Creating a Farm Life Your Children Will Treasure
Family Friendly Farming
by Joel Salatin
n a family farm operation, everybody has a niche to fill. At Polyface Farm, we believe that diversifying responsibilities allows us to make many decisions at once, increasing the number of decisions made. We all have something different to offer, and every child’s talent is different. We have to appreciate their talents and create opportunities for children to express their natural abilities rather than saying, “Well, I raise chickens so you are going to raise chickens.” Let the children express themselves. Rachel is our artist, she cooks, quilts, and makes crafts. She makes grapevine wreaths and potpourri. Teresa and I can’t draw a stick man, but Rachel was drawing at age 3. We put in a flower garden so Rachel can have her flowers which she dries. This allows her to feel needed, wanted, and part of the family operation. Daniel is our outdoorsman. He developed an interest in tapping maple trees. We built a pan and he bought a book about backyard maple sugaring. He designed a little oven himself, and he makes doughnuts, which he sells at the farmer’s market for $4 a dozen. He takes 1 gallon of maple syrup and turns it into $200. The idea is to allow children to express themselves. Many Acres U.S.A. readers know about Daniel’s rabbit enterprise, which is now pretty large, with about 75 breeding does. He started as a 9-year-old, and he innovates. He raises mangel as a substitute winter forage for the rabbits and has a racken (rabbit-chicken) house with the rabbits above and the chickens underneath. Synergy and symbiosis occurs be-
Joel Salatin (left) cultivates a vibrant sense of beauty and harmony at his Swoope, Virginia, farm, where each member of the family adds unique talents that are important to the health and success of the farm. chinery, buildings, everything — and think tween the rabbits about multiple uses. One of the worst things and chickens. we can do is to saddle our children to eiStarting children ther payments or models too burdensome early is important. to abandon. Specifically, things like conTeresa and I want them to earn their finement animal facilities and big, singleown money. Rachel use pieces of machinery — the kind you makes her zucchini owe a lifetime mortgage on. Those things bread and pound enslave the next generation to continue the cake and has regular same thing their parents did. When that customers at the farmers market. We don’t happens, the kids want to go because there is no flexibility in the model. believe in Social Security to take care of The problem is that these capital-intenus as we get older. We want our kids to sive infrastructures — take care of us if we get Reprinted from single-use machinery and infirm. We don’t believe buildings — are too comin allowances; we don’t plicated to retrofit. Even think kids should get anywhen they become obsothing just for breathing. The beauty of letting chil- June 2000 - Vol. 30, No. 6 - Cover Story lete and don’t make any money, when they are dren have their own enterboring and no longer fun, we still have to prises that are separate from ours, and they get up every morning, go out and keep the are really their deal, is that they generate thing running. There is too much emotiontheir own income. al and economic inertia in it to change the Sustainable farmers talk a lot about diparadigm. versifying the landscape. We need to take Small, sustainable family operations that concept into our infrastructures — ma-
want to use uncomplicated, diversified machinery. We use machines that can load logs, gravel, compost and hay. Maybe we load logs slower than a guy with a $50,000 knuckle-boom loader, but that’s single-use equipment. I load logs with my truck, then take them to the band saw to make valueadded lumber. ACCEPT IMPERFECTION Getting to a more basic, soul level, I’m going to address an important issue all parents have to face, especially the dads, because this is more a dad problem and not so much a mom problem. Pause a moment and consider how many of us either have or are fussy dads. My dad was a journeyman pattern maker, and I still have his toolbox and handmade wood tools. They made wooden patterns to pour carburetors. Can you imagine carving molds for steel pieces out of wood? He was a woodworker par excellence. He could make grandfather clocks, furniture — you name it. I couldn’t do any of that. Daniel is a much better carpenter than I. But do you know what is one of the most gratifying things in my life? My father never once complained about my 87-degree angles. He never complained about something 2 inches higher on one