Homesteading advice from the master
How do you introduce a man who, in the homesteading/farming arena needs no introduction?
Mr. Joel Salatin of Polyface, Inc. in Swoope, Virginia is a regular speaker at homesteading venues like the Mother Earth News Fair, and the Sustainable Living Fair. He’s written several books on the topic of growing food for family and community, like Family Friendly Farming, Pastured Poultry Profits, and Folks, This Ain’t Normal.
A third generation alternative farmer, Salatin is the go-to man for those just beginning their homesteading journey, as well as those that have lived their entire lives on the farm. I was thrilled that Mr. Salatin agreed to share his expertise with From Scratch readers.
From Scratch: I think that most readers of From Scratch will have a general knowledge of Joel Salatin and PolyFace, Inc. but for those new to the homesteading scene, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your family, farm, and what you do?
Joel Salatin: My mom and dad bought the farm in 1961, when I was four, and worked off the farm to pay for it. In a decade they paid it off so we were debt-free. Meanwhile, we were experimenting with things and Dad invented a portable electric fencing system and other portable infrastructure. When I came along, I developed more portable infrastructure, added direct marketing, composting, and refinements to Dad’s designs so that today, more than 50 years after coming to the most run-down farm in the area, it’s arguably the most productive and beautiful. We produce pastured poultry (broilers, eggs, turkeys), salad bar beef, pig-aerator pork, forage-based rabbit and lumber. Our son Daniel and his wife and their three children are also full-time on the farm, so that the farm now has four generations living on it — my mother is an energetic 89 year old. In addition, a team of interns, apprentices, sub-contractors and staff help us maintain our nearly 1,000 head of cattle, 1,000 pastured hogs per year, 25,000 broilers, 150,000 dozen eggs, 2,000 turkeys, rabbits, honey, vegetables and anything else we can produce to service our 50 restaurants and 5,000 family customers.
FS: Living a sustainable lifestyle is a trend. Never in my life have I seen a more powerful thrust to provide for one’s own family, live off the land, reduce one’s carbon footprint, eschew chemicals, cook whole foods, etc. And everyone wants a front-row seat on the green bus. But is everyone cut out to grow their own food? Share with us the traits the successful, modern homesteader possesses.
JS: Everyone can’t grow their own food, but everyone can live as if they were. And everyone can do something, even if it’s just a vermicomposting bin under the kitchen sink and using cloth diapers instead of disposables. The point is that every single act should be a physical manifestation of our thought process, a conscious decision. Mindless acts have no place in our lives. Even wanting to do something mindless like watch a silly movie should be for a season: “I need a break from the 120 percent I’ve been giving all day to such-and-such an activity.” While I appreciate the desire for self-reliance, I’m much more in favor of mutual inter-dependence. Sometimes we can become so independent we do things we’re not good at or deplore, and then burn out or fail miserably. Part of self-reliance is building a resilient community of hard goods and soft goods (spiritual, emotional, educational) around us, proximate, and relationally-oriented. All that said, here are some traits to think about:
Don’t quit. The opposite of success is not failure, it’s despair. The only difference between a success and a failure is that last failure. Be willing to get up one more time and you’ll eventually get it or find another way to do it.
All innovation is risky. If you want security, don’t become a homesteader. Dead lambs, wilted tomatoes—learning new skills—requires us to risk making a mess.
Too many folks assume that current practitioners can’t really be that smart. First, copy the masters and do it as well as them; then you earn the right to make changes. All of us need to copy the folks who already know how to do it.
All good homesteaders I know invest in education, seminars, and reading. Fill your house with good books, not only to keep you thinking about new ways of doing things, but so your kids will know you stand on the shoulders of others.
Too often homesteaders develop their passion out of an angriness mentality–government, neighbors, criminals, big business, etc. We need to channel that frustration into a magnanimous, sharing, embracing, giving mystique.
FS: So, if someone comes to the conclusion that they’re not cut out for farming per se, yet they want to make a difference, what can they do to create a more sustainable lifestyle for themselves?
Get in the kitchen.
The most fundamental and far-reaching thing anyone can do to create a different world right now is to quit patronizing the corporate preparing, packaging, and preserving of our food. Domestic culinary arts are the single biggest component missing from our food and farming culture. You can’t be as ignorant about food as our culture is and maintain any food integrity.
Get rid of the TV.
A close second is video games and any other mindless trivialities that eat up our time and feed us the cultural status quo pablum. Invest that time in other things: reading, gardening, playing checkers, talking.
find your food.
