Joel Salatin: debt-free farming for beginners

| Farming, Small Farm Skills, Video | comments | Author :

Last summer, when Joel Salatin was at our farm, we asked him a question or two. The first one was: what’s your advice for young-uns who want to farm but don’t want to get into debt?

You see, at Milkwood Farm we’re very committed to positive balances. Positive natural balances, and positive (if only slightly) bank balances. In short, we want to figure out how to do mortgage-free regenerative farming, bit by bit, as our means allow. Can it be done? We hope so.

Debt-free farming is not very common. At all. We live in a culture that promotes debt and lines of credit, plus once you get into the serious side of industrial agriculture, unless you are wealthy you will be in debt in order to function. We dearly wanted to avoid getting into debt with a bank if we could possibly, possibly help it.

But the idea of debt free farming is more than just difficult to do, it’s difficult to comprehend. Debt-free farming is a different psycology entirely. You have to take things slow, constantly assess what you can and can’t do, and figure out how to make the best of what you’ve got.

Creating a regenerative system where you only go forwards as fast as your nest-egg allows means letting creativity, good design and careful management take prime position in your farming setup, as a matter of necessity. Which is a great way to approach farming! It’s just not the norm.

I think this approach actually places a bloody marvelous set of parameters on young farmers, rather than assume we will need to go into massive debt in order to begin farming well. The debt-free approach could drive you to create micro-enterprises that work, based on natural capital and natural economies: sunlight, biomass, soil life, biomimicry, resources available in the community, and good design, again and again and again.

A typical example of Joel Salatin style farming: one of their iconic and extremely effective ‘egg mobiles’ for their free-range laying hens. Very functional and very clearly made out of scrap

Well, it worked for Joel Salatin’s family, anyway. They started with a patch of land and no money, and used their own versions of permaculture, holistic management and many other complimentary design processes to create complex beneficial interrelationships between their enterprises and animal systems.

All of which reminds me of a statement I read by Banksy a long time ago, which (i’m paraphrasing) basically went: “start now. tonight. if you wait until you create the perfect stencil, you’ll never begin. You’ll only ever sit there at your desk-job, thinking about making street art.”

My point is that to create amazing street art, you need only the most basic of tools, creativity, passion and a good sense of the landscape around you (ie the streets). I think farming is not that different, in some ways. It’s about getting in there and starting with what you’ve got (however small), knowing and working with your landscape, and creatively building on what you love to do.

If you’d like to join us and Joel Salatin for his 2011 NSW workshop on how to create small, thriving regenerative agriculture enterprises, it’s coming up on 2nd August at Jamberoo.

Or if you’re outside NSW you could have a look at Joels’ other Aussie workshops as outlined at

Watch Milkwood: Joel Salatin on debt-free farming on Youtube.

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14 responses to “Joel Salatin: debt-free farming for beginners

  1. I really like this idea, and you know, I think more of us could use this idea outside of farming, in every day life, too. Do it the ‘old’ way and as you can afford it. It would certainly make an interesting difference to the world and a lot of people, I think!

  2. Interesting about the not committing yourself to large infrastructure etc up front, a similar approach is happening in Software development. Where before it was all plan up front it is now being changed to take small steps and see what works. It is seen as a solution to the uncertainty that the software world works in and it seems maybe the uncertain world farmers also work in. In software the process is called “Agile Development”.

  3. Certainly a good concept but readers and young keen first time farmers, need land, or a mechanism to have access to it. Land in areas worth farming in is very expensive. Perhaps you could add an article on mechanisms for getting access to land or buying it without going into debt. I doubt there are many that can buy 15 acres of viable farm land without going into dept ?

    1. agreed! The point i’m trying to make is as much about minimising debt, and game-shifting how you approach farming by minimising your outlays as it is about whether or not you go into any debt… if you know what i mean?

      that said, yes there needs to be more mechanisms for starting farming without owning land (actually, i’m drafting something currently) – and there are some, but there should be more…

    2. The important thing is to start actually farming, working on a farm or whatever and start making money farming on a small scale. If you are making money you can buy land, or keep renting and make even more money. In most places in North America there are thousands of small chunks of farm land not being used at all that can be rented or even just used for the benefit of you taking care of it, often even whole farms owned by elderly people who would be happy to help an enthusiastic young person get started. The big chemical farmers don’t usually pay much per acre to rent prime flat farmland, and you couldn’t pay them to farm a 5 acre piece at all as it’s not worth their while. Joel has shown how you can run chickens and even a few cows on what land you have, once you are making money you can expand to whatever size is comfortable. Where I’m at in Alberta Canada you can typically rent farmland for about 1/6 the mortgage payment of “buying” it. When you have a positive cash flow you can save your money and pay cash for what you can actually afford and really need. The idea that we have to own farmland in order to farm is a destructive societal dogma that we need to get beyond if we want to be successful farmers.

  4. I think the debt-free part comes into play once you have your land….to avoid the temptation to go for a shinier tractor, bigger home,and use your land and present resources to create a food surplus to fund the fences,water,stockyards,gardens & orchards.
    If you have no land and no money you can go to someone else’s farm and make it more productive than before and generate some income on a shared basis..there are a lot of people that say that farmers are not owners but stewards of the land…which implies that sharefarming or renting land
    is no different..however make sure you have TENURE so that your work and plans can afford to be far-sighted and not too short term 🙂

  5. I love this idea – unfortunatly in order to learn some of the skills you need you almost have to take out a bank loan to afford the workshops, books etc… $500 is a lot of money to someone on a pension. Still we will be coming to the field days to see what we can learn!!! Cant wait to meet the Milkwood Permaculture guys and have a chat!

  6. I read Joels book about 8 years ago (2005) and loved it. I have used many type tractors. My first one was pulled around by my atv for about 2 years before it finally collapsed and yes it was ugly but it raised about 80 birds I put in the freezer over that two years. The next one I built was a damaged 5x10x6ft tall dog kennel I bought at tractor supply for 1/2 price because it was damaged by a fork lift. I think it cost me 120.00 for cover and everything. That was 5 years ago and it is still strong today. I mounted it on 2 7/8inch pipe as skids. I bought 12 acres and a Mobile home for only 25grand have it almost paid for and now selling it for 4xs what I paid 10 years ago. Moving up in the world. Thank you Joel for your inspiration and raising my own meat has been a great thing.

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