What is deeply compelling about You Can Farm by Joel Salatin is that he levels the reader through his concrete footing in the practical realities of undertaking a rural enterprise. Make money, be constructive in all senses of the word and make the world a better place by taking a definitive side on real food issues (Joel’s constant use of hyperbole is a lot of fun) are the take-away messages.
The book focuses on being a successful rural smallholder in the US though the principles are general enough to be applied to Australia and anywhere else for that matter. The “success” isn’t some airy, fairy notion around happiness or contentment on the land (though that is part of it) – it is unashamedly about financial success and what you need to actually do as a smallholder to make money and thrive. This is balanced by a secondary message about how to deal with people, such as neighbours, customers and suppliers to ensure you promote healthy, constructive relationships and avoid social pitfalls.
There are a lot of valuable lessons in this secondary message (for me anyway) and, reading through the lines somewhat, it comes down to approaching the world with humility, circumspection and respect whilst continuely maintaining a healthy measure of self-respect.
In a country where I do think there is a slight martyr culture among farmers, the above advice hits a strong note of recognition. The parts where Joel talks about putting a value on your time and making that a high value – about how country workers should be intelligent, motivated and remunerated at least as richly as their city cousins was fascinating and persuasive. Achieving this is not a society-wide problem but is rather a conscious choice on the part of individuals as to how they value themselves and their work – what they will accept and their attitude towards the world. The power of self-belief in a start-up rural enterprise is heavily reinforced and this is supported by intelligent business practices based on a select grouping of extermly high quality, ethichal produce. Naysayers beware – this is powerful stuff
Joel is an alternative farmer by his own admission (with groundings in holistic management, permaculture and the organic movement) but he is the furtherest thing from an unhinged hippy. He believes that ecological development and environmental conservation are not mutually exclusive with a profitable farming enterprise. That, in itself, is comforting to read, particularly when it is supported with well thought-out and costed business models. Pastured poultry, chicken tractors following beef herds, the permaculture principles of using natural patterns and networks of symbiotic organisms to help rather than hinder are inspiring. This is all balanced with a focus on the human prospering in this idyllic picture. The human needs to be happy, financially comfortable, not lead a life of drudgery but instead enjoy a seasonal. diverse life of up-and-down work schedules all aimed at building a business and growing that all-important bottom line.
Joel makes you ask yourself the question – how much do you make an hour for each enterprise you have? If you aren’t making a good hourly wage, then why do it? To quote the author: “It is better to do nothing for nothing than something for nothing”
The book is imbued with Joel’s overwhelming enthusiasm for the subject matter. His love for his work and his entrepreneurial spirit shine through on virtually every page. You really feel that he WANTS you to succeed – that he has thought it through as a good, honest man with a big conscience and this is his best attempt to genuinely bring some good into the world.
I will take from this book lessons to connect with a conservative rural community, I will also take away confidence to approach new enterprises based on sound monetary and ecological principles. Fleshing out and diagnosing cost to these rural enterprises will be a focus and having the confidence to walk away where necessary where the numbers don’t stack up. I have also gained confidence to try a different road.
I don’t this there is much negative you can say about You Can Farm. Joel is clearly religious and has strong conservative social views but these aren’t forced on the reader. He is clearly a deep thinker with a tremendous intelligence that he has applied diligently to the subject matter of smallholdings and tempered with rich practical experience. I am looking forward to reading Salad Bar Beed and Pastured Poultry Profits.
If you are starting out or looking for a fresh approach, you would be mad not to read this book.