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This farming man – Joel Salatin

Stu Burns

Stu Burns

December 3, 2012

There are a lot of problems with industrialised farming; over-use of chemicals, unsustainable reliance on mined or manufactured fertiliser, habitat destruction and soil erosion. This is to name just a few of the most serious issues facing food producers. There are at least as many solutions offered by proponents of alternative methods of farming, and many success stories to demonstrate that some of these methods work in some places for some people.

Joel Salatin and hen. Photo nick v

I recently heard a talk given by Joel Salatin, a farmer from the east coast of the United States, who was here on a lecture tour, promoting a new book he’s written about his version of sustainable agriculture. He is a charismatic and engaging speaker. His message is an interesting take on food security, and reclaiming personal responsibility for our food.

His farming methods have been described as radical and controversial, as well as environmentally friendly. He uses a combination of livestock to produce meat from pigs, cows, chickens and turkeys as well as eggs from the birds, in a way that is quite different to the feedlots and battery farms where much of this produce in the US originates. He is focused on improving the soil to improve pasture which in turn produces high quality fodder for the animals he farms. The conservation of soil organic matter is the basis of his methods, and it is a change from the 20th century “Green revolution” method of chemical fertiliser to increase soil nutrient levels.

He feels that people are disconnected from their food production, that they have relinquished control to huge corporations who care only for profit, and not for nutrition. The internet allows people a much more direct connection to farmers than they have ever had before, and allows people to access information on a scale unprecedented in human history. He thinks that people should process their own food from scratch, preparing their own meat and vegetables from as close to their originally harvested state as possible and that people should attempt to grow their own food to ensure its purity and freedom from chemical residues. He may have a point.

But I am always wary of anyone who suggests that their way of doing things will work everywhere for everyone. Especially when there are issues of access and equity involved. There are some issues with Salatin’s message that are based on practical realities.

Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm

First of all,  Joel never had to buy a farm. He was lucky enough to take over a farm that had been under organic improvement for twenty years by his parents. His situation is not comparable to someone who is setting themselves up from scratch.

He mentioned that his father had trucked in literally tonnes of organic matter, logging waste, walnut hulls, sawdust. All of this off-site material was “going to waste” but it was also foreign material. The idea of improving one piece of land by degrading another is a fundamental flaw of any purportedly sustainable system.

Salatin also has a policy of only selling his produce to consumers who live within four hours of his farm in the Shenandoah Valley, in Virginia. He says this is because people should buy food from their local community and keep the money there. It’s difficult to accept this as a viable business model for farmers in other locations, as Salatin’s farm is within three and a half hours of the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, home to almost 9 million people. The urban conglomeration of that area is the best educated and highest earning region in the entire United States, and it’s easy to see how a niche market for organic meat and produce could be found to make a farm such as Salatin’s “Polyface” a profitable enterprise. It’s also hard to understand how urban dwellers from the nearby mega-city are keeping money in their own communities by buying from his company.

Pigs at Polyface Farm

The idea of everyone processing their own food from scratch, using farm fresh ingredients is a most romantic ideal, and it was hinted at during his talk that this is possible if someone in the family took the time to do it. He was referring, clearly, to a traditional nuclear family unit with two parents, the suggestion being one works to earn money while the other stays home and tends to the domestic tasks including the cooking. Because of the restrictions of a one-income household, this also means the stay-at-home partner would have to complete most of the other work around the home. Because the partner with the greatest earning capacity would be the obvious choice to continue working, the housewife is resurrected, as women almost always earn less than men in almost every industry. To give up careers and almost halve a household income is a huge thing to ask of people, and possibly reflects some moral stance that is not made explicit.

The idea that people need to work less, but rely on modern technology to enable their shift towards a more old fashioned lifestyle is puzzling. One audience member related the story of their partner learning to kill a chicken in real time from an iPad in the paddock, but how could they afford that without a high income level, or potentially two? How do single people who work in industries like IT find time to learn these skills while they are running the internet on which the supposedly new model depends? Should anyone really have to give up their career goals in order to eat good food?

Salatin describes himself as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer” and this in itself raises some issues. Not because he is a Christian, though he does use some pretty biblical language when talking; “Would you rather live in Eden or Sodom and Gomorrah?, he asked the audience at one point. Libertarians believe people should be allowed to do what they want, as long as no harm comes to others as a result. A noble ideal, but one more often used to defend individuals’ rights rather than social justice as far as it goes. An environmentalist is one who attempts to reduce his or her impact on the broader ecosystem in which they operate, but it’s a sliding scale, and all agriculture has some environmental impact, even if it is just the farm land preventing natural plant and animal communities occupying the space.

