Joel Salatin is a farmer – possibly the most famous farmer in the world today. He has been here in Adelaide for the last week, as a guest of Tasting Australia, spreading the word about how to ensure a viable future for the localised food system and it’s sources.
Ever since the movie Food Inc hit our screens in 2008, Joel and his family farm, Polyface, have become an increasingly important fixture in the field of sustainable food production. To put it simply, along with his son Daniel, Joel is considered one of the best farmers in the world and Time Magazine calls him the world’s most innovative farmer. His methods of regenerative, organic farming and wholistic management of his livestock has seen his small family farm grow into a multi-generational enterprise that now generates a $2.5 million income annually – all without compromising any of his core values.
At a small Tasting Australia lunch gathering yesterday in McLaren Vale about 30 of us listened and engaged with Joel as he explained one of the lynch pins of his success – a radical and unique method of succession planning which means that his small operation supports four generations of his family, plus a select group of interns and apprentices.
This will seem astonishing to most Australian farmers who are more familiar with what can often be a hand-to-mouth existence, in a sphere where succession planning is one of the most vexed issues a family can face. Rural communities abound with the stories of disenchanted and disenfranchised siblings and families cleaved apart by the injustice of unfair inheritances.
Joel has developed and actively advocates a remarkably entrepreneurial method which not only means that each member of a family can be supported by a family farming business, but also that the business actively nurtures their development, building on individual strengths and using them to, in turn, increase the profitability of the farm.
Polyface Farm has expanded to beyond it’s original 40 or so acres and now rents nine other farms, supporting not only the four generations of Salatins living on it, but a range of interns and apprentices. They do this by tapping in to and cultivating business concepts in even the youngest members of this family. If someone has an idea for an area of the farming business which they believe they can make work (i.e. Daniel started breeding table rabbits at age 10, his own five year old daughter sells posies to visitors), Joel and Daniel give them the space to make it happen. Each individual then becomes an independent contractor, solely responsible for their own “business” with a clearly defined set of responsibilities and expectations from both sides set out in a “Memorandum of Understanding”. The MOU is not negotiable and Joel and Daniel have a very strict “no sign – no business” policy.
This system applies to both family and the interns and apprentices on the farm, for projects ranging from the posies mentioned above to commercially producing shitake mushrooms for local restaurants (a lapsed project of a chef who has now moved on). It gives the farm an almost endless potential to expand and gives the project creators the security to develop their skills. All responsibility is on the newer generations to decide how they want their businesses to look and perform, rather than having the older generations telling them how it should be and feeling responsible for providing for them. All around, this process shares the risk and the profit, while bonuses incentivise the young entrepeneurs, making them more productive, helpful and resourceful – and, therefore, of more value to the enterprise as a whole.
This system not only means that an entire family is able to remain intact on a family property, but that they can also encourage and nurture others who may have an interest in farming without any rural background or skills. Their program for interns and apprentices gives successful applicants the opportunity to not only contribute to the success of Polyface, but to learn sustainable farming methods and skills from the very best in the world.
The intern program has attracted applicants from all around the world. In the past the average age has been around the 18-25 year old mark, but this has now raised to potential candidates ranging from 25-35 years. These are people who are coming close to the peak of their careers and who come from a wide range of commercial and corporate backgrounds, but who are looking to change their lives most radically.
So, Joel Salatin is indeed a farmer, but he’s not only growing food. He is doing all he can to secure the future of our food supply by growing more farmers.
Find out more about this method in Joel’s book “Fields of Farmers”, available from the Polyface website.