Why is Polyface Farm so successful? How Joel Salatin creates self-generating, profitable enterprises

Maddy Harland
Tuesday, 14th May 2013

Joel Salatin not only builds soil and locks up carbon, he makes money out of farming and so do his associates. Here's an analysis of Polyface's organisational structure and the Salatin magic.

Recently I reported on how Polyface Farm uses techniques such as mob grazing and mobile farm infrastructure to lock up carbon, build soil and create a diverse set of yields. I also explained how Joel Salatin, his family and his associates market and sell their products to create a $2,000,000 turnover on what is in reality a relatively small acreage (see links below). Today I am going to describe the organisational structure that enables both the scale and range of farm products, how Joel sells direct to restaurants and the public and how he runs such a successful, multi-dimensional enterprise and attracts others to the farm. At a time when farmers have an average age of 60, farming revenue is falling, and farm land is being abandoned in the USA (i.e. not cultuvated), how do Joel Salatin and associates manage to buck the trends?

Fiefdoms

Joel's observation is that everyone wants their own fiefdom. No one likes to feel they are under the thumb. From my experience of running Permanent Publications I know this to be true. We don't have a hierarchy here. We are all valued members of a team and critically, we have our own areas of responsibility, whether we are co-founders of the organisation or newly involved trainees. If everyone's work is valued and the organisation designs in self-responsibility, people step up to the challenges and also feel far freer to operate in their areas of responsibility.

Similarly, Joel has ensured that everyone involved at Polyface has areas of responsilibity. They each have their own sphere of operation. He has also designed a 'habitat' that creates and enables business development and he is particularly engaged in encouraging youth entrepreneurism. On this farm the habitat for youthful farmers is strategically encouraged. I will describe how he does this later on but first let's look at his organisational structure. Polyface is divided into 'fiefdoms'. You will find a surprising amount of people on the farm.

'Fiefdom One'

Joel Salatin ~ vision & information ~ assisted by Wendy (PA) 

Subcontractors including ~ rental farmers & associated enterprises

'Fiefdom Two'

Teresa Salatin (wife) ~ finance & accounting ~ working with Jackie (book keeper & buying club assistant)

'Fiefdom Three'

Daniel Salatin (son) ~ day-to-day management ~ Eric (manager of apprentices) ~ Leanna (inventory manager & gardener) ~ apprentices ~ interns

'Fiefdom Four'

Sherry Salatin (daughter-in-law) ~ marketing ~ Brie (Grass Stains Tour Guide, Farm Chef and Buying Club Assistant)

Buying Club and Restaurant Delivery Driver  ~ Richard (employee by choice)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There are two points I want to emphasise here. Firstly, Joel observes that unspoken expectations of people in an organisation do not work. We all need clarity in communication and that means clearly defined job descriptions and memos of understanding. He has evolved his agreements over many years and they both define what Polyface Farm expects but also what the subcontractor, intern or apprentice should expect. These are two-way agreements.

Supporting young farmers

Secondly, a primary aim of the farm after making sure all enterprises are profitable, is to encourage young people into farming. Joel wants to actively support landless people to become youthful entrepreneurs. Access to land is an obstacle to getting young people into farming because it is prohibitively expensive. So is owning cattle and expensive infrastructure. Therefore Joel does all he can to enable people to make a start by stacking enterprises on his farm, lending stock and equipment, making equipment on the farm with the help of interns and apprentcies, and also by Polyface Inc renting neighbouring land to enable young farming entrepreneurs to start new businesses.

Subcontracting mob grazing

Joel does this in two ways. Pigs and cows are expensive to purchase so Joel makes a memo of understanding with a subcontractor (a graduated apprentice who already has a year of training under his/her belt) on Polyface land. He pays his trainee farmer to mob graze a specific area by these formulae:

Cows: $35 per cow per day

Pigs: $8 per pig group per day.

Joel retains ownership of the lifestock (it's expesnive to buy) and the trainee farmer is responsible for moving fencing, ensuring the well-being of the animals in terms of the feed, shelter and water.

Poultry for eggs or the table are cheaper to buy and raise so again provides the land but the trainee buys their stock.

Joel pays $8 per dozen eggs and a fixed amount for every broiler raised.

Trainees also supplement their incomes with other enterprises such as farm tours, horticulture, and mushroom production. There is even a film maker making Polyface trainee videos for all of us guys!

People set up micro-enterprises at Polyface according to the pool of skills present at the time, learn new skills and then are able to move on to pastures new and establish farm businesses once they have the relevant experience. They have the huge advantage of a support team that can provide advice, marketing and build skills for the moveable infrastructure required for mob grazing.

