Book Review: You Can Farm

Anyone considering moving onto a farm should put You Can Farm – The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and Succeed in a Farming Enterprise by Joel Salatin on their list of books to read.  This book is written for, in Joel’s words: “wannabes, the folks who actually entertain notions of living, loving and learning on a piece of land”.  The question the book addresses is simply “Is it really possible for me?”.  Whilst this book was written 20 years ago and in a North American context, it remains especially relevant today

This book explains what you need to consider if you want to make a living from a farm, as opposed to living on a farm.  Joel Salatin believes that the opportunities for farm entrepreneurs have never been greater, especially as people look for alternatives to industrial agriculture, and seek ethical, and healthier choices.

The other reason to read this book is it will help you develop a farm model, especially if you need to to secure finance to purchase your farm.

Joel takes us on a journey through his farm enterprise, which is a polyculture set up.  Ironically this is nothing new – however his farm looks more like a farm you would have found in the 1950’s.  As agriculture has moved towards mono-culture, and high input / high output models, Joel asks whether all this is really necessary.  His enterprise is run on ‘threadbare efficiency’, and uses many innovative (cheap) solutions to enhance production.  It is full of practical advice, with an astute business mind driving the process.

Joel opens the book sharing his philosophy about farming, so you can understand his perspective.  He also recognises that the reader may not share his views entirely, however that doesn’t mean you should stop reading. Rather it sets the context for the book.  Some of Joel’s fundamental principles are “Environmentally enhancing agriculture”.  The term today is Regenerative Agriculture – but as Joel’s book was written in 1998, that term hadn’t been coined yet.  He strongly believes in using seasonal production cycles to boost efficiency and to develop bio-regional food security.  His enterprise is based on humane animal husbandry and building soil and bio-diversity.    He does not believe in the high input farming models that chain farmers to corporate fertiliser, seed and crops where the farmer holds all the risk for the corporate giants.  Joel is all about family friendly agriculture.  These are all values that I share and partly why I really enjoyed his book so much.

One of Joel’s lessons is that if you want the make the farm your life, you have to embrace it.  The farm is every part of Joel and his family’s life – they have made a conscious decision to live as much as possible on the farm.  They don’t spend their weekends socialising or chasing kids sports in town.  The kids are involved in animal husbandry duties and are fully involved in the enterprise.

Joel also recognises that many people move to the country for a lifestyle.  And that is fine.

This book has made me think about the Rock Farm.  It helped me realise that our operation is very different from Joel’s.  There are many reasons for this.

  • We live under an hour from some of the best schools in the country and we value the education opportunities these provide for children.  We acknowledge that until our children finish high school and the associated music, sport and social activities that go on with that, we will spend a lot of time commuting to the big smoke.
  • The Rock Farm is a choice made by Jo and I to live here.  Our children are here by default, but they did not make the choice to live on a farm.  They love playing in the paddocks, building forts, riding their motor-bikes and making mischief, however the choice to live here was not theirs.  We get them to help out on the farm, especially when working stock or chipping weeds, but they have their own interests to pursue.
  • I am extremely fortunate to have a job that I really enjoy and I work with some inspiring people.  I enjoy working in a close knit team and I really enjoy the interactions I have at work. I know I would miss that aspect of my life if I was to leave it entirely.
  • Being close to a large centre, our land value is not based on farm production opportunity like most farmland throughout the world.  This means our investment in the Rock Farm is more about real-estate than farming potential.  This was brought home when I stumbled on a study conducted by our local council, that determined the ideal block size in our area was 20 acres, and 15 minutes commute from town.  Every minute extra on the commute reduced the property value and every additional acre suffered diminishing returns.

Whilst there are many aspects of our farm that are different, this book has also opened my eyes to many opportunities that exist on the Rock Farm.  It has made me realise there is comfort in threadbare efficiency and helped me look at ways to maximise the return on my effort.  It has helped me crystallise what the Rock Farm is and how we can love and nurture it and help regenerate it into a productive and healthy farm.

This book has also given me confidence that when I am ready to stop working in town, there are opportunities here, even on our small patch of earth, to make a red hot go of things.  If you have the slightest inkling that you too might want to live in the country, then make sure you read You Can Farm – The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and Succeed in a Farming Enterprise by Joel Salatin..

ISBN: 0-96381909-2-8

Book Review -Millpost, a broadscale permaculture farm since 1979

I have taken advantage of the cold weather and re-visited an inspirational book written by David Watson about his experience running a permaculture operation on his family farm.  Millpost is the name of the Watson’s farm, and David takes us on a journey through the many facets of the farm, and shows how permaculture principles have been put in place.  David and his wife Judith implemented permaculture principles on their farm in 1979.  They enlisted David Holmgren to help draw up a whole farm plan in 1994.  David Holmgren was one of the co-founder’s of permaculture in Australia.

