Interview with 2016 Convention Speaker: Joel Salatin

Thrift Schooling

I am pleased to share with you, an interview with Joel Salatin, one of the HEAV convention speakers this year! Be sure to visit Joel Salatin's Sessions while at the convention, you will certainly be challenged and encouraged.

I remember hearing that your son starting breeding rabbits for profit as a child. What other farm based businesses would you suggest for a pre-teen or teenager?

The list is virtually endless, but of course it is age dependent.  A very young child can make pot holders with those colored elastic cloth bands stretched across those little square holders with pegs all around the sides.  I’ve met children who offered pet sitting services, lawn care, grew vegetables and sold them.  Goodness, teens can do virtually anything an adult can do, both mentally and physically.  It all depends on interest and skill.  Some children and teens adept at mechanical ability can fix appliances, small engines, or become a general handyman. Certainly culinary opportunities are myriad, from fixing meals to baking to offering cake decorating.  If it’s moral and ethical, go for it. Legal?  Don’t worry about it, children have a lot of public relations equity.

 What advice would you give someone who knows nothing about farming but wants to start taking steps to regain control of where their food is coming from? Where is a good place to begin?

Sell the TV, get rid of the video games, and put down People magazine.  Take that entertainment/recreational time and money and invest it in a treasure hunt in your community for food that will actually feed your body.  All breakthroughs start with a break with.  I wish I could snap my fingers and see everybody’s situation improve without any personal change or commitment, but life doesn’t work that way.  

First, you have to recognize that it is important enough to occupy some time and money investment; until then, you’ll never get started. Once that’s done, start visiting local farmers who sell directly to customers.  Very soon you’ll develop discernment and skill, an ability to pick and choose between integrity and charlatans.  I view regaining control of integrity food as a 3-step process:

  1. Get In Your Kitchen.  Start preparing, packing, processing, and preserve real whole food yourself.  We’ve never been blessed with so much high tech gadgetry to make this easy, precise, and safe.  Just like you’ve decided to take control of your children’s education by actively informing yourself and participating in it, taking control of your food will take an active participation requirement.
  2. Grow Something Yourself.  From gardens to patio pots to beehives on the roof, even something as simple as an under-sink vermicomposting kit can get you connected viscerally to our ecological umbilical.  You need to see both the wonder and difficulty of physical stewardship.
  3. Find Your Farmer.  Take one year and instead of going on vacation or watching Netflix, spend that time, money, and energy finding your good farmers.  Many of them are desperate for just a few more customers to enable them to quit their town commute and farm full time.  You can be that facilitator.  Stocking your pantry with locally-sourced fare will change your relationship with food in remarkable ways.

 What about the hobby farmer who wants to go full time? What steps could he take so he can quit his day job and farm for a living?

Think Like A Business Record keeping, gross margin analysis, time and motion studies, and enough scale to pay the salary and taxes.

Think Like An EntrepreneurDo what you love to do, what are you good at, and what do you know how to do?  That intersection is your sweet spot of opportunity.  

Think Like A Team Builder: Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses.  Find partners (family, friends, neighbors) who can shore up your weaknesses and let you leverage your strengths.  Take a course to bolster your weaknesses, repair, maintenance, how-to.

Think Like A Marketer: Develop customers; what do people need and what could you sell to them?  

Think About Scale: Stack enterprises, create additional income streams, rent more land and add value and income. Turning your eggs into quiches, for example,  enable you to create more income from a given space.

How practical is it for a small scale farmer to get certified to sell organic meat?

I don’t recommend playing government games, so I don’t fool with certification.  In the time and effort it takes to comply with licensing, you could find a hundred customers and build a decent business. Certification is only for people who don’t know their customers.

What was your biggest challenge in getting Polyface Farm up and running and to the place where it is now?

Government regulations.  Had it been legal to sell raw milk to neighbors, I could have begun years earlier and launched immediately.  Today, our single biggest impediment is still regulations that either criminalize or hamper our ability to sell things that we’d like to and that our customers crave.  The arbitrary additional costs involved and reduced choice combine to keep local food in a niche and protect the big players from competition.

