Farming success can be measured in myriad ways, but sustainable farmer Joel Salatin shares 10 keys that can help farmers stay on the right track.
The market is here. The knowledge, thanks to decades of Acres U.S.A. articles, is here — all we’re doing these days is tweaking and refining. The basics are all in. The people are here. Young farmers, small farmers, localized farms — it’s a veritable tsunami. The infrastructure is here — portable electric fencing, water systems, foliars, composting, tall tunnels and greenhouses.
With all our technology, tools, and knowledge, why aren’t ecological farmers more wildly successful? More to the point, what are the markers for success, the salient commonalities among the practitioners who enjoy great production, great profits and great pleasure?
If we can tease out these elements, perhaps more of us can enjoy the fruits of righteous farming. What follows are 10 elements, in no particular order, that I think identify farms that successfully transition into and thrive in the integrity food system.
1. Develop One Enterprise Well Before Adding Others
All of us feel the push. The push to meet customer demands, the push to better utilize our infrastructure, the push to become fully employed and leave that town job. Goodness, the push to have a profitable enterprise.
Every business has a mother ship, a core persona or enterprise that becomes its defining feature. Restaurants start around a food theme and then normally create core menus that reflect that theme. These are the distinctions of an organization, the branding of an outfit.
When people talk about the business, this mother ship is the first thing they describe; the first thing that comes to mind. Farms are like that. Some revolve around a dairy. Some an orchard. Some heirloom vegetables, where the number of varieties is front and center. If you don’t know what your mother ship is, you’re not ready to add other enterprises. For example, at Polyface, our mother ship is the pastured broiler. Even though we raise many other animals, when we think about our distinctive — our claim to fame, if you will — it always revolves around the pastured broiler.
Although it has been replaced in gross annual income by both pork and beef, it is the core enterprise around which everything, including our public persona, revolves. For many years, pastured broilers eclipsed everything else on our farm in income. In fact, not until we had been doing pastured broilers for several years did we add the pigs. The cows during those early years filled the need of mowing ahead of the broilers; they were not the critical enterprise.
Figure out what your core enterprise is or will be, then develop it fully. Get good at it. Become an expert. Most of us never become experts in multiple enterprises or fields because the wealth of knowledge necessary for multiple proficiency is too great. I have interests in a host of varied farm enterprises, from bees to mushrooms to pastured broilers.
But for whatever reason — sometimes the mother ship just is, like serendipity — the pastured broiler occupied all my creativity and made the farm successful. Yours might be something else entirely. But don’t run off and jeopardize the mother ship chasing other rainbows.
You’ll know you have skill and proficiency when even crises like floods or droughts don’t send you into a panic. “Been there and done that” should be the operative term. Not that you’ll never tweak and refine. We all need to do that. But you need to be comfortable and assured enough with the model that naysayers, newbies, and new ideas don’t send you into a tailspin of doubt and worry.
If you’re not there yet with your primary enterprise, stick with it. Observe, experiment, and ask for advice. You’ll be rewarded emotionally and economically once you arrive. Then and only then should you try to duplicate the proficiency on another enterprise.
Early on you may want to try many experiments as different enterprises jockey for that sweet spot that meshes with your climate, resources and personal interests. But once you settle on and develop that mother ship, be tenacious about taking it to its ultimate point before chasing another enterprise.
Creativity is expensive. You can’t afford to be creative in a lot of different enterprises at once. For the sake of your emotional and economic sanity, focus your attention on one. Once that is accomplished, let it finance and generate the excitement for another enterprise. You’ll burn out financially and emotionally if you have too many loose ends vying for attention. Never jeopardize the mother ship.
2. Find People to Complement Your Weaknesses or Interests
I’m not talking here about just hiring employees — far from it. I’m talking about being honest with yourself. Do you like building things or selling things? Do you like routine or spontaneity? Do you like working with your hands or working with the books? Ouch. That one got me — I hate accounting. Do you like clutter or clean? Would you rather change the oil or weed the green beans?