Permaculture isn’t a term often applied to broadscale farming operations.  These days you might term it “Regenerative Agriculture” but digging beneath the surface, the aims of permaculture and regenerative agriculture are often very similar.  The Watson’s farm is near Bungendore, which is similar country and climate to the Rock Farm.  Whilst their operation is much larger than ours, it was the first time I had read a book where someone was able to put permaculture into practice on a large grazing property.

What I really liked about David’s book is that he has broken down many facets of the farm’s operation into specific chapters.  From the commercial aspects of the farm with superfine merinos, to the vegetable gardens, tree plantings and chickens, David shares how they make the various aspects work for their family in a permaculture setting.

From David’s analysis of his experience, he has developed several simple lessons.  For example: “Lesson No. 11: Work out which species are suited to your soil before mass planting anything.”  Seems like common sense really, but the words are borne out of years of planting any and all types of fruit and nut trees.  Some species have done really well, but the hot dry summers and brutally cold winters mean that not all trees survive.  Walnuts apparently are one species that doesn’t thrive in this area, with some 30 year old trees barely 3 metres tall and having never borne any nuts.

David’s advice is based on experience and is extremely practical, based on years of following his permaculture plan.  We share many of the challenges with Millpost.  One such problem on the Rock Farm is our serrated tussock weed.  I am coming to realise, like David, that I will need to use chemicals to bring the tussock under control.  Once the tussock is in manageable quantities, I hope to be able to continue chipping out any patches as they occur, like they now do on Millpost.

Why am I so keen to avoid the use of chemicals on the Rock Farm?

It’s simple really.  We eat our own products, and we feel that if our soil is healthy, then our livestock have the best chance at being healthy too.

If you are looking for more information on Millpost, and to purchase some of their superfine wool products, visit the Millpost Farm website here:  https://www.millpostmerino.com/millpost

Millpost, a broad scale permaculture farm since 1979 by David Watson, 2018.  ISBN 978-0-646-98482-7

 

Cutting Edge Tech on the Rock Farm

These school holidays are fast upon us – and the weather this weekend is bitterly cold and windy.  Perfect weather to be inside and making the most of the new heating system on the Rock Farm (see – keeping-warm-part-1).

We have enjoyed a nice break from the endless running around chasing kid’s school, sport and music commitments.  Instead we have caught up with family and friends and tried hard to do nothing…  It has been a pleasant change to actually read a novel.

But not all has been quiet.  An almost constant whirring and beeping has been coming from the the study nook.  It has been emanating from the latest tool on the Rock Farm.  Unlike the majority of tools here that are old style and barely changed over the past 50 years or so, this one comes from the other end of the spectrum.  It is our very own 3D printer.

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The (not so) Little Fisherman received a box of parts a while ago, and eagerly started putting them together.  They were remarkably complex, and I started to feel a little bewildered as he tackled his task with enthusiasm.  Disaster struck though, when he lost the instructions when he didn’t shut down his computer properly.  A few months of emails back and forth requesting another copy of the assembly instructions with Chinese manufacturer who mis-understood our requests entirely.  Eventually we gave up and took a punt plugging in the last couple of wires.  Thankfully Murphy was on our side that day, and the printer came alive and successfully printed its calibration cube.

Since then, I have been amazed at the progress.  Within a week, the (not so) Little Fisherman had stopped downloading designs from the internet and had started making his own creations.  Initially plenty of catapults, trebuchets and other mini-weapons of mass destruction were crafted by the printer as we learnt it’s capabilities.

And then I thought it was about time to start harnessing this unbridled enthusiasm for good… and asked the (not so) Little Fisherman to design and make for me a  new gear knob for the tractor.  A simple round knob was required, with a central hole to fit over the metal linkage.  It had been long missing from the tractor, but proved to be a good exercise, particularly in the precision required for measurement.  We used a vernier caliper to measure the precise diameter for the central hole, and it fit perfectly.  I was very impressed.

And I quickly put the tractor to work tidying up the garden.

But the next challenge is proving to be a bit more difficult.  Somehow I had also managed to break the centrifugal dust bowl filter…  The (not so) Little Fisherman initially baulked at the size and shape of the problem – but has managed to come up with a design.

He has spent a fair bit of time measuring and even trialled the construction of a torus of revolution for the base to ensure he had it exactly right.   Don’t worry – I had to google the name of it when he told me he had made a torus!

The only problem is that this is a particularly large and complex build.  The print time will be around 55 hours – if only I can hold my breath that long, I can’t wait to see what the little machine will produce!

The best part is that I am in good hands.  I now have a talented young man who is learning skills to repair old and worn out items with good-as-new parts.  I feel excited to be part of this new technology that will allow us to repair many more items previously considered beyond saving.  This cannot help but contribute to reducing our footprint on this precious planet.

