Diversifying the family farm for profit, pleasure, and production

Joel Salatin is a highly successful family farmer. On his pasture/woodland farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, he produces beef, chicken, pork, eggs, rabbits, turkeys, firewood, lumber, and a great deal of real education for his patrons and their families, most of whom receive his newsletter (with order forms) and come directly to Polyface Farm to purchase meat and eggs.

Salatins won't even consider an enterprise that earns less than $30 per hour. They make excellent money, and their customers keep coming back for more.

Though his farm is close to a large urban area with gourmet restaurants, Salatin is not a mass marketer. The principles of the "relationship marketing" he describes are applicable wherever producers and consumers are dissatisfied with the food system.

The following is excerpted from two presentations, the first with slides, that Joel gave at the WSU/Kellogg Holistic Management Project's second annual meeting in Pasco, Washington, on January 16, 1998. Readers of Holistic Management In Practice and the Stockman Grass Farmer will be familiar with Salatin's movable pens such as the Pigaerator and the Tenderloin Taxi. For additional information, contact Polyface Farm, Rt. 1, Box 281, Swoope, VA 24479, 540-885-3590.

Dad was very much a forward thinker. My grandfather was one of the charter subscribers to Rodale's Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, when the great split in this country occurred after World War II, when Ed Faulkner and Louis Bromfield were still roaming around. Ed Faulkner wrote a little book called Plowman's Folly, which sold 600,000 copies. Can you imagine a book of that kind selling 600,000 copies today? So I come from a rich legacy, standing on the shoulders of previous generations. Momma's still alive and lives on the farm with us.

It starts with the people. Everybody has a different place to play. The most important thing when you diversify something and capture the advantages of diversity is to appreciate the gifts and the talents of the different individuals. So Teresa runs the house and I run the tractor, and I can do housework and she can do tractor work, but with the division of responsibility we can become more efficient. Sometimes we think that it's a lot better if everybody shares every single decision. I'm not sure that that's true. Yes, we need to share in our vision, our mission statement, our goal. But a division of responsibility helps to make the running more efficient, so that we can all be creative in our realm, and I don't tell her what to fix for supper, and she doesn't tell me where to put the chicken pen. And we can actually make double the number of decisions in a given amount of time. This capitalizes on the talents and gifts and the abilities, by having a separation in responsibility for work.

Daniel is our outdoorsman. He taps the yard trees for maple syrup. He's been doing this now for several years. He takes the maple sap and boils it down.

We try to encourage them to scrounge, but the other thing is that we make sure they have the tools to do the things they need to do. Nothing is as frustrating to me as to be in the situation where the 30-year-old son is working for a 55-year old dad, and the 30-year-old son has to ask Dad if he can use a board.

We've got to let those kids bend over some nails! Take that prime board we were saving for a project and rip it up! The value in those children is giving them tools for things, letting them experiment and be creative, and channel their energies and their creative gifts and talents. It'll come back a million times more the value of those bent nails and those unsquare corners and those boards they took off the board pile.

We went and had a nice pan made out of steel. Daniel got book and read out how to do this, and made a couple gallons of maple syrup. Instead of selling the maple syrup for $35 a gallon (chip off the old block) he said, How can I make this more valuable? So that's what he does. He makes maple syrup donuts, and sells about $600 worth of donuts out of those 2 gallons of maple syrup at the farmer's market in the spring.

He also does a rabbit project. This year he'll produce about a thousand rabbits at $8 apiece. It's not a bad project for a 16-year-old. We home school, so he has time to pursue these interests instead of being locked up behind some academic desk all day. This allows him time to be creative and tap into those opportunities.

He designed these hare pens himself. These are floorless pens we put out on the pasture. One acre of grass put through rabbits is worth $4500 a year. Who says you got to have a lot of land to make money farming?

