I signed up for the You Can Farm workshop with Joel Salatin not because I have latent plans to become a farmer but, because I wanted to spend a day in the company of someone who has some real solutions for the quandary our food system is in. Salatin delivered. Who is he?
Joel Salatin is a farmer and the owner of Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Polyface is 450 acres mixed forest and open grazing land with a biodiverse livestock and soil management program. They provide food directly to 7000 families and 50 restaurants within a four hour radius of the farm. And, they’ve been featured in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the movie Food Inc.
Midway through the workshop day, I introduced myself to Salatin and asked him how much of my notes I could share. His response, “Share it all; I’m an open source.” He said this with a wide-open smile, we shook hands and I thanked him. Jefferson is not the only polymath to come out of Virginia. I got to meet his modern day contemporary.
This blog includes a short history of Polyface farm, the workshop group’s brainstorming session of why people want to farm, the pros and cons of doing so, a description of how to apply business principles to farming and lots of examples of how aggregate food systems could replace our current industrialized mega grocery supply structures. Salatin predicts the day when the middle man could be eliminated and all our fresh food could come directly to our doorstep via farming distribution cohorts.
Intrigued? Please read.
Here and There, Can and Can’t – Brainstorming a better vision of farming
A little background
If people sign up for a workshop, you might assume that they are coming with an open mind and willingness to try new things. Salatin’s experience is that people (maybe especially farmers) have a tendency to listen to good ideas and say, that’s great for you over there in Virginia but I can’t do it here because it’s too (insert your excuse – rainy, dry, hot, cold). He says despite excuses of why we can’t, we really can farm just about anywhere and make a good living too.
Salatin used his family’s settling in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia as an example. Today, Polyface is a glorious farm with an average soil depth of 18 inches. But, it wasn’t always this way.
Throughout history, the Shenandoah Valley has been a rainy. Salatin calls them toe-strangling rains. These wet lands were once filled with grasses that grew meters high. Those grasses held the eco-structure in place for millennia.
When European settlers brought the plough the natives said, “It turns the earth the wrong side up!” And, they were right. Ploughs caused erosion and took a big toll on the quality of soil throughout the land.
When the Salatin family came to the farm in 1961, they found that this previously very fertile area (archeological studies shown a soil depth of four feet) had lost almost all of its topsoil. Salatin’s Dad began to experiment with portable fencing and moving animals out of necessity. But, there was not even enough soil to sink a fence post. They had to improvise with cement poured in used tires to hold fences in place where they wanted them. Salatin’s father asked (and Salatin says that no matter where we are, we need to answer this question) how can I extend healing to this place? This one of the key questions his workshops address.
This history shows that Polyface had to overcome challenges. The Polyface over “there” in Virginia might not be so different from our “here” wherever that might be. Salatin thinks when we make excuses for our lack of action it’s because of the healing that needs to happen in our own heads, not just in our soil.
All farming enterprises have marketing, apathy and weather issues. But, they also have people, sunshine, water, temperature differences, plants and animals. Salatin asserts that farms and farmers the world over are more similar then dissimilar.
To begin a bit of healing and opening of the minds present at the workshop Salatin facilitated a brainstorming session. The questions posed helped people think about why they’d choose farming as an occupation in the first place. And then, how they might overcome obstacles to arrive at a better vision of farming.
Question 1 – Why do you want to farm?
The answers that came forth were all quite noble and included some of the following:
Connection with nature
Poop (manure and things that are good for the earth)
The good life
Reconnecting with food
Paying off the mortgage
Question 2 – Why aren’t people farming? Where’s the next generation? The average age of a farmer in North America is 60; give me the reason why farmers are this old?
Never made enough money to retire
They discourage their children to farm
They love it and don’t want to quit
Land rich and cash poor
Salatin’s analysis of current farming trends
Here’s what Salatin thinks is really going on with farming today. Answers to the first question reveal that farming attracts noble aspirations. People do it for all the right reasons.
