another, wine from another,
and first-class vegetables from another.
These are just for starters.
Our community is blessed with all
sorts of creative artisans who offer
products that we would love to stock in
our on-farm retail venue. Doesn’t it make
sense to encourage these customers
driving out from the city to be able to go
to one farm to do their rural browsing/
purchasing rather than drive all over the
countryside? Furthermore, many of these
artisans have neither the desire nor time to
deal with patrons one-on-one. A
collaborative venue is the most win-win,
reasonable idea imaginable — except to
government agents.
As soon as our farm offers a single
item — just one — that is not produced
here, we have become a Wal-Mart. Period.
That means a business license, which is
basically another layer of taxes on our
gross sales. The business license requires
a commercial entrance, which on our
country road is almost impossible to
acquire due to sight-distance requirements
and width regulations. Of course, zoning
prohibits businesses in our agricultural
zones. Remember, people are supposed to
be kept away from agricu-ltural areas —
people bring diseases.
Even if we could comply with all of the
above requirements, a retail outlet carries
with it a host of additional regulations. We
must provide designated handicapped
parking, government-approved toilet
facilities (our four household bathrooms
in the two homes located 50 feet away
from the retail building do not count) —
and it can’t be a composting toilet. We
must offer x-number of parking spaces.
Folks, it just goes on and on, ad nauseum,
and all for simply trying to help a
neighbor sell her potatoes or extra
pumpkins at Thanksgiving. I thought this
was the home of the free. In most
countries of the world, anyone can sell
any of this stuff anywhere, and the
hungering hordes are glad to get it, but in
the great U.S. of A we’re too sophisticated
to allow such bioregional commerce.
Any power tool — including a cordless
screwdriver — cannot be operated by
people under the age of 18. We have lots
of requests from folks wanting to come as
interns, but what do we call them? The
government has no category for interns or
neighbor young people who just want to
learn and help out.
We’d love to employ all
the neighboring young
people. To our childfawning
and worshiping
culture, the only appropriate
child activity is recreation, sitting in a
desk, or watching TV. That’s it. That’s the
extent of what children are good for.
Anything else is abusive and risky.
Then we wonder why these kids grow
up unmotivated and bored with life. Our
local newspaper is full of articles and
letters to the editor lamenting the lack of
things for young people to do. Let me
suggest a few things: digging postholes
and building a fence, weeding the garden,
planting some tomatoes, splitting some
wood, feeding the chickens, washing
eggs, pruning grapevines, milking the
cow, building a compost pile, growing
some earthworms.
These are all things that would be
wonderfully meaningful work experience
for the youth of our community, but you
can’t simply employ people anymore. A
host of government regulatory paperwork
surrounds every “could you come over
and help us . . . ?” By the time an
employer complies with every
Occupational Safety & Health Administration
requirement, posts every
government bulletin requirement, withholds
taxes, and shoulders Unemployment
Compensation burdens and medical
and child safety regulations — he or she
can’t hire anybody legally or profitably.
The government has no pigeonhole for
this: “I’m a 17-year-old home-schooler,
and I want to learn how to farm. Could I
come and have you mentor me for a
What is this relationship? A student?
An employee? If I pay a stipend, the
government says he’s an employee. If I
don’t pay, the Fair Labor Standards board
says it’s slavery, which is illegal. Doesn’t
matter that the young person is here of his
own volition and is happy to live in a
tee-pee. Housing must be permitted and
up to code. Enough already. What
happened to the home of the free?
You would think that if I cut the trees,
mill the logs into lumber, and build the
house on my own farm, I could make it
however I wanted to. Think again. It’s
illegal to build a house less than 900
square feet. Period. Doesn’t
matter if I’m a hermit or the
father of 20. The
government agents have
decreed, in their egocentric
Reprinted from
September 2003 • Vol. 33, No. 9
Our whole culture
suffers from an industrial
food system that has
made every part disconnected
from the rest.
wisdom, that no human can live in
anything less than 900 square feet.
Our son got married last year and
wanted to build a small cottage on the
farm, which he now oversees for the most
part. Our new saying is, “He runs the
farm, and I just run around.” The plan was
to do what Mom and Dad did for Teresa
and I — trade houses when children
come. That way our empty nest
downsizes, and the young people can
upsize in the main family farmhouse.
Sounds reasonable and environmentally
sensitive to me. But no, his little
honeymoon cottage — or our retirement
shack — had to be a 900-square-foot
TajMahal. A state-of-the-art accredited
composting toilet to avoid the need for a
septic system and sewer leach field was
When the hillside leach field would not
meet agronomic standards and we had to
install it in the floodplain, I asked the
health department bureaucrat why. He
said that essentially the only approvable
leach fields now are alongside creeks and
streams, because they are the only sites
that offer dark-enough colored soils.
Sounds like real environmental stewardship,
doesn’t it?