The talents and interests necessary for a successful business don’t all grow on the same pair of legs. In other words, to have a farm business that is as attractive to your children as it is to you, you’ll need to assemble a team. Coming back through these pages, I can hear your sigh: “But Matilda and I got this farm because we don’t like people. We want to be by ourselves and forget about society.” Sorry — you have a farm that will fill you with work for a few decades, not a farm business that will excite your children and create a legacy for tomorrow’s generation.
Make a list of what you really like to do — things you would do even if you didn’t get paid to do them. The stuff that floats your boat. Do you really like meeting people? Hosting parties? Selling stuff? Being a hermit? Fixing machinery? It’s okay to have special loves and interests. That’s what defines who we are. If we can leverage that into what we do, we have a much better chance of success. Nobody thrives doing detestable things. Not everything has to be enjoyable — but if we can figure out how to leverage our loves, we’ll tend to get more done and generally be more enjoyable company to our family and friends.
In a conversation with one of our apprentices a couple of years ago, I had an epiphany: I have never been alone. He was lamenting starting his farm without a wife (he’d seen how much Teresa and I make a complementary team). He didn’t like accounting — neither do I. But my dad was an accountant (part-time farmer), so in those very formative and early years, he kept the books. That way we had good information that enabled us to make wise decisions.
When he became ill he trained Teresa how to do it, and she has held the reins of our bookkeeping ever since. But it’s too complicated and massive for her to do everything, so we handed off the tax preparation work to a bonafide accountant. A few years ago we hired Jackie, our full-time bookkeeper and sales/invoice preparer. Teresa is still the treasurer of the business, but she has helpers who more than pay their way by allowing us to do the things we enjoy more.
I’m focusing on the accounting because I can’t balance a checkbook. Fortunately, Teresa is meticulous to a fault and will chase down a penny for hours until it’s right. I go outside and tear up things; Teresa makes sure we can afford to fix what I tear up: we’re a great team.
Understanding this concept is why, two decades ago, when we began delivering to restaurants, I structured the billing so that the delivery was a separate charge on the invoice. Within one year, the volume was high enough to hire a subcontractor to do what I did not enjoy. Especially in the early days of a business, most of us have to wear more hats than we’d like. But designing the model to transition easily into a team that takes the disagreeable things off our plate is important for continued success.
I’ve always liked the garden, but as I’ve gotten much busier writing articles like this and doing speaking engagements, the garden has suffered. Daniel (our son) really likes the livestock but does not like the horticulture. Several years ago, I began a conspiracy to get the garden back without pushing Daniel to do it. Sure enough, we now have Leanna, a former intern, in charge of all horticulture. It’s her business. She simply pays rent in the form of a pre-agreed volume of vegetables that Sheri (our daughter-in-law) and Teresa want to preserve for our personal consumption.
Leanna picks the varieties, determines her price and shares marketing risk. If she can’t sell it through one of our venues, it goes to chickens and pigs. Now I have the garden back — better than ever — and the person operating it loves it. Yes, it shows.
As I became busier with writing and speaking, I had less time for marketing. Daniel and Sheri both enjoy marketing (note: who your kids marry is as important as who you marry), but Sheri thrives on it. She took over much of the marketing, on a commission, and it has prospered under her care. Bottom line: a team does not have to be a bunch of employees. It can be volunteers, subcontractors, commission-based collaborators, salaried folks or any combination you can imagine. But the whole really is worth more than the sum of the parts when you get the right bus — the mother ship — and then get the right people on the bus sitting in the right seats. That’s the team.
3. Close the Carbon Cycle Loop
Work on in-sourcing fertility rather than out-sourcing it. Realize that eco-systems rejuvenate based on the carbon circle. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, the carbon cycle is essentially this: sunlight converts to biomass, which decomposes (either in digestion or decomposition) to build humus, feed the soil food web, and make plants more efficient at capturing more sunlight converted to biomass. Whatever we can do on farms to tap into this cycle, the better.
