You Can Farm

I just finished reading (truthfully I was re-reading) You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin. Subtitled The Entrepeneur’s Guide to Start and $ucceed in a Farming Enterprise, this 1998 book looks at the economics of small-scale agriculture.

For those not familiar with Joel Salatin from his profile in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he is a Shenendoah Valley  “grass farmer”, raising beef, pork, poultry and rabbits using rotational grazing techniques. Everything he grows is sold locally, and he employs natural, organic methods. (I should point out that I am not aware of him being certified as an organic farmer… given the strong libertarian streak evident in his writing, I suspect he places no value in a certificate from some third party.)

I always enjoy reading about his truly relentless commitment to thrift. Joel seems to be extraordinarily gifted at finding ways to get farm infrastructure built in ways that are cheap, yet functional and sturdy. Most particularly, I am intrigued by the focus on creating a nearly closed ecological loop within the farm. He is not the pioneer of this practice, known variously as Management Intensive Grazing, Rotational Grazing or Holistic Management. (OK, there are meaningful semantic differences between these three, but not to the layman.) But he is perhaps the best known evangelist to the non-livestock oriented world, again thanks to his role in Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the upcoming documentary film, Food, Inc.

I am attempting to apply some of these methods and concepts to my operation, but of course a California avocado and citrus orchard is a very different proposition than a Virginia grass farm. I’m not saying it is better: in fact I’m sure Joel would think this insane. But on a very small scale I am using a herd of goats to graze a rocky hillside that I have been plying with mulch and covercrop seeds build enough soil to make it suitable for something other than ground squirrels and tumbleweeds. We are applying a combination of mulch, covercrop, and earthworms to kick start a corner of the home ranch back into better production. Unlike members of the organic movement, I have not forsworn any use of chemical pest management, weed control, or soil amendment. But I do not make the chemical approach my preferred remedy. I liken this to eating meat in moderation, rather than going vegan: I am not convinced the more extreme approach is either ecologically or just plain logically necessary.

My biggest concern with replicating his approach to change the whole system, as much as I admire it, is whether you could convince enough people to commit to it. You see, this is a people intensive way to farm, and we don’t have a lot of farmers left. Clearly the Salatin family and a steady crop of eager interns love this life. In pursuit of this goal, Joel is willing to sacrifice many sacred objects of contemporary American culture: TV, second cars, “boughten lumber”, and meals at restaurants. More precisely, I don’t think he views it as a sacrifice at all, being firmly committed to “opting-out” of the mainstream. But if American agriculture needs 30 million people back on the farms (compared to about 6 million today) will they be willing to do it, if it means leaving our consumer comforts behind? Can you get that many?

A year or two ago, I would have said the answer was a resounding “no.” Has our confidence in a highly-leveraged, highly consumable, short-term lifestyle been shaken enough to cause that many people to reconsider? Probably not yet. But maybe.

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Can Agriculture be Aspirational?

Once upon a time, everyone was in food procurement. We hunted, we gathered, we scavenged. But people have always looked for what they must have assumed was a better use of their time to work flint, smelt bronze or appear on reality TV shows. Today, only about 2 % of the US population is engaged in the creation of food (I distinguish this from the transportation, processing or preparation of food, for which we apparently still have a passion.) If food production is what most of us really wanted to do, we’d still be doing it.
Essential though it is, providing food is a “low-aspirational” activity. When food production was the default occupational selection for the entire human population, we invented trade, and arts, and warfare… anything to get us off the farm.
Models being propounded for a future sustainable food system call for a return to more agrarian principles, with more people working the soil. I have no problem with these ideals. Having left a suburban career for my avocados, goats and chickens, I may even embody them. But are there enough people who will even take my timid steps toward an agrarian model, let alone large numbers willing to get to a hard-core, Joel Salatin-type of system? I am not aware of any large scale movement by a population in this direction at any point in human history, and a smattering of highly committed individuals will not likely bring the vast systemic change envisioned.
They say there is a first time for everything, so perhaps this really is the beginning of a new epoch of human existence. Of course there is one exception to the “first time for everything” rule, and that is that there is no first time for something that never happens. When we say that we want to get people to aspire to agriculture, we are working against the entirety of human history. We cannot overestimate the challenge of this undertaking.