Last weekend, Tony and I made a long jaunt up to northern Idaho to catch the all-day Joel Salatin workshop, part of a 2 week “animals in permaculture” course. As an added bonus, Paul Wheaton of Permies.com was speaking the night before. Idaho is less than an hour away from us, but northern Idaho is another story. It turned out to be somewhere between 12 and 13 hours of driving each way, but it was worth it. It was nice to visit an area of the country we’d never really been to before. Northern Idaho is it’s own world. It felt like Wisconsin to Tony — very humid and a monstrous morning thunderstorm. There are mostly large monocrop wheat fields in the area, but the rolling green hills were beautiful.
(Joel Salatin and Paul Wheaton)
There were about 50-60 people at the workshop, and we were able to listen to 8 hours of Joel Salatin lectures. If you don’t know who Joel Salatin is, here is a brief synopsis: He has a small-scale farm in northern Virginia called Polyface, that is out of the ordinary and unconventional. It is mostly a meat farm: cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, rabbits. The unconventional part is the way the animals are treated. Joel knows the grass cycles well enough to shift the cattle into different paddocks when the grass is ideal for grazing, and moves them to the next paddock to allow the grass an ideal span of time to grow again. After the cows have grazed through an area, the chickens in their “egg-mobiles” follow behind, where they find fantastic nutrients in the cow pies, and in turn fertilize the ground with good things. Joel has been featured in almost every food documentary that has come out in the last decade, is also featured in Michal Pollan’s book “the Omnivore’s Dilemma” and has written a number of books himself, one of which Tony did a book review on: “Folks, This Ain’t Normal.”
Joel and his family run an internship program at their farm every summer, and Tony and I have been planning on applying for the last year. The trick is, we can only apply from August 1-8, the only window open for applications. And even then, they receive upwards of 300 applicants for only 8 positions (only 2 of which are for females). Two of the 8 summer interns are chosen to stay for a year on the farm, and are paid a decent amount. From there, many become partners in the farm or manage another farm under the Polyface umbrella. One interesting fact we learned last weekend is that on average, each of the interns receives at least ten offers for free land if they’ve completed an internship. So for that reason, and to be able to learn under such a well-known farmer, we are planning to apply come August 1st. With over 300 applicants, it seems very unlikely that both of us will be chosen, but we are going to try for it.
It was worth it for us to meet Joel, and hear him speak in person this weekend. It certainly made us more motivated and excited to apply to work on his farm. I will share a few nuggets of wisdom I learned:
1. Approach all situations with incredible creativity.
2. Find multiple functions for everything. Infrastructure, animals, multi-use equipment (replace depreciating infrastructure and equipment with appreciating animals).
3. Good enough is perfect. Making mistakes is an essential part of the process. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly first.
4. Create a “portable farm” with portable shade structures, egg-mobiles, fencing etc.
5. Try to fit your infrastructure into a wheel-barrow. Will your system work in Africa?
And here is some advice for creating a White Collar Salary Farm:
1. Widen Margins
2. Function over Form
3. Economy of Scale
4. Live in a shack or a tent at first. There needs to be sacrifice at the start.
5. Leverage infrastructure
6. Think perennial
7. Stack functions and species
8. Value-add the product
9. Differences should be measurable.
10. Most valuable thing is the customer. Don’t assume you don’t have a market.
11. Stay with your unfair advantage (borrow a tractor etc)
12. Take waste stream and turn it into production.
13. Share wealth with autonomous partners.
There are many other many other nuggets of information we gathered, but this is a good list.
Part of the reason we drove to northern Idaho was to network a little bit. We had talked about spending some time this winter on Paul Wheaton’s new farm in Missoula, Montana. Our plan is to live in a Tipi with a rocket mass heater inside over the winter, and apparently there are several other people lined up to do it. We were the first to speak up, so the spot has been left open to us. Apparently, the Discovery Channel is thinking of doing a TV show about the farm, and should be calling us any day. There was one point in the day, when Tony and I were sitting on a curb next to Paul and Joel, eating pizza. Definitely two of our heroes. Who knows? Maybe we will end up working on both of their farms in the next year.
We have been very busy and tired lately so apologize for the absence in blog posts. But we will try to make up for it. I have a lot of green things growing in different places and will post pictures soon.