Nobody ever says, “I farm to make money and for its profitability.” Salatin feels people approach farming like a vocation and not the agrarian business that it is. While this is noble, he pointed out that money is something farmers should start thinking about because everyone deserves a decent standard of living. Everyone likes to clothe their children and take their spouse out to dinner. Salatin shared his dream that part-time weekend farmers, homesteaders, backyard farmers, and green thumbs could all farm full-time by punching through the financial realities. He believes they should all be able to make a full-time “white collar” living at farming.
Answers to the second question alert us that agriculture needs to address the number of aging farmers. In any economic sector, when the average age is over 35, it is known as an economic sector in decline. Farming has not had an average age of 35 in a long time. In the next 10 years, 40 percent of the farm land in the developed world is going to change hands.
This is staggering because there’s not been this much land changing hands in Canada since the Dominion Lands Act. That act gave out 160 acre parcels of land totalling close to 500,000 square kilometres between 1896 and 1930. Now, if this land does not go to the next generation of family farmers what will become of it? The fecundity of our nation will suffer if it becomes yet another real estate bedroom community.
Farm land usually goes to children but farmers have convinced their children to leave their farms. Society praises technology and there is a belief that only “flunkies” stay on farms. Farmers are not viewed as agrarian architects structuring our soil to grow the food, the essence of life we are dependent on. Salatin only half-joked if there were a New York Stock Exchange ticker tape that streamed the number of earthworms in a farm’s healthy soil and the amount of water in their water table, would farmers get more credit for their importance in our world?
Another contrast between the two response lists is that nobody mentions money when you ask them why they want to farm but everyone lists money when we look at why no one is continuing to farm. Salatin pointed out something vital missing from both lists – relationship issues. He believes that if farmers were surrounded by a group of cheerleaders many issues could be solved. There’s a real independent spirit in farmers but a lot of pressures could be relieved with symbiotic sympathetic relationships.
Successful farms: conclusions from brainstorming
Farmers don’t apply astute business principles to their farms. Here’s Salatin’s list of what a farm that succeeds looks like:
Connected to community
Pride – why can’t farmers walk around like marines?
Less labour intensive
Some free time! – Polyface does not have any lights on our tractors!
The Importance of Daydreaming and developing a vision
Salatin then asked the group to take 60 seconds to daydream about and visualize their dream farm where money, time, family, and place are not issues. If you could have the place of your dreams, what would that look like?
Work-shoppers said there would be the following things:
Salatin praised the group for the health of their vision of what CAN be. He said that when a farm begins to utilize their vision they realize how under-utilized their resource base is.
“Most of us come with a sense of scarcity and an I CAN’T attitude. We have a big CAN’T. We need to start looking at what we CAN open up to and then we CAN start making a living.” He gave examples of a rose farm with one acre in Rhode Island that supports 5 people. Another example from Edmonton, Alberta is a woman with a business called On Borrowed Ground. She borrows land in 11 backyards, has not rent, no capitalization and she’s making a living. He reminded the group that Google and Microsoft actually encourage their people to daydream.
Salatin’s advice was don’t sit and think about what you can’t do. Concentrate on what you can do individually. Ask what can I do with what I have? “You’ve got flat prairie with access to water.” Salatin’s area of Virginia is hills and hollows. He had to build ponds and swails on the mountain on his land to conserve and restore water.
He suggests thinking about every tiny detail in your visualization. “Where do you see your animals?” He doubted anyone would see them in a CAFO – Centralized Animal Feeding Operation. No, nobody sees that in their dreams. People see animals in a green pasture. That shapes how the structure of a farm.
Functional flexible farms and a new vision
Farmers always need to think of function. Instead of getting obsessed with form and pre-conceived notions of a farm with a pretty barn, think about function instead. The little red barn is outdated. Polyface doesn’t have them because they make animals sick. No walled sheds are better. Function drives form. Not the other way around.
