On Nov. 18, 2014, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms spoke at the Sustainable Agriculture Symposium sponsored by the Idaho Center for Sustainable Agriculture. In his address, Salatin delighted the crowd with his usual wit and acerbic commentary along with 10 common threads to farming success based on his years of observation and first-hand application.
In this two-part series, I will launch from each of Salatin’s 10 best practices outlined below with my own expansions of those concepts. For me, you can not have a list of best practices for success without defining what success looks like. I define success for a farming system as one that melds the ideas of sustainability and ecological farming into one rubric I call regenerative. If our practices are regenerative in nature and outcome, then we can call them successful. Conversely, if a practice is degenerative, even if it is financially profitable, I will not consider it a success.
1. Commitment to working the landscape
Certainly farmers need to be committed to managing their landscapes, but they first have to get over the fear of digging in … literally. Once a landowner makes a decision to follow a regenerative approach, there can be a mistaken notion that their land must be left in a pristine state. Many will agree when I write that there are plenty of appropriate landscape-management activities available to a farmer to help work the landscape.
Man in his God-given intelligence and creativity can make positive changes through various activities, such as earthworks. In fact, employing landscape-management practices can turn an unwanted, unproductive piece of land into a highly productive one. The Salatin family knows this first hand.
Building ponds and water catchment systems with swales (read our blog posting here) or keyline plowing is an effective way to keep precipitation on the land rather than run off or erode the soil.
I also advocate for the use of animals as part of a holistic management approach. If we are to really mimic creation, then we have to do so with animals. Natural ecospheres contain animal life. This is a clue for us to observe and gain the benefits that animals bring to landscape management.
Ruminants mixed with poultry are great management tools within a mob and rotational grazing scheme that actually improves pasture while suppressing disease.
If we believe the planet has entered the Anthropocene, then we need to start impacting God’s landscape for good and not for ill. Since humans have altered the planet, we can not go back in time to fix it so we must move forward with actions that builds healthy soil and produces healthy food. As Salatin said in his remarks, “Successful farmers are not afraid to adjust the landscape.”
2. Eclectic awareness
“You want to be a farmer? Read widely,” Salatin said. Having been trained to study literature myself, I could not agree more. Note that he said “widely.” Do not limit your reading to farming journals or online forums. Read on a broad range of topics. Start by being aware of what is going on in agricultural policy and who the players are.
Because I believe that reading will stimulate the human mind to being better at thinking critically, I suggest the topic of what you read should not be trivial.
Farmers should read about marketing and about developing business plans. I suggest we read about economics. I believe we should be devouring the content produced by people we trust to help us, such as Salatin, Darren Doherty, Mark Shepard, Noah Sanders and a host of others.
Finally, the greatest aid the farmer can gain by reading is from the Bible. There is a lot of content in the scripture that gives us insight into God’s creation and our stewardship of it. Creation was so much a part of the human mindset during Christ’s earthly ministry that He used agriculture to help illustrate many of His main points.
Reading God’s word also keeps us humble and grounded in our role as farmers. And, it is revelatory about God Himself. What more could a farmer ask?
3. A can-do entrepreneurial spirit
There are people who are risk intolerant. There are people who go blindly into the foray. I would say that a successful farmer is someone in between. Farming is not without risks. However, it is not anything to fear, either. Yes, there will be failures. Sometimes these failures will be heartbreaking. But, the rewards far outweigh the risks. In permaculture, we call it feedback from the system, not failure.
Being a farmer may require doing things that you have never done before. Whether it is running a small excavator to build a pond or neutering livestock or meeting a prospective buyer to make a proposal, the farmer must have an attitude that he will succeed once setting hand to plow, so to speak.
Just as an entrepreneur who is launching a technology startup will serve many roles in the new business, so the farmer serves many roles. The successful farmer embraces each role. I do not pretend they love each role, but approaching each with a “can-do” spirit goes a long way to success.
4. Live frugally
This key to success may seem subjective. But, I believe Salatin is suggesting that successful farmers are more than just smart with their money. At the heart of what he is teaching are the ideas of thrift and prudence. This advice is for both lifestyle and operations.
Living frugally means living a lifestyle that does not include extravagance, as well as living a lifestyle that does what it can to eliminate waste in all its forms.
I believe that true joy is not found in material objects so we should not seek personal gratification from them. Can you do a task manually rather than mechanically? Can you make do with what you have instead of the latest iteration or model of something?
Value is something farmers should be very familiar with. Each time they spend money or labor or energy, a successful farmer should be confident that they are getting an equal value or better in return.
Does the solar array you just spent loads of money on give you an appropriate return? Are you expending diesel on power for jobs you can do reasonably efficiently by hand? Anything you buy or rent eats into your revenue. When you add unnecessary overhead to your business, it means you have less to enjoy as profit or to invest back into your farm. The frugal farmer carefully weighs purchases.
It might be an exaggeration or simply a goal to try to reach, but a really successful regenerative farmer has very little waste in their home and in their operations. The by product of one thing or process is likely a useful element for another.
5. Assemble a team
Because being a jack of all trades can be taxing, it is a smart practice to have others help you. You cannot be a master of too many things if you have to do them all. The notion here is that there is creativity, ability, skills and insights to be gained from other people helping you.
Interns, volunteers, family and friends are all great places to find help that will not cost you too much, if anything. If your operation can support paid help, then look for team members whose skills compliment yours. As Salatin said, the very job you may hate to do is probably a job someone else just loves to do.
A team is also a good sounding board to ensure the farm plan is on the right track. Your team is an audience to share your vision and become advocates for what you are trying to do. With a team, you should not feel alone in the struggles you may face.
Part two of this article can be found here and includes Salatin’s second set of best practices for the successful farmer. These include: direct market, gross margin analyses, multi-enterprise, time and motion studies, and keep the farm portable.