September 2, 2014

Rebel with a Cause: The Tyrant Neighbor

By Joel Salatin / Photo by Molly McDonald Peterson

“What are you doing here?” the neighbor demanded, elbowing her way through the cluster of Polyface customers surrounding our delivery vehicle. “You can’t do this!” she remonstrated, into the face of her dumbfounded neighbor who was in the middle of filling her cooler with pastured chickens and “salad bar” beef.

Citing homeowners association rules and regulations about solicitations and commerce, this neighbor was hot and bothered about a local food drop occurring in her community. The very idea. Tsk. Tsk. I suppose she never receives a UPS shipment. I’m sure she’s never hosted a bridal shower or Tupperware party.

What’s the difference between a group of friends getting together to play games and the same group getting together to pick up their local food order? The face of local food has many expressions: farmers markets, community supported agriculture, buying clubs, home delivery, office delivery. It doesn’t look like a supermarket, that’s for sure.

Innovation on this ragged edge of the local food distribution network creates nuances that don’t fit neatly into zoning and other regulatory definitions. These folks clustered around our delivery vehicle had ordered their food online and were simply meeting the delivery vehicle at an appointed place. We (the farmers) were not soliciting sales, not selling anything. It had already been sold. Just like a UPS delivery. If we had used a lot more time and petroleum to deliver to each household customer, it would not have attracted attention.

But because we (the farmers) were trying to be efficient and set up a food fellowship-shindig-social setting as well, the convergence attracted attention and raised the ire of a prudish neighbor.

Rather than appreciating the food connections and relationships being established, this neighbor was incensed that something was happening in her upscale neighborhood besides gardeners mowing the lawns, domestics cleaning the houses, and children either properly occupied with electronic entertainment inside or participating in off-site soccer games outside.

I’ve noticed that the wealthier the community the more the people who live there seem disconnected from their ecological moorings. Do they just assume that no matter how expensive energy becomes, they will always be the top feeders? Few things can be more environmentally reasonable than clothes lines, downspout rain catchments, gardens, backyard rabbits, chickens, and honey bees. But these elements smack of peasants, agrarianism, and self-reliance. Too many people think they’ve evolved to a higher level of sophistication than to be bothered by such drivel.

Just last week a city mayor confessed to me that she did not even have a kitchen in her home. Having just read Jared Diamond’s iconic “COLLAPSE,” I’m struck by the aloof, disconnected spirit of too many people. Apparently some folks think we’ll be the first culture to extricate ourselves from these nasty ecological moorings. They think we’ll be able to forget about our dependency on earthworms, soil, water, and air. I suppose they think we’ll all sail off on a Star Trek space ship eating breakfast in a tablet, living in a world without diapers and decomposition.

The whole crux of the local food movement depends on transparency and relationships. Too many people are far more passionate about the latest belly button piercing in Hollywood celebrity culture than what will become flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone at 6 p.m. That is tragic.

Instead of threatening litigation over a group of local food connectors and the farmer who braves expressways to bring nutrient density to town, neighbors and regulators should applaud and encourage such connections.

With all the hoopla about local food in our culture, I never cease to be amazed at the new hurdles thrown up to derail and distract this movement. The whole notion of local food is such a foreign concept that many people can’t even fathom what it looks like. And yet this community imbedded, shindig-oriented, rag-tag confluence of friends and food predates tyrannical neighbors who think they’ve risen above menial life responsibilities like food and soil.

If homeowners associations were really progressive, they’d be offering staging areas for local food connections to occur rather than using their rules to eliminate food interfaces. At some point, people need to realize that if they aren’t part of the solution, they’re part of the problem. Now go meet your farmer and get real food.

Internationally acclaimed farmer, conference speaker, and author Joel Salatin and his family operate Polyface Farm in Augusta County near Staunton, Va., producing and direct-marketing “salad bar” beef, “pigaerator” pork, and pastured poultry. He is also co-owner of T&E Meats in Harrisonburg.



  1. Scott says:

    I grew up in Beltsville, MD- and now live in Potomac, MD. It is awful. Nobody does their own yard work, kids don’t play outside as they’re either hooked up to something electronic, doing hours of monotonous memorization exercises called “homework”, or offsite at one of their many uber-scheduled extra-curricular activities- a direct symptom of parents’ anxieties over whether their kids will finish first in the race to nowhere.

    And the neighbors fret over whether your cat has a collar, the lawn service has mowed over the property line, your kid rides anything with wheels without a helmet, and are highly suspicious if you take a walk at night.

    Society has become neurotic. I blame it on the effects of decades of TV.

  2. Jaclyn says:

    I recently moved I to one of these subdivisions and it really is shocking to see the disconnect. Luckily, the hoa was happy to let me do all the vegetable gardening I want to in the back yard. The terrible lawn is rapidly turning into a raised bed paradise that will feed us during all four seasons. I’ve even set up mason bee houses and planted flowers to attract a variety of pollinators. This activity has attracted the attention of all the neighbors in varying degrees of fascination and shock. Why would you work so hard to build this?? Just go to whole foods and buy it (23 miles away!) I so appreciate everything Joel and all of the farmers in this area of Virginia have done to make the salad bar beef and pastures chicken available to us, as well as safer vegetables. Thank you, and here’s hoping we can continue to influence those less enlightened to this healthier path!