Salatin says farms need to take principles of functionality and apply them. He gave examples of water resilience and maintaining soil. He also suggested farmers get over idea you need to own the land.
“The farm that worked for these 60 year old farmers will not work for farmers now because the ratio of land worth to product worth has changed. What used to be 3:1 and now has a 50:1 production ratio. When you don’t buy the land and you rent or lease or squat, you can decrease the barrier of getting into farming, especially if you use function-oriented portable infrastructure.” With a “portable farm,” land ownership is not necessary. You can farm in nooks and crannies. Suddenly, buying land is not that big of deal. What’s needed is a relationship you can work with. Joel had no soil and in 50 years his soil is back to 18 inches depth.
A virtual tour of Polyface – a model of success
Polyface farm is a model that has not only succeeded but is redefining food production and distribution. Salatin says this about Polyface, “We believe in a web of connectedness. This is grounded in eastern philosophy, ethics and morality. We also take the best of western world’s technology and incorporate that to.”
Polyface has open land, forest and riparian water areas. Salatin believes that the more those areas can intersect the more balance there will be ecologically. This is because of the increased diversity these intersections produce. What follows are brief descriptions of the elements of Polyface farm.
Large single use capital equipment locks the next generation into using the same depreciating tools. Farmers become emotionally enslaved to their toys therefore they must think hard about the infrastructure they develop because what looks easy today might enslave them tomorrow.
Tools should have the benchmark of being equally adaptable and useful in developed and non-developed parts of world. Salatin provided the example of the battery and electric fence enclosures or guard dogs to protect chickens. Hoop houses are another repurposed structure or tool. In the winter Polyface houses rabbits, chickens and pigs together in hoop houses because they keep each other warm. In summer, the hoop houses are used to grow vegetables. He likes hoop houses because they are conducive to multi-species, there’s no down time for the buildings.
Farmers need to think about multiple uses for each structure on their farm. The sheds that house animals must have two, 21 day host free periods to reduce disease spread. Salatin’s animals are either vacated or a different species is put in. When pigs and cows come out, chickens can go in. Don’t dress things up. Buildings are sheds. NO sides.
Polyface has forest and because they needed to build ponds they cut some trees, sold firewood, added a mini sawmill and yielded lumber that is worth 10 times what selling the firewood is. With low capital embryo, they started up the mini sawmill. They also take a chipper and chip up branches so they can be self-reliant on carbon. They use them as bedding for animals in winter and add it to their compost with clean out.
Polyface built ponds, put in pipes and delivers water to animals via a gravity fed 80psi system.
Rain and surface water are collected so that the water table is not disturbed.
Portable umbrella like buildings with shade cloths reduce amount of water used by animals in summer. No one else in Virginia does this. Salatin’s becoming independent energy wise; his neighbours are becoming more dependent.
Polyface puts pigs on a half acre, moves them every three days with the help of electric fences, and gives them a fresh “salad bar” to graze on along with non-GMO grains. There’s a short period of disturbance and a long recovery. Innovation requires disturbance. The pigs disturb just enough land to allow the creation of healthy soils, grasses and pastures. Pigs in the forest lands create a fire disturbance and stimulate regeneration of soil and generation of plants.
Pigs and the “pigerator”
The pig house becomes a fertilizer factory. Pigs are part of the land healing “ministry” at Polyface. Salatin showed a slide with a dollar bill sitting on manure. He sees the incredible value of manure. All manure is saved and spread as nutrients by tractor in spring when sleeping soil is waking up and can use those nutrients.
Salatin says the equity of a farm should be in the management and information applied not the infrastructure. Management skills are not typically resources that have to be mortgaged. This reduces the barriers to entry.
He joked that anyone can grow canola but that it takes a lot of skill to make a compost pile work. He also joked about our culture being so enamoured with fertilizer when there’s a lot more sexiness going on in compost.
