Joel Salatin, World Number 1 Farmer
Your food choices determine the landscape your children will inherit ...
Joel Salatin has been called many things. From ‘The High Priest of Farming’ to a Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic farmer to the ‘World Number 1 Farmer’ by TIME magazine, the farmer’s reputation certainly precedes him. And the voice crackling down the line from Polyface Farm in Virginia one chilly Monday night lives up to every expectation. The visionary behind one of America’s premiere non-industrial farms is leading the global regenerative farming movement and inspiring a new wave of young farming entrepreneurs with his straightforward, grassroots approach. The author and educator will be making his way to Australia this month to not only share his ten truths of the food system at Food Connect’s tenth birthday in Salisbury on Friday February 27, but also host a farming masterclass in Noosa on Saturday February 28 and an intimate mentoring session in Byron Bay on Monday March 2. The Weekend Edition called Joel as he kicked back on his Virginia ranch one evening last week to talk ancestral guilt, local produce and entrepreneurship.
We’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts as Food Connect celebrates its tenth birthday with a community street party next Friday night. What topics will you be covering?
I’m going to be talking about local food systems, connecting to your ecological umbilical cord and all sorts of cool food integrity issues.
Take us back to where it all started … Your grandfather was a beekeeper and a keen gardener, did he inspire you?
Yes my grandfather had a large garden and he had chickens and a lot of bramble fruits. The whole garden was surrounded by a T-trellis grape arbour and I still consider that one of my earliest visceral experiences that helped formulate this desire to live in a nest of abundance. I’ve never gotten away from that.
What were you like as a child – it sounds like you’ve always thought outside the box?
Oh yes, well my grandfather was certainly outside the box and quite an inventor – he invented the very first walking sprinkler. My dad was very much a visionary, genius, out-of-the-boxer too – same deal, tinkerer, inventor, always ready to do something new. We always said my dad was organic before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. So when people ask when I made ‘the change’ to this kind of farming, I say I’m third-generation lunatic so I don’t have that kind of conversion experience – we just always did it strange!
Is it true you started selling eggs, butter and animals when you were still in school?
Yes, when I was ten years old! I think every person needs to start a business before they’re 12 – if you wait around until you’re 12, you’re already too old! You’ve got to start young. So I got started when I was ten, our two children started their businesses when our son was eight and our daughter was nine, and now my grandchildren are two years into their businesses, and they’re 11 and nine. My other granddaughter is seven so I expect she’ll be coming up with a business plan in the next year or so!
What businesses did your children start?
Our son started a rabbit operation, which he still runs, and our daughter started a couple of things, one was a baking enterprise, then she graduated to a house-cleaning business from about the age of 13 to 16, then she traded that off to another person. We’re big into entrepreneurialism!
Polyface Farm sounds like an incredible oasis. Can you please describe it for the armchair travellers among us?
Well we own 550 acres – 100 of that is open and 450 is woodland – so we’re very much a forest farm. And when I say ‘forest’, I don’t mean Australian bush where the tree canopies are open and it’s widely spaced, this is a dense forest of oaks and hardwoods; there’s no pasture under these trees. We rent another nine properties, which brings our total management up to about 1200 acres of open land and 800 acres of forest. We sell beef, pork, chicken, turkey, rabbit, lamb, duck eggs and chicken eggs, and my brother has 17 beehives on the farm. Right now we’re in late winter so our apprentice manager has also been tapping the sugar maple trees and selling maple syrup. So we’re into a lot of different things, but when you have a farm that’s people-centric, it can do many more things than one that’s devoid of people.
And in terms of distribution, you limit the food miles that your products travel?
Yes, we deliver up to four hours from the farm and that puts us to plenty of people. Of course I realise that if you’re in the centre of Australia, that could be problematic. But here’s my deal: we could sit here and consternate ourselves all evening, discussing the extreme ‘what ifs’, but forget about those for a minute – you can’t solve everything overnight – and let’s talk about all the people who do in fact live within four hours of a population base of say a couple of thousand people. That’s a lot of potential, a lot of land. So if we start talking about those areas – if all of those people were to source locally and direct market, it would open up opportunities we couldn’t even dream of. I don’t have the answer for every single extreme, remote circumstance, but I do believe that there’s an answer for 80–90% of the people through local and direct marketing.
What’s a typical day on the farm like for you?
I do a lot of planning now, physically I’m the chainsaw guy so I run the sawmill and move cows. I help wherever needed. As you can imagine, I do a fair amount of management and I’m gone about 120–140 days a year speaking. We do tours and seminars here at the farm and I’m involved with a lot of that informational outreach.