end. How many chicken pens would I have experimented with using my rudimentary carpentry skills if I was afraid while building the first one that if it was just a little out of square I’d get fussed at? Bless his heart, he never complained. Because there is one principle and that’s function; if it works, that’s good enough. Dads, we have to let our children go out in the shop and bend nails — yes, waste nails and maybe our favorite board. I’ve seen 30- and 40-year-old sons who don’t feel the liberty to take a board off the lumber pile without asking dad. That’s a tragedy. I know it’s a dad problem. I’ve watched guys my age inherit farms in their 20s and lose them in 10 years. I’ve watched innumerable guys my age who really would like to have stayed on the farm but didn’t. And I’ve watched lots and lots of parents of my parent’s generation who had children and none of them are on the farm. Separate dad and mom and ask, what happened? Mom will tell you, “He was too hard on them. Nothing ever pleased him.” If they did a good job, that was expected. You’re supposed to do a good job. But boy, bend a nail or drive over a windrow wrong, or plant that row
Stock cattle are one of the many aesthetic and fun aspects of Polyface Farm. of corn a bit crooked, and you listen. I hope we all take this to heart. It is such a critical lesson. I know there are exceptions, but most of the time at least one child will stay on the farm if they feel they’ve got a fair shake. It starts young. It has to be fun, too. It can’t be all work. Why do people not want to farm? It’s drudgery, it’s dirty, and it’s noisy. But we go to the woods and create pastures with pigs. Instead of bulldozers, you just let the pigs go in — these are honest-to-goodness bush hogs — and you can plant small grain in there. If you don’t think it’s fun, you haven’t had a 12-year-old boy take a 5-gallon bucket, stick it over the snout of a pig, grab on to the bale, jump on that 300-pound pig and go, “high-ho silver” down through the corn. Let me tell you, it is fun, it’s exciting. It’s a whole lot more fun to do tillage and environmental work this way than it is watching how dad acts after going down there with a tractor and running a stump through the tire. toes have blight, it’s a problem. Kids get turned off to sickness and disease; they really don’t like it. Watch a child when you’ve tried to save a calf and it dies, or they watch a cow go down, or your child’s first garden has five corn plants and three get blown over in a windstorm. It’s not fun. It’s devastating. I know we don’t need to shelter them from all the tragedies of life, but in the big picture, you can take some bumps in the road if that’s not the norm.
CREATE OPPORTUNITIES We use portable electric fencing on some land about 11 or 12 miles away to run stock cattle. This is something that Daniel has jumped on as an opportunity to expand our land base. And there’s room to grow. The agriculture/economics department at Virginia Tech has just released a study that says in the next 10 years, 70 percent of Virginia’s farmland is going to change hands. It’s the beginning of an opportunity that we haven’t seen since Pa Ingalls took the family out the Oregon Trail. MAKE IT BEAUTIFUL All this unused land owned by people who A farm has to be beautiful. Here is a don’t know what to do little rule of thumb. If you Reprinted from with it. The average turntake people around your around age for a farmette farm and you have to is five years. This is creapologize more than three ating unprecedented optimes, you’ve got serious problems. If you’re em- June 2000 - Vol. 30, No. 6 - Cover Story portunities, but the model has to be there in order barrassed about it, think for our children to have the desire, the savabout what your kids feel when their vy and self-confidence to tap these alterfriends visit. Our farms have to be beautinatives. We have 100 cows on 1/4 acre a ful, aesthetically pleasing places where day; it’s aesthetic, it’s pleasing, it’s fun, our children love to entertain. If it is and it intensifies the production on that smelly, dirty and noisy, and a dead animal acreage. gets hauled out by the barn, and the toma-
Daniel is interested in aquaculture and fishing. So we’re building ponds that give us water pressure anywhere on the farm, a focus for Daniel’s interests. Ten year ago Teresa and I quit making major investments or changes for ourselves; we are making them to open up opportunities for our grandchildren. That’s how we need to think. We are already through with our kids; they have tons of room and salaries galore on the farm. We’re thinking about the grandchildren to come.