Cows on open land serve the herbivores traditional purpose of pruning
With an electric fence, the intersection of herbivore and forager are managed. Cows are viewed as fermentation tanks. Every day the herd is moved using electric fencing. The cows know they get a reward of fresh green grass and they move easily.
There are 80 cows on half an acre and 350 cattle on one and a half acres in summer. They don’t spread out. They move, mob and mow because they are herds that stick together. 80 cow days/acre is the average in Virginia. 400 cow days/acre is the average on Polyface because the principles they are using work. This is a 300 percent increase in efficiency and should be on front of NY Times because if the industrial system produced this it sure would be.
They follow the cows after each day’s move. They eat dung, maggots and spread out cow paddies with their feet. They are sanitizers and manure spreaders.
Polyface raises their turkeys with chicks. The chicks teach the turkeys how to survive at 5:1 ratio. At seven weeks they’re separated and kept in a portable turkey farm.
Polyface has the largest unvaccinated rabbit flock fed a forage base. One acre of grass fed rabbits is worth $40,000.
The Polyface approach is creating ballet in the pasture. They’re the choreographers of multi-speciation and their program is generating $10,000/ acre. They can afford to hire help. They now lease eight additional farms.
Other enterprises they have at Polyface include the following things:
Raw milk jersey dairy operation
Horticulture – market gardens
Shitake mushroom growing in a damp, shady, wet spot
On farm chef – for all interns
Shop and on-farm store to sell products to visitors
Tours – these give visitors a visceral understanding – non-zoo way to connection
Food fares – sausages on sticks – Salatin jokes that he loves vegetarians because once they find out the best way to heal the planet is to use pastured pork they binge to make up for lost time.
The Application of Business Principles to Farming
Salatin’s four-legged stool model for running your agricultural business
1 – Production
2 – Processing
3 – Distribution
4 – Marketing
In a balanced model of business, each of the four legs accounts for about 25 percent of a business’s activities. Most farmer’s money comes 100 percent from production. But, that is the leg that is most affected by vagaries like rain, climate and pest.
Production is what farmers love to talk about. And, it’s what they’re rewarded for. Farmers love to complain about the middle man making all the money. Salatin thought, “If middleman makes all the money, I want to be one.” He says farmers need to get off their one-legged stool and add the other three legs to diversify their income streams.
Salatin used the example of adding a commercial kitchen for value-added products. This helps farmers deal with risk and can actually drop the amount of production needed. The more dollars loaded into the other legs of the business model, the more insulation from risk the farmer faces. Salatin makes more money off 100 hogs then CAFO’s make with 1000 because of the value-added activities Polyface undertakes like sausage making and bacon curing.
Salatin gave his kids their own fiefdom. His daughter has a zucchini to bread enterprise
His son’s project was rabbit breeding. Farmer’s should look at what they’d like to buy but that they can’t get/find. Then, ask the question, what can I offer that no one else is doing? Salatin’s neighbour’s apple orchard is now selling $60,000, most of his crop, as juice. Price is important.
Price varies business to business. To determine a starting point at Polyface, Salatin visited competition to see what they charged. It’s important to know what products cost.
Salatin also did time and motion studies and set benchmarks for how long each job takes. For example, he learned it takes 30 minutes to put away 30 dozen eggs. He set a standard price for his labour. He also suggested farmers ask what they want to get paid. He uses the rule of thumb that if 20 percent of customers complain about the price then the price is not high enough. If 50 percent of customers complain then, prices really are too high and farmers may need to look at efficiency. If someone doubts the value of a farmer’s product, farmer’s can call them out.
Every farm has a different marketing strategy. Polyface started with 100 percent on-farm sales. People had to order it and come and get it. Now that’s only 30 percent of sales. They found they had a much more harried and hurried clientele and they had to change.
Ways Polyface Developed Their Market
1. Examples – Sampling was needed to help convince people to change brands and try something new. People are not very experimental. They like routine and aren’t innovative for buying and cooking habits. A free sample works wonders in convincing people to make a switch.
