Scaling up without selling your soul – part 1

Message from Joel and all of us here at Polyface:

Many successful entrepreneurial start-ups morph into Wall-Streetified empires that lose their distinctives. And in the process, the business chews up and spits out its workers and founders in a mad scramble to dominate something. Does middle ground exist between the calm talking-stick consensus circle of indigenous eastern tribal cultures and the mad scramble frenzy of western capitalism? Or perhaps more to the point in light of recent Wall Street and economic developments, what values are more important than growth? Especially since cancer is growth. At this juncture of our culture’s reality, I would like us to immerse ourselves for a few minutes in an alternative innovative business philosophy.


I am first and foremost a farmer, but not a very ordinary farmer. In fact, I’m known as a Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic. Our family farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley now has four generations living on it. I’m second generation, but the day-to-day operations are handled by my son. Polyface Farm is a diversified, grass-based, beyond organic, direct marketing farm.

We produce salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, pastured poultry and eggs, forage based rabbits, and forestry products. Purchased by my mom and dad in 1961, the farm has gone from a worn out, gullied weedpatch that couldn’t even pay a salary to one that employs 10 people with more than a million dollars in sales. And it’s still experiencing exponential growth. Lush pastures supported by ecstatic copulating earthworms testify to the healing.

While many business folks would consider this a tiny business—and it is—it is considered quite a large farm by USDA sales criteria, which calls any farm with sales above $400,000 annually a large farm. Polyface direct markets everything it produces to a customer base that numbers 2,000 families, 25 restaurants, and 10 retail outlets.

For context, please understand that we don’t do anything conventionally. We haven’t bought a bag of chemical fertilizer in half a century, never planted a seed, own no plow or disk or silo—we call those bankruptcy tubes. We practice mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertlization with the cattle. The Eggmobiles follow them, mimicking egrets on the rhinos’ nose. The laying hens scratch through the dung, eat out the fly larvae, scatter the nutrients into the soil, and give thousands of dollars worth of eggs as a byproduct of pasture sanitation. Pastured broilers in floorless pasture schooners move every day to a fresh paddock salad bar. Pigs aerate compost and finish on acorns in forest glens. It’s all a symbiotic, multi-speciated synergistic relationship-dense production model that yields far more per acre than industrial models. And it’s all aromatically and aesthetically romantic.

As we’ve gone from a single-salary, cute artisanal operation to a multi-family, beyond family, multi-farm business, we’ve struggled to maintain our quality of life and the distinctives that drive sales. And we haven’t always done it well. I’ve seen way too many successful small businesses gobbled up by deep pockets with shallow values. As a result of wanting to stay with the soul of our business story, we’ve developed a list of directives. These would be different for every business, but let’s look at them and at least appreciate that they represent innovative thinking in a western capitalistic business climate. I call these ethics-based contrarian business ideas.

Setting sales or marketing targets makes a business look at its employees differently, its products differently, and its customers differently. It’s kind of like a church that sets membership goals: the message is no longer as important as getting sign-ups. What we’re willing to compromise to “make the sale” is much greater when a sales target beckons. And how we treat our employees is directly related to achieving that sales target.
Polyface has never had a sales target, marketing plan, or business plan. And yet we’ve seen steady progress over several decades. If the product and service are good enough, customers will come and sales will increase automatically.
Setting goals with soul may sound counterintuitive, but it follows directly the idea that the best things in life are free. Would anybody argue that financial success is better than a happy marriage? And yet where do you see happy marriage on a balance sheet? We all intuitively understand that salamanders with four legs are better than ones with three, and yet chemical companies selling pesticides or herbicides measure success only in terms of sales volume. Their accountants don’t ask for salamander legs.
In your business, set goals that are bigger, more noble, more sacred, than sales targets. How about eliminating employee turnover, or customer complaints? Or number of employee children failing school? What really are the most important things in business? I challenge us all to think bigger than sales. Big causes attract young people. Here’s the question I have to ask myself: “What goals are noble enough to justify my life?” It seems like when I really strive to be good, growth takes care of itself.

To be continued…

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Did you like this? Share it:

About Sheri Salatin

Sheri is married to Daniel Salatin. She is the marketing director at Polyface Farm and stay-at-home mom of three children. Sheri is passionate about clean food and is enjoying working the land along side her husband. When not farming, Sheri can be found reading, writing, sewing, baking and serving in her church family.

