Wisdom of the Ages

ReStory narrator: RegenAgSA

This story was originally published at https://www.regenagsa.org.za/l/wisdom-of-the-ages/. Re-published here with kind permission.

Two weeks ago the man who some describe as a founding father of Regenerative Agriculture was in South Africa giving a number of Master Classes.  It was a privilege to sit for two days and listen to a man who has a global following but doesn’t want to be guru; who has enormous experience but admits he doesn’t know all the answers; who doesn’t believe that his way is the only way, but who does want to share his experience; who shared his belief of how farming should be a marriage with nature, approached as one approaches a responsive lover, not as a warrior engages with an enemy.

Joel Salatin became a global icon through his farming practices being covered in the book the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, but really he became an icon because he saw a different way to farm, and gradually turned broken land into abundant land.  He will admit that this was thanks to influences from his grandfather and father who, although not full-time farmers, looked at farming differently and were against the use of external inputs and chemicals.

Joel’s dad bought the farm because it was cheap, not because the soils were good.  The soils were dreadful, having been eroded away in the 1800s with the help of the plough.  What little was left of them was almost dead and mostly grew only weeds.  The first step to recovery was rudimentary planned grazing. His father had happened across the writings of Andre Voisin and believed this was they way grass should be farmed. They started in the 1960s with mobile fences and in places the soil was so depleted that they had to make concrete bases to hold the fence posts up.

Joel Salatin @ Hendrik O’Neill’s farm, Bela Bela

Joel’s parents were unable to sustain the family off the farm and had jobs in the local town.  But he and his high school sweetheart decided they were going to give full time farming a try.  What the 25 year old Joel saw was that farming in his area was not sustainable and that they had to change the way they interacted with their land.  To make it sustainable they had to make the land abundant and that abundant land had to be able to support multiple enterprises.  Had he not seen that today he would be an unknown, poor farmer, scraping a living from depleted Virginia soils, with occasional visits from his urban children and grandchildren.

When they had been at it for two years his father called him and asked him where he was going with the farm.  That night they made a plan as to how, if they truly realised their and the farm’s potential, the farm might employ as many as 20 people.  Gradually chickens, pigs, rabbits, and honey joined the cattle as they evolved a process that created an ecosystem with their livestock, an ecosystem that regenerated their land.  Today the soil, where once concrete bases had to be used to hold up fence posts, is a foot deep and the farm employs 22 people.  Interestingly Joel’s definition of a sustainable farm is one that can support two people from two generations simultaneously.

Joel’s experience of farming is fascinating but most of his Masterclass is not about farming, its about life and for Joel life is about people.  He wanted to have good relationships with the people he spent everyday with, the people he worked with and his family.  He didn’t want to spend most of his time managing people and running about after them, he wanted to empower them.  Mostly he wanted his children to want to farm with him which was no longer the norm.  So interestingly in the middle of a Masterclass on farming Joel gave us his 10 Commandments for getting your children to come back to the farm.

Joel’s 10 Commandments for getting your kids to come back to the farm

  1. Integrate them into meaningful farm work
  2. Love your work – if you don’t there is no chance they will / work must be task not time oriented
  3. Give them freedom – don’t helicopter parent – let them exercise their “discernment” muscle
  4. Give them ownership – its their money
  5. Encourage entrepreneurship through autonomous businesses  – magic years are between 8 and 11
  6. Maintain humour – stop and smell the roses, if you don’t appreciate the nature and beauty of your farm how will they
  7. Pay your kids for their labour – it’s a very cheap way of getting a happy, confident, well rounded 16 year old – no allowances and don’t pay them for house work, that is just part of life 
  8. Praise, praise, praise – if you don’t know if you praise your children ask your wife, she knows
  9. Enjoy your vacations – enthusiasm is contagious
  10. Back off from personal domains – it is about succession

Today there are 22 people working on Polyface Farm – family, staff and interns.  These people are mostly there to learn and try and find farming opportunities for themselves, some at Polyface, others on land they are able to secure elsewhere.  Joel has over the years come up with a number of ways of making working with so many people as stress free as possible.  His route to this is of course management intensive but then this enables him to run a much less management intensive operation latter on.