2. Education – Salatin spent time presenting slide shows at every kind of community outing – Kiwanis, secretaries, boy scouts. He put together a slide show to explain how his approach could heal the planet.
3. Evangelism – Where did you hear about us? When he could track a referral to an existing customer/cheerleader he rewarded that person by offering them something on the house. They turned into evangelists for his business. “Our culture is starved for a little appreciation. People are tired of being beeped at.” 80 percent of new business still comes from personal recommendations. He also said, “It’s much easier to find 100 people to spend $1000 with you then 1000 to spend $100.” Once you get people in the door for one thing they’ll buy lots more stuff. The hard part is getting the customer in the first place. In marketing, this is called bounce back. How do we take the investment that customer has made and reward them and get them to invest more? Easy, have more than one thing for them to buy – diversify.
Salatin says that marketing equals leverage. Many are afraid of marketing. The idea of cold calls, samples and consumer education scares them. He says, “If so, you need to hire someone else and give them a 15 percent commission on sales. You don’t have to do it but, you need to understand the stability it will give your business.”
Restaurants are 35% of Polyface sales
Salatin broke into this market by calling chefs. “I have the world’s best eggs and I’d like to bring you some to try,” was his hook.
He has never been turned down by a chef ever. Chefs love to hear about a new thing. First, he called six because that’s what he could fit in between deliveries. Chefs love that he is marketing quality product versus marketing something because it’s cheaper. With those first six calls, even though his eggs were 3.5 percent higher in price and he asked cash on the spot, he got four of the six possible accounts.
He says even though this was a great success he still cursed the other two because like all farmers he felt too close to his product and couldn’t believe they rejected it. It was almost like a part of him was being rejected. Humans are hard wired psychologically to remember what stops us and that’s why he thinks it’s great to take on a salesperson to buffer this effect.
Notes on Distribution
Farmers need to organize a delivery charge as part of pricing otherwise they end up absorbing the cost and, it costs them a lot. Polyface has a delivery charge with a ceiling.
Polyface are not at Farmer’s Markets
Salatin’s experience is that every market has board setting rules about what the farmer can bring. They circle the market and protect it. Many markets won’t let any new vendors in. They are often held at times when people nobody wants to shop. They are often in the worst part of a city. Cities view them as way to gentrify a really bad part of city. Products are speculative. Customers often aren’t coming to buy food, they’re coming to socialize and look good. They’re nibblers nibbling around the edge of food movement. They aren’t ordering a bushel for canning.
Salatin would like farmers’ markets if they had a big building and you got a cart and shopped. And, farmers could just deliver their products and let the money be handled at a cash register at the end.
Comments on CSAs or box schemes
Though CSAs create loyal customers they’re cumbersome and the customer has to take what’s in the box. The ugly truth is 50 percent of customers quit after one season. People want to cherry pick what they want, when they want it and on their turf. The farmer wants to stay home and produce the food.
The Metropolitan Buying Club Solution
This concept started when four women who were “food searchers” found Polyface. They came down once a quarter and spent $800. They said, we have friends that can’t come to you. What would it take for you to come to us?
Salatin said, if you get $3000 in orders I’ll come. One of those ladies had huge connections and so the buying club was started. Salatin pays a delivery person a base salary plus incentives. The buying club uses electronic aggregation software spearheaded by Amazon.com
They have taken tech developed for globalization and co-opted it for localization. They charge this group a flat delivery charge and the reason for delivery charges is to separate it out and see if they are covering expenses. The hosts of each cost centre or buying club centre are within four hours. Food is dropped at the host’s private homes. Polyface visits eight times per year. Customers can see whole inventory everything from a dozen eggs to a half side of beef online. They see when the order opens and closes. Everything going to the city on truck is pre-sold. The drop zone host hands over the cheques and empty boxes are thrown back on the truck. Electronic aggregation and economies of scales come from collaborative food clusters like he has organized with his neighbour’s farms and his intern’s enterprises.
