Iowa Public Television


Polyface Farms

posted on May 11, 2001

The potential of new crops is becoming a lot more important in the face of lethargic demand and weak prices for traditional crops. Throughout farm country farmers are examining their options, trying to determine the best means of survival.

Many are finding the best strategy is to assess the needs of the marketplace, then devise ways of filling a spectrum of niches.

To that end, as producer David Miller found last fall in Virginia, a prudent farmer of modest means can prosper through a strategy of maximum diversity.


This relatively simple looking sale is the culmination of more than 30 years of work. Since the age of 10, Joel Salatin has tried to find ways to make money so he could be a full-time farmer. Salatin has distilled his experience into a formula that allows his family to survive solely on a farm income. But the formula is more complex than just making a profit on his farm near Swoope, Virginia. It includes using the land in multiple ways, following ecologically friendly principles, and then direct marketing the farm's bounty to consumers.

Joel Salatin:"... I think the biggest hurdle to get over in marketing is to have enough, what, self confidence and passion about your product that you don't take it personally when somebody rejects you. And then you just start small. You don't need to start huge. All the empires that we have today in the food industry started from the tailgate of a pickup truck, 60-70 years ago."

Even though Salatin was raised on the land his father was actually an accountant not a full-time farmer. The elder Salatin exposed joel to the idea of using as much of the farm as possible for more than one purpose.

Until about ten years ago, Salatin was an unknown entrepreneur who had figured out how to make money on the 550-acres that make up Polyface farms. When he began farming full time in 1982, he was already tired of hearing the lament that there was "no money in farming". He began speaking to groups of like-minded individuals. Finally, in 1993 he decided to commit his formula for success to print. Even though his are not the only ones available on the subject, Salatin has written three books that have become manuals for small-scale direct marketing.

Joel Salatin: "i'm not going to suggest that the only way to have accountability is for the consumer to purchase directly from the farmer, you know, that's probably too utopian to even really discuss in this format. If we would put as much emphasis on finding these local sources as we do on a Walt Disney vacation, half the problems that we deal with, from a centralized food system, wouldn't even occur."

Polyface operates like a traditional business. Everyone has their role. Theresa, Joel's wife, does the bookkeeping, runs the house, and handles the "home- school" duties for their daughter Rachel. Daniel, the older of the Salatin's two children, has become the farm's foreman. And two apprentices, who have read Salatin's books and managed to get jobs working with the author and entrepreneur, handle a large portion of the daily chores. The operation makes enough to pay salaries to Daniel, Theresa, Joel, and the apprentices.

The enthusiasm generated by Joel has been enough to convince Daniel to stay on the farm.

Daniel Salatin: "we work long hours, sun up to sun down, all the time, but there's slow times, there's different times, there's seasonal times, that's what' neat about this. Summer's real had and winter is not nearly as hard. It's a lot of times sitting by the fire, and read books. But yes, i do plan to stay on the farm. I do plan to continue right here. Uh, like it a lot."

All the animals at Polyface are raised on grass, with grains and mineral supplements making up the rest of the ration. No hormones or drugs are given to the animals and a concerted effort is made to use grains which are not genetically modified.

In Salatin's experience, every farm needs a centerpiece product. For Polyface that centerpiece has become their chickens because of the high return on a limited investment.

The cattle and hogs are processed at either state or federally inspected packing plants. And the Salatin's, along with help from nieces and nephews, process all the chickens by taking advantage of the federal exemption for poultry processing. This year, Polyface farms will sell 12-thousand chickens and 40-thousand dozen fresh eggs directly to consumers. The chickens retail for $1.50 per pound and eggs go for $1.75 per dozen.

The Salatin's have grown their customer base largely by word of mouth. Polyface farms now supplies 400 families with fresh and frozen organic products.

Joel Salatin: "everybody wants to get out of the city and into something green and meaningful and then a designer product and someone you can trust. And so, so by direct marketing from the farm, we tap into all those consumer yearnings which are very real and are quit quantifiable by marketing reports and surveys."

To help with the overall health of the farm, chickens, hogs, and cattle are pastured according to the principles of management intensive grazing. Hogs are used to convert portions of the farm's 440 acres of timber into pasture. Cattle help keep existing pastures green and lush for the chickens. When the cattle move to a new paddock chickens are brought in. The chickens help with the sustainability of the soil while providing eggs for sale.

But the Salatin's have not limited themselves to direct marketing to customers that come to the farm. Over time they have expanded to serve 30 restaurants. Mark Newsome is the executive chef at the Joshua Wilton house in nearby Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Mark Newsome: " you might step back and go, "well I'm almost paying twice as much" but what we're able to do, since we get whole birds, we're able to utilize the whole bird. In the long run, we make out better actually, it's great"

Occasionally other small-scale farmers will stop by for advice. Beverley Eggelston, began seeking advice from Salatin about 10 years ago. Recently, in a case of "student helping teacher", Eggleston asked if he could sell Polyface farms products at Washington, D.C. farmers markets.

It took some convincing because Salatin had tried selling at farmers markets before, but wasn't satisfied with the return. Finally, Salatin agreed.

Beverley Eggleston: "and we know how to produce the best chicken on the planet, but to market it is the tough part."

For Eggelston, the marketing challenge means traveling five and a half-hours from his Mendola, Virginia, farm to spend the weekend selling Salatin's product at two D.C. area farmers markets.

Joel Salatin: "we've go this mentality, 'if I'm going to farm, i need, you know, a hundred acres', you know, we've got all these stipulations and that' not true. The real weak link in farming is the experience and the information. And so, my point is, do something now and then whether you believe in god or universal truth or whatever, suddenly, you will be rewarded for your new passion."

For market to market, I'm David Miller.


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