I call this “closing the carbon leak”. Think of your farm as a huge dry lakebed. Is the lake gradually filling, or is it staying dry due to leaks in the dam? Carbon is energy, fertility… everything, really. Tightening the cycle, closing the leaks, and letting this carbon accumulate on your farm without depleting carbon somewhere else is the pinnacle of farming success. No group has done this better than the permaculture folks. Yes, I honor them. Moving toward perennials, edible landscaping, pasture-based livestock, minimum or no tillage, multi-speciation, and woody-based bedding and composting are all critical elements in a functional carbon cycle. Too many people rely on outside potions and inputs to compensate for carbon leaks. Really successful farms run on real-time solar energy converted through biomass.
Carbon accumulation differs significantly from plant to plant. Grass accumulates fastest, followed by brush, and then forest. In other words, if you really want to build soil, you want pasture — not woods. And recognize that intermediate one: brush.
Cutting brush, letting it come back, and then cutting it again can be one of the most efficient ways to acquire on-farm carbon. Sepp Holzer has demonstrated the power of brushy windrow piles in Austria. Brush can be chipped with modern chippers to reduce the particle size and speed up decomposition.
The point here is to realize that we as farmers are in the carbon cycling business.
We should reduce activities that hurt the cycle and adopt activities that encourage it.
4. Develop Your Tribe
Too many people fritter away valuable time seeking advice and friendship in opposing tribes. While I’m not against reaching across the aisle, cultivating your own tribe first makes sure that you have something to contribute when you do finally interact with the opposition.
Please forgive my trademark disappointment with government. In order to be honest with myself, I have to put that in here. Stay out of government offices. Forget grants. Most government agricultural advisors grew up on farms and really wanted to farm, but, since they couldn’t figure out how, they went to work for the government with all its cushy vacations, paychecks, and retirement plans.
I know there are good people in the government agriculture system. You just have to work really hard to find them. And even then, the good ones walk on eggshells to actually accomplish anything because the system pounds them down.
In my experience, hardly anything makes a farm more unsuccessful quicker than when the farmer spends time in government offices. They don’t lead anywhere, except to more government offices.
Do the project yourself. Pay for it yourself. You’ll be far more creative and it will be cheaper in the long run. Instead of seeking government help, go to an Acres U.S.A. conference — that’s our tribe. Cultivate friendships, mentors, and information there.
Seek advice from people who are doing what you want to do, who are actually living it, who have skin in the game and are still playing successfully.
5. Prototype with Small Trial Balloons
Innovation is always expensive because it requires many failures prior to success. The only difference between success and failure is that the successful person picked himself up one more time.
That’s why the opposite of success is not failure, but quitting. All successful folks have a history of errors; they just learn from them.
I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody told me to become the Frank Perdue of pastured poultry. I’ve been offered six-figure salaries to join advisory boards on businesses that had a big business plan. Every one of them fizzled. Every single one.
Staying power comes from starting like an embryo — small. Get the kinks worked out. Don’t go buy a huge piece of land or start a huge enterprise. My dad used to always warn me to “beware of people born with a big auger.” When anyone tells me they have the solution for Polyface to get big, I run as fast as I can the other way. The crash and burn is always more survivable if it happens small than if it happens large.
Test the market. Test the production idea. Whenever someone asks my counsel on transitioning, I always tell her to start it small. If she has a 1,000-acre corn and soybean farm and is interested in pastured beef, I tell her to carve out a few acres and get half a dozen calves. Play with it. Build some fence. Learn how to check spark. Learn how cattle herd, what they eat, how they eat, how they poop. As your confidence and interest build, add a few acres. Again, don’t sink the mothership. Start all innovation small.
Do you have a value-added product you think you’d like to develop into a business? Don’t install an inspected commercial kitchen right off the bat. Make some of those lard-crust sweet potato pies in your kitchen first, and when all your friends swoon, then go forward with renting a kitchen. Get your HACCP (Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point) plan in place. After you have a loyal following you may want to build or buy a kitchen, but not before.
This is becoming more and more an issue as the local food tsunami takes hold in our culture. Our local food movement is attracting more interest from Wall Street-types who only think in increments of millions. We’re littered with the carcasses of starry-eyed empire-builders who floored the accelerator before they even had tires on the car. Take it easy out there, folks.