He got a hold of an old magazine article about what folk people used to do when they had rabbits before Purina and all these feed store pellets came along. Turns out that what they used to feed rabbits was mangels--kind of a sugar beet. So next thing he did was find some seed, planted some, and he now supplements the rabbits with mangels. His goal is to actually get to where he feeds mangels all through the winter to supplement his grass and his pasture. He's cut his feed bill in the wintertime--as long as the mangels last--by 85 percent. It also makes a healthier, better rabbit, so everybody wins. So the rabbits are his enterprise, his deal.

One of the best things we can do when we talk about diversifying is to free this next generation up to pursue some of their own interests. One of the worst things we can do is lock the next generation into doing exactly what we're doing.

Let them have their own enterprises they own. I had my first layers when I was ten years old. Dad didn't know anything about laying chickens.

I don't know anything about rabbits. So if somebody wants to know something about rabbits, I don't try to answer their questions. I say there's the guru right there, ask him. You cannot imagine what it does to the self-esteem and self-worth and the creativity and the enthusiasm of a young person to be the resident expert when they are ten or eleven years old.

This is the racken house--rabbits, chickens, racken house--two tiers, about 700 square feet. The rabbits--the breeding does--are on the upper level, the weanlings go out in the hare pen. The chickens are underneath, and they scratch through what the rabbits drop, and aerate the bedding. All we do is inject carbon about every two or three weeks, a pickup load. That eliminates the ammonia that could come up and be a toxin to the rabbits. Out of this 700 square foot facility we're grossing $9,000 a year. And netting $5,000 a year--in a two-car garage! Who says you gotta have a lot of land to make money farming?

The beauty of this is, the animals per square foot are 150 percent higher than a conventional factory concentration camp farm. But there's no disease, no smell, no pathogens. Why? Because the two species work in symbiosis. The pathogens don't cross-speciate. We can have the population so that neither species is at a density that will kick in pathogens and problems. And yet we can produce 150 percent worth of animal material per square foot. The symbiosis is both sanitary and synergistic. Economical. This is a permaculture concept, of stacking or tiering for multiple benefits.

In the woods, we do a fair amount of timber. We've about 450 acres of woodland. We use this little Russian tractor to load logs into the dump truck. I believe in multiple-use everything. One of the worst things we can ever do in agriculture is to buy a single-use anything. You buy a $40,000 combine that sits for 11 months of the year and you run the swat out of it for one. That's a pretty rough investment. The worst thing is, when we get capital-intensive things that rot, rust, and depreciate, the next generation is locked into continuing the same thing that we're doing because they've got to continue generating the cash that that single-use building or machine requires to keep it up. This makes a confinement for the next generation.

The beauty of multiple-use equipment is, I agree it's not as fast as a boom loader and feller buncher and all this stuff--that's OK, we're not in a hurry--because, we're taking these over to the neighbor's woodlot and milling them up into lumber. I call this little mill the Stinger Missile of the lumber industry. The Stinger Missile is that little $5,000 shoulder-mounted bazooka that brings down that $16 million F16 fighter jet. That's what this is.

You take a load of logs to the lumber mill, somebody will walk out of the scale house, they'll tell you how much you have, how good it is, and what the price is. That's not what you call negotiating from a position of strength. And in agriculture, we've become price takers instead of price makers. And I say it's time to turn this around and become price makers instead of price takers. The average share of the retail dollar that the American farmer gets is now less than 9 cents. Just three decades ago it was still 35 cents on the retail dollar--we have slipped that much. How much more can we slip?

We believe it's time to take the full retail dollar if we can. We mill our logs up into lumber. The utility stuff we can use for our own building projects, and we sell the good stuff to cabinetmakers. But it at least allows us to return a great amount per board--about a thousand percent more than we get from wholesale--and yes, we're not touching as many acres, but there's going to be a lot of acres that will be left for when Daniel takes over. If we sold them wholesale, enough to make anything, it would be a once-a-generation sale. Isn't that the norm for nonindustrial private forestland, a once-in-a-lifetime sale? Why? Because the stumpage value is so low you've got to rape the whole thing in order to get anybody to come and cut it. Whereas we cut four, five, six acres a year, make $3,000 an acre, we don't have to touch that many acres. There's plenty there for Daniel.