But it’s the capitalist part that really sticks. It’s obvious that Joel Salatin has something to sell. Sure he is promoting his ideas, which are fine as far as they go, but I don’t think they necessarily translate from the lush, high rainfall slopes of the Shenandoah Valley to the dry rangelands where most of Australia’s beef is grown. Agricultural land that is predominantly well outside any arbitrary four hour limit from its intended market place.

He is also literally selling his ideas in the form of books. While I am sure the farm itself is a profitable venture, there is no doubt his income is enhanced by the third of the year he spends off the farm talking to people and hawking books at events like the one I attended. It’s not an option for many farmers to do as he advised, and take a Toastmaster’s course and get out there spruiking. And would he really want them to?

If the market became flooded with organic beef, for example, basic economics would suggest the price would fall. The production costs would remain the same, but the profit margin would have to shrink. This is something Salatin himself maintained had to be large for farming to be profitable. It’s clear that he is no lunatic, he is an intelligent business man with a well considered business plan.



Salatin was the guest of Dumbo Feather, a magazine that could be described as subtly hip, appealing to a relatively small, cashed-up segment of consumers from the inner suburbs of Australia’s larger capital cities. These people were clearly Salatin’s audience, too. They probably try to buy organic food, they are aware of animal cruelty issues, they want to “eat local” and have a global ethical awareness. The talk was part of a series run by Dumbo Feather, sponsored in part by the Commonwealth Bank, ironically one of the largest investors in agribusiness, the very kind of farming that is perceived as “the problem”

Farmer Joel’s message about clean green produce distributed locally to a small niche market is exactly what the gathered audience wants to hear. They can take control of their food sovereignty, they can make a difference to the environment, and move away from the manufactured “food-like substances” they have been warned off by Michael Pollan and others. They can improve their diets and their lives by choosing to buy fresh local produce, and by choosing to grow their own wherever possible. They can avoid the health issues involved with pesticide and herbicide use, from a diet of processed, unrecognisable foodstuffs.

The big issue for me is that the people in that audience will probably not have any health problems because of their diet. They were not morbidly obese, they were not starving, they obviously have access to a wide range of relatively healthy food, and Australians, like most of the “Western” world spend a tiny fraction, less than 10%, of their income on food.

Compare this to the developing world, where as much as three quarters of household income goes on food, and we can start to see that the audience here is already operating on a level of privilege. To put it bluntly, hunger is the world’s number one health risk, it outweighs AIDS, Malaria and tuberculosis in the number of deaths it causes every year. 870 million people in the world do not have enough to eat, that’s 1/8th of the world’s population. But these people live for the most part in the developing world. Not in the USA, and not in Australia.

In our own society, there are many people who have no access to space to grow their own food. The talk at Abbotsford Convent was only a few hundred metres from a large high rise housing commission project. The people who live there have no income to afford organic food in the way the audience of Salatin’s talk could afford it. They don’t go to monthly gourmet Farmer’s Markets to which they must pay an entry fee, they go to the supermarket when they can afford to, and buy the cheapest food they can.

The reason supermarkets have a stranglehold on choice now is because of buying decisions made by our parents, who themselves were just trying to make household budgets stretch. But those decisions had the knock on effect of pushing smaller businesses with higher overheads out of business. Everyone used to shop in the local greengrocer, and the local butcher, and the local bakery, which are in most places now a luxury or a memory.

The proportion of disadvantaged peoples’ income spent on food is much higher than the tiny fraction spent by the Dumbo Feather audience on their daily requirements. The audience in attendance are probably able to afford take away food and dining out on a regular basis, as well as the $27 entry fee to hear a wealthy farmer from half way around the world telling them what to buy.

There is no doubt that agriculture needs to be overhauled, no doubt it’s worrying that most food is owned in some way by a handful of companies and retailed by even fewer. Sustainability is a concern for agriculture, and reducing reliance on oil, chemical fertilisers and pesticides is absolutely necessary for the future.

But Salatin’s model, based on his personal, privileged experience on a small family farm in the fertile Shenandoah Valley does not translate universally. Beyond the highly populated east coast of the United States, the concepts make less sense. Salatin chooses to grow beef on his property, but most of Australia’s beef is produced on land that is highly unsuitable for any other form of agriculture. The rainfall at Polyface farm is about double what Melbourne receives, and three or four times what most of the grazing land in Australia receives. This alone should raise questions about the viability of his methods.

