One of the goals of New Farm Development Initiative is connect new farmers in the region with training oportunities and knowledgeable mentors. As part of this goal, we offer support to new farm correspondents who wish to attend and travel to agriculture industry events. These correspondents assist us in linking to information and contacts available in our region and beyond and provide valuable insight into the value of attending such events.
Mandi Schwarz and her husband Jordan bought 40 acres last summer and hope to begin farming soon. you can follow their trials and tribulations on their blog at lone-pine-farm.blogspot.ca
Joel Salatin’s Secrets to Beyond Organic Farming: You Can Farm
On March 20, 2013, I attended Joel Salatin’s talk You Can Farm, the first of a series of three one-day-long sessions streamed live from the event Secrets of Beyond Organic Farming in Calgary. Joel is regarded as a rockstar in the world of small organic farms; he has teamed up with other nearby farmers to offer a wide selection of organic goods to local customers. As a relative newbie in our local farming community, I was excited to spend the day both learning from Joel and chatting with other local farmers.
The day started with an overview of Joel’s ideas regarding organic farming. He did a quick poll of his live audience in Calgary, and determined that while they had varied reasons for wanting to farm (including food security, community, and sustainability, among other reasons), not one of them mentioned farming for profit. This is typical of new organic farmers from around the world – we are apparently a kind-hearted bunch! He encouraged us to think outside the box, with ideas for getting started (use mobile farming systems such as chicken tractors and electric net fencing so you can borrow or rent land and farm small parcels), setting up infrastructure (avoid single-use, capital-intensive items and focus on function, not form), and avoiding trouble with bylaw restrictions (befriend your local politicians and sell items creatively, such as ‘buy a bag of compost, get some milk for free!’). We were also reminded that farming should be thought of as a business right from the start; we should try to keep our emotions separate from our business, especially when it comes to marketing. Yes, we think we have the best potatoes in the region, but not everyone else will agree!
The second half of the morning was spent on a whirlwind photo tour of Polyface Farm. Joel showed us his barns (open-sided, multi-use buildings that house house a rotation of chickens, cows and pigs based on the time of year), his lumber bandsaw (which he uses to plane boards from his 400+ acres of forested land), and his farm shop (which is, quite literally, where his customers come to shop!). We took a quick tour of the pastures, where cows are moved each day and followed closely by chickens, which spread the manure, eat the bugs, and add their own fertilizer to the fields. Pigs follow a similar rotation through their fields, creating a cycle of a short period of disturbance followed by a long period of rest, which closely mimics the natural cycles of forest fires, herd migrations, and other natural events.
After lunch, we dived right in to marketing. Joel stated, “If you get nothing else out of today’s session, this right here will make it worth it: you want your customers to become dependent on you!” We learned of how Polyface Farm has partnered with other local farms to provide a wide variety of goods to their customers, such as honey, apple juice, and vegetables in addition to the beef, pork, chicken and eggs they produce, becoming a one-stop-shop. These partnerships have leveraged the economies of scale to lower costs for everyone involved, as all the goods can all be marketed the same way and be delivered on the same truck. This strategy is utilized for all of the available markets: on-farm sales, restaurant contracts, and the Metropolitan Buying Club of independent customers. There is even a team member bringing groups onto the farm as a form of agrotainment.
Finally, we got into the last session of the day: team building. Even if your farm is just a team of two, this is very important, as a disjointed working relationship often spells disaster for small farms. Joel encouraged us to develop a mission statement for our farms and write job descriptions for each person, which minimizes confusion about duties, responsibilities, and areas of expertise. “The biggest killer of enthusiasm is silent expectations,” Joel said. “At the end of the day, what makes or breaks the the farm is the harmony of the house and the business, not the design of the egg mobile or the size of the pasture.” Having these difficult conversations as we set up our farms is crucial to laying the foundation for our future successes. At Polyface, each member of the team is allowed to keep their own fiefdom and grow it in their own way as long as it fits the farm’s mission statement; in this way, everyone feels valued and knows they are integral part of the farm’s success.
This was a very interesting and informative day, and it encouraged me to grab a copy of Joel’s book Folks, This Ain’t Normal from the library and check out his farm’s extensive website, http://www.polyfacefarms.com/. I also got the chance to chat with some of my fellow attendees during the breaks (there were 17 of us in total watching from Prince George), during which I confirmed my intent to purchase heritage chicks from one farmer, and directed another to my online notes (which can be found at http://lone-pine-farm.blogspot.ca/p/resources.html and include my notes from this session). This was definitely a day well spent by both my husband and I as we start our journey into organic farming.