Captain Chook … Joel Salatin’s farming method, which involves rotating animals on the land, followed by fallow periods, claims to dramatically increase productivity without the use of fertilisers. Photo: Eamon Gallagher
Joel Salatin has managed to combine libertarian capitalism with organic farming … and win over thousands of converts, including many Australians, along the way. Mark Whittaker is one of them.
Here is Joel Salatin, America’s most famous farmer, ripping the guts from a chicken that was minutes ago going about its foul business, clucking and scratching on a paddock outside Melbourne. He separates its liver from the rest of the viscera and admires the yellow fat cover, before tossing the shining carcass into a tub of ice water behind him.
Salatin, 55, has always loved chicken “processing” day. When he was starting out in the early ’80s and it was just him and his wife, Teresa, they’d slaughter, pluck and gut 50 birds an hour between them, before people came to the gate and bought the birds. Unlike today, these customers from backwoods Virginia didn’t buy for any perceived superiority of the meat or the way it was grown; they bought because the birds were cheap. Nevertheless, Salatin would suddenly have money in his pocket, a rare thing in those days, but so common now I suspect the non-smoking, non-drinking “Christian libertarian capitalist lunatic farmer” doesn’t quite know what to do with it all.
By hook or chook … Mark Whittaker attempts to process a chicken, Joel Salatin-style. Photo: Eamon Gallagher
He’s turned the small rocky farm that couldn’t even support one family when his dad bought it in 1961 into a deep-soiled powerhouse that grosses $2 million a year and pays 22 salaries. All without a single bag of fertiliser.
This promise of unbridled fecundity is why he pulls rock star crowds when he tours Australia (he’ll be returning for a fifth visit in February). Eighteen hundred people will come to see him on this current tour, but I’ve been lucky enough to squeeze into a four-day masterclass with just 30 others, all gathered at his feet, to learn how to make money, put a rocket up our soil fertility, keep our children on the farm and appreciate the “sheer ecstasy of being a lunatic farmer”.
He pulls himself away from gutting 15 chickens in 20 minutes (he was slowed by them having food in their crops) to go into philosophising in that deep southern accent. “It’s not psychologically healthy to kill animals every day. Historically, nobody killed animals every day, never, until recent times. We kill every Wednesday.” His hand goes to his mouth to wipe off an irritant. “My son Daniel has two principles on this,” he says, looking at the irritant. “Keep your mouth shut, and if you feel something on your lip, don’t lick it.”
I first heard of Salatin in 2007 when he came out with his sixth book, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. Based on the title, I presumed he was a crank who wanted to own a bazooka and drive at 100 miles an hour while having his wing-wang squeezed without spilling his drink or paying his taxes. What he did, in fact, want to do was buy some raw milk from his neighbour, sell a few of another neighbour’s pickles at his farm-gate shop, and to slaughter his own chickens. These are subversive intentions in the modern food world.
Salatin is a dissident. He rails against the government protecting people from their local farmer – “getting between their lips and their throat” – and advocates civil disobedience on such matters. He’s a philosopher and a showman, but most of all he’s a farmer.
For the last six years I’ve been a farmer, too, on the NSW south coast. Not a real one, but I try. I’ve passed all sorts of farmer benchmarks. I’ve whinged about the intrusion of government and about too much rain. I’ve killed animals and eaten their livers. I’ve stuck my arm up a cow and autopsied a sheep, but I’m still a long way from making a living off our land.
And after six years, I feel like the chemical-free, touchy-feely idealism has worn off a little under the weight of Scotch thistle and skinny calves. I’ve come to see Salatin to find out if he can reinspire me, and also to ponder the bigger picture. Is this agrarian escape thing a delusion? Is the whole organic model an elitist affectation? Because everyone knows it’ll never feed the world. In April, scientists at McGill University in Montreal and the University of Minnesota published an overview of 66 studies that had compared organic methods across 34 different crops and found that organics yielded 5 to 25 per cent less.
One family that’s having a red-hot go at feeding the world – starting with Melbourne – are the Falloons at Woodend, in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges. Their property, Taranaki Farm, has been in the family since the soldier-settler scheme after World War I. For most of its life, Taranaki provided a good income as a dairy with a bit of market gardening on the side. But by the time Ben Falloon, now 35, came back on holidays from his job in internet marketing in Sydney, the place was a run-down, dry husk, just running beef cattle to pay the rates. It was 2008, near the end of the drought, his grandfather had died a few years earlier, and Ben, who’d grown up in Melbourne, felt the pull of his ancestors.
When he read Salatin’s book, You Can Farm, the penny dropped so loudly, he says, his ears rang. And whereas most people might try to implement a few of Salatin’s ideas, Falloon wanted them all and he wanted them yesterday. And he wanted Salatin to tell him what he was doing wrong.
That’s how Falloon hooked up with Darren Doherty. If Salatin is the rock star of this movement, Doherty is the underground new wave, with his own fusion of permaculture and Australian-developed “keyline” farming. Doherty was the first person to get Salatin to do hands-on classes, so Falloon teamed up with him and got Salatin to come to Taranaki in 2010. Salatin gave his blessing to Falloon’s plan to make Taranaki a replica of Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia, even calling it the Australian Polyface Project.
Ben and his partner, Nina Grundner, and father, Stan, have got Taranaki to the point where they’re just about playing what Salatin calls the symphony of the pasture. Its rhythm is set by the cows. You put a large number of them on a small paddock and keep them there for one day before moving them to the next parcel of long fresh grass. Three days later, when the worms and bugs are starting to hatch out of the cowpats, you bring in the eggmobile: a chook house on wheels. The chickens free-range onto the paddock, scratching the bugs out of the poo, spreading it around and leaving their own nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich droppings. With the grass suitably opened and fertilised, the patch of grass is left to a long rest.
