Five-Minute Mentor: Farming Advice from Joel Salatin

joel salatin

Matt Eich


Maybe you’ve read one of Joel Salatin’s nine books, such as 1998’s bestselling primer You Can Farm, or seen him in the documentaries Food, Inc. and Farmageddon. A vocal proponent of humane livestock management, Salatin raises chickens, turkeys, rabbits, cattle, and pigs on his 550-acre Polyface Farms, in Swoope, Virginia. He also grows “all the normal vegetables,” sans chemicals, of course. We asked the 58-year-old for his opinion on everything from buying your first farm to improving a pasture naturally.

Where should I look for a place to farm?
I always tell people, “Bloom where you’re planted.” Farm where you have relationships and a reputation. It’s a lot easier getting started in a community that knows you—where you shop for groceries, pay your bills, and belong to a civic club. Even if the land is more expensive, it pays off.

How much capital do I need to get into farming?
You should have enough in the bank to cover your mortgage payments and support yourself for one full year at the minimum. If you spend everything on the down payment, you’ll have nothing left to buy equipment. Write up a strict budget before you start. Cut living expenses to the bone. Sell your extra vehicle and get an old used truck. Skip the annual vacation. Devote your heart, soul, and body to your farming venture. After it becomes successful, then you can add the frills back.

Do you have any advice about how to get more work done in a day?
I am a huge believer in time and motion studies. Start by timing all of your tasks and see what you can do to make them more efficient. Ask yourself why you do things the way you do. Create a map of your farm, trace your steps one day, and ask yourself if you’re going places redundantly. Write a list of tasks that can be done in an hour or less, and carry that list around with you; when you have a spare hour, maybe at 4:00 when it’s not time for supper yet, do one of those tasks. Schedule off-season staff (or family) meetings to get on the same page and make plans for the next year.

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What should be in my toolshed?
Besides the basic farm tools, you should have a hammer, a welder and torch, a table saw, a crow bar, and a chain saw. A farmer often has to improvise. These tools let you fabricate wood and metal and build what you need but can’t buy.

Which is the easiest, most profitable farm animal to start with?
Omnivores—especially chickens—are easier to practice on than herbivores like cattle. Poultry is a more forgiving product for novices. I like raising chickens as pastured broilers because they have a fast turnaround—8 to 10 weeks. Their housing is cheap and portable. The operation can be done without a tractor. Government regulations make broilers a cinch to market. They offer an extremely high profit, up to $3,000 per acre. And chickens can’t hurt you easily, making them child-friendly.

How can I improve a pasture quickly for my cattle?
Use the livestock to help. Take advantage of their natural instinct to gather in a pasture for protection. This concentrated grazing encourages the grass to grow more aggressively, and the manure and urine feed earthworms and soil microorganisms. To ensure that the cows stay together, set up portable electric fencing to hold them in a single paddock. But move the animals, and the fencing, daily to avoid overgrazing. And don’t bring them back to that area for 80 to 90 days.

Five-Minute Mentor: Farming Advice from Joel Salatin