We sell about $3--4,000 worth of firewood a winter. But we don't deliver it or split it. Most of it is U-haul. People come and get it. What we've found is that there's a tremendous niche for people who want to put some sweat equity into their firewood. The going rate in our area is $45 a pickup load, cut split and delivered. It takes you an hour to cut it, an hour to deliver it, an hour to split it. Time you take off the wear and tear on machinery, you're down to about $10 an hour return to labor--not putting any value on the timber stand, not putting any value on the land. We sell it for $30 a pickup load, not delivered and not split. We can do that in one hour. Makes our return to labor go up to $20--25.

By requiring them to come out to the farm and get it, we meet that emotional need in the men to justify owning a pickup truck to their wives. We're involved in meeting the needs of the whole person.

Sometimes we want to convert forestland to pasture, to get this diversity of landscape, the forest, the water, and the open land intersection. We go in with the Pigaerator--you've heard of bush hogs, these are honest-to-goodness bush hogs--they go in and take down the saplings. The ground is still rough, but we can sow small grains and let the pigs hog it down. The next year as the land turns more toward pasture we can grow corn, let the hogs hog it down, and self feed so you don't have to buy any grain for them, they just eat the ears, stalks, leaves, the whole nine yards. Instead of puncturing rubber tires, you just use the bush hogs, and get $3,000 an acre letting the animals do all the work.

Talk about diversifying your lifestyle. There's a lot of difference between the way Dad reacts when a stob runs through the tractor tire, and the joy of a 14-year old boy with a 5-gallon bucket stuck over the snout of a 400-pound pig riding Hi Ho Silver down through the corn patch. This diversity of lifestyle and joy is a real critical part in tapping on to opportunities.

This is the Tenderloin Taxi. A portable pen, you just move it around. It's a little more of a fence type thing. Just let the animals do the work. It completely changes the economics of the farm. In the winter--of course, multiple-use everything, throw a canopy over it, use it as a hog hotel. Twelve-year use, with appreciating stock, that's the idea.

Now we go to pasture management. We're mimicking the natural herbivores in nature, this is a high-density situation, mobbing and moving. Our predator is the electric fence. This allows us to put them where they need to be, for how long they need to be there.

The average for our county is 70 cow days per acre. We have paddocks that go 400 cow days per acre and we haven't bought fertilizer in 38 years. When I was a kid, I remember losing my place mowing hay, the hay was so thin. We used to pick dewberries by the 5-gallon bucketful, and we thought we were in the thistle-production business. Now you can't even find those kinds of things. We didn't plow it, we didn't plant it, we didn't fertilize it, we didn't till it. What we did was we managed it, we controlled it.

The biggest weak link between you and I is not the latest gadget, the latest gizmo out at the farm store. The easiest thing for you and I to do is go buy the latest, greatest craze, right?

The hardest thing to do is to have the mental discipline to realize that the answer, the gold mine for your farm and my farm, is right under our feet, it's between our ears. Discipline's a bad word. It's a lot easier to go sit in the banker's office instead of looking at our situation, and saying what can I do creatively to capture the resources that I already have? Why in the world would anybody want to buy any fertilizer, why would you buy anything, why would you buy a bull even, until you get control of what you've already got? Management and control is the key and the weak link. Then as the money comes in you can refine and buy soil amendments and other things.

The neighbors say that what we do takes too much work. Because for them, when you say move cows, it's three four-wheelers, two pickup trucks, three cans of Skoal snuff and a lot of spittin' and cussin'.

Without that pond, we couldn't control the graze. If we couldn't control the graze, we couldn't get 400 cow days per acre. It's the movement of the animals, the management of the animals, and being able to put that manure where we want it and have the cows where they are that makes the grass productive. So having water, and being able to water these animals in every paddock, is a fertilizer expense.

