Monday, September 15, 2008

Just Asking the Question...

First of all I am not really coming to a conclusion on this one, but I am asking the question. Now that I have that out of the way here is the question: Is Polyface Farm (and Joel Salatin) still the small family farm that was written about in You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise and Mr. Salatin's other books? I the September issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer" Mr. Salatin writes about the abattoir that he along with a couple others recently purchased ... for something like one million dollars. If you add to that the interns and employees now working at Polyface is it still the samething that he wrote about?

On one hand they still only sell locally and the additon of the employees free up Mr. Salatin and his son for speaking engagements to encourage and teach others. On the other hand it does have the appeance of getting pretty pig. Then of course I can see their great reasoning and business planning behind buying the abattoir that they use so they wouldn't lose it, but it does seem like they are going against some of things he has written about (although there may not have been any other good option).

I guess I just wanted to throw the question out there because it was one of the first things that popped into my head when I read that Polyface had purchased this abattoir. I would love to hear what some of you think. Is it a good idea/following with the Polyface ideals to make such a large purchase? It is food for thought if nothing else...

12 comments:

Yeoman said...

I have his "You Can Farm" book, but haven't read it yet, so I'll ask this.

How do you perceive that this might be against what he wrote? I don't mean this flippantly, I'm genuinely curious, given that I haven't read him yet.

I did read his introduction just recently. One thing I'd note there is that he notes he inherited the land. Perhaps I'll feel differently as I read the book, but that was somewhat deflating. It's one thing to feel "you can farm" if you inherit sufficient land. It's another to start out without it and hope to get into something that's all land based.

Rich said...

I read an article about a year ago in which Salatin was talking about how he went about increasing the size of the beef side of his farm. He had to borrow money to quickly expand the number of cattle they were grazing, so he sent an email to his existing 1200 customers and said that to enable him to supply enough beef he wanted to borrow $1000 interest-free from each of them that he would pay back after one year. Supposedly he got an overwhelming response and his cattle herd quickly grew six times bigger.

That sounds like something that everybody could "easily" do doesn't it? Just ask for an interest-free loan and the money will roll in and you will be able to quickly build a cattle herd to supply beef to all your lenders. Are his books filled with valuable information and "real world" tips similar to this great advice?

Blair said...

I feel like I should stick up for Joel. If you read his book on family farming, he talks about how his dad bought that farm at a discount because it was so run down the owners couldn't make money with it. His father started with one crappy old tractor and it was his ability to think outside the box regarding traditional farming mentalities that turned the farm around. Joel has that same ability, he is making tons of money by doing things differently and he is amazing at it. If you can't tell, Joel is somewhat of a role-model for me...

Anonymous said...

I have heard similar arguments by our local extension agent ... that Joel's operation isn't typical and that he supplements his income w/ a significant speaking circuit.

My thought is ... sure, I couldn't just replicate his operation and be equally sucessful... but, I COULD replicate his system and do much better than starting from scratch and making all the same mistakes. The truth is that his operation is very accessible by way of his videos... his articles... his books... and he keeps no secrets. You can even go see him speak :)

That being said... I'm thankful for the influence he has had on the growing "local food" movement ... you can see the DNA of his influence all over the place.

Ethan Book said...

As I said in the original post I really wasn't saying one way or the other how I feel, I was just asking the question because it came to mind.

I guess the question could be is a farm that serves 1200 beef customers (is that only halves and wholes?) a small family farm? I really can't say.

But, let me reiterate that I think Mr. Salatins ideas are invaluable and have really inspired me and got me going in the direction we are headed ... and I have read and re-read his books. I was just posing the question that I thought would come up in some circles (because there are plenty of people that poo-poo what he does) to see what the best answer would be.

Oh ... and I don't think he is keeping his farm afloat from the speaking circuit ... he still has to pay labor to fill in while he is gone ... I just think it is great that he is willing to share!

Yeoman said...

"I feel like I should stick up for Joel. If you read his book on family farming, he talks about how his dad bought that farm at a discount because it was so run down the owners couldn't make money with it."

As noted, I'm not criticizing him, as I haven't read his book yet. It would be a poor idea to criticize somebody's book without reading it.

Still, I'd note this is a huge advantage. Having land, even poor land, is a huge advantage over having no land. In some ares, like the one I'm in, it's all the difference in the world.

One thing I hope the book might suggest is some means of getting land.

Yeoman said...

"I guess the question could be is a farm that serves 1200 beef customers (is that only halves and wholes?) a small family farm? I really can't say"

From my prospective, a "family farm" is one that principally relies on family labor. I think the size of it doesn't really matter. At the bottom end, you have part time, or "hobby" farms. At the top end, some are pretty substantial. But if they're family farms, they're limited in size, sooner or later, by the fact their family centric.

At the point at which a farmer is working for somebody else who owns the land, or the enterprise, it is not a family farm. And, at the point at which the farmer must have employees (as opposed to occasional employees, or part time employees) it's no longer a family farm. It may very well still be a family business, but then Ford Motors was a family business.

This is a Yeoman view. That is, I feel that the Yeoman farm, or the Wendell Berry vision of economics, makes the most sense, or is the most just. But it's limiting in scale.

Is Salatin's enterprise beyond that? I have no idea. And if it is, does that matter?

As a further aside, I don't see anything contrary to being a family farmer for the family farm to invest in side businesses. Quite a few do.

Ethan Book said...

Yeoman-

That seems like a well reasoned response. As I said, I was just throwing the question out because I was sure that it would come out in some circles...

Steven said...

Last night I read the first half of this article and the article about Tallgrass Beef. Now, compared to Tallgrass Beef, Polyface is still a small/local/family operation. Yes, it's grown alot, but, it's a local farm, and not a grass fed beef Business like Tallgrass which is supplying beef to large customers, all over the country, year round, using about 100 farmers to keep the supply up. If you like grass fed, their is nothing wrong with this type of business, it's just not small and local.

Mellifera said...

There's nothing wrong with having inherited land. I don't have land now, but we hope to get some and claw our way into getting it a running operation and have our kids take it over. I think it's pretty cool to see that making that kind of effort can actually pay off for your family. In a way seeing what Polyface has managed to achieve helps me feel like it's not just a crazy quest.

And sure, they're big, but they sure ain't conventional agriculture. It's a lot better for the environment, local economics, etc. And all that "extra labor" is people getting learning how to do the same thing. I don't really feel like that's a terrible thing.

Peter said...

As a side note Salatin does say in "You Can Farm" that inherited land is not necessarily an advantage, and can often be a problem. I wouldn't mind having that "problem" but that's his perspective . . .

Mellifera said...

If anyone's still interested, I found a recent interview with the man that goes a little bit into how and why their farm has taken this direction.

http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/Joel-Salatin-Interview.aspx

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