Every task on the farm is studied, measured and timed. Then a written standard operating procedure (SOP) is made for each task.  The shortest SOP on the farm is the one for the daily moving of the chickens, it’s 6 pages long and starts with “Always take the tool box”.  People are not there just to farm, there’s as shop to run, and processing and distribution, there is a vegetable garden for domestic consumption and a member of staff whose responsibility it is to cook.  The whole team sits down together for lunch everyday.

Joel’s true wealth lies in his understanding that farming is as much about people and working relationships as it is about interacting with soil, plants and animals.  Thank you Joel it was a privilege to spend time with you while you so generously shared your gathered wisdom.

Below is a list of books in Joel’s library.

The Polyface Bookshelf

  • FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser – Current hot topic book exposing the dangers of America’s fast food icon.
  • ECO-FARM by Charles Walters – Foundational to understanding the differences between “toxic rescue chemistry” and natural soil fertility.
  • THE SOVEREIGN INDIVIDUAL by James Dale Davidson – Prophetic about the impacts of the information revolution to democratize everything.
  • THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE by Steven Covey – Next to the Bible, probably the most effective treatise for becoming all you can be.
  • FARMER’S PROGRESS by George Henderson – Currently out of print, this book details the farming success of a 1940’s English farmer.
  • THE FARMING LADDER by George Henderson – Out of print, but my favorite book of all time. From portable chicken shelters to farm entrepreneurialism, this book has it all.
  • THE CONTRARY FARMER by Gene Logsdon – Possibly Logsdon’s best general work, showing how he goes against the grain of everything conventional.
  • THE UNSETTLING OF AMERICA by Wendell Berry – My favorite philosophical agriculture book, and Berry’s greatest classic.
  • PLOWMAN’S FOLLY by Ed Faulkner – Still current, this ex-extension agent shows why plowing should be done sparingly.
  • MALABAR FARM by Louis Bromfield – Few farmers questioned the culture’s agriculture paradigms as saliently as Bromfield. Still a must for avid students of landscape stewardship.
  • AN AGRICULTURAL TESTAMANT by Sir Albert Howard – My most oft-quoted book–absolutely the footer of modern natural farming.
  • PERMACULTURE: DESIGNER’S MANUAL by Bill Mollison – A veritable compendium of symbiotic and synergistic design. My most oft given-away book.
  • GRASS FARMERS by Allan Nation – A documentation of the nation’s pioneering and leading grass farmers, showing their results and techniques.
  • GOLD IN THE GRASS by Margaret Leatherbarrow – This is the one for the ladies. It grips your heart, makes you laugh and cry. Powerful.
  • TREE CROPS by Russell J. Smith – A true classic, detailing multi-vegetative stacking concepts, and as current today as when it was written.
  • GRASS PRODUCTIVITY by Andre Voisin – The absolute bedrock for any student of grass farming. This is still the Bible for grass farmers.
  • NOURISHING TRADITIONS by Sally Fallon – The book that launched the groundswell Weston A. Price movement. It will change your life.
  • THE GIFT OF GOOD LAND by Wendell Berry – Another classic by perhaps the strongest and most articulate voice in ecological agriculture.
  • ALTARS OF UNHEWN STONE by Wes Jackson – Challenging industrial agriculture’s mindset, this is perhaps Jackson’s best book.
  • FERTILITY PASTURES by Newman Turner – Still a classic, this book challenges soil tests and shows real success from one of the world’s best pasture farmers.
  • DOMINION by Matthew Scully – From a conservative’s perspective, this voluminous treatise–sometimes tedious–challenges the religious right with the moral dimension of animal husbandry.
  • PARADIGMS by Joel Arthur Barker – he book that popularized the term “paradigms.” A great explanation of our preconceived notions.
  • PASTURE PERFECT by Jo Robinson – The far-reaching benefits of choosing meat, eggs, and dairy products from grass-fed animals.
  • THE BOTANY OF DESIRE by Michael Pollan – A plant’s-eye view of the world.
  • OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA by Michael Pollan