The lunatic farmer’s ballet in the pasture.

The self-described “Lunatic Farmer” Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm is a world-leading example of how a small family farm can become an extremely diverse and profitable Local Food producer, and how the benefits of Local Food Systems can create resilience, stability and abundance for both local farmers and the wider community.

Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm has always had a following with his own titles such as You Can Farm$alad Bar Beef and Pastured Poultry Profit$ but was really shot into the prominance of the limelight when PolyFace Farm and Joel were featured in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the follow up TED Talk and the subsequent internationally recognised film Food Inc

It’s unusual to see a man like Joel sponsored by the very “bureaucrats” he traditionally rallies against. It’s an attitude he is infamous for and one that has caused him to be labelled a crank and a “bio-terrorist” by those who are not fond of his non-mainstrream views. Joel describes himself as a  “Christian libertarian environmentalist lunatic farmer”  and gains both friends and enemies with his rhetoric especially when sharing his view that “I thought it was the government’s responsibility to protect the fringe from being run over by the mainstream, but what’s happening now is regulations and bureaucracy are smothering small business, are non-scaleable and therefore prejudicial against small business, and the hardest thing is staying out of jail.”

The Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority invited the farmers within the catchment region to join in a sustainable farming conversation in the lead up to the development of their next Regional Catchment Strategy and sponsored (along with the folks at RegenAG) his visit and time. An invitation I was fortunate emough to recieve.

Joel is an interesting and engaging speaker who comes across as a hybrid of Berkeley academic, comedian, motivator and pure salt-of-the-earth ground level farmer. 

Right off the bat, Joel opened up with an observation that every time we read or hear about a farmer that has any form of success, we automatically assume that the other guy has it easier or better. “Oh, but he has better soils, more rain, better genetics, a bigger market”. Humans are hard wired to be and see the negative, he says, we have a “victim-excuse mentality” which is why peoiple tend to call traffic lights “stop lights” and not “go lights”.

In setting context, he spoke about his parents purchase of the most worn-out, eroded, abused farm in the area near Staunton in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, USA in 1961. How the farm had no top soil, and even bare rock patches in many areas. How they spent years trying to heal the land by disregarding conventional wisdom and using nature itself as a template, planted trees, built huge compost piles, dug ponds, moved cows daily with portable electric fencing, and invented portable sheltering systems to produce all their animals on perennial prairie polyculture pastures. So, yes, today the farm arguably represents America’s premier non-industrial food production oasis, but it isn’t because they had it better or easier.

The farm’s mission has always been to develop emotionally, economically and environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises where “multiple use” was part of that philosophy. Multiple use land, multiple use infrastructure and multiple use labour creates a diverse, sustainable and stable enterprise. The only change to their base philosophy over the years has been to expand it to also facilitate the duplication of the model throughout the world once they had proven the prototype.

The range of the talk was vast, so much so, that I am having difficulty summaraising it all here – the topics ranged from the different stock enterprises (cattle. swine, chickens, turkeys, rabbits) as well as the agroforestry, horticulture and pasture management. The discussion was not limited to the farming practice either – with management, innovation and community focussed on quite heavily. In fact, I think I would go so far as to say that the latter topics were of the most interest and value. 

I would like to leave you with the “ten commandments of forgiveness farming” that I summarised from Joel’s presentation in the last part of yesterday’s talk.

  1. Fertility
    Without fertility you don’t have anything. Always return as much to the land as possible. Re-distribute the fertility across the farm. A cow can drop as much as 20Kg (~50 pounds) of “material” per day from its rear end. That means that a property with 40 cows has 2000 pounds (~900Kg) of material that can be re-introduced to the land. Use of portable shade can assist that distribution across the fields rather than allowing it to accumalate under fixed shelter belts.
  2. Agricultural Sanitisation
    There are a number of ways that nature sanitises. The two easiest and cheapest methods we can utilise are “Rest and Sunshine” and “deep bedding”.
    Allowing a rest period of 21 days in the sunshine just twice a year is enough to sanitise and break the pathogenicity of the paddock. Whilst in indoor areas, allowing the build up of a deep (12″/33cm +) bedding provides the density required for the anaerobic activity to begin heating up the core of the bedding and thus sanitising the bedding as it begins to compost.
  3. Organic matter
    Returning organic waste and fertility to an area, allowing it to decompose and compost will provide the basis for the worms, bacteria and fungus to work it’s magic and create the humous. Without it, you don’t have the topsoil that is needed.
  4. Portable, re-usable Infrastructure
    Ensuring that all of your infrastructure is re-usable and re-deployable across the farm and across enterprises allows for a range of flexibility, reduction in costs and increase in productivity. 
  5. Diversified Income
    Most farms look like a single legged stool where the “seat” of income sits upon the “leg” of a single form of production. The stool should have four legs, each offering a further stability to that seat which includes the legs of distribution, processing and marketing.
  6. Perennial based agriculture
    Ensuring that the local grassland flora flourishes to provide a no-till roughage that is easily converted to protein.
  7. Management Intensity
    Changing the paradigm from energy intensive operations to one of management intensive operations. The better managed an operation is, the faster one can react to and correct any issues that come up, thus reducing the amount of energy required to maintain the enterprise. The secret, Joel believes, is in finding the “sweet spot” between “per acre performance” and “per head performance” which are on opposite ends of a see-saw pivot.
  8. Localisation
    There is a global pattern that less than 5% of all food grown is actually eaten in the region it was actually grown in. The health of the planet and the community needs a return to sustainable practices that includes a return to localisation of the food we eat.
  9. Patrons – not clients
    It’s important that the interaction is that of a team. The purchasers are not simply buying a product, but supporting a philosophy – ensuring agricultural artisans continue their trade. The “patron” should thus appreciate the seasonality of the products, enjoy the unprocessed nature of the product, enjoy the art of salvaging all of the product and exploring and discovering the domestic culinary arts. Most of all, they continue their patromage because they want to support the artisan and see the farm remain successful.
  10. People
    The enterprise should encourage people. It should make people want to visit, kids want to stay on, vistiros want to stay. It should foster community and just as importantly, the farm should also foster the growth of the community and the people in it. 

There is a lot more that can be added to this post, but I do not have the time. I thouroughly recommend, nay, encourage, you to read some of his books and if you do get the opportunity to attend one of Joel’s talks, that you take it. 



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