Story by Jennifer Richards, March 2014
Can you be converted to farming?
I don’t know.
But if anyone can convert people to sustainable food – growing it, raising it, farming it, eating it – it’s Joel Salatin.
Often called the world’s ‘most innovative’ farmer, Joel Salatin does something that is increasingly rare in the USA: he productively farms a relatively small area to support, not just multiple generations of his own family, but 5000 other households as well. He does all this by regenerating the land, not depleting it. In this way, his operation Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia is truly sustainable.
But it’s not just his skills in regenerative farming that have made him the poster-child for the world-wide sustainable food movement. It’s his ability to communicate. With a BA in English, he’s written numerous books about his motivations and processes. He’s even coined the word “agritainment” to characterise his speaking tours where his skills as a raconteur come to fore. With the energy, spontaneity and skill of a pentecostal preacher he spreads the good news about sustainable farming practices. He charms and mesmerises people even as he talks about manure, maggots and water harvesting.
It’s not his first trip down under, but this time Joel has bought son Daniel and daughter-in-law Sheri to do a series of one day seminars across rural Australia. Knowing that the average age of a farmer in Australia is 60 (the same as the US) they recognise the need to draw younger generations onto the land. They know that we have to raise up ‘fields of farmers’ in the near future to meet our food needs.
Together they talk about how to farm ‘beyond organically’, how to ‘stack’ the systems of the farm on top of each other to create synergistic relationships, and about taking on the hats of the ‘middle men’ to value add and direct market produce to keep more profit on the farm. It’s the same conversation they have whenever and wherever they tour. Except for one rather unsurprising thing: Aussie farmers are preoccupied with water.
“The single biggest difference between here and US is in the legality of impounding water. Here, building a dam is viewed by the culture and the bureaucrats as hoarding water and depriving people downstream. I’ve been to Australia now eight times or more and this is the first time that this issue has just hit us sharply – every single seminar we have done.”
Of course, our big dry continent means our farms have got water tanks down to a fine art. “We covet, if you will, the ability and simplicity of being able to get cisterns here to store water off a roof! We’re very inspired by the catchment and water dispersal systems here.”
Joel Salatin’s work is an inspiration to many food farmers and consumers in Australia. But it works both ways. He gets inspiration from the quiet work of Aussie innovators, the importance of which may not be fully understood by the culture at large.
“(Australia) is absolutely the epicentre of true permaculture, of true broad acre major landscape design for functionality. And so every time we see these kinds of projects we become very inspired because we simply don’t have things in the US that have been running for 30 years.”