In a word this book was bittersweet. On the one hand Salatin absolutely proves the title of his book. He not only shows how he has succeeded in a small family farming endeavour, but he has a wealth of ideas and advice on how others can do the same, even when doing things different from his chosen path. This is not a formulaic book by any means. On the other hand, he does not shy away from driving home the bitter truth to us "wannabes". There are hard facts that a first generation homesteader will have to face.
Of Salatin's constant warnings in the book the top two are getting into debt and lack of experience. Most of his warnings trace back to these two. For instance, he warns those who would have exotic animals and particularly horses. He rightly points out that you are feeding an animal who produces nothing for your farm. You cant eat a horse. You cant sell its fur. You cant milk it. So why do those who are new to farming want to have a horse? If you love horses, they should be seen as a luxury to perhaps have once you succeed. Salatin also says he is afraid of horses, which I find funny. Throuout the book he has many amusing stories and quirky takes on things. He pounds away at his conviction that it can be a huge mistake for a beginner to buy land, particularly when combined with the lack of experience of a first gen homesteader. What happens often is that the farmer must work in town at a job to pay the mortgage on his dream hobby farm. Salatin points out that many in this situation could have perhaps rented or bought some cheaper land and throw a used trailer home on it and perhaps make a success of it without the need for an outside job. He sees this desire for "land" as a key failure of newbies. He recounts how even his own father never truly saw the fruit of the Salatin farm. Only now in the second and third generation is Salatin's farm really making it. And Joel sees this as to be expected. A bit depressing perhaps, but Salatin tempers this news with ways to make steps in the right direction, such as the idea of renting land and settling for a used trailer home.
|Salatin with his "eggmobile" in background and what I think is a water cart.|
In the mainstream model, everything is based on inputs. Input chemical fertilizers to the soil to grow corn that requires lots of inputs from machinery($) (tilling, planting, spraying, harvesting). Feed corn to cattle ($). Use machinery ($) to deal with disgusting piles of smelly manure which has lost much of its fertilizing ability ($) from lack of composting. Conditions are good for the spread of disease in filthy cattle area so antibiotics ($) and perhaps vets must be used. Production must now continue year round to pay for these costs, which means a huge amount of inputs ($) in the off season, and means the farmer now has to work right through the winter. Salatin sadly points out the vicious cycle, which he has seen many times. In the end, many farmers opt to increase this dysfunctional operation to compensate for these increased costs. Of coarse this just means more work, more inputs, and more stress.
Salatin is careful to warn that his model will only work well on a small scale. As soon as you enlarge it to the point of needing expensive equipment and/or employees it fails. If you take a loan to buy specialized equipment, then you are really just working to pay a loan at that point. And the worst part is that you are now stuck doing that specialized thing. What if your specialized thing doesn't sell well next year? Now you have all this equipment that is not making you money but you will still be paying the loan on it. RAW DEAL! Salatin sums up this situation by pointing out a key warning sign. When asked what you do, if you say I am a _____ farmer, then there is a problem. Whether that _____ is filled in with "corn", "dairy", "chicken", or whatever, if you identify with a single thing and bankroll your future with that one thing, you are entering dangerous territory. This "monoculture" mentality is the essense of modern farming though.
Keeping things simple, small, varied and multi-use is the key for Salatin.
Perhaps instead of spending X dollars on a building you could opt for spending less on a small, portable bandsaw mill to make your own lumber and make your own building out of your own wood. Now instead of having a building and a maybe even a loan, you have a building and a tool (think Distributism) you can use again for MANY different purposes. Again with the value adding. Very wise. Instead of a building, how about a hoop house or a movable shelter? Instead of scooping chicken manure and spreading it, how about just moving the animals around on the pasture in mobile pens? This reduces disease from continuous use areas (where parasites thrive) while giving the chickens access to what they love: bugs, grass, and sunshine. These pens can even follow the grazing cattle and will eat fly larvae from the cattle manure and eat grass and bugs that the cows won't. All while reducing labor for the farmer. Win-win.
|Salatin kickin it. |
Probably on one of the many winter days where he works for only an hour or two a day.
In You Can Farm, Joel Salatin has enough down to earth wisdom that to a dreamer like me he seems to be saying You Can Farm, but. Yet overall, I think he presents a realistic and encouraging picture of how, if you truly want to, You Can Farm. Whether you want to eventually get onto a farm or not, this book will show you something you will appreciate.