Joel Salatin on Innovation, Miniaturization, and the Business Reality of Farming

Joel SalatinFor anyone in the non-industrial farming arena, Joel Salatin is a household name. And it’s not just because his family’s Polyface Farms supplies meat so good that many of his customers claim it’s the best they’ve ever eaten.

Nearly every farmer we’ve spoken with has named Salatin as one of their major inspirations for getting into farming, because of his philosophy and mission “to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.” Salatin has dedicated his life to a style of farming based on the idea that “the Creator’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world” and that works with nature, rather than against it.

He comes by these ideas honestly. His family has been practicing environmentally-friendly farming for decades. “We were in this space way before it became glitzy,” he says. “My dad subscribed to Rodale’s Organic Life in 1949. Our family joke is that he was organic before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring.”

Salatin’s personal journey toward non-industrial farming began in 1961, when he was four years old. His family moved to Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, where they’d purchased a piece of land. “The farm was a gullied rock pile,” he says, “but it was cheap.”

His dad was an accountant and his mom was a high school teacher. They wanted to make a living farming, but they knew that the advice they got — build silos, grow corn, graze the forest, and so on — wasn’t the right way to go about it.

“My dad was a genius,” Salatin says. “He was way ahead of his time. He viewed chemical farming as a drug addiction — you constantly need a bigger hit to get the same kick, it gets more expensive all of the time, and it’s debilitating. My dad knew that what we needed was to build portable infrastructure, to plant perennials not annuals, to have multiple species and move animals around, and to go direct to market. He was the first to do these kinds of things.”

The trick at that time was that they didn’t have the infrastructure we have today. “From the 1940s to the early 1960s, the on-farm butcher, baker, candlestick maker infrastructure was lost — even a lot of the information about these things was lost — as we moved to industrial-scale processing,” he says.

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a reversal of that trend, where instead of becoming bigger, technologies are becoming smaller, which Salatin calls a “revolution of miniaturization.” He credits the development of “miniaturized, downscaled, restructured infrastructure” for enabling a return to small farming. “Too often, people think organic, natural farmers are luddites who want to go back to hoop skirts, washboards, and hearth cooking. But actually, most totally embrace the technology and infrastructure that enables us to develop a more natural and low-capital template.”

In particular, Salatin identifies four technologies that made all of the difference for small-scale farmers:

Plastic pipe

It seems like such a simple thing, but plastic pipe made a huge impact because it allowed farmers to send water uphill as well as downhill. Pre-1940, the only pipe available was steel, which was expensive if you could get it at all. So, most farmers had to depend on gravity. Polyface Farms currently has about 8 miles of buried polyethylene plastic pipe, so they can move water almost anywhere.

Chainsaw

You know those gorgeous old log cabins that dot the countryside? Salatin notes that those weren’t popular because a century ago people wanted to use big timber. It’s because big timber was cheaper than milled lumber, which was very expensive, labor-intensive, time-consuming, and difficult to acquire. That is, until the chainsaw came around, making wood much more accessible.

Bandsaw mill

The bandsaw mill, which came on the scene in the late 1960s/early 1970s, enabled farmers to do low-capital, lightweight milling right on the farm so they could create portable shade structures and buildings. This reduced the amount of lumber necessary by about 80%, which also made structures lighter. That meant they could be moved. For example, a walk-in cooler could be built on skids and moved with a trailer, rather than having to be a permanent structure.

Electric fence

The electric fence was a major development in enabling farmers to move and control animals. Salatin notes that the technology has come a long way, with microchips now that can deliver 10x the pain using one-tenth the energy.

The CoolBot didn’t make Salatin’s top four, but he says that it “represents another piece of this miniaturized, downscaled, restructured infrastructure.” When refrigeration first started, he says, “only the big guys could do it,” meaning massive commercial interests. “Everything was massive,” he says. “That’s why the home icebox was in vogue long after even refrigerated railroad cars were in place. The infrastructure was big, the compressors were big — no one could use it on a small scale.”

Another problem with capitalized infrastructure is that the bigger it is, the harder it is to change, retrofit, or walk away from. Salatin is a big proponent of modular equipment because it’s easier to change if it becomes obsolete, if something more functional comes along, or if you decide you want to do something different.

The modular new technologies are revolutionary not only in their size, but also in their information density, Salatin says. They’re redefining the infrastructure and economy based on information, intelligence, and intellectual capacity, rather than on mass, size, and weight. They’re “bringing the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker back to the neighborhood” by enabling small-scale innovators and entrepreneurs to access the market. The result is a new community-based food supply chain that Salatin notes “can and is slowly replacing the megamart.”

The benefits of this type of farming aren’t just environmental and economic. They impact our health as well. “As we moved to industrial-scale farming, we started developing a new lexicon that didn’t exist 50 years ago — bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Campylobacter, E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Type 2 diabetes, food allergies, etc. When I was a kid, you never heard the phrase food allergy. All of this is a manifestation of the anti-biological element in industrial farm and food systems.”