12 Responses to Scaling up without selling your soul – part 1

  1. Johnny Yacono aka Johnny Flash says:

    I want to come to work at your farm.all I need is a cushioned floor to sleep on a corner to sleep in.some food. and not to be yell at. I have a 7th grade education, I had my own contracting and construction company for 40 years, had my fill of that. now I am broke, and pretty much do not need much just food and a clean place to sleep,I have a shit loads of skills, Master carpenter, master electrician, master plumber,mason,brick layer, tile man,cabinet maker. I can design repair any kind of building structure, I operate all construction equipment, and repair them, I understand the disciplines of hydraulics,hydroponics, electric, I have design CNC machines, estimating programs,I rebuild setup computers and systems, studying bio-diesel fuel reactors, using 2lbs of sequestered co2 1 lb of algae, in a closed loop encapsulated system, I have design in autocad 100 ft by 400 ft 16 ft high green house’s to house 200 reactors in a project requiring 20 green house’s, projects is awaiting funds, so I am not to much need of money, more in need of input from you how does your garden grow, I am not afraid of work, have leg injury due to motorcycle accident, can walk and work, looking to learn and want to come there to live for a while, do not want anything for free, I gave my tools away in NY so I would not have to carry them, I can utilize anything you have. I can also mig and stick weld and melt down an aluminum engine block to make a fence post. I foundry ability’s can recreate a broken part in wood , plaster, cement, fiberglass, aluminum, bronze, copper, iron, steel, I am a student of life, an d atheist, I do not believe in a god or supernatural being so that most be respected. I have a flabby stomack which I would like to leave with you before I leave there. I weight 172 lbs, would like to be 145. so work is a most. good food, no wine at dinner. I get drunk on a half a glass. bad for computer work. so if you have time I would like to hear from you. I did not know how to get in touch with you. so this is it. thank you for your time
    Johnny Yacono

  2. Kirk Wilson says:

    This principle is so hard to understand by those who have been steeped in the “corporate way”. You are so right when you say that if they don’t want to believe us, there’s no convincing them anyway. Isn’t it a wonderful thing to actually enjoy what you’re doing? Press on!

  3. Shawn Saker says:

    Thank you for existing.


  4. Stelios Pantazis says:

    Very inspiring for all of us who struggle to maintain our integrity in a very competitive environment. Thank you.

  5. Jean Newbold says:

    I have yearned for a farm of my own since I was in my thirties. My husband had no interest in farming. He is gone now and I am working on figuring out how i can finally get my farm. First I need to know how to run it. I had my biggest vegetable garden ever this summer and the freezer is packed. Would you consider taking on an 85 year old intern so I can learn the best way to be a farmer? I am strong and want to be stronger. I took the Mensa test and became a Mensan at 82, and I still have all my marbles. I come from two long-lived families. Please help me get what I need to make my life complete. My time is my own; I’m available January to December. I can take instruction and follow orders. Since reading This Ain’t Normal, I know that Polyface Farm is the best place to learn the kind of farming I want to do. Please say yes.

  6. Bruce Foreman says:

    There is a wonderful lead article interviewing Joel in the current issue of The Sun ( May your tribe increase.

  7. Sandy Gunder says:

    This article says all the things I believe in. I currently work in the ‘health care’ industry and have never seen sicker people in my life. Every week another staff member resigns due to stress and management just shrug their shoulders and hunt for another worker. They never seem to wonder why this huge turnover of staff.

    My husband and I long for a hard working, farming life where we can rejuvenate the land naturally and feed not only ourselves but others with healthy natural food from healthy happy animals and plants.

    I’m looking forward to attending one of your Australian workshops – my husband is afraid to as he says he would resign his job on the spot and go looking for a farm … 🙂

  8. Billie Riccelli says:

    A friend and I are in the process of getting property and starting our own Self Susstainable Living. I just happened to be watching the show, “FarmKings” were two of the boys came to your farm to see how you have the chickens, cows and pigs work the land for you. It was “Awsome” to see how you rotated the chicken cages and other animals and how they benefited the land. We also have the same ideas but wasnt sure how to do them until I seen you show the King Boys. We see that you allow people to drop by and take a look at what your family has accomplished and we certanly are putting your place into our travel plans this year for sure. We just was reading last summer on what the government puts into our animals that we eat. That made us sick to think of it and wonder how many others truly know what they are eating. Thers nothing we can do right now to stop us from eating the meats right now. But believe me within this year we will have our own cows, pigs and chickens and know that they are not chemically grown. Thank you for being such an inspiration for us who are listening and doing what you are saying

  9. MJC says:

    I have just started taking an online Permaculture course. Many of the things you do ( “using nature as a pattern,” moving chickens and cattle to graze and fertilize the land, ethics in farming etc ) and philosophies you have sound very similar to the principles in Permaculture. Have you used Permaculture as your guide or did you do your farm this way just because it makes sense and its the best way? I want to buy some land in the country, quit my job and live a homesteading type lifestyle. But I want to do it in the right way and have no regrets. I will be getting your books and maybe one day can visit your farm on a vacation. Continued blessings to you and your farm and thank you for sharing the information.

    Mike C
    Plano, Texas

  10. I was told about Polyface Farms from an aspiring Senator from the great state of Mississippi. I am a neighborhood family farmer of 5 years. I started gardening because my 2 boys (1&3 at the time) loved all kinds of fruits and vegetables and I initially thought that I could just save some money. Long story short, the 1st year I lost my tail, $ for raised beds, soil, seeds, water and a partridge and a pear tree. I produced maybe 20 cherry tomatoes, I’m talking about $50 for a cherry tomato. However, I had a couple varietals of tomato for them to try, and the Million dollar question was uttered from the simplest of lips with unquenched thirst for truth, “Why do they all taste different?” I had caught the fever! I knew that however hard it would be it didn’t matter, because I wanted better for my family.

    Why I’m leaving a reply is because I have a God given calling to leave a positive generational impact on this grain of sand, called Earth. So combined with the solar systems that I am manufacturing and the inspiration given by your logical, natural, Edenistic approach your family has given me the cornerstone of my course in life! We will me in the future, “May the force (of Nature) be with you”!