Industries put a lot of effort into time and motion studies. Successful farmers do the same. How long does it take to put away a dozen eggs, gut a chicken, or set up a 200-yard electric cross fence? Anyone reading Eliot Coleman’s books on vegetable production will quickly appreciate his attention to efficiency. He knows exactly how long it takes to plant a foot of Swiss chard. He knows exactly how long it takes to spin out 20 pounds of lettuce leaves.
Too many farmers think their vocation is noble enough and important enough to transcend basic business principles, as if they are immune from profit and loss. Yes, we’re farmers, but we’re also moving, transporting packing, fixing — lots of industrial-type stuff. At Polyface, we printed a Standard Operating Procedure manual for both broilers and layers for our interns. It includes how much time it takes to do things, and yet not one in ten uses a watch to time themselves and try to achieve these benchmarks. The ones who do have a much higher chance of success on their own operations.
Do like things together. Go loaded and come loaded. Double up on trips. Bundle your chores by area so you aren’t zigzagging back and forth between workstations. Go to one spot and do as much as you can for as long as you can. Shaving a few steps or a few minutes off each activity can add up to hours in a day.
7. Value-Add & Increase Margins
We’ve all heard the old song that the middleman makes all the money. Well, if that’s true, then I want to be one. Pick me, pick me. The commodity system and value-added system are two entirely different models.
Commodity systems always drive prices down to a floor, asking for the greatest price concessions on the segment that is most able to defer true costs. That happens to always be the farmer, who can defer fertility, maintenance, infrastructure, and even his own paycheck. The manufacturing and processing components of the food system can’t defer as many things.
Their labor force has to be paid in real time with real money; the refrigerators have to be fixed today and paid for today.
Commodity systems are big enough to absorb any and all comers without affecting prices, so entrants can grow as fast as they want without crashing the system.
Direct-marketing and value-added farms, where product branding and entrepreneurial savvy create customers, are always limited by the size of the market.
If you produce one dozen eggs beyond what you can sell, the value of that extra dozen is not half, but zero. They make pretty expensive pig feed. I’ve been there and done that. As a farm begins accepting more and more processing and marketing risk, its margins can escalate.
Successful farms protect their margins and hold tenaciously to their customers. If they sell through middlemen, they still try to create name recognition. For example, here at Polyface we’ve been selling through an electronic aggregator — kind of a virtual farmers’ market. These are popping up all over, and are a great addition to the venues available for economical local distribution. We encouraged this business to offer a bus tour of Polyface, with boxed lunch, as an agritourism event. This gave the aggregator something else to sell, created buzz among their clientele, and brought these folks out to our farm so they could see where their food really came from.
Whatever you’re producing, value-add it. Sometimes the best value-adding kick comes from salvage, like broth. In our case, one of the early items was hot dogs as an alternative to beef chuck roast and boneless pork. We now sell some 6-8,000 pounds of hot dogs a year. Sure beats a fire sale or throwing it away.
8. Multiple-Use Infrastructure
This includes buildings and equipment. We never want to buy or build capital-intensive single-use anything. If you buy a $150,000 combine, that’s fine — but realize you’re not in the farming business; you’re in the manufacturing business where machines need to run 24/7 in order to pay their overhead costs.
One of the most common examples of single-use infrastructure, of course, is any kind of confinement building for animals. It is not only expensive, but also hard to retrofit or remodel if and when that production model becomes uneconomical or archaic. A confinement dairy, along with its bankruptcy tubes (silos) has deterred more than one aspiring pasture-based farmer. The economic and emotional investment in the structures drives future decision-making and stifles innovation. The bigger the ship, the harder it is to turn.
I like pole sheds and pole barns because the structure’s strength is in the poles rather than the walls. That way we can knock down walls, change them around, or even completely change the interior to another configuration for another animal without affecting the structural integrity of the building. We have several tall tunnels, or hoop houses, at Polyface for winter housing of laying hens, pigs and rabbits.
We even put them all in the same place at the same time. Four-foot-tall slatted-top tables pushed together provide a platform like a mezzanine for the chicken feeders, nest boxes, and waterers. Rabbits reside in roomy pens that overhang the floor, and pigs have the run of the place beneath them. When all these animals come back out to pasture in the spring, we plant vegetables on the composting floor, using the tall tunnels as garden season-extenders.