Folks, this is what we don't want. It's no good. We talk about diversifying the landscape for profit, pleasure, and production, this doesn't do any of those. So we go into all our riparian areas and we fence them out. We can control what's there, and then you see Canada geese come in, wildlife, wood ducks, and you see how clear the water is. We can pump out of these ponds, 3500 gallons an hour, it's environmentally enjoyable, and the kids don't have to be embarrassed when their friends come out to the farm and ask oooh! It smells, it's ugly, it stinks, whatever. This is important.

Now these cows are dropping something that's enjoyable for the flies and pathogens and the critters, but it's an incredibly important resource for us, so again looking at nature--how does nature sanitize? We realize that nature uses birds, so we put an Eggmobile behind the cattle, and the chickens free-range out from it and scratch through the cow patties and incorporate them into the soil, eat out the fly larvae. So everybody else is putting their cows through the headgate, shooting them up with Ivomec, makes the meat so bad it kills all the bugs. We're just collecting $4,000 worth of eggs every year as a byproduct of the pasture sanitation program.

It's time to start running animals to do the work. The reason the farm has to get big to stay in business is because most farms are in the materials-handling business. By letting that animal do the work, you get out of the materials-handling business and transportation, which is cheaper by the million, cheaper by the ton, cheaper by the cubic yard--and let animals do the work, the animals allow us to have a profit that's size-neutral. We don't have to have a million acres, we don't have to have a hundred head, we don't have to have all these things because we're not buying and depreciating equipment.

That pig doesn't need his oil changed, he doesn't need his parts replaced, he doesn't require minimum wage, what a great retirement program--when he's done working, you eat him! Letting the animal do the work completely changes the economics of the picture.

Small stock are wonderful for children. You don't have to worry about them being kicked or run over in the corral. You can net $1200 an acre in six months--no buildings, no machinery, that's it. Chickens are one of the golden opportunities in agriculture today.

The beauty of this model is that the children can go with me everywhere. We don't have skull-and-crossbones brews on our farm. We're not running turbocharged tractors. The average farm is so family-unfriendly and child-unfriendly that we have to push the children away, push the children away, while they're young and small, and so they get involved with ballet and arcade and video games and Little League and all that, and by the time they get 13 and could be really helpful, well . . .

Folks, we can come to a conference like this, we can talk about saving the world, sustainable agriculture, all these things, but until we have a food-production system that will romance the next generation into it, we're wasting our breath. We've got to fundamentally change the paradigm under which we produce food and market food and make the relationship between the land and people in this country. The average age of the American farmer is now almost 60 years old. In Virginia the ag economists tell us that in the next 20 years, 70 percent of Virginia's farmland is going to change hands.

Where are the young people? You open the gate at 18, the first thing they want to do is go to town and get a real job. Because we have created things that are so nonenvironmental, non-emotionally enjoyable, and not economical on the farm, that it's slavery, drudgery, stinky, dusty, noisy, and it ain't no fun.

When we talk about diversifying and creating a paradigm that will romance the next generation into it, we're talking about the backbone, the fundamentals, the basics of a food production system.

There's no place on the farm that I can't go with children. Rachel's time becomes just as valuable as mine. You can't send a child up to check on a confinement swine facility with 100 electric motors whirring, the grain augers and all this stuff. You can't do that.

This is the farm of the 21st century. Clean and green, native-friendly, family friendly, and diversified with open land, forest, and multiple enterprises on this pasture base.

It's a seasonal enterprise. Seasonality. We spin some and we rest some. And that makes it all enjoyable. It's not all drudgery. We extend the season with turkeys. One of our apprentices wanted to do some turkeys. We put a little blurb in the newsletter, boom, in ten days we had another $10,000 enterprise when the order blanks started coming in.