Ultimately, it just feels false for someone to travel 25,000 kilometres to sell something that tells us to buy local. The global problems of agriculture can’t be solved by consumer choices, because the overwhelming majority of global consumers just don’t have that choice.

From Stu Burns The Garden Doctor blog

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helen mckerral
helen mckerral
8 years ago

Thank you for an insightful and thought-provoking post, Stu.

I work part-time in a plant nursery and one frustration is that all the “sustainable” and “organic” fertilisers and pesticides are more – often vastly more – expensive than the conventional “chemical” ones (in a bang for the buck way, as in the amount/proportion of available nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous etc in each bag, vs filler). Yes , many of the organic products have positive effects on soil biota and health, but fertilising an entire garden using only bought organic products comes at a considerable cost to the consumer. That’s fine for those with a large disposable income but, for the pensioners and others who I can see counting up each dollar in their heads as they glumly scan the shelves for an affordable option, I don’t hesitate to suggest the more concentrated “Complete” fertilisers over the (say) pelletised chicken manures (of course I also recommend they compost and mulch everything at home to improve soil health and organic matter that way). Commercial bagged cow manure is also ridiculously expensive, though it’s possible to buy bags from farm gates for a few bucks each.

Similarly, although I first recommend cultural or physical pest management strategies, followed by the least toxic pesticide option wherever possible, some elderly, time-poor or infirm customers simply can’t reorganise their gardens, spread vast quantities of mulch or spray their plants every fortnight, and want a sledgehammer pesticide instead (and that sledgehammer pesticide may be a potent ORGANIC pesticide, like derris/rotenone). I’ll point out the cons and possible non-target effects of the pesticide, but then it becomes the customer’s (more) informed decision as to what best suits their needs. And if that’s the sledgehammer, then so be it.

In fact, in my opinion, every one of these customers should be lauded for growing any of their own food in whatever way or scale they can manage and, regardless of what I choose to do in my own garden, they should never be made to feel as if they’ve failed in their efforts because they’re buying “non-sustainable” fertilisers or pesticides, or that their purchases should come wrapped in discreet brown paper.

Stu Burns
8 years ago

Helen, you raise some very good points about equity. There really is no reason for bagged manure to be so expensive, and of course, transporting manure from one area to another depletes the nutrients at the source, how are these replaced?

Plants can’t tell the difference between “synthetic” nutrients and “natural” sources of the chemicals they need to grow. Plants only take up nitrogen, for example, in the form of Ammonium or nitrate. This can come from animal manure, or from a bag of ammonium nitrate, the plant will respond in the same way to the same dose.

The reason for the price of manures is most likely transport and handling costs. A bag of Horse or cow manure is about 1% nitrogen, chook manure is about 3 or 4% nitrogen. Ammonium nitrate is over 30% nitrogen, so you need ten to thirty times the volume of manure to deliver the same amount of nitrogen as a handful of chemical.

Sure, there are other advantages to manures, the organic matter helps build up soil and improves nutrient and water hold properties of soils, but again, this organic matter is imported form another location. It is in effect depleting the fertility of one location to improve another, and it’s just not sustainable.

Organics are great, nobody wants to use literally industrial strength chemicals in their home, but buying all the organic ingredients from a shop is not much of an improvement, and may even be a step backwards for sustainability in certain measures, like transport, and environmental impact on sources of animal products.

Like most things, the solutions to these problems are not simple, and the impacts are not always easy to identify.

ann cains
7 years ago

What about using Biological Farming methods? Surely we don’t have to adhere to any strict model and can use what strategies work best for us in our own farms, climates, soils, etc while still adhering to sustainable gardening principles.
If 10 people are inspired by his lecture to join an community garden or put in a few more veggies or fruit trees aren’t they the better for it?
I think you have a very citycentric point of view. In many rural areas it’s easy to find like minded people who are making an effort to connect back to their environment, family and food. 2500 Wwoof Australia hosts couldn’t be wrong 🙂

Stu Burns
7 years ago

Hi Ann. Even though I live in the city, I am well aware of what country life is all about. When I was a younger man droving around the south west slopes of New South Wales where my family have farmed for a few generations, I saw a lot of farming practice. Some was good, some bad, and no two farmers do things the same way. They are very competitive about it, too, I heard many an argument in the pub over whose crop or clip was better.

I am not sure I know what Biological Farming principles are. Farming in itself is not a natural activity, it’s a process of preventing natural biological processes in order to obtain a specific harvest. Nature doesn’t work like that at all. There are many schools of thought in opposition to “conventional farming” most of which consist of a rejection of chemical use in many forms, or replacement of synthetic chemicals with “natural” agents.