You play an interesting role within farming. What can you tell us about your methods?
We have some pretty simple ideas here, but as you go down the list, you’ll begin to see very quickly that our ideas are 180 degrees different to industrial mainstream agricultural orthodoxy. Animal movement, animal-plant symbiosis, perennials and hydration are the four simple things that we look at and try to duplicate here on our farm. The first idea is that there’s no animal-less ecosystem; animals are part of the ecosystem. The second is that animals move, they’re not confined to houses or cages. So we have a portable control system (we use electric fencing), a portable shelter system (we use portable shade mobiles made out of tinker toys with nursery shadecloth on top) and portable water (we have a plastic pipe which we can bury and pump water to different places). The innovative things we’ve done with all of the portable infrastructure has simply grown out of the very basic idea that animals move. It’s really that simple. We live in a time when in our Western, sophisticated, techno-glitzy culture, we think the efficient way to confine animals is in a concentrated animal feeding operation and the way to feed them is in a sedentary existence, but in fact that is not the best way to raise animals. We need animals on the landscape because of the magic of manure and its transformative power, and we need to move that fertility around.
What’s next on the list?
The next idea is that the soil is built with carbon – it isn’t built with chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and those kinds of things. So how do we get soil carbon and build up this organic matter? Well, nature uses primarily perennials, so we want an agricultural system that’s primarily perennials rather than annuals. The fourth idea is that natural systems actually stimulate hydration. So in Australia, which is a very dry continent, this becomes a very critical element and certainly that’s one reason why Australia leads the world in hydration thinkers – permaculture and the Keyline system grew out of Australia – because necessity is the mother of invention.
How do you suggest we solve the current issues?
Well what’s interesting is, in our sophisticated, educated cultures, we have this universal idea – and I absolutely understand it – where thinking people of conscience live with this kind of guilt pack on our back when we study the history of civilisations and we see ecological devastation … The study of civilisations is the study of raping the landscape, if you will. So those of us who think and who care, carry this great ancestral guilt on our backs and the tragedy of that is that for many people who don’t actually understand these principles that I’ve just addressed, the only way to interact with our ecology and do it carefully and with integrity, is to abandon the ecology. “Let’s make laws so people can’t cut trees, so people can’t drill wells and can’t store water, so they can’t build ponds or disturb the landscape” – you can just go on and on and on … The basic idea being that the only way to actually act with integrity towards our ecological womb is to withdraw from it and abandon it and lock it up in some sort of park or designated hands-off area. But what I’m suggesting is: yes, let’s all repent for the damages of our ancestors, but let’s now actively remediate that damage. Let’s remediate it by looking at these very simple principles and reinsert them on the landscape.
And how can we do that?
We’re going to reinstitute more perennial polycultures, not annual monocultures, we’re going to stimulate the carbon cycle increasing carbon matter, we’re going to hydrate the landscape with special techniques to stop the incision of our rivers and impound water high on the landscape. There in Australia with such a gently rolling landscape, you actually had a lot of raised deltas that spread water out. In 200 years, Australia has gone from 20% organic matter in its soil to less than 1% – when you consider that one pound of organic matter holds four pounds of water, you begin to realise what that drop in organic matter does in water-retentive capacity. I’m a big fan of damns to hold water high up on the landscape so that it maintains space for springs and keeps the Murray-Darling and major river complexes running, even in dry times, and eliminates surface run-off. This is one of the big things that PA Yeomans – your native son – preached all his life: that every farm should aspire to eliminate surface run-off and if you do that, then not only do you stop flooding downstream but you also have water to meter out gently through extended droughts.
Besides being a successful farmer, you’re also a lecturer and author, and have won a Heinz Award, but what do you personally consider to be your greatest achievement in life so far?
Probably that our son and daughter-in-law are running the farm. Right now, we have four generations on the farm working together – my mother is still a very active 91-year-old. So at this stage of my life, I’m absolutely surrounded by youthful enthusiasm and I can’t think of a better way to age.
If you could convey just one key message to the public about farming and food, what would it be?
Well I’d say that your food choices determine the landscape your children will inherit …
What’s your personal definition of ‘success’?
If you have a farm with two salaries and a succession plan that is seamless, I guess that would be one of my definitions of success. Obviously that means a lot of things have to be in place: a) the old hermit curmudgeon farmer has to be fun to be around; and b) the farm has to be generating a couple of salaries and it has to be generating enough profitability so that it can employ a couple of people and offer a bit of life flexibility.