Three years after high school, I found myself on the cliffs of Wales, walking with a lover I met in a hostel in London after dropping out of university while protesting the 1991 Gulf War. I'm vegetarian. We're discussing our life's dreams in that starry-eyed youthful way, and I pronounce my intention to own a property in Colorado someday, near enough to Boulder that there will be a like-minded community of hippies and dreamers, but far enough out to buy a farm big enough to do some serious growing. My lover says, 'no way. I totally can't picture you on a farm.' (He also shortly thereafter informed me he had recently left the Australian Army Reserves. It is one of the true mysteries of this story that we are still together 19 years later...)
Some six years later, my lover/husband and I visited Daylesford for the first time. As always when we spend time in the country, we were enchanted and immediately commence dplans to move there. We signed the Convent Gallery's guestbook with, 'we'll be back... to live next time.'
Since we met, Stuart and I have spent a total of two years actually living in the country, one in a small town in Oregon, where for most of the year we lived in a gorgeous little log cabin under a magnificent cherry tree, the other on a remote property in far east Gippsland, Victoria, which is an environmental education campus for Year 9 girls. The latter year was a pastoral dream, a poetic success, and professionally challenging. We swore again that we would live in the country on our own property one day...
But in all these pastoral dreams, I never really entertained the notion of actually being a farmer, in the sense of a producer for a market to make a living. Mine has always been a hippie's halcyon daydream of self-sufficiency. Which, unsurprisingly, is probably why we haven't yet made it happen. Exactly how do we earn a living on our own little unplugged piece of the planet? Even around Daylesford, there's not a lot of work for an academic and a business development manager in building automation technologies.
But everything changed when we heard Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms last weekend. In case you haven't heard of Joel, he describes himself as an environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic farmer. He is one of the most intelligent, charismatic speakers to whom I have had the pleasure to listen, and he did a great job of busting my every stereotype of 'dumb farmers'. He even has a philosophy about that...
We went to the Lakehouse to hear Joel talk about building a local food system, and how to scale up 'without losing your soul'. I was interested in the way I always am – how can we feed the world through smaller, more local production where farmers are embedded in communities? You know, the usual, 'how do we save the world' sort of questions that are my trademark. I came away convinced that the best way for Stuart and I to help save the world was not simply by 'living the changes we wish to see in the world' but by flogging them and making a living from them as well. Yes, I'm convinced that we can and should be primary producers. I give us about five years to get through a start-up period. How did Joel convert me?
Here are the highlights of Joel's double-feature seminar, in note form with minimal editorialising.
First of all, a local food system has six components:
- local farms will be 'aesthetically and aromatically, sensually romantic'. Large scale commodity 'farms' are so opaque they allow unsustainable practices. Local producers are embedded in communities. The industrial economy has created 'commercial apartheid' – it is 'opaque, confused and inefficient... with a semblance of efficiency only enabled by cheap energy'. Stop subsidising the petrochemical industry and cheap, industrial food will have to increase in price.
- (Sadface fact of the day: in California, organic growers are now required to sign an affadavit to keep under-5-year-olds off their farm because they might wear nappies, which might contaminate the produce. See my rant on agro-industry for my thoughts on this sadness.)
- Local producers look after the 'ecological umbilical' with practices such as pasture-based livestock, stacking and symbiosis.
- Farms should be solar driven (not petrochemical). Fertiliser is in-sourced.
- Farmers should be 'Jeffersonian intellectual agrarians'. :-) In order for 'city folk' to take farmers seriously, they need to professionalise and outwardly express their intelligence.
- Traditional family farmers are not good at creating a successionally successful business – they must learn to collaborate and take on more young workers outside the family where necessary.
- With our loss of local canneries, butchers, bakeries, etc, we must reclaim spaces for community food processing, such as church halls.
- Government regulations are not scalable for small operations. At some point, we should be able to take individual responsibility for our food choices (eg raw milk).
- Most farmers are not very good accountants. You need to be able to understand which of your products are being subsidised by others and do something about it if you want to be profitable.
- No matter how good your produce is, people need to know it exists. A great way for small farms to market more easily is to collaborate with other small producers nearby.
- Distribution can be the great bottleneck for small, local producers, who end up selling everything to supermarkets via the big distributors. Again, collaboration with other local growers can solve this problem.
- Every product needs a consumer, & a small, local farmer's patrons are likely to be people who appreciate seasonality, who are excited about rediscovering their kitchens, and who know that processed food is expensive.
In the second seminar on scaling up, Joel went into more detail about Polyface Farm. Here's what we learned...
- Polyface sales are approximately 25% on-farm, 35% restaurant and boutique supermarket, and 45% 'box drop' internet sales.
- They separate the delivery fee from the farmer's cost so consumers can see how much goes to the farmer – as Joel said, he's a farmer, not a transporter.
- His boundary is deliveries within 4 hours of Polyface.
- The box drop system works much better than farmers' market attendance – there's no speculation about what stock to take, they deliver to a central point at agreed time and customers collect their boxes, which they were able to choose from entire inventory. (The internet, once conceived as a tool of globalisation, has emerged as an excellent tool for localisation.)
- Polyface employs interns and apprentices, provides housing and board and very small stipends.
The Mental Protection from Wall Streetification of Polyface
- Never have a sales target.
- No trademarks or patents. 'Hold your innovations lightly.'
- Identify your market boundaries. (Then you can just tell those outside them to seek other fabulous local growers, thus supporting the movement & reducing your own stress.)
- Incentivised workforce (bonuses and commissions). [apologies to those who hate 'incentivise', which isn't a word, I know. Am quoting.]
- No Initial Public Offering (IPO). That way you will never be beholden to shareholders, whose primary aim is merely to make a profit themselves.
- No advertising – it's all word of mouth.
- Stay in the ecological carrying capacity (the ecology of the farm should be able to metabolise its own waste).
- People answer the phone.
- Respect the pigness of the pig.
- Quality always has to go up. (If you can't increase quality when increasing volume, then don't increase your volume.)
Two other quick, interesting, important points:
And I quote,
“GMO is evil.”Patenting seeds and suing small growers, including traditional native American communities, when patented DNA is found in their seed stock is EVIL. Indeed.
Organic certification is insufficient as it is a pass/fail system. Those who would get a D- are alongside those who would earn an A+ - it's a perverse incentive to work to the lowest common denominator. For example, one farm might produce all of its own organic compost – all of its outputs become inputs for the farm – no organic waste leaves the property. Another might bring in organic fish emulsion from the east coast, which has been sourced as a byproduct of Japanese driftnets and has a carbon footprint bigger than importing petrochemical fertilisers from Australia (this is to the US, of course).
According to Joel, if you ask whether something is organic, and the producer or seller says, 'yes', the conversation is over and you buy it. There are many things that might be environmentally or ethically suspect about the produce, but they are masked by the organic certification. When he's asked why he doesn't certify, there is a conversation, everybody learns more, and the word is spread further. :-)
As I listened to Joel, it increasingly dawned on me that many arguments against running a small farm were being systematically debunked. He is a passionate advocate for farming in a way that is socially, environmentally and fiscally sustainable. He speaks my language. He writes fascinating books detailing what we only heard a few hours of. And he's on the lecture circuit proselytising about all of it. Zomigod, I can do that.