  3. Allison says:

    Great article! Love it!!

  4. Ray says:

    We faced that dilemma a few years ago, and opted for the NO HOA choice instead. We moved up into more rural Md and started our own farm. The neighbor drives a tractor and we are just as likely to swap produce back and forth amongst our new community as anything else. The lifestyle we have chosen though is not without its challenges to good, honest food.

    We now participate in local farmers’ markets, support buying clubs and have people out to our farm to get produce. We actively try to engage all of our customers about the process and methods we use to bring them the food that we sell. Many take advantage of the opportunity, but unfortunately many don’t. We meet lots of people who assume, just because we have a farm, or I wear a John Deer hat to market, we are providing them with good, honest, local food. There is a darker side to the new local food movement though. We see vendors who dress the part, talk the part and show up at farmers’ markets with produce from the same auction houses/wholesale markets as what you find in the grocery store. They show up with eggplant in June, or Peas in August, happily telling their customers how of course this is grown on my farm, and yes, I grow everything organically, I just don’t do the paperwork for the government. Many of them don’t even have the decency to take to produce out of the “Dole” box it came in from the wholesaler that says Grown in China.

    Here are a few tips on how to determine if your vendor is above board.

    Ask to go to the farm. When you get there you should see fields with veggies and fruit, Pigs and chickens and the equipment to deal manage them. Some farmers grow at leased land, so if you don’t see a farm at the farm, ask where things are being grown.

    Ask what varieties different things are. If you see the exact same varieties of produce as are in your grocery store, that is a hint. Most farmers know exactly what varieties of seeds they planted, so don’t settle for “Cucumber” when a good farmer can tell you “Marketmore”. It is the same with the animal produce, an honest farmer can tell you what varieties of cattle they raise, what type of chickens are in the layer flock and what types of pigs they raise.

    Ask them questions about their practices. What do you spray your fruit trees with, what type of range options do your chickens have, how do you store your veggies for market? Be prepared to take notes and check out their answers on line if you are sure. Not only is this a good way make sure you are dealing with an honest farmer, it is also a good way to learn more about what goes into your food.

    This may all seem like a lot of trouble, but if you are going to go to all of the trouble of arguing with your neighbors of food pick ups, taking time out of your busy schedule to go to farmers’ markets, you should make sure you are getting what you are supposed to!

  5. We have a 60-acre pastured poultry and hog farm in Western PA. A bicycle trail runs through it. This bicycle trail exists as an easement on my private property. I pay taxes on it, but local riders enjoy it for free. I love the bike trail. I think it’s a great thing. But not infrequently, I get an earful of people talking loudly about how they “could sue me” for my chickens meandering on the path. They are convinced “someone” “could” get hurt. How I wish that instead they could slow down and enjoy the life around them. They are on a bike ride, after all.

  6. Ken Williams says:

    Sixty years ago when I spent summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm, my activity involved milking a cow, gathering eggs, helping put up hay my uncle cut by hand, separating the cream via a hand cranked “separator”, churning butter, chopping and stacking wood for the big stove on which my aunt cooked and baked bread. The stove also heated the house and warmed the water for our bi-weekly baths. I recall my time with extended family on the farm as the best time of my life. My activity contributed to the well being of my extended family.

    Today, my grandson and his father have a big selection of videos and computer games. My grandson has a few chores and is eager to help out or contribute. Fortunately he loves outdoor play in big parks with wonderfully designed big “jungle gyms” and socializing with his buddies there. His primary activity is consumption of the stuff that drives our economy – or something like that.

    Is our dilemma any more complicated than we have gone from contributing directly to our collective well being to just consuming and not thinking about the consequences?

    How did we go from communities of contributors to our daily survival to families of consumers who contribute little of merit to our immediate family? In two generations !! I fear for the future of my grandson and his buddies. I follow the work of Joel with a bit of hope and a great deal of respect!!! Thanks Joel.

  7. If you can’t get enough of Joel, and want to tour the farm up close and personal, sign up for our annual benefactor bash to benefit the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

    Actually, we’ve got a whole weekend’s events. We’re calling it SAVE YOUR BACON. That’s true in more ways than one, since the FTCLDF is helping defend the right to raise heritage hogs in Michigan!

    Saturday, September 7
    Polyface Tours – Premium (with Joel) or Basic (with Daniel)
    BaconPalooza – Paleo Chef Cook-offf, Kombucha Brew-off and American Meat Showing

    Sunday, September 8
    P3: Paleo, Polyface, PorkFest – workshop with Robb Wolf, Joel Salatin and Jenny McGruther

    Come join us or tell a friend!


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