Salatin feels supermarkets are old school since we now have smart phones. He gave an example of a virtual supermarket on subway wall in Korea. Commuters scan QR codes on the wall of things they want to buy while they wait for their train. The info is uploaded and auto chosen by a robot in a warehouse which bundles their order and has it delivered to their door by time they get home!
Polyface is creating their own food cluster – juice, meats, and vegetables. They put everything on their website – selling in 24 – 48 hours. They’re looking at working with a warehouse to take electronic orders, pick up the goods, aggregate them, and deliver them. In order to actually meet their internet customers, they host agri-tainment experiences on the farm – $100.00 gets you a two hour tour with lunch.
Salatin can see a future for small farm aggregators. If they had 100 farms to stop at with farmers setting prices, then every week the farmer posts the price and inventory and the aggregator takes the price and adds a percentage. The aggregator takes preorders. The system is not speculative. They would sell for less than “Gucci” organic stores.
Building the Team with Wholistic Management
“If you are afraid of hiring, contracts, and lawyers than you may be more afraid of success than failure,” says Salatin. If you want to be successful in business than you need a few accessory bodies and brains. Give employees incentives.
The buying club hosts get 10 percent off when buying their own groceries. If a drop zone does not generate over $8000 per year, they’re dropped. Incentives are also provided for referrals. Incentives for loyalty give a business huge leverage and everyone likes to be acknowledged for their contribution.
Salatin told the group, “I’ve never been alone.” He feels the biggest reason farms fail is a difference of opinion on the team which comes out covertly through hidden agendas. “Assumptions and silent expectations kill the business. These need to be vocalized.” He recommends a wholistic management approach where you create your mission statement and reconcile differences. You can read more about the principles that guide Salatin’s team at Polyface here.
Businesses need to put taboo subjects out in the open. “You want to achieve harmony but first you need to cause a disturbance. The disturbing conversation about your taboo subjects will lead to the harmony you want. Silent expectations dribble down into family arguments. Carrying around dread also saps energy.”
Other tips included the following things:
- Delegate – Don’t micro-manage.
- Empower with “mini-fiefdoms” – Give employees projects to manage because they create the entrepreneurial spirit needed to carry your business forward along with giving your employees prestige and esteem from responsibility.
- Create job descriptions along with spheres of responsibility with autonomy to make own decisions
Create a memorandum of understanding with the responsibilities of your company and your expectations on them.
- Outline compensation.
- Get rid of silent expectations.
- Get employees to make a synergistic idea that contributes to mission statement, gives them a job and adds value to your business. You can add as many sub-businesses as you like. This will create a bottom up energy or bubbling up energy. Partners are not a liability if they come with their own venture.
- New partners have to develop to serve your market base and fit into your mission statement.
Pay these partners a share of gross profits – never percentage of profits – always take from top – from gross. Leverage partnerships into a food cluster.
Final words from Joel Salatin
THERE’S ALWAYS MORE customers and we never know the tipping point that brings even more.
Salatin believes this model of allowing interns to create synergistic businesses could rebuild rural societies. People have no idea how much money is in food businesses. For example, there was a total of $9.5 billion spent on groceries in Alberta in 2010. That’s a lot of business potential. Sales grow out of honesty, service and cleverness. And, slow growth out of consumer faithfulness is good growth.
Salatin believes we are in an Age of Regeneration post Agrarian, Industrial and Information ages. He would like to see Polyface and other farm aggregates chip away at the Industrial model. He says he’d like to see industrial food system replaced not with small individual units but with collaborative networks of mutual interdependence and synergy that can serve economies of scale.
Wow, this is the longest post ever. Take a break now and if you want to know what I took away personally from this workshop come back and read the next post Savour Life – My Refections on a day with @Joel Salatin.
Thanks for a great deal of inspiration
Thank YOU Janet
for reading that great long post. It’s Joel that is so completely inspirational. He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I hope you get to meet him if you haven’t already.