Polyface Farm: Ethics-Based Anti-Wall Street Contrarian Business Practices

The guiding principles developed by Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm have made the business both successful and ethical.


| May 2012



Happy-Cows

Polyface Farm 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.

Fotolia/AF

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.” 

No sales targets

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.”

No trademarks and no patents

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.

Set a clearly defined market boundary

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.”

Use an incentivized autonomous workforce

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.





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