Think about trailers instead of trucks. Minimize engines. Maximize attachments that do not need engines. If you’re going to buy an engine, buy one that can handle many attachments rather than just one. This is why we buy tractors with 4-wheel drive and front-end loaders at Polyface. Yes, these machines cost a little more than their counterparts, but they are twice or thrice the machines. Let multiple-use everything drive your design and your purchases.
9. As You Scale, Stay True to Your Identity
Successful farms and businesses have to guard against corner-cutting like the plague. Many true-blue honorably-branded small businesses grow up to be ho-hum big businesses. That includes farms. If big is what you want to be, you’ve already sold your soul. At Polyface, we refuse to have a sales target or marketing benchmark. This protects us from selling out for an additional sale. Sales should be an outgrowth of your faithfulness.
Sales should reflect customer participation in your vision. Sales should indicate the power of your product, the compelling nature of your differentiated brand.
Recently I read about a large heritage-breed turkey producer collaborating with some national organizations that ought to know better on financing a monstrous poultry barn big enough to hold 12,000 turkeys. That sounds perilously close to Tyson if you ask me.
Many years ago I visited a turkey grower who sold through Whole Foods when Whole Foods actually sourced locally. The first year he raised his turkeys on pasture. I went to see his processing facility at the end of the second year and he had gone into defunct poultry industry houses. “Nobody really knows or cares whether they are on pasture or not,” he confided as he toured me around. Really?
Corner-cutting has become endemic in the organic certification industry. All you need to do is keep up with the watchdog Cornucopia and you’ll see the constant attempts to pull a fast one. Unfortunately, many succeed.
Those of us who have some size to our operations should be dedicated to innovating with more integrity, not less. Don’t let anybody with “BIG” printed on their business plan steer you into compromising your product distinctions. Stay true.
10. Pay Your Team Members
If you want a content, loyal, innovative team, you need to reward them well. You can’t starve commitment and happiness into your team.
This starts with parents and their children, because children are often the first workers a farm couple employs. Are you stingy? Do you begrudge others a great compensation because you don’t feel fully compensated?
At our farm, some of our team members receive more income than the owners. We have incentive and commission packages that are open-ended. Ultimately, the owners are not in it for money, but for the joy of service, healing the earth, creating customer relationships. While we want a team that is also jazzed about those ideas, farm owners need to recognize that ownership is a great privilege. Don’t lord it over anyone. Just be grateful. Good people always pay their way.
Sometimes a stellar team candidate will make you choke on their requested compensation package. But if their contribution can pay their way, who cares what they earn? Be generous. Tip heavily. An ancillary principle here includes verbal praise. People don’t just work for money. They work for higher values.
In fact, we want to attract those kinds of people. Are you a stingy praise giver? How often do you hug your team players? Do you send “atta-boy” (girl) emails? You’ll get more when you give more. Praise is the cheapest incentive you can pay. Use it liberally.
I’ve counseled and listened to farmers all over the world. The sticky point in the operation usually falls into one of these 10 categories. Generally, the weak link is between our ears. Or it’s character. I’ve seen successful farmers in the middle of nowhere producing on a pile of rocks. Others have been on paradise — quality land five minutes from a million people — and can’t get it together.
In my opinion, the benchmarks of success are not primarily about location, soil type, or even bank accounts. They follow along the lines of good business principles and character qualities. The reason I don’t do much farm consulting is because it’s too frustrating. More often than not, the best thing farmers who have enough money to hire me can do is to turn their farm over to a hungry, savvy, innovative young person. If a farm is losing $100,000 a year, the most successful thing to do is to quit farming. That would at least move the bottom line toward zero.
Hang in there. Persist. Be faithful and honest. Pay your bills by not accumulating them too fast. Be creative. Don’t get enslaved by a model. Be efficient, precise, and observant. Experiment small. Love your tribe. Pay your people. These will make you successful whether you are transitioning, starting or dreaming. Now go change the world.
By Joel Salatin. This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A.
Joel Salatin operates Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his family. He is the author of several books on ecological, family-scale farming, including Folks, This Ain’t Normal, which is available from the Acres U.S.A. bookstore or by calling 800-355-5313.