One thing they all have in common is that if you remove agricultural machinery and chemicals, you require a lot more labour. It may explain why 2500 organic farms rely heavily on volunteer labour to stay viable, because despite the high prices of organic produce, the labour costs would be difficult to cover.

I am in the process of writing an article about “growing your own” and will focus on the real costs and actual benefits to people growing their own food. The main point is that gardening is hard work, and time consuming, which for many people is just not a realistic way to spend their time, particularly if they are specialists or professionals whose time is worth more in financial terms than they could hope to compensate with fresh produce.

I think much of our food is best grown by professionals who can produce maximum yields with minimal cost to the end consumer. That’s not to say agriculture and horticulture can’t improve on a broadscale, but many people would be better off paying a gardener to grow food for them than wasting their own time and resources trying it themselves.

ann cains
7 years ago

Stu, some people actually derive pleasure and a sense of satisfaction from growing their own food. I can’t help but get the feeling that you don’t particularly like growing your own food or are interested in any sort of alternative lifestyle and for that reason I have to wonder why you would choose to write an article on Joel Salatin. I’m not saying his particular methodology is “the answer” but I would’ve appreciated a more balanced approach in your article. Before you write your next article please do a little more research into actual honest to good farming practices now in 2013 and how they are changing in many industries. Balancing your soil is the aim for many large scale operations because throwing copious amounts of expensive fertilizers at your soil will leave you with an excess of chemicals that can actually inhibit nutrient uptake. Increasing microbe activity will increase the ability of your plants to access nutrients. And as a final suggestion, if you are going to talk about modern farming trends in Australia a couple of episodes of Landline would go a lot further to increase your knowledge than a session at the Woop Woop Pub.

Stu Burns
7 years ago

Hi Ann,
I have derived pleasure from growing plants for my entire adult life, some for food, some for other reasons. That pleasure and interest is probably what drove me to study horticulture, and become a lecturer in agriculture and horticulture, not to mention biology and ecology. My interest in plants and growing food inspires me to investigate solutions.

But I am not looking for solutions only for my own food supply, but that of the entire world, all 7 billion of us. The biggest drawback with relying solely on organic matter for nutrients is that it has to come from somewhere. There is at any given moment, a finite amount of organic material from which we can extract nutrients to grow food.

If a farm or garden routinely removes nutrients from its own soil to sell as produce somewhere else, those nutrients must be replaced. An organic farm must import organic nutrients, usually in the form of manure, but also as compost and other materials. But these necessarily come from third party locations, as very rarely do nutrients from end markets return to the production cycle.

By using technological methods, the 20th century brought an end to famine for the western world, and with that, a new set of problems. There are certainly issues associated with chemical use, but there are also advantages, such as introducing macronutrients from inorganic sources, such as rock phosphate, and atmospheric nitrogen. These nutrients are taken up and increase the sum total of organic nutrients available for cycling. But as the global population increases, the need for available nutrients continues to grow.

I believe in alternatives to problematic systems, but I think only when mainstream agriculture is sustainable and affordable for everyone can we stop asking questions.

Incidentally, having worked behind the scenes producing a gardening program for television, I can say with some certainty that what gets shown is rarely motivated by anything but what will most entertain an audience. For facts and figures I tend to look to trade and scientific journals, and real world statistics.

That is how I have learned to approach specific soil problems, and chemical imbalances, and toxicities. By identifying them, and correcting them as distinct solutions. I have never seen a method of gardening or farming that had no problems, until I do I will keep looking, and writing about potential problems and potential solutions for everybody.

7 years ago

Great article, and some fair criticism of the Polyface method. I have read of farmers using the Polyface model in Australia but obviously adjusting it to their circumstances. Salatin does not advise everyone to do the exact same thing, but to modify it to their circumstances, check local regulations and crunch the numbers themselves to see what will work. I think it is important that there is someone not only encouraging people to give organic farming a go on a range of scales and a range of products, but giving ideas as to how to be sustainable and economically viable. Joel Salatin began his career as a journalist, so he is well placed to fill this niche and market his knowledge.
In terms of the inablility to apply this method to beef grazing in the rangelands, I understand there has been success using Holistic Management (as written about by Allan Savory) in Australia as well as other countries. Similar results based on the same ideas, but obviously different methods and practices to suit the situations on the ground. I see Polyface as a subset of Holistic Management. It is refreshing to read your considered criticism, and I would love to read a review from you on the Holistic Management theories, particularly with your experience in farming on rangelands.