A large part of our choice in living on the Rock Farm was to give our children a well rounded education, with academic opportunity tempered with responsibility to care for the land and livestock.  It is a constant juggling act, balancing the competing interests of their schooling, our work and their real education of life and how they can make a difference in this world.  Giving a child opportunities to pursue their interests is the wish of most parents and I am immensely proud of this fellow and his first steps into the future.

 

A lesson on leadership – taught by a calf

On the Rock Farm this winter we have a six month old calf that was a bit of a bonus when he was born.  Unexpected, he was a delightful surprise that has grown into a healthy and strong steer of around 200kg.

He is now old enough to be weaned, and the (not so) Little Helper decided his school holiday project was to break the calf into halter.  We did point out to him that whilst it was our responsibility to give him the best life we could, ultimately his purpose is to be processed into beef…  We agreed that we wouldn’t do this on our place.

Having not broken a calf in before, we had to seriously consider our strategy.  My young son decided he wanted to follow some of the principles he had seen in action at The Man From Snowy River Breaker’s Challenge over the past couple of years.

I think Mum (with the white face) is enjoying the weaning process too!

Whilst a horse is a different beast entirely from a calf, we really liked the way the horsemen harnessed the horse’s natural strengths and worked with them.  We decided that we wanted to develop a relationship with the calf where the behaviour we wanted was easy for the calf to do, and the behaviour we didn’t was hard.

Lesson One: Consistency – your words have to match your actions

As you can’t use words, you have to be entirely focused on what your body language says to the calf, now named Moo.  It really makes you think about what you are asking him to do.  And when he doesn’t do what you want, it is usually because you have put your body, or your arms, or even your eyes in the wrong place.

The young fellow is moving the calf away from him using old horse whips as extensions of his arms

It is an entirely pure response. You can’t hide anything.  And your actions have to match your intentions.  If you want him to turn towards you, you have to really think about what you are asking him to do.  Remember you have to reward the behaviour you are seeking.

Lesson Two – Assertive, not aggressive

You must be assertive and assume to role of leader of his herd.  It is essential for your safety with a calf that weighs 200kg and is immensely strong.  We were very keen for Moo to turn towards us instead of away from us.  This is to keep his back legs away from us (where he could take a kick if he felt threatened).  By using rods as extensions of our arms, we were able to project our body language onto him at a safer distance.  We kept asking and putting pressure on him until he did what we want.  Soon he would recognise what we were asking and turn towards us most times.

Being the leader of the herd, you have a responsibility to meet the calf’s needs.  We had to step up and meet his need for safety, for belonging, for shelter, food and water.  By  meeting his needs, we are fulfilling his requirements to be part of a herd (even if we look different to him)

Lesson Three: Make the good behaviour easy and the stuff you don’t want hard

The calf naturally didn’t want to be with us at all.  He moved away from us and sought refuge by sticking his head in corners of the yards.  This behaviour was not what we wanted, so we continued to put pressure on the calf by moving towards him and making him keep moving away from us.

Until he stopped – and looked at us.  As soon as he did what we wanted, we stopped and took the pressure off.  And it was amazing how quickly he worked out that stopping and looking at us gave him the reward of us stopping the pressure – and lunch.

As soon as he did what we wanted, we stopped and rewarded him with a break

Each day we worked gently with Moo for around 15 minutes or so.  It only took a couple of days and we were able to put the halter on him.  The same principles applied – the pressure stopped as soon as he did what we wanted.  It didn’t take him long to work out that following us around was the best way to stop the pressure.  We modified his natural behaviour to generate the behaviours we were looking for, than trying to break his will.

Lesson Four: You have to be mentally ready

A couple of times the (not so) Little Helper and I were tired and not in the head space to enter the yard with Moo.  It was almost instantly apparent that we were not achieving any progress.  The best action to take was to stop the session and come back when we had mentally prepared to put our best foot forward.

Lesson Five: Mistakes are OK

We made plenty of mistakes.  And it wasn’t a problem.  If we put ourselves in the wrong place, Moo’s behaviour would let us know.  It wasn’t that he was doing the wrong thing, often we were.  The main part was to look at what we were asking and reflect on how we should approach the problem differently.  Often it was that we were looking at his shoulder instead of his flank – and once we understood what we were doing from the calf’s point of view it was easy to change.

What does it mean?

Training a calf has been a great opportunity to reflect on how we treat each other and are treated.  When you enter that yard, you have to be the strong leader that the calf is looking for… and you can’t hide behind clever words.  The calf reflects your behaviour in the purest sense, as all he responds to is your body language.  You have to be firm, consistent and look for ways to make it easy for the calf to do what you want.

Unfortunately at Christmas time or so, Moo will be sold.  It will be a sad day on the Rock Farm for which I hope the (not so) Little Helper will forgive me.