CREATE A LEGACY As a culture, we have this idea that we send kids off to school to get as smart as they can be to go 1,000 miles away from home to earn enough monDIVERSIFY PRODUCTION ey to put us in nursing care when we Polyface Farm also has an apprenget old. My vision is I just want to age tice program for young people to learn and have the grandchildren fighting farming principles. Our first goal was over who is going to get granddad for just to make a living. The Drucker Cya day. Wouldn’t that be neat? cle says in five to seven years an enterStephen Covey wrote the book prise is either successful or fails. Ours which, next to the Bible, everybody was successful, and became lucrative. ought to read: The Seven Habits of Once you make it, then you look toHighly Effective People. One of the Managing a diversified family farm requires solid ward expansion. The kids allowed us habits is that you start with the end in teamwork and a good balance of work and play. to expand. But we didn’t want our chilview. We have to think about what kind dren to feel obligated to maintain our of a model the kids are going to have, not watching that, the discovery, the awe and level or type of production. How do we when they are 18, but when they are 2 or the reverence for nature it creates. Think open the door for flexibility, for them to even before we have them. We have to of the difference this creates in the mind realize there are more options than to do think way down the line. If my end in view of a child compared to a day spent dosing the same thing their whole lives? One of at 80 is grandchildren running around my the cows. This creates a child who wants the ways was the apprenticeship program. feet, vying for who is going to spend the to be there. This provids camaraderie, an opportunity day with granddad, I don’t start that when How do we transfer this awe and revfor our kids to teach, and assistance so the I’m 80. I started that 20 years ago. In fact, erence to the children? We study nature, kids are free to pursue other interests. it started a lot sooner than that with my asking, How did God set this up? We’re If you are going to have a building, then dad and mom. It’s a rich legacy. not asking some white-coated, post-holekeep generating cash through it with mulI mentioned aesthetics. How about sick digger-degreed person with some Montiple uses and species. Each species’ macows drinking out of the pond. You go by santo grant to tell us what’s wrong with nure concentrates a different enzyme. In and see cows with their nostrils up over our cows — to listen to them you wonder our bedding pack we have rabbit and the water. Then you wonder why they are how a cow existed before Monsanto and chicken; if we clean out a stable to two, sick and you’ve got to put them through Merck pharmaceuticals. Go out and talk we’ve got horse; and then there’s pig and the head gate. Then dad gets kicked and to the cows. Now I’m not talking about cow — five different manures, all with loses his religion in the head gate, shootsome mystical, metaphysical thing, but concentrated energies and enzymes. We ing the cows up with Ivomec, which makes you can tell a lot by gomake compost with “pigReprinted from the meat bad, but it kills all the bugs. We ing out there on a 5-galaerators.” Pig aerobics — have to do it when the cows are drinking lon bucket. These days, the pigs go into the bedout of a toilet bowl. I was driving down everybody looks at their ding pack after the cows the road once, and I watched cows in a cows at 40 miles per hour come out. It’s fun and pond. A cow was drinking out of one end from a pickup truck — June 2000 - Vol. 30, No. 6 - Cover Story sure beats a windrow and peeing out the other. And your kids that’s how we farm. And compost turner. We call are going to bring their friends home to if there is any problem, we buy the soluthem pigaerators because the pigs go in watch that? We have to think about what tion in a bag. and the compost comes out. we are doing. We have a fenced-out pond. The idea is that the building is used for Canada geese come and lay their eggs. The FIND A WORKABLE SYSTEM additional cash flow. Roll the wire up and kids get to go up and pick up those little Our cows leave their calling cards, and you put cows in, you put pigs in, lambs, goslings and put them back. The joy of we run the egg-mobile behind the cows. rabbits, pheasants, whatever. The point is
You have a biological pasture sanitizer, turning all the crickets and grasshoppers and parasites into cash, and keeping the cows out of the head gate — which keeps dad’s religion from being lost. It really does completely change the paradigm. We have a feather net — portable electrified poultry netting. One person works seven hours a week on 3 acres and nets $15,000 a year through intensity of production. We sell about a thousand dozen eggs a week at $1.60 a dozen — pretty decent cash flow. Is there enough there for the next generation? You had better believe it. The chickens are happy; it’s beautiful; it’s aesthetic.