Interns and Apprentices

It is incredibly tough competition to become an intern at Polyface, let alone an apprentice. Interns are offered accommodation, board and a small stipend to attend a four month programme. They go through an interview process and also come and stay at Polyface for at weekend to make sure they are suitable candidates. As they will be living with the Salatins and their team, it’s important to make sure everyone will get along.

Apprentices are then selected from the pool of interns. Again they receive accommodation, board and a small stipend and receive full training in the Polyface method for a period of 12 months.

Apprentices can then apply to become subcontractors and develop a micro-enterprise at Polyface.

People are very cynical about Polyface being profitable because it ‘uses’ interns and apprentices. Knowing what I know of trainee placements, there is no such thing a free labour. Training people takes time and money.

At Permanent Publications we also accept interns and apprentices but in return we pay expenses and accommodation for interns and a salary for apprentices. We seek to nurture and develop the person’s skills and also expect dedication and hard work in return. Many of our interns and trainees have worked with us and then left to establish careers in publishing and also practical permaculture. Internship and apprenticeship is an exchange, not exploitation, and much is given on both sides when it works well.

I imagine that Polyface is similar. If anyone wants to farm, I think that a Polyface training programme would be an incredible, unique opportunity but also hard work.

Ben Law’s woodland apprentice scheme in the UK works in a similar way. Ben takes two apprentices every year. They live in the woods, learn coppicing, woodland management, foraging and roundwood timber framing. Many have gone on to owning and managing their own woodlands or roundwood timber framing businesses in the UK and further afield. If we want to pass on skills to the next generation we need to do this. You cannot learn these skills at university. There is no substitute for working with people who have been developing new ‘out of the box’ enterprises for two or three decades and we need to ensure natural succession by passing on these skills.

Accounting

Salatin on a farm tourI’d like to add some last words about Joel Salatin. His father was an accountant and it is in his blood. He runs very detailed accounting systems at Polyface. Every type of feed for every different animal is categorized and has its own nominal codes. He defines every single direct cost to establish a gross margin acknowledging that overheads are not always easy to categorise.

For example, when pricing the cost of producing a chicken for the table, he will calculate the price of the chick, and then the costs of the following for each chick:

feed

propane for the brooder house

maintenance

processing

packaging (the bag)

hot water etc etc.

Added to this, Joel will do time and motion studies to assess exactly how to raise the chicken. This includes where the feed is placed in the chicken house for ease of access for the chicks and how long it takes in terms of labour costs to feed, care for and prepare the bird for the table.

What I want to stress here that there is no magical formula in this kind of thinking. This is hard accounting that drills down the Profit and Loss accounts for the business in minute detail. No wastage is tolerated. To achieve good margins necessitates that every single cost is quantified. Nothing is left to the imagination. There is nothing romantic about the Polyface method.

So why is Joel regarded by Time magazine as the world’s most innovative farmer? It is his combination of innovation in terms of mob and successional grazing; locking up carbon in the soil; building soil and fertility; stacking enterprises, developing new infrastructures to support mob grazing innovation; creating an environment that encourages micro-enterprises and young entrepreneurs; developing internships and apprenticeships; bringing new people on to the farm; marketing direct to customers on the farm; selling bespoke products direct to restaurants; innovative online marketing… and then going out and telling his story in an incredibly entertaining way to anyone who will listen in an indefatiguable way.

There is much to learn from Joel, whether you farm or not, are a seasoned entrepreneur or new to thinking and working outside the box. But you have to open your mind and listen. The challenge is: Do I have this kind of energy, attention to detail, innovative ideas and passion for what I do? If the answer is yes then most things are possible.

Right, time to go back to adapting some Salatin ideas to my publishing company...

Further resources

Read: How Joel Salatin markets and sells Polyface Farm produce

Read: Joel Salatin's pattern for carbon farming at Polyface Farm

Watch Allan Savory explaining mob grazing on How to green the world's deserts and reverse climate change

Read Rebecca Hosking on How pigs can compost manure on a farm scale - saving you fuel and money

Check out http://www.polyfacefarms.com

Maddy Harland is editor and co-founder of Permaculture, a magazine that covers all aspects of sustainable living, from permaculture gardening and sustainable agriculture to green building, low-impact transport and community action. Maddy Harland also co-founded Permanent Publications, a company dedicated to publishing environmental books and The Sustainability Centre, a thriving educational charity, in Hampshire, UK.

bamboochik |
May 14, 2013 - 5:01pm
I just visited his site and almost fainted at the price of his meats!!! I guess you have to be wealthy to buy from him.
Maddy Harland |
May 14, 2013 - 6:12pm
I can hear Joel saying that his prices reflect the true cost of rearing high quality, organic, free range livestock and slaughtering them locally on a farm that is building soil and offering young entrepreneurs opportunities to get on to the land. The prices are comparable to organic free range products direct from the farm in the UK but perhaps you have a better local source.

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