We are tiering, we are stacking enterprises on an existing land base. That does several things. On your farm, whether it's two acres or 1,000 acres, you need to think not in terms of expanding horizontally, but rather diversifying vertically, adding additional enterprises on that land base. These chickens, turkeys, all these things, they don't take a smidgen from the cows, all they do is make more fertility to make more grass. By adding those enterprises on that existing land base, that allows additional income-producing enterprises for tomorrow's generation. You've got beef cattle, or wheat, or dairy or whatever. You put a son in charge of the rabbit thing, a daughter in charge of the chicken thing, and the next generation, instead of producing one or two things, now produces 3, 4, 5, 15 things. You can now offer opportunities for the next generation to establish themselves in agriculture. Does that make sense?

The marketing is relationship marketing. What we want to do is to build bridges to people instead of barriers. We've created an agriculture that's a monster. We do everything we possibly can to keep people off the farm.

What we want to do is bring them on the farm. To see where their food comes from, build a relationship to the land. We have a customer base of about 400, we call them cheerleaders, and they come out to the farm.

We're not mass marketers, but they are enough. We can get the full retail dollar and the advantage of the emotional stability of having 400 markets instead of just one or two. When you market a commodity, and you're down at the sale barn or the grain elevator, or the packer or whatever, you've got one or two markets, what happens when things go bust or out of business--you're down to no market at all. We've got 400 customers. Even in the Depression, 70 percent of the people kept working. So we can have 30 percent unemployment, and we still have 300 working customers.

We're a farm, not a factory. So we do a lot of educating, explaining to people what's going on here. We have a farmer's market. Here's Daniel. We have a supermarket egg and one of our eggs, and he's explaining, showing the difference between the two eggs, we've got literature there as well. There's Rachel with her zucchini bread. Education, relationship, look at the self esteem it builds for the next generation.

We have an apprenticeship program. We're trying to diversify our life--not only diversified production base, diversified marketing base, but a diversified labor base, so as Teresa and I age, we're not going to be stuck in the same production models. We'll have young creative new energy to keep the place going as we age.

We don't have it all figured out. But if you continue to seek the truth and continue to learn and learn, and let nature teach you, you'd be surprised what you can learn, for you, for your children, for tomorrow's generation, as the 4-H motto says, for my community, my country, and my world. The people are growing--we've got more warm bodies on the land, that's our goal, get more warm bodies on the land, to diversify the creativity coming to this little niche of God's creation. Won't you all come and join us? Thank you.

Diversifying your pitch, your product, and your patrons

Diversifying your pitch

I'm not going to be dealing with commodity marketing. Just remember, there's a big difference between commodity marketing and what I call relationship marketing. In commodity marketing, you're going down to the sale barn, the grain elevator, and you're taking a commodity price. Yes, there are some things you can do, but relatively little. We're not talking about anything you can do that will affect the price more than 5 or 10 percent.

The beauty of commodities is that you are not limited by your own market. There's not a single person in this room, that if you went out and added a thousand steers, or a million chickens, or 2,000 sheep, would even make a blip on the commodity screen.

The beauty of commodities is that you can grow as fast as you can get access to land. Now our stocker enterprise is commodity-based. We're buying at the stockyard, selling at the stockyard. People are coming and asking us to operate their farms. As fast as we've got warm bodies and expertise to handle them, we can add them.

What I'm going to be dealing with now is entrepreneurial relationship marketing. The big difference is, that your market determines your production. That means the biggest temptation--especially as a farmer coming out of the production-oriented paradigm--the hardest thing is to keep our production in line with our marketing.

The three Es are education, examples, and evangelism. First we'll talk about education.

We put together a slide show. Every area has its clubs. Rotary club, Key club, women's club, junior women's club, garden club, AARP, retired teachers association, Soroptimist club. These clubs meet routinely, and they all have program chairs whose duty it is to come up with a program. Nine times out of 10 they will hear the auxiliary fundraiser for the fire department, or the local superintendent telling how money and bricks make education. They're not really the greatest thing to sit through.