that you use it for a lot of different things. Then you have the kind of enterprise that the children can be a part of; this is another key principle. BE GENEROUS WITH PRAISE It dawned on me recently, when I saw a statistic about how much time young people spend watching television and video games, how little opportunity there is for parents to praise kids for a job well done. But when that child is out there tending chickens or a garden spot, or pounding in some nails and they finally get one in, there are countless opportunities in a day to praise them and say, “Good job, keep at it, that’s great.” Think of the difference when there are opportunities to praise kids. We home school, and I can’t imagine not having those six hours a day to praise my children for accomplished tasks and jobs well done, for commitment, for perseverance, for personal integrity and strength of character. I wouldn’t give up those hours for anything. Our children are a special source of pride. People kept telling me when Daniel was little, “Oh, he’s great now, but you wait, he’ll be a pistol, you won’t be able to control him, and all kids go through rebellion.” But they were all wrong; it doesn’t get any better than this. And it’s not because I’m a great dad, it’s because we have time. People who say it doesn’t matter how much time you spend with your children, it is just the quality — it isn’t true. All we have is time. If we can invest it in these kids and allow them to have projects that provide opportunties to praise them, they will develop team spirit and involvement in the enterprise. A TASK-ORIENTED MIND-SET We pay our kids and we make sure we tell them exactly where the money came from — eggs, chicks or whatever. They tow the line. Rachel can raise a set of chicks, I guarantee you, better than anybody I know. One of the things that makes a difference is turning the work on the farm into a game. I’m working on a new book, Family Friendly Farming, and 10 chapters will be 10 commandments for making your kids love the farm. Basically it is loving what you do. In the natural system, kids want to do what mom and dad do. It is only in a really estranged, weird culture that kids don’t want to do what mom and dad do. One thing that works with kids is to
never have them do a task for a period of time. Nobody should get paid for putting in time. It completely changes the tasks if instead of saying, “Go do this for an hour,” we say, “Do this, and when you are done, you can play or get a treat.” This isn’t about cutting corners; the task still has to be done up to par. What a different psyche it gives the child, and they become taskoriented instead of time-oriented. Daniel was about 7 when he and a neighbor friend were building a fort. The neighbors came over and just carried on, “Man, that Daniel, he won’t stop for anything. He won’t even stop for lunch.” Well, we taught early on that you finish the job. He was in diapers and I’d be digging post holes and we’d get thirsty. I’d say, “Daniel, we’re not going to stop for a drink until we get this post hole in. We’ll reward ourselves with a drink.” He could hardly understand English, but that taught completion of job, perseverance to the end, reward only after it’s done. Work and then play. You’re going to pick beans? Turn it into a game of can I finish this row before you? Whoever finishes first gets an ice cream cone. You turn these jobs into a game and it takes the drudgery out of it. It’s all very child-friendly and fun. We’ve created farms so dangerous that when the children are small, we push them aside. Who is going to send their 4-yearold up to the confinement swine facility to check the pigs? There are 50 fans running, augers, PTO shafts, and we don’t want the kids to go up. So the kids don’t go up there, while dad and mom just keep going up there. The kids get involved in ballet, arcades and little league. The kids get about 13 or 14 and they’re lost because we haven’t fostered a child-friendly paradigm.