In one of our early sessions, Salatin had wowed us with his numbers. He says he runs five times more cows on his land than the county average and makes $1480 a hectare out of them; he makes $741 a hectare for the laying chickens; almost $5000 a hectare for turkeys; and from the meat chickens he claims a staggering $17,000 a hectare. Bear in mind that the average Australian farm – and my property – nets about $120 a hectare. Salatin runs all his animals on the same acreage, so the total return he’s claiming is edging up towards $25,000 a hectare.
He says he’s never tried to figure out how much food could be produced if all the grazing properties in the US went over to his model. But what he is certain of is that when people say that organic agriculture can’t feed the world, they’re not studying the productivity of his place. Similarly, when it is stated as a bald fact that grass-fed cattle can’t produce as much food as grain-fed systems, or that we have to give up meat altogether because a vegan diet has a smaller ecological footprint, they are comparing the modern industrial system to badly managed alternatives, not what he has shown is possible.
“We can produce way more,” Salatin says. “Look around the world, look at the farms surrounding us here. How many farms are not getting half the production Ben is already getting at this early stage? The pastures are worn out, the water cycle is kaput. When you think of all those grazing acres in the world that are being terribly underutilised and abused because they’re not mimicking these mobbing, mowing, moving patterns of nature, when you take that into consideration, the production just triples through the roof without the addition of any petroleum. All it is is a change of management.”
When Salatin got started, his meat-chicken model was made possible by the fact he could process his birds in the open air with minimal overheads. From the start, the food-safety authorities were on his back, and have been there ever since. The idea of killing animals out in the open where the flies and the customers had equal access seemed intolerable. Salatin has a great belief in the cleansing ability of sunlight, both physically and metaphorically. He fought the law and he seems to have won, having proven that his birds were a lot less contaminated than the shop-bought kind.
Falloon, on the other hand, is working with the law, and if – between the pincer of the local council and the Victorian meat, poultry and seafood watchdog, PrimeSafe – he does manage to get approval for a bird abattoir, it’s going to cost him tens of thousands just to get started. It’s a problem that Darren Doherty sums up with the line, “We’ve got to make sustainability legal.”
Salatin gives us a quick primer in civil disobedience – his voiced drowned out by the occasional whir of the chicken plucker – and an hour after taking the birds out of the paddock, we’re eating them. They are finger-licking good, dipped in Doherty’s own secret peppery recipe. “Good chicken,” says Salatin. “I’m not used to getting that away from home.”
Surely, I say to him after lunch, all this is just a middle-class indulgence. We can’t really feed the world like this. Salatin takes the bait calmly.
“The truth is, the folks who say it can’t feed the world are assuming that our side has stood still since the 1800s. They accuse us of wanting to go back to some barbaric, Neanderthal, pre-industrial way, as if they are the only ones who embrace technology and innovation, but the truth is that we now have a tremendous amount of infrastructure, from chippers and shredders and conveyor belts, electricity, black plastic pipe, composting.
“The war effort had pumped billions of dollars into developing nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, which is what we make bombs out of, so that by the late ’40s it was much cheaper and much easier to buy chemical fertiliser than it was to build compost piles.”
Salatin’s posturing and proselytising has been influential. Long before he featured in US author and academic Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary Food, Inc, which propelled him to wider fame, he was a successful author. He writes in the winter when there isn’t much farm work to do. He says he’s sold “three or four hundred thousand” self-published books.
Salatin grew up in backwoods Virginia without TV; so did his children, and now his grandchildren – three generations, two of them home-schooled, disconnected from that cultural avalanche. Three generations who have had time to think. “People say, ‘What’s the first thing I should do to get into farming?’ I say, ‘Take your deer rifle and use it on your television.’ ” So how many have followed him as closely as the Falloons? “He’s certainly in the top 50 worldwide, they’ve just got to get their marketing right and they’ll be there.”
Standing in a newly constructed hoop house that will be used for wintering his chickens and pigs, then growing warm-climate vegetables, Ben Falloon explains why he’s going to be taking his produce direct to the customers. “When my grandmother was 91, we were sitting around the dining room table and she said that 25 years ago Grandpa Jack went to Woolies with his usual delivery of shallots and for the first time they said to him, ‘We’re sorry, but we’re no longer going to buy from local farmers.’ They wanted to source from buying agents they’d dispersed across the countryside to start manipulating the price point. My grandmother’s emotion as she was telling me this story had such a profound effect on my motivation … this ashen face and this anger burning in her eyes about the injustice of that moment.”
Falloon doesn’t know how much food he can produce, but he’s already got 500 people signed up to the buying club, and more than a third of those have offered their driveways as drop points for deliveries. “In the model that Joel generally outlines, one buying-club drop represents at least $1000 of sales to justify the delivery. So with 150 buying-club drops, that would be …”
He doesn’t want to think about it too much. The future seems blindingly bright. “We have twice the pasture Joel has. The limit is only the logistical challenge.” He could lease land from the tree-changers to ramp up production. He has stars in his eyes.
As for me, my stars are smaller and closer than Ben’s. I think I’ll try to build an eggmobile and put 100 chooks in it. They’ll give the fertility a nice boost and the kids can sell the eggs by the side of the road. We’ll see what happens from there.