We put together a slide program about our farm, how we can heal the land with livestock. And the other thing about city people, they get a steady dose on the six o'clock news, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings telling them that the farmers are their worst enemy. The cows are belching and destroying the ozone.

The average person really likes T-bone steak. What they don't like is all the guilt associated with it. As Jeremy Rifkin says, it takes 5,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef--obviously coming from the paradigm of completely unenvironmental, uneconomic production model.

When I go in and show them how we can actually heal the land with livestock, we can maintain beautiful viewscapes with animals, in an environmentally enhancing way, that is neighbor-friendly--when you can do that, people just go nuts over it. They didn't know that a farmer could be friendly to the environment. They thought that in order to produce pigs, it has to be in a 10,000-sow swine concentration camp, with million-gallon manure spills killing all the fish downstream.

When they are able to see a commercial enterprise that is environmentally friendly, why suddenly the light goes on, "I could actually eat a hamburger." At the very end, you say, now, if you would like to participate in this kind of agriculture, I happen to have order blanks. You make a very nominal sales pitch.

What we're really in is the people business. If you set out your goal to educate people, to touch people with information that can enhance their lives, they will respond. If you touch them with information that can enhance their lives, and make their quality of life better, they will respond appropriately.

We got a little pamphlet here. Vote with your food dollar: You can help save the family farm, revitalize rural America, encourage humane treatment of animals, protect your health and that of the planet, and a philosophical apologetic for voting with your food dollar. At these meetings, here's all the movers and shakers in the community. And I say, now, you've got a choice today. You've just seen how we can heal the earth with a proper agricultural model. You've got grandchildren. You don't like these smelly concentration-camp chicken farms. You don't like the nitrate contamination in the groundwater. Today, you can vote. You don't have to go through your legislator. You don't have to be as inefficient as trying to get 51 percent majority to agree with you. You can vote today in the marketplace with your food dollar, and patronize a local producer so that we can revitalize this rural economy and keep the farmers healthy profitably so that we can maintain these viewscapes.

We don't need all these conservation easements, all we need is for people to patronize their local clean farmers, and the marketplace will make this rise to the top, just because of the power of the marketplace.

Out of a group of 50 people, you get maybe 3 or 4. I don't do it nasty, and it doesn't take but about 30 seconds. The point is to go ahead and give the altar call. You've got a choice, today is your choice. We get letters to the editor all the time about feedlots, manure contamination in the creeks, and about the Chesapeake Bay. Are you going to be part of the solution or part of the problem? It really does boil down to that.

If the groups are AARP and retired teachers associations, they give door prizes. We take a couple chickens or T-bone steaks, or some eggs, and add it to the door prizes and they just love it. It spreads goodwill. Garden clubs are always my favorite. I'll take beef or chicken in a slow-cooker and plug it in, just let it simmer there during the meeting. No seasoning, no nothing. When we get done, take a platter and a canister of toothpicks, and they taste it. I usually take a dozen eggs. I ask the hostess for an egg from her refrigerator, and I compare them in saucers. These ladies, they go nuts over it. The average person has never been hit over the head with a 2 x 4 that yes, there is a difference in food.

We've got to educate them. At the farmer's market I've a big sign that we put up, "Our cows don't eat chicken manure and dead cows." We put that during the mad-cow syndrome thing.

Those of us in the agricultural sector, that see extension programs promoting this, we know that it happens. We're all provincial in our own way. We think, well that's common knowledge. Everybody knows that. Well everybody doesn't know that. People's memory is very short. They've got to be touched constantly, to be educated, to realize there is a difference. Once you get them to see the difference, then everything else is downhill. The problem is when people don't really think there's a difference.

Examples

Nobody runs down the aisles of the supermarket saying I've been using Head and Shoulders shampoo for 10 years, and for some reason I've just got a hankering for Flounce. Nobody does that, because we're creatures of habit. Procter and Gamble knows that the only way for you to start buying a new shampoo, is for you to get a sample in the mail. You're always predisposed to like a sample, because it's a gift. Everybody likes a gift.