Could you share a brief testimony of someone who visited your farm and left completely transformed? 

Probably the most dramatic was Michael Pollan, author of New York Times bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  He was working on a book with the working title, Food Chains and saw three:  hunger-gatherer, organic, and industrial.  When he came to Polyface, he suddenly realized there was a fourth:  grass-based.  That epiphany eventually led to four meals and the new title, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. 

What would your ideal food system look like for America and do you see a plausible means of reaching that goal? 

So much is wrong that it’s sometimes hard to know where to start, but I’ll give a couple of ideas.

  1. Integrated.  Currently, everything is segregated.  What we need is an integrated system where food is produced and consumed in roughly the same place.  This is partly local food, of course, but goes further.  It includes having laying hen flocks next to every restaurant and kitchen to eat the scraps and produce eggs on site.
  2.  Carboncentric.  Rather than being petroleum-based for fertility, it needs to be carbon driven.  If all the money currently spent by Virginia for chemical fertilizers who instead spent on silviculture management to cull out junk and diseased trees, thin out the forests, release high quality dominant specimens, and chip the biomass for composting systems, we’d grow soil, jobs, and fresh air exponentially.
  3. Local.  America has 35 million acres of lawns and 36 million acres housing and feeding recreational horses.  That’s enough to feed everyone without a single farm or ranch.  Instead of ecologically-debilitating suburban mono-species lawns, these could all be highly productive mini-farms, and they would be far more productive than the most advanced industrial farm in the world.
  4. Perennial-based.  The current system worships at annuals. But perennials are far more productive per acre with regenerative energy cycles (fewer inputs).  Herbivores would not eat dead chickens and corn; they would fill their ecologically-important ministry as biomass pruners and soil builders.
  5. Hydration. Currently, everything incentives depletion of water resources and depletion of the commons.  Rather, we need to rebuild the 6-8 percent of the American landscape that was covered by beaver ponds 500 years ago, but do it one step better by using excavation equipment to situate them higher on the landscape, permaculture fashion.
  6. Integrity Food Desire. Right now, the cheap food policy creates an axiomatic societal benefit to cut corners, externalized costs, destroy the environment, and deplete nutrient density.  Rather, we need a populace dedicated to nutrient density, willing to pay for higher quality and correctly balanced nutrition, realizing that health doesn’t come from a bottle of drugs; it starts on the plate.
  7. Domestic Culinary Arts.  Currently, we have a universal notion that domestic culinary arts are barbaric and unnecessary. But, you can’t have an integrity food system in which all the players have not a scintilla of understanding of how the game is played. What actually constitutes integrity food.  The food/farm ignorance in our country is profound, and the quality reflects this profound disengagement.

I’m looking forward to your session, Ten Threads of Success for Starting a Farm! What do you think is the biggest setback that hinders zealous families from making their farming endeavors successful?

Lack of agreement on what they envision for the future.  You’ve got to get on the same page and not be at cross-purposes.  

What can attendees hope to gain from attending your Family Fiefdoms workshop? 

A pathway to stimulate businesses among their children.  This teaches economic skills, good money handling discernment, and an appreciation for how hard earning a dollar actually is. Rather than losing their kids to fantasy games and Monsanto, I’d like to see thousands of families embrace cottage industry, entrepreneurism, self-reliance and a working-together household.

You’ve written several books, which book would you recommend for someone who wants to learn more about your methods?

You Can Farm is the most eclectic one, although my favorite is, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, describing the philosophical and logistical underpinnings for our kind of farming.
Thank you for taking the time out of your day for this interview. After hearing you speak a few years ago, my family came and visited Polyface Farm. It was an amazing experience. We look forward to hearing you speak again this year!
A Note From Heather: I certainly have come a long way since I visited Polyface three years ago, and I still have a ways to go. The pictures above are from our trip back then.

The picture below?
That was dinner this week.
Pot roast to be exact.
Raised locally, processed locally.
There is a certain comfort in knowing exactly what I'm serving my family.
You have to start somewhere! 


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  1. Wow! There is a TON of information in here. I'm so looking forward to his sessions. Thank you for this! ♥

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