I might never have found my way to Polyface Farm if Joel Salatin hadn’t refused to FedEx me one of his chickens. “No, I don’t think you understand. I don’t believe it’s sustainable–‘organic,’ if you will–to FedEx meat all around the country,” Joel told me.Michael Pollen, Mother Jones (2006)
As some of you may (or may not) have heard, Polyface Farms has recently abandoned their farm’s core tenet of Local Community and decided to start shipping some of their products nationally. For the past 30 + years, they have served a 4 hour radius of their farm in the Shenandoah Valley with online ordering to drop points, buying clubs, and (of course) on-farm sales. Polyface Farms is the most visible and famous example of restorative + sustainable agriculture today. They have been featured in numerous books, films, workshops, and seminars and have inspired an entire generation of farmers. After reading, listening and reflecting on their decision, this is our response.
My husband and I first read the Omnivore’s Dilemma in college, and 7 seasons later, we are first-generation farmers, with 3 kids and 80 acres.
We work full-time on the farm to supply our local community with fresh milk, grassfed beef and pastured pork.
As a young, bootstrapping family with a non-existent budget, we scrimped, saved and used every birthday, anniversary and Christmas for years as an excuse to add to our library one more of your precious books or films. Every opportunity we had, we traveled in our state to experience your passion in person.
I witnessed the exhaustion on your face one evening in Grand Rapids, after giving a rousing talk that brought folks of both business and faith to their feet, clapping and cheering.
I saw the sacrifice that you (and your family) made in order for you to travel, speak and write extensively – for all for us.
Sacrifices that were made so that anyone could be inspired, learn and rest in the refreshing honesty of your perfectly crafted, and inspiring words that reverberated with integrity
We owe your farm’s visibility so much – you are so many people’s first exposure to farming in a sustainable, regenerative, value-driven way. It resonates with them as it resonated with us.
So many of our customers see what you’re modeling through movies, books and interviews, and they want to find it locally.
All that is to say, we have lived our lives and grown our business inspired by the values you have espoused for so long.
It is because we hold you in such high esteem that we were truly conflicted by Polyface Farms’ decision to start shipping its products across the country.
I will never criticize a business for thoughtful growth. It is, of course, completely your decision to do what is best for your business.
However, I have to say I felt a twinge of disappointment and, dare I say, betrayal.
And, I understand that it wasn’t entirely your decision.
Polyface has grown into a huge enterprise with many faces and voices at the table.
But so many of us have staked our lives on the values you profess – local, community-based, regenerative agriculture.
So many of us face the same challenges in our local markets that you mentioned, from restaurants or local grocers backing out of agreements, to customers who balk at our prices.
We’ve all been there. We ARE there.
But, we have worked hard to cultivate personal customer relationships to buoy our business. We don’t rely on on-farm sales alone – delivery to urban markets is almost a given in any direct-marketing business.
However, we own the means of distribution and delivery. It’s a vertical integration and still allows us to maintain and develop relationships and report with our customers, which is integral to any local, transparent food system.
We have also had to develop the skills necessary to build a solid website, blog, and social media pages to continue that relationship with our customers. This is something that is hard-fought in the trenches of the internet – learning SEO, algorithms, creating content, and adding marketing time to our daily chore list.
Online presence is 100% necessary to any small business, and farming is no exception.
Through immense grace, insane luck or some combination of the two, your farm was given a platform on an unimaginable scale (without the work required by all small farmers entering the market today).
Yes, you built an incredible farm and business before him. You and Teresa deserve 100% of the credit.
But, imagine if you had shipped that chicken to Michael Pollan.
He may have tried it, given you a phone interview, written a nice piece about your farm that may have garnered some attention; maybe you would have seen a bump in sales for a bit. And that would be the end.
Instead, you didn’t.
Instead, Pollan took the time to visit the quirky farmer with the weird ideas, with whom he likely agrees on almost nothing politically, who refused to compromise his values and principles, and his world was flipped upside down.
He experienced it all – he got the vision, the views, the smells and the TASTE of what farming and food could be. What they were meant to be.
Because you wouldn’t ship him a chicken.
But, if your farm can’t be viable while staying true to its core values, then what the hell have you been selling everyone for the last 25 years?
Michael Pollan may have given you the platform and notoriety, but it is you who made a second career telling folks that You Can Farm.
With a little bit of elbow grease, creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit, you taught us through numerous books, documentaries, Polyface primers, speaking events, workshops, field days.
“So you urge everyone to go out and FARM. Heal the land, rotational graze, don’t use chemicals, use nature. And we jump, risking everything, sweating, toiling, being called crazy by relatives, getting up early to go to the market, traveling to VA to SEE-THE-POLYFACE………..struggling to BE – LIKE – POLYFACE.
Wearing your T-shirts at our market, professing your words, changing hearts and minds with YOUR-WORDS. Selling local.
And now Polyface is the BEHEMOTH that will take away our local business.
Rome has fallen. The Idea is betrayed.
Shame Joel. Shame.”
These words are not meant to tear you down.
Folks are responding out of deep, abiding love and respect for you and your work.
Because you have been the leader of the local, sustainable, regenerative, land healing farming movement. We expected better.
We actually aren’t opposed to shipping per se. We know several farms who have scaled large enough that shipping makes sense for their business.
But please don’t call your food local anymore. Nor sustainable.
“COMMUNITY: We do not ship food. We should all seek food closer to home, in our foodshed, our own bioregion. This means enjoying seasonality and reacquainting ourselves with our home kitchens.”Polyface Farms (website) 2019
Your no-shipping policy (under the heading “COMMUNITY”) was one of your farms’ core principles, along with transparency, grass-based, individuality, nature’s template, and earthworms; and shipping has been an option since at least 2002 when Michael Pollan wanted that chicken.
If you can toss out that core principle, and will now be coating your food in fossil fuels as it travels around the country, how are we to believe that your farm will stay non-GMO? Maybe next year you’ll decide that GMO’s aren’t so bad and they’ll make you more profitable.
Will you also start doing business on Sundays?
Which values change and “evolve” for convenience and profit and which ones are the true, core principles?
Shipping is not the “natural evolution” to a local, sustainable farm business.
Taking credit cards, having a robust website, active social media accounts, hosting farm tours – these are part of doing business in 2019.
When someone is first introduced to the “integrity” food movement through one of the innumerable articles, films, and books your farm is featured in – where is the incentive for them to “find their farmer” when they can order from the famous farm in all those films, books and articles?
And they will feel good about it because you still champion local, sustainable, regenerative, community-based agriculture (coated in petrol).
I understand this letter won’t change your decision.
And I know it was a painful decision. I suspect it’s not a decision that originated with you and yet you are taking the publicity (positive and negative) for the decision.
And I can imagine the excitement around Polyface about the new venture.
But, please understand why so many feel shock, grief, disappointment and betrayal at this decision.
There are so many of us who have risked everything to follow in your footsteps and we’re left wondering which core principles you’re going to remove next.
As the defacto leader of the local food movement, you have inspired an entire generation of young farmers to shift the food paradigm.
Deeming national shipping as acceptable only means that others will surely follow suit; what gains that have been made in creating a local, viable, food system will wither away as everyone chases their tail to “keep up with the times.”
My hope is that others who were inspired by you, will resist the temptation to give in to consumer demands for “convenience” and stay true to the pursuit of a seasonal, local, and sustainable food system; but your departure from our ranks, will certainly shake the faith of many.
We wish you all the best, with love + respect // Two Sparrows Farm