We've given away tons of stuff. We farmers, we sit around and we complain about how they don't appreciate us, they don't understand us. We write editorials in our farm publications, and we yak about those ignoramus city people. Didn't ever occur us to win 'em with love, did it? Who's gonna be the first one to reach out?

Do you think there's a bunch of people from the city who are going to take a hankering one day to all get together in a bus and go tooling around the countryside and find somebody who farms with cattle in an environmentally enhancing way? No way. They're going to keep writing their checks off to the Beltway in Washington to print out more pablum. Until we in the agriculture community reach out to them, the ignorance will continue to exist. It doesn't do anybody any good to just call each other names. So we give out samples, and they always come back. Over all the years, with all the T-bone samples we gave, we only had one who didn't come back.

The next E is evangelism. Whenever we get a call, and we hear "I heard about your chickens, we want to get on your mailing list." My first question is, not How many do you want, but Where did you hear about us? If we can trace it back to a person, Jane Doe, then we make a little post-it note, the next time she comes to the farm, we thank you for recommending so and so to us. If she's a chicken customer we give her beef, if she's chicken and beef we give her pork, if she's chicken beef and pork we give her eggs, a rabbit. The point is we show them some appreciation.

Our world is starved for a little bit of appreciation. A little bit of that goes a long way. We're not into taking-number business--what's your customer number. We're into names, we're into relationships.

If you've ever clerked in a store, at a cash register, you know there's a few people you'd just as soon not come into the store. They complain, you just don't want to deal with them. The beauty of having our customers come from our evangelists is, our current customers have already screened tomorrow's generation of customers. So they know that they pay their bills, they've got the right philosophy, they're with it, they've got it. That keeps us from wading through people who write bad checks, people who complain, people who don't get it. It gives us a very efficient next echelon, next level, next generation of patrons. By turning our own patrons into our evangelists, it eliminates all those problems that small businesses are always dealing with--accounts receivable, having to reinvent the wheel with everybody that comes along.

Our evangelists are giving the protocol to the next customers--this is seasonal, you've got to order it now. That makes our job a lot simpler.

Those are several pitches that have worked and they've been extremely effective. Generally speaking we have found that small-scale entrepreneur clean green producers don't get very far with generic broadcast advertising, because it brings a lot of people that you've got to weed through. People come with perceptions--oh, we're getting it directly from the farmer, so we're going to get it cheap! That's normal.

Diversifying your product

If you don't remember anything else I say, remember this: it's a lot easier to find a hundred people who will spend $1000 with you, than a thousand people who will spend $100. The hardest part in marketing is getting the customer. That's where the effort is. When any entity or organization, a movement, tries to grow, the problem is getting another person, getting them in the door.

Once they're in the door, they're ready to buy. "Hey, I've made the investment, I'm in the old horseless carriage, I've driven down here, I've got a pocketful of money, I'm ready to spend." Once they've made that investment, they're ready to buy. So let's not just offer beef. Let's offer chicken. You've got an orchard, a pond--maybe they can fish before they pick up their chickens? Maybe it's deer season.

The beauty of stacking or diversifying your product line, your market portfolio, is that you're getting a lot more dollars from the patrons you already have. We've got patrons who buy half a beef, half a pig, a hundred chickens, 50 dozen eggs, 4 turkeys, suddenly you've got somebody spending $3,000. And it doesn't take too many people spending $3,000 with you to make a decent living.

Diversifying your patrons

Individuals get a newsletter, brochure, newsletter, order blanks. All on a first-come and first-serve basis. It doesn't take but one year for people to miss out and they get on the stick the next year. We're not out speculating, hoping the market will be there. We presell everything.

We sell to restaurants. They advertise our eggs, "raised on pasture, fresh local farm eggs, no hormones, medications, or synthetics, rich color, rich taste, only 25 cents more per egg, any order, exclusively Polyface Farms."