Salatin says that to “break that mechanical view toward life,” we need to “completely restructure the system to be nested in an ecology where all of the beautiful synergisms and symbiosis of the ecological habitat create a space where the good bugs beat out the bad bugs again. The innovation that has been enabled by all of this downsized intelligent infrastructure is bringing biology back into the food system. This is the antidote to the negative lexicon that was developed in the industrial food system.”

So, what will the future look like? Will we return to this place of “beautiful synergisms and symbiosis”?

“The one thing I don’t do is prophesy,” Salatin says. “But I can tell you there are trends, and some of them are on opposing trajectories.”

He identifies two sets of trends currently causing tension:

Sterilization vs the human microbiome

At the industrial-scale level, especially with new food safety laws coming into play, we’re seeing a trend toward the total sterilization of food. For example, chickens in the United States are washed in chlorine “because of a cultural orthodoxy that sanitation requires sterility.” Salatin notes that “small poultry processors are being hammered right now because they don’t want their chicken smelling like bleach.”

The opposing trajectory is what we’re learning about the human microbiome, which is that we have a lot of bacteria and 98% of it is good. We just have to create a habitat where the good bugs can kill the bad ones.

This argument goes back more than 100 years to Antoine Béchamp and Louis Pasteur. Louis Pasteur developed germ theory, which says that germs cause disease. Béchamp advocated terrain theory, which posits that the problem isn’t the germs, but rather the state of our body and its ability to fight off bad bugs.

The new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has brought this argument to what Salatin calls a “nearly frenetic level.” Who will be the winner? It’s too soon to tell.

Consolidation vs fragmentation

The second set of trends is a trajectory toward food and farm consolidation on one hand (e.g., Amazon buying Whole Foods) and fragmentation (e.g., burgeoning local food systems) on the other.

The CoolBot, Salatin notes, supports the local food systems by providing portable refrigeration. For example, Polyface Farms currently rents eight properties. “When you’re renting a place,” he says, “you don’t want to put in big stationary walk-in coolers. You want lightweight coolers that are relatively cheap, so you can pick up and move if you have to.”

One force that has the potential to tilt the playing field in both of these sets of trends is FSMA, the food safety regulation mentioned earlier. FSMA was passed in 2011 and now in the middle of implementation, and it marks the first time that many small farmers will be subject to these kinds of laws (to see if the rules apply to you, read this article).

Salatin worries that FSMA will hurt small farmers and processors, as well as stunt innovation. “You can be pretty sure that anything coming from the federal government will be harmful to innovation and small-scale outfits,” he says. “All culture-changing innovation comes from small backyard operations. The problem with FSMA is that it codifies so much orthodoxy that even if you figure out a better way to skin a cat, you can’t do it.”

As an example of what can happen, Salatin tells a story of a time around 25 years ago when the FDA attempted to shut down his chicken processing operation because they said it was unsanitary. Salatin disagreed, and he had the data to back it up. He had a bacterial count done on the chicken from his facility compared to the chicken at the local grocery store. The result? His chicken had 25 times less bacteria than the store-bought chicken. But, the government still tried to shut him down because they insisted he needed to use bleach, sanitizers, antimicrobials, and so on. Fortunately, they didn’t succeed.

“It’s this Gestapo annihilation of bacteria philosophy that permeates the system,” he says. “It’s not unique to the United States. Europe is also losing its cottage industries, like the cheesemaking industry in Switzerland and the sausage making industry in Poland.”

Finally, Salatin says, FSMA poses a challenge because it’s size-prejudicial. “The infrastructure and the paperwork required to comply isn’t scalable. FSMA is much easier to comply with on a large scale than on a small scale, and that discriminates against the community-based producer.”

So, what can aspiring farmers do?

For FSMA, they don’t have much choice — farming operations covered by the rules will need to comply.

But, on a broader scale, farmers need to arm themselves with knowledge. “Many people who come to this type of authentic food production come with an altruistic fantasy,” Salatin says. “They’re big-hearted, but not business-savvy. And big-hearted doesn’t pay the bills or put shoes on your feet.”

To help farmers gain the business skills they need, Salatin recently published a new book: Your Successful Farm Business: Production, Profit, Pleasure. “I wanted to dig into the business aspect that includes people, marketing, partners, collaborations, and so on. These things are just as important as the altruistic passions of our heart — sometimes they’re more important. So, I want to help folks think like a business at least part of the time.”

What that means is being realistic.

“Don’t jump off a cliff until you know this is what you want to do,” Salatin says. “Make sure you and your significant other are on the same page about what kind of life you’re going to have. Too often, people think about 70° days, bucolic clouds, and blue sunshine. But there are also days when there are floods and 100-mph winds, and the roof blows off the barn.” He says the book is meant to be empowering, but also “the ultimate reality check.”

Yes, it sounds rough. But, Salatin says, “I don’t apologize for the book being hard.” If you want to succeed, this is the stuff you need to master.

To learn more, check out the Polyface Farms website. There, you’ll find educational resources, including books, DVDs, and seminars; Salatin’s upcoming speaking engagements; and much more.

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