Invest all the time and money you planned to spend in the next year on entertainment in your local food shed. Every community and city is surrounded by wonderful land-healing and food-healing farms. Find them and patronize them. eco-fit your house.
Install a solarium on the southern side to heat you in the winter and grow vegetables out of season. That way you can quit using petroleum-based heat and grow your own food. Get rid of the pets and get two chickens instead. They will eat your kitchen scraps and lay your eggs. Retrofit your plumbing to send grey water into your toilet to reduce water consumption. Install a cistern to catch roof water and eliminate utility bills.
buy bulk direct from farmers.
Not only does this help farmers get more of the retail food dollar, it makes juggling inventory on the farm easier and it reduces your trips to the grocery. Pledge to reduce your supermarket trips by half. Restoring a larder makes you eat more seasonally and become more innovative planning your meals around what you have on hand. Seasonal eating is critical to reducing food miles and carbon footprints.
Accesorize your kitchen with processing equipment.
From slow cookers to dehydrators to sausage stuffers, enjoy building your infrastructure of self-reliance, knowing that every time you use these accessories, you deny industrial corporate pseudo-food businesses a few dollars. This does not take an act of Congress, an Executive Order, increased taxes or government agencies; all it takes is individuals to empower themselves one bit at a time.
FS: I’ve been amazed in just the last few weeks at how many folks have told me they’d love to live a more sustainable lifestyle but they live in the city. What three ways would you recommend an urban dweller get started in providing food for themselves?
1. Pot gardens
Legal pot gardens, that is. Although, I’m certainly in favor of illegal pot gardens. Anywhere you have sunlight a few hours a day you can grow something.
On the roof, set a hive.
Plenty of kits exist to turn your kitchen scraps into rich earthworm castings. This eliminates the garbage handling, reduces landfill use, and generates wonderful fertilizer for your plants.
FS: I think folks often spend more time dwelling on what they don’t have than how to make the most of what they do have. With that in mind, what advantages can you see for the person that only has 1-3 acres as opposed to 20?
JS: Smaller acreages are not as daunting because each project is not as large. By breaking up the projects into small units you can accomplish them fairly quickly and move onto the next one. Completion breeds completion. Too much incomplete stuff breeds despair. Secondly, your mistakes are not as catastrophic. If you put in fences on 20 acres and then learn they are all in the wrong places, you’ll probably never rip them all out and put them in the right places. But if you do it on only one acre, that’s not too much to change.
Third, creativity. I think the smaller the acreage, the more we’re forced to think creatively, like vertical gardening, companions, and intensive production techniques.
FS: If a person wants to do more than feed their family, have a market garden, or even make a living off their land, how much land do you think they need to have?
JS: Anyone familiar with me knows that I’m a huge advocate of NOT owning land. I’ve seen too many people create full-time farming careers in the city, on borrowed city back yards, on roof tops—you name it, all you need is access to sunlight. People are even full-time farming on concrete by filling bins with mushroom tailings for soil. The question is: What are you doing today with what you have? If you don’t have anything, then start something, even if it’s a windowsill. Movement begets movement. Don’t even think about how much land you need or what you could do with a given acreage. Just start doing something NOW, and if you fill it up, are completely faithful with that, then the next step will become apparent. Seldom do we see the whole journey. The journey starts with one step. Take that one and then the next will show itself.
Elderly couples need young folks to care-take their yards and small acreages. Abandoned lots, abandoned farms, unused sidewalk edges, expressway medians. It’s all out there. Go for it.
FS: Do you have anything else you’d like to share with From Scratch readers just beginning on their homesteading journey?
JS: We live in an age of excuses and victimhood.
The easiest thing in the world is to rail against the evil whatever.
The hardest thing is to provide a solution, and even harder, to participate in that solution.
In formal interscholastic and intercollegiate debate (I competed five years in high school and four years in college— best thing I ever did, besides marrying a beautiful home-economics major more frugal than I).
The affirmative team (demanding a change) has two responsibilities: Prove the need for a change (case) and offer a solution (plan).
If the affirmative wins the case—i.e. things are really bad and we need to change them—but loses the plan, their side loses the debate.
If they have a wonderful plan but fail to prove it’s needed, they also lose. Remember, it’s not enough to gripe; the only way griping becomes positive is to offer a credible solution. Let’s get both parts right by being agents of change in a time when it’s never been more necessary.
Story by Carol J. Alexander, photographs by Amber Karnes
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of From Scratch magazine. Read it here. Read the latest issue here. Don’t forget to subscribe. Use the form below to get your free subscription to From Scratch magazine.