to learn how to butcher. Camaraderie and community spirit builds as all these hands work on task. It’s like recreating the old threshing room, the communal idea of working together in community, which creates an invigorating social structure. Instead of being isolated, the children are actually the center of a whole network of people who enjoy working together, who come together for a common cause, a common vision with a reverence for life. When it’s over, it’s over; there are sprint times and rest times. It is one of the beauties of this kind of farming that it is not the same thing day after day. When the chickens are done we can put turkeys in the pens. When it gets cold outside, we bring the chickens into the hoop houses and we run a pigaerator through. In the spring, we can grow tomatoes in the bedding to get multiple uses out of the hoop houses. We are stacking additional enterprises on the farm. Here’s a common scenario. Mom and dad run the farm. One of the kids says, “I’d like to be on the farm full time.” Dad says, “This farm will produce one salary but it won’t produce two.” Ever heard that? Yes, all over the place. So the kid goes off to college and gets a job. Now we fast forward. It’s Thanksgiving, and the kids are all home, and dad says, “Your mom and I are slowing down a little. I don’t get off and on that tractor like I used to. I’d like for you to come back.” And the kid says, “Well, there was a time I wanted to come back, but I’ve got four promotions. I have 10 people working under me and a 401K plan. I’ve got four weeks of paid vacation and paid medical. The kids are involved with soccer and little league. I have too much invested to back up.” Now we fast forward 10 more years and mom and dad A CHILD-FRIENDLY FARM are about 80, 82, maybe one of them is We have pastured poultry. This is all fun. gone. What happens to the farm? That sceIt’s work that children can do and you don’t nario gets repeated how many times have to worry about them. We dress our around the countryside? What we need birds on the farm. There now are paradigms for Reprinted from again, butchering chickens additional enterprises. — what drudgery. Not for us. I gut them and Daniel, SUSTAINABLE when he was 7 or 8, did all FARM SYSTEMS this other stuff. You know June 2000 - Vol. 30, No. 6 - Cover Story What we have are what his goal was? His poultry, cows, pigs, turobjective was to cover dad up. So the whole keys — multiple stacking enterprises. morning turned into a game where I’m tryThey are all complementary, symbiotic ing to stay ahead. Now he can cover me up and synergistic. We’ve taken that acre of three-fold. That task turned into a game that land and instead of producing $200 or created fun and joy. $300, we produce $4,000 to $5,000 per People come from around the country acre. There are new, complementary en-
Raising chicks is Rachel’s domain. She has unique talents and projects of her own, but when it comes to taking care of the little ones, she is peerless. terprises so the next generation can build white-collar salaries on the land and infrastructure that mom and dad have. Eighty percent of the capital in American agriculture is owned by people over 60. What we need are partnering-type techniques to let the next generation access that land base. So we have multiple uses, multiple benefits off of that existing land, a link to the land and to the customer and retail person. These people will look your children in the eye and say, “I sure hope you keep this tradition, because our family depends on you for our health.” Can you imagine what that does, to give a child a sacred calling? They don’t say mom and dad aren’t doing anything important. No. It inculcates them early with a sacredness and reverence for a ministry and a mission, a life worth living. A sacred call, a sacred duty — let’s not deny them that. A big vision, a wonderful presentation, a statement, and a life of conviction that we are something, we believe in something and we are passionate about something. We go to the farmers market and show people the difference between our egg and the fecal egg. We want to draw lines of distinction. It is not just a matter of shades of gray; there is right and wrong. We draw that distinction. We call them “our eggs” and the “salmonella eggs”; it’s very clear. Rachel takes her zucchini bread to the market, and one can imagine what it does for her when someone says, “Oh, are you the Rachel’s Famous Zucchini Bread that fed my garden club last week? They all loved it.” What do you think that does for her? Do you think she’s going to want to quit making zucchini bread? No, indeed, she wants to go till up the “back forty” in zucchini. This is a noble cause. SHARE THE RICHNESS So often we farmers sell ourselves short. We do not allow our children ac-
cess, philosophically and emotionally, economically and aesthetically. We don’t transfer this sacred baton to them so they get the big picture. If we devote ourselves to excellence, then that is a noble calling. We can devote ourselves to beauty as landscape architects, as nurturers of the creation that God has entrusted to us, rather than as rapists and pillagers of the land. We have bad days, and it is not all perfect. But as we devote ourselves to excellence, with the end in view, the sun does come out. We can keep that reverence and that awe open for them and create financially rewarding opportunities so that when the kids are 18, instead of saying, “Man, I’m out of here,” they say, “Leave? This is paradise on earth, why would I ever want to leave?” We can talk about soil, genes or marketing, but if we don’t take a holistic view to create a paradigm that’s aesthetically, emotionally, and economically enhancing enough to romance the next generation into farming, we are wasting our time. Teresa and I are creating young, virile, enthusiastic spirits to overtake that countryside and to take off where we leave, where our parents leave, and to protect that niche of God’s creation for generations to come. That’s creating the farm our children will want. That is the ultimate sustainability, the ultimate reproduction, the ultimate rejuvenation. It’s the farm of the 21st century. It is beautiful and everybody can play a part.
The Salatin family operates Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. Joel Salatin is the author of Salad Bar Beef, Pastured Poultry Profits, and You Can Farm, all available from Acres U.S.A. Copyright © 2000 Acres U.S.A. All rights reserved.
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