Wednesday, June 02, 2010

How Joel Salatin Unknowingly Convinced Me to Become a Farmer

I spent the second half of my childhood living on a 2000 acre cattle ranch in Oregon. Before that, we were city slickers in Orange County, California (before anyone called it 'the OC'). In spite of this idyllic existence where my cowgirl dreams came true, I didn't learn much of the ways of the land, so to speak. We had a ranch-hand in charge of the cattle, and although my parents were deeply involved, we kids largely just went along for the lark of a good round-up. I was good on a horse and knew a lot about their care, as well as the castrating and vaccination routines of pasture-fed cattle, but I couldn't have told you a thing about growing fruit or vegetables, and chickens were a total mystery.

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
  1. Never have a sales target.
  2. No trademarks or patents. 'Hold your innovations lightly.'
  3. 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.)
  4. Incentivised workforce (bonuses and commissions). [apologies to those who hate 'incentivise', which isn't a word, I know. Am quoting.]
  5. No Initial Public Offering (IPO). That way you will never be beholden to shareholders, whose primary aim is merely to make a profit themselves.
  6. No advertising – it's all word of mouth.
  7. Stay in the ecological carrying capacity (the ecology of the farm should be able to metabolise its own waste).
  8. People answer the phone.
  9. Respect the pigness of the pig.
  10. 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.


Essjayeff said...

Oh yay! a dream is rekindled. Thank you so much for sharing Tammi. I really wish I'd made the effort to be there. Can't wait to hear about the next step xx sj

Annette (@silverbeet) said...

Thanks for this very interesting and personal post, Tammi. Great talk summary.
The statement GMO is evil bothers me though - and I often see blanket condemnation like this. Genetic modification is not a person, so it can't be evil, and it has been occuring over millennia. It IS misused by unethical agents who are not being properly regulated. For example, Monsanto, as a corporate entity may be unethical, and the systems which govern GM risk assessment and global food production & distribution badly flawed, but are there are times/places where GM, its risks properly managed, is appropriate?
To me, the statement should not be GMO is evil, but that the corporate power/responsibility balance is dangerously skewed. This applies not just to seed suppliers but to industrial food corporates right through the food chain. (And to other industries.)
Support small farmers! Bring corporates to accountability!

Tammois said...

Thanks, Suzanne. We're commencing our research in earnest now - not just for a lovely property, but for one we can make into a productive farm. :-)

Annette - I totally agree with you. I hope I haven't misrepresented Joel's much more complex points he made throughout his talks. He did actually say they're evil, but of course he was eliding the technology with the corporations responsible for the most part. However, he did point out that we are at the 14 year mark with GMO, which is when we found out the truly devastating effects of DDT. Point being, of course, that we're really still in guinea pig stage on the science as it is practised. I tend to agree with him, and would rather see 'genetic modification' remain in the realm of a bit of grafting, etc, than manipulating genes at the nuclear level with unknowable ultimate consequences.

Of course we are in furious agreement, as usual, about supporting local farmers and bringing corporates to account! #riot ;-)

Evan said...

Good post Tam, thanks for the write up.

I've been having similar thoughts about moving into the hills and raising a lot of chickens. Quail too I think. And goats.

My main concern at the moment though is finding somewhere to do it. I think critiical to the ethos of low impact production is the transport, as Joel identifies. Also, as a primary producer there's a relationship between the value/cost of your land and the quality of it; whether or not you can live off the produce practically from the land quality. The third pressure is needing a decent sized market to sell the produce into. Further, I think this is more critical in Australia than the US, where the cities are closer together and the population centres bigger.

So I'm currently fixated on finding somewhere we can afford 100 acres, within half an hour of a town with a market of... not sure yet. Big enough. I think the Canberra Growers market is a big plus around here. Not sure it rains enough though.


Arwen from Hoglet K said...

Excellent post Tammi! I hope your dream comes true. It is a worthy one.

wolfinkitchen said...

Tammi thank you for coming to Lake House to hear Salatin and thank you for posting such a clear summation of his message.
I was fortunate to have him around as a guest for a week. Every meal, every conversation with him and every presentation was a mind expanding episode for me personally.As I said on Sunday, my time with him was full of "aha' moments. It is all stuff one knows intuitively - there are things wrong: agriculture should be regenerative and productive ; people who produce our food should be our champions and heroes and not be slinking off and hiding their practises - and so much more. All common sense - it's just that Salatin and others like him are joining the dots and showing how it is all possible.Personally I'm delighted to have been able to broaden the demographic to whom he speaks. I can't tell you how many emails we've had from people who were considerably moved and even shaken. It was a privilege to host him and I'm now so very proud to count him amongst my friends.

Tammois said...

Thanks, Ev, Arwen & Alla - I appreciate the enthusiastic feedback. :-)

Ev, we'll keep this conversation going - I think Salatin really helped me see exactly how to do local/sustainable production well, and I'm lucky to have been looking for a property around Daylesford off and on for the last 15 years, where there's a mature food community already, so something like collaborating on distribution is a viable option. Plus the knowledge of many producers around that region will be invaluable for newcomers like us.

Alla, thanks so much for hosting Joel so we could all benefit from his energy, insight and practical experience, not to mention his motivational and entertaining style! I envy you to have made such an inspirational friend - but I'm not surprised given the great work you've been doing at the Lake House for so long now. We look forward to joining your community in the next year. :-)

Spencer @ Moo-Lolly-Bar said...

Great blog. Well written and very engaging. Keep it up!

Tammois said...

Thanks, Spencer! Glad you enjoyed it - I've moved the blog over to where I'm blogging my reflections through Italy at the moment, Malaysia next. :-)