Review: Salatin books

salad-bar-beef-joel-salatin-194x300 YouCanFarm
Salad Bar Beef & You Can Farm
Author: Joel Salatin
Farmer, advocate
Publishing Info: 1995 & 1998, Swoope, VA (Polyface)
Book Type: how to, commentary, instruction
Joel Salatin has become a cultural icon and a darling of the green-alternative-sustainable-(insert latest descriptor here) movement in the US. But reading his books reminds me that he started out as a farmer with poor soil and had to work hard to make his farm productive and profitable. Interestingly, Salatin’s family tried farming in Venezuela but were ousted due to political upheaval (losing everything) and later only received paltry compensation. It is important to note that the family started the farm in the Shenandoah Valley, and it was paid off before Joel and his wife took over to farm. This is a wonderful advantage that most beginning farmers don’t have, and one that Joel himself admits helped them a lot. But still, farming is work, and farming against the multi-national seed/chemical conglomerate is even harder work.

Salad Bar Beef is a great overview of many concepts available in other books including the soil science of Albrecht and intensive grazing by Voisin. But one of the things that makes Joel so popular is that he can write in such a way that you think he is just leaning up against your truck and talking straight to you. He calls it Salad Bar Beef because he correctly identifies that the cows eat more than just grass…instead it is like a salad bar of all kinds of grasses, legumes and other greens. He also believes that you can get into this type of farming with only the basic supplies: cows, pasture, water, electric fencing. He recommends renting the land and always suggests to reduce the capital investment. This is something I have seen many get tripped up on: they’ll rush to get everything perfect (meaning buying lots of supplies and machines) before even starting their money-making enterprise. That makes it hard to get the cash flowing in the right direction. Joel also spends time talking about processing and marketing the beef. Processing is a huge problem for beef growers, especially small holders. In our area, there are few USDA plants and they often have long (up to 2 months) waiting lists. Luckily a new pilot plant is opening in Eastern Washington and we are keeping an eye on that as a possible solution. The marketing of the beef has many of the basic elements for marketing any farm product, but includes educating the consumer on the different (but better beef). This was a good overview of the whole concept of intensively grazed beef and would be of value to anyone interested in embarking on such a system, though I would also suggest further reading in the foundational material.

You Can Farm is a rousing cry for daydreamers to get off their butt and get their hands dirty! Joel basically asks ‘what are you doing right now to get to farming?’ He lays out the many ways to get land, though suggests renting or working out another arrangement. He also suggests staying away from heavy infrastructure until you can afford to do it. The book has good chapters on finding land, being good neighbors, equipment, etc. The ‘stay out of debt’ them permeates the entire book and Joel often highlights his “function over form” philosophy. For example, he says he would get a used cheap trailer to live in than build something that would last a century because the cheap trailer would meet the needs of shelter and that it would be folly to think he could know now what kind of house someone would like to live in a hundred years. Though he does go on to say you can always build a better house once you get money later. I don’t really agree with all that, since I think you can have form and function…but shouldn’t sacrifice one for the other. Plus, there is the quality of life and also the marketability of a “pretty” farm over a used trailer farm for your customers. I did like his chapter on being good neighbors, since when you are new you need to remember the land is old and so is people’s memories and that it often takes time to build up relationships and a reputation (including for your product). This book was thus more a “doer” book than a “dreamer” book. We usually divide up books we read and categorize them based upon if they ofter good usable information or if they are just fluff to feed farming dreams (i.e. the unending stream of books by city professionals that have escaped to the wilds and found their true calling in life through amusing anecdotes involving animals and life changing revelations). So another good book for those earnestly trying to figure out how to get farming.

Overall Joel’s books usually are very personable, direct and full of useful ideas that must be tailored to your operation, life style and climate. His almost pathological obsession to stay out of debt, however, may not be obtainable by most new farmers. Especially when a lot of new farmers these day are first generation farmers starting from scratch in all meanings of the word (land, experience, guidance, capital, equipment, etc.).