Look, if I want to build a yurt of rabbit
skins and go to the bathroom in a compost
pile, why is it any of the government’s
business? Bureaucrats bend over backwards
to accredit, tax credit, and offer
money to people wanting to build pig
city-factories or bigger airports. But let a
guy go to his woods, cut down some trees,
and build himself a home, and a plethora
of regulatory tyrants descend on the
project to complicate, obfuscate, irritate,
frustrate, and virtually terminate. I think
it’s time to eradicate some of these laws
and the piranhas who administer them.
I don’t ask for a dime of government
money. I don’t ask for government
accreditation. I don’t want to register my
animals with a global positioning tattoo. I
don’t want to tell officials the names of
my constituents. And I sure as the dickens
don’t intend to hand over my firearms. I
can’t even use the “U” word.
On every side, our paternalistic culture
is tightening the noose around those of us
who just want to opt out of the system —
and it is the freedom to opt out that
differentiates tyrannical and free societies.
How a culture deals with its misfits
reveals its strength. The stronger a culture,
the less it fears the radical fringe. The
more paranoid and precarious a culture,
the less tolerance it offers.
When faith in our freedom gives way
to fear of our freedom, then silencing the
minority view becomes the operative
protocol. The Native Americans silenced
after Little Big Horn simply wanted to
worship in their beloved Black Hills, use
traditional medicinal herbs to cure
diseases, educate their children in the
ways of their ancestors, and live in
portable homes rather than log cabins. By
that time these people represented
absolutely no threat to the continued
Westernization and domination of the
North American continent by people who
educated, vocated, medicated, worshiped,
and habitated differently.
But coexistence was out of the
question. Just like the forces that
succeeded in making it illegal for me to
use the “O” word, the Western success at
Wounded Knee quashed the little guy.
What does the Organic Trade Association
have to fear from me using the “O” word?
If society really wants government
certification, my little market share will
continue to deteriorate into oblivion. If,
however, the certification effort represents
a same-old, same-old power grab by
the elitists to exterminate the fringe players,
it is merely another example of fear
replacing faith.
Faith in what? Faith in diversity. Faith
in each other. Faith in people’s ability to
self-educate, thereby making informed
decisions. Faith in seekers to find
answers. Faith in marketplace dynamics
to reward integrity and not cheating. Faith
in Creation to heal. Faith in healthy plants
and animals to withstand epizootics. Faith
in earthworms to increase fertility. Faith
in communities to function efficiently and
honorably without centralized beltway
interference. Faith in Acres U.S.A. to
arrive every month with a cornucopia of
insight and information.
Our culture’s current fear of
bioterrorism shows the glaring weakness
of a centralized, immuno-deficient food
system. This weakness leads to fear.
Demanding from on high that we irradiate
all food, register every cow with
government agencies, and hire more
inspectors does not show strength. It
shows fear.
Indeed, official policy views all these
minority production and marketing
systems that have been shown faithful
over the centuries to be instead things that
threaten everyone and everything. As a
teepee dwelling, herb healing, home educating,
people loving, compost building
retail farmer, I represent the real answers,
but real answers must be eradicated by
those who seek to build their power and
fortunes on a lie — the lie being that
genetic integrity can be maintained when
corporate scientists begin splicing DNA.
The lie that, as Charles Walters says, toxic
rescue chemistry is better than a balanced
biological bath. The lie that farms are
disease-prone, unfriendly, inhumane
places and should be zoned away from
Those of us who would aspire to opt
out — both consumers and producers —
must pray for enough cleverness to
circumvent the system until the system
cannot sustain itself. Cycles happen.
Because things are this way today does
not mean they will be this way next year.
Hurrah for that.
Often, the greatest escapes occur at the
moment the noose becomes tightest. I’m
feeling the rope, and it’s not very loose.
Society seems bound and determined to
hang me for everything I want to do. But
there’s power in truth. And for sure,
surprises are in store that may make
Demanding from on
high that we irradiate all
food, register every cow
with government agencies,
and hire more
inspectors does not show
strength. It shows fear.
Reprinted from
September 2003 • Vol. 33, No. 9
society shake its collective head and begin
to question some seemingly unalterable
doctrines. Doctrines like the
righteousness of the bureaucrat. The
sanctity of government research. The
protection of the Food Safety and
Inspection Service. The helpfulness of the
When that day comes, you and I can
graciously offer our society honest food,
honest ecology, honest stewardship. May
the day come quickly.
Joel Salatin raises grass-fed beef,
pastured poultry, rabbits and more on a
model diversified farmstead, Polyface
Farm, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
He is the author of Salad Bar Beef,
Pastured Poultry Profits, You Can Farm,
and Family Friendly Farming, available
from Acres U.S.A. for $30 each, plus
shipping and handling. To order, call
1-800-355-5313 or visit our website at
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