The guiding principles developed by Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm have made the business both successful and ethical.
A quiet revolution is taking place: People across the United States are turning toward local food, but this revolution comes with challenges. Reclaiming Our Food (Storey Publishing, 2011) tells the stories of people across America who are finding new ways to grow, process, and distribute food for their own communities. Polyface Farm is a self-described “Family-owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.” Learn more about the farm and how owner Joel Salatin has turned it into a success story in the following excerpt from the chapter “Sustainability: Food for the Long Term.”
A classic business might set a goal for selling a thousand widgets every month. And then it strives to create markets to achieve that target. Polyface Farm has decided never to set a sales target. A classic business model might suggest that Polyface should set a target to expand by 2015 to supply three Chipotle restaurants. Polyface takes a different attitude. If Chipotle wants Polyface products, then Polyface will try to figure out how to supply it, but Polyface won’t be pushing and grasping for that expanded market. “This really changes the way you perceive your product,” Joel Salatin explains. “If sales increase, that will be a by-product of good service, good product, and good stewardship — as opposed to us grasping for additional sales.”
If a model can work for somebody else, Salatin says, “we are not going to circle the wagons and protect our knowledge base, our information base, our customer base.” People can come, learn, and go next door and start a competing business. Salatin says their attitude of transparency and openness to competition will protect them from inordinate growth. “If this [attitude] were true in the U.S. marketplace, the big companies would not have gotten so big,” Salatin says.
Define your market and stick with it. This practice focuses your attention on serving your market, as opposed to building an empire. Salatin suggests that the moment you shift focus from quality to quantity is when you risk losing your business soul. “The day you aspire to become the biggest player on the block is the day you begin disrespecting other players,” he says.
Polyface Farm has defined its market by geography and time: a one-way four-hour drive from the farm. This represents a comfortable distance for making a delivery and returning home the same day. No mail orders, no distant bulk deliveries. Salatin recalls that Michael Pollan visited Polyface Farm only because Salatin refused to ship him a T-bone steak. The rest is history: Pollan featured Salatin as a star of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, propelling Polyface Farm into the national limelight. “Never underestimate the good things that can happen when you establish a business conviction and then stick with it,” Salatin says. People want to patronize businesses that are driven by values, and being values-driven will provide a clarity and emotional freedom that is “palpable.”
Joel Salatin likes to call the farm staff a team. And as Polyface grows, instead of growing employees, it wants to grow a team of autonomous collaborators. Salatin has chosen the word “autonomous” carefully. Autonomy means not complete independence but collaboration, with each collaborator able to decide how much or little he or she wants to do. Incentivized means no salaries, and each collaborator’s earnings are directly proportional to production.
“I especially dislike hourly wages because it’s so hard to measure either success or performance,” says Salatin. “It’s very subjective. It becomes my word against your word.” He tells me the story of a blue-collar worker he met at a local copper fittings manufacturing plant, who was being paid by the piece and “going like a one-armed paper hanger.” This man was earning $60 per hour, and that’s what Salatin calls “incentivized.” The man could choose to work hard and make an extraordinary income — or not.
Growing a business through huge cash infusions can compromise quality, innovation, and the valued relationship with your intended market. Salatin believes a business should seek creative ways of financing its growth through local relationships — investors who know and care. This kind of slower, organic growth is more sustainable and helps businesses avoid growing too fast and losing sight of their core values. “Meteoric rises usually result in meteoric falls,” Salatin says, “so beware fast cash and the imbalance it usually creates.”
Again, the idea that no money should be spent on advertising flies in the face of standard business wisdom. But Salatin argues that advertising runs counter to the Polyface Farm mission. If customers come only because of word of mouth, then it forces Polyface to make its customers happy. Instead of spending money to tell people how great Polyface products are, “we completely walk by faith in our customers that they will evangelize for us,” says Salatin. “We cast ourselves on their recommendations for where this business goes.” Polyface would rather depend entirely on word of mouth, as a way of ensuring that the farm never sacrifices quality.
Healing the land is a mission that requires sustainability. Polyface believes a healthy farm producing healing food is able to manage its own waste in productive ways, on-farm, and this clearly defines a farm’s carrying capacity. Salatin argues that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) violate this principle by generating excess waste that the farmland cannot metabolize and must be transported off-farm. The simple decision of refusing to haul manure or waste anywhere motivates Polyface to devise creative solutions for managing animal manure in ways that support healthy land, animals, and community.
A second aspect of ecological carrying capacity encompasses the broader community. Polyface believes that a healthy farm producing healing foods will also support the ecology of its local community. Salatin believes that industrial processing plants “destroy the community ecology” when poor working conditions and low pay mean the industry must rely on low-paid foreign workers who often require additional support from the community.
Polyface believes that a healthy farm doesn’t externalize costs to society; it doesn’t create environmental damage, increase risks of food safety, or increase a social burden on a community.
Polyface Farm is committed to never having a robot answer the phone. Joel Salatin believes the human touch is not only more personable and satisfying for a customer-oriented business, but it also can be more efficient than the fancy answering systems that annoy and alienate people. He argues that farmers are in the relationship business and that Westerners are starved for human contact. “Shame on me if I shortcut this human touch and force my patrons to talk to a robot,” he says.
The Polyface team rejects the idea that life should be a treadmill. It believes in following the rhythms of nature, allowing the farm work cycle to reflect this natural ebb and flow. Polyface seeks to balance three seasons of intense work with one season of rest and recharging. “The assumption that scaling up the corporate ladder requires us to sacrifice our families and marriages is an unrighteous, evil axiom in America,” Salatin says. The joy in farming is lost when it becomes a 24/7 operation with no seasonal respite. Salatin believes this is why so many industrial-scale farmers discourage their children from staying on the farm — it’s no way to live. Polyface faces great pressure to scale up, become the new “Tyson” of pastured poultry, producing chickens year-round. But this would shift the farm into a year-round treadmill. Salatin advises businesses to build in breathing time and create time for rest and recreation.
“How many businesses have grown up to be very lackadaisical big business? A lot!” says Salatin. He explains that his family doesn’t ever want customers to come buy their food just because of the brand name. Polyface is proud that the quality of its chicken and beef is better today than it was years ago, even as production increased from 300 to 20,000 broilers and from 20 to 500 cows. Striving for continual improvement in healing the land will drive continual improvements in producing healing food. This is their bottom line: Always deliver quality food. Period.
Excerpted from Reclaiming Our Food (c) Tanya Denckla Cobb, photography by (c) Jason Houston used with permission from Storey Publishing. Purchase this book from our store: Reclaiming Our Food.
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