"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." -Cardinal Francis George

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"You Can Farm" Book Review

Upon finishing You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise by Joel Salatin my first thought was that this book needs the word Can in the title italicized. Yes, folks: You can Farm, ...but it is hard.

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.
Throughout the book he drives home the concept of "value adding" and avoiding monoculture in any form. If your farm "needs" something, try to solve the problem with something free that you already have. If you need electric fence stakes, spend a rainy day making them yourself instead of buying them. If you need a building, try to make it multi-purpose. Salatin builds many of his structures with rot resistant pine logs from his own land. He improves his forested areas while at the same time getting free lumber. Win-win. His "pigaerator" system is amazing. He winters his cows in a feeding area where he lays layer upon layer of carbonaceous material (like sawdust from cutting his own lumber!) along with some corncobs on their manure as it builds up. There is no smell. And as an aside, Salatin says that if you smell a foul smell on a farm, the farmer has failed. He says that there should NEVER be foul odors on a farm. So next time you hear a farmer say something like "smells like money", you can think to yourself "smells like wasted money". Those odors are the smell of nitrogen and other beneficial fertilizer type stuff evaporating into thin air! Anyway, when spring comes and the cattle are out of the shelter and onto the pasture, in come the pigs! Here is where the corncobs come in, because they root and root to get to those cobs way deep down. In the process, the pigs do all the work of churning up the compost. Now instead of a labor intensive spring chore of digging out compacted manure, Salatin can just go in and scoop out the newly mixed compost and bring it out to the pasture. Every part of the process is happy: Cows don't sit in their own filth and get more disease from the increased level of parasites. Humans don't have to smell foul odors and get an easier time dealing with the manure. Pigs get put to work doing what they love by rooting around for stuff, the pasture gets what it needs by getting top notch compost, which makes for better grass, which animals like, which makes tastier animal products. Everybody wins. Focus on any one of these elements (pig, cow, fertilizer, food, labor, instinctive behavior) and you will see that is is being used for multiple purposes at once, which gives it added value. Take the pigs for example. Instead of being penned up in a shed with food shoveled in one end and noxious manure shoveled out the other end, the pig is actually a laborer on the farm! And he loves to do it!
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. 
The sceptic in me keeps coming back to the fact that Salatin is not a first gen farmer. So it is tempting to say "yeah of course YOU can farm buddy, you were given a farm and lots of experience!" But after reading this book, I realize that this man has had many opportunities to fail miserably. And there are countless thousands of farmers who have been handed a farm from their parents just like Salatin was and have failed badly by using the modern industrialized model. Reminds me of the lottery winners who are broke after a few years. In the end, we have to use wisdom to succeed. And in that sense, Joel Salatin deserves 100% credit for his success. And because wisdom is the basis of his success, he is able to articulate it and hand it on to others in this book. And if success in getting our families back to the land and homesteading is our goal, then this wisdom is what we need to seek. We can buy the best land, move near the ideal neighbors, and we can even succeed in making a living on a homestead. But if that success is more from just luck, and does not flow from principles derived from wisdom, then the next generation will have no basis for their success.
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.


  1. David, excellent review. I agree. Here are some more thoughts: he makes the claim that you need to start farming with a 5 to 10 year cushion of savings. That is, in my opinion, way to much money for most people to save ahead of time. Even if you were uber frugal and only needed $15,000 per year to live on, that would mean saving $150,000 in the bank before you ever began.

    Also, consider this: he is talking about making a living completely off the farm, by doing farming. But if you have other skills, say writing or welding or whatever, you could also make some money by doing those things.

    I agree if you don't have much money, buying land should be the last priority. But if you do have some money saved and could even buy land outright, then it could make sense to buy it with no mortgage.

    Overall I think that you should assess your own personal situation: what are the advantages you have over the generic person Salatin is writing towards? What are the disadvantages? How can you leverage your advantages to make your homestead possible? Maybe it looks different from what Salatin describes. Maybe you just get the ball rolling and it is your children who fulfill the dream (like Salatin's dad experienced).

    God bless!

  2. Does the emphasis on avoiding monoculture mean that, practically speaking, farming is an all-or-nothing affair in his model? I mean, let's say one wants to ease in slowly by doing chickens for a season or two. Then add in some pigs. A couple years later doing pigs, chickens, and some feed corn. For those first few years you're essentially doing monoculture by only having chickens (or chickens + corn), etc. To avoid monoculture does one really have to jump in headfirst with multiple crops, multiple types of animals all at once?

  3. I think he means more monoculture == planting 500 acres of corn or 100,000 chickens in a big CAFO

  4. When he warns against monoculture, he is looking at a full-time farmer. Salatin is quick to recommend starting slow and easing into things. He cautions to move very slow. In fact, for pastured chicken (broilers) he recommends to start by only supplying your own family and see how it goes. So he is all ablout taking it slow.
    His criticism of monoculture is (for instance) of the *dairy* farmer who has 1000 cows and 500 acres of corn who is producing milk year round using lots of expensive buildings, machinery and chemical fertilizers and antibiotics etc. Or the confinement production models where farmers have huge warehouses filled with a ba-gillion pigs or chickens, and then complain that farming isnt profitable.
    He recounts many of his fellow farmers who are in that situation and complain about farming not being profitable. Salatin points to the monoculture trap they have gotten in as one cause of their dilema.

    But he is 100% behind the little guy starting out how ever he can, even with 25 chickens. He would even recommnd it. It is when the big boys make poor choices and get in debt for big money and then complain that bothers him.

    Also he would say go ahead and focus on 1 thing for a while but have your farm set up to change to something else so you are not putting your eggs in one basket. Have other options on the back burner and diversify. But there are some big operations where the big equipment is to specific for that. If you buy a combine for X dollars, you had better be combining something 5 years form now when you are making payments on it! You cant use your combine to haul logs from your woods.

  5. Devin said:
    "Overall I think that you should assess your own personal situation: what are the advantages you have over the generic person Salatin is writing towards? What are the disadvantages? How can you leverage your advantages to make your homestead possible?"

    Thanks for the encouragment Devin. Lord knows I need it. Yeah, that is the real trick: to find how you can personalize the advice Salatin gives. To sort of dovtail with our discussion on your blog, the best thing I have come up with that is sort of unique, or probably not a saturated market is bonsai. But of course that is a "back burner" type thing.

    Here is the comment I was going to leave on your blog but perhaps it fits beter in this thread:

    "The key for me to get back into the hobby was to use inexpensive nursury stock, particularly boxwood, which is used as landscape shrubery. But it makes great bonsai.

    A side note which you might find interesting: I have thought about bonsai as one of my "back burner" business ideas for some extra income on a homestead. It is a niche market but people are willing to pay top dollar for good "pre-bonsai" stock. And the size of the trees means they can be shipped."

    Ofcourse Salatin warned about this kind of "exotic" idea in his book though. Like wanting to raise ducks or emus or something. I need to keep brainstorming to find some ideas that are a bit more down to earth.

  6. Yeah boxwood is a good cheap bonsai, as are some junipers. I recall trying out greenmound juniper for some bonsai.

    The good thing about bonsai is that they don't take up a ton of time. They're a long-term project, so you work on it for a few hours (say, trimming the roots and re-potting) and then don't have to do much with them for months. In that way it's something you could do in your spare time potentially, when you wouldn't be farming anyway.

    But yeah, as a centerpiece, I don't think bonsai would work. Too niche.

    But you have electronics tech skills, no? That could be something.