They sell 30 dozen a week, that's over $2,000 a year for a little sole proprietorship. It doesn't take any more waitressing, any more refrigerator space, dishwasher, or griddle space. It's a win/win situation. We win, we've got the market. They make more on these eggs than they do on 60 cent a dozen eggs, the patrons gets what they want, everybody wins. We've got to come up with systems, with models, that will allow all the parties to win. We've got this notion that in order for me to win, you've got to lose. Well that's not true.

Most of our market is to gourmet restaurants. We have a subcontractor that delivers once a week. We have a delivery charge that goes down as they order more, but we don't compromise our FOB Polyface price, we're not giving any volume discount. The restaurant understands how much is going to delivery, how much is going to the farm.

We have created a monster in this country by not separating out the cost of transportation and the middleman cost in our food. When the consumer goes to the grocery store and buys whatever for x amount of money, he or she has no clue as to how much the farmer gets. The ignorance is aided and abetted by our food production system.

No volume discount. We're not in the commodity business. It doesn't get cheaper by the dozen. We don't save anything by adding another hundred birds. We get our retail price. The subcontractor who makes a delivery, wants to sell more, because he gets a commission, he likes to fill up the van. He has an incentive to fill the van. The chef has an incentive to buy, because the delivery surcharge goes down.

It is fun to market something that's good. I would hate to be a salesman where all I had to offer was price. But to actually sell something that's excitingly better than all the other competition, is exciting!

Finally, the farmer's market. We have 400 cheerleaders who come out to the farm. On a scale of 1 to 10, one 1 being a no-care and the 10 being the people who have really opted out of the system. They're into it.

You don't move people from 1 to 10 overnight, remember that. When you're debating someone, when you're dealing with somebody, trying to change their mind, you don't do any good if you're a 10 and try to move them to where you are. It doesn't work. What you want to do, is if they are a 1, you want to them to move to a 2. If they are a 2, you want them to go to 3. This is the art of persuasion. You've got to catch people where they are. You can't push too hard on a string, it will get all doubled up on you.

The farmer's market has allowed us to go from 9s and 10s down to people who are 5s, 6s and 7s. Yeah, they want something a little better, fresh local stuff, but they haven't made the plunge to really get out to the farm. We meet and educate those folks, bring them along.

We're not just selling food, we're selling a story. People want integrity and they want character. That's what they want. That's what the concentration-camp agriculture enterprises can't give them. We can give them integrity and we can give them character, and we can give them a story that they can take back and tell their children and their children's children, and bless them with good clean food. That's the story we're promoting. Let people partake of that, and they will become loyal beyond your wildest expectations. We've been given things from Lincoln town cars, to $100 bills, because people say, We believe in what you're doing. Now I don't know how many of us have sat in the sale barn and ever gotten that kind of response.

It creates an entirely different emotional support structure to have people who believe in you, who want you to succeed, who are there rooting for you, and whose children run between your legs and give you accountability, and not cutting your corners because you wouldn't do a thing to these friends--these aren't some nameless, faceless people a thousand miles away. Having these people run through your legs and being able to see them week to week--you wouldn't begin to cut a corner and give them E. coli or salmonella. This is the accountability that comes full circle to us the producer, to keep us honest. We hold them accountable by offering the best in the world, they hold us accountable by coming to us. It's all a win/win situation that hinges on people. It will work for you.

It's real. This is life, this isn't just humdrum, move the cows, take 'em to the sale barn, grouse about the price all day. This is life, this is people, this is relationships. By diversifying your pitch, your product, your patrons, you can change your farm from one that's going down the tube to one that's there for you, your children, multiple generations, as you stack your agricultural enterprise into one that is environmentally, emotionally, and economically successful.

Patterns of Choice, 1998

  • Ranching and farming (section). More stories about sustainable agriculture that provides good wages plus social and environmental benefits.
  • Pastured poultry (articles) such as free-range chickens are one of today's most profitable small-farm enterprises.