5 Ways We Can Scale Sustainable Farming

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Scalable systems, such as these multipurpose structures, enable producers to expand incrementally.
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The author’s portable broiler pens require minimal investment and can be easily replicated.
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One tractor can perform multiple duties: just add implements.
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These do-it-yourself eggmobiles keep startup costs low.
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Movable hoophouses, such as these turkey shelters, can be useful for farms of various sizes.

Those of us dedicated to sustainable agriculture have distinct ideas about how to define it and what it should look like. We use adjectives like “soil-building,” “water-conserving,” “air-cleansing,” “people-respecting,” “nutrient-enhancing” and “animal-honoring.” Adhering to these attributes is a great litmus test for Earth-friendly agriculture.

But I’d like to add another measure to the mix: “scalable.” Some 25 years ago, when sustainable farming folks had first begun asking me to speak at their conferences, I’d finish with my song and dance, and inevitably the first question would be, “That’s dandy, Joel, but does it scale up?”

It was a fair question. At that time, Polyface Farm was 100 acres of open land that my parents had owned since 1961. They had worked outside jobs to support the farm, but I was determined to make my living farming full time. We were serving only about 200 families with products from our animals. Our family was the only labor force. We didn’t make deliveries, serviced no restaurants, and required customers to order in advance and drive out to the farm for scheduled pickups.

It was quaint, family-scale, highly profitable — and more fun than we could have imagined. A lot of work, yes, but it was noble, sacred, family-centric work. The past 25 years have brought enormous changes. These days, when I finish a presentation, the first question most often is, “That’s dandy, Joel, but does it scale down?

Scaling Up Your Sustainable Farming Practices

What happened in those 25 years to change the question? Our farm grew, that’s what happened. Today, we lease nine properties, manage 1,200 acres of open land, and graze pigs on acorns and other goodies in the forest, which leverages an additional 800 acres. We’re running nearly 1,000 head of cattle, 1,000 hogs, 4,000 laying hens, 25,000 broilers and 2,000 turkeys. Our 20-person staff includes delivery drivers, marketers, accountants, subcontractors, apprentices, apprentice managers, interns and office workers, and we now serve 5,000 families, 50 restaurants and 10 retail outlets.

I don’t provide this information to brag, but simply to highlight the growth we’ve experienced and underscore the scalability of just one sustainable farming operation. We didn’t envision this. We never had a business plan. It just happened.

But now that we’re big enough to be considered a business, beginning farmers and folks with smaller acreages are looking at our model and asking, “Where do we fit in?” I’ve spent some time pondering the whole matter of scale, and I’ve concluded that scalability is indeed a benchmark of successful sustainable agricultural prototypes. The beauty of our farm’s growth is that it has required almost no borrowed money — and the infrastructure is still worthless, at least to a bank.

Let me explain. My first portable henhouse, which we’ve dubbed the “eggmobile,” was a 6-by-8-foot rectangle with 3-foot-tall walls, mounted on bicycle wheels, and it housed 50 laying hens. I built this movable chicken coop out of scrap for a total investment of about $100. It was light enough to push around by hand. Electrified poultry netting had not yet been invented, so I built 4-foot-tall and 10-foot-long poultry-netting panels out of quarter-inch steel rod. Creating two sets of three eggmobiles allowed me to set them up in a hexagon pattern.

That project worked so well that the next year I redesigned the henhouse to mount on the tractor’s three-point hitch. Connecting the eggmobile and tractor allowed me to run the chickens behind the cattle and let them range freely. The birds tore into the cow manure, spreading out the patties and eating all the fly larvae. I knew I was on to something.

Because hooking the henhouse up to the three-point hitch was laborious, the following year I built a bigger coop and I mounted it on a mobile-home axle. With 100 birds in there, I thought I had arrived at the big leagues. But the year after that, I decided to be more efficient, build more houses, and increase the number of chickens. Besides, customers loved the eggs and were asking for more.

Today, we run these eggmobiles in pairs, hooked together, with each holding 400 birds apiece, creating flocks of 800 laying hens. We have six pairs of eggmobiles. Some are not quite as big and only house a 500-bird flock. After supplemental feed costs and labor, the largest expense is the hens, which cost about $5 apiece to replace with new pullets. We sell our eggs for $4.50 a dozen and net about $1 after labor and expenses.

Polyface Farms: Best Practices

The eggmobile model was profitable as a tiny backyard prototype because the infrastructure cost next to nothing. The scheme could scale up with cash flow from the enterprise because the subsequently larger eggmobiles were also cheap and could be added as demand grew. We didn’t need to build the whole fleet in a day; we could add more of our movable coops as our skills and the market expanded.

Contrast this model with that of industrial agriculture. If I wanted to raise eggs for the commodity market, getting started would require roughly a million-dollar investment for a confinement facility. Even if we set aside for a moment the odors, effluent, animal-welfare issues or any other such considerations, the industrial model carries an enormous entry-level price tag, which prohibits most people from entering the business, and requires farmers to take on debt. That model does not scale down — you can’t start small.

A production model that is efficient or functional only at a large scale excludes low-capital beginners, which makes it exclusive — even elitist. I think a good model is an Everyman model, or what I refer to as a “whosoever will, may come” model.

On the other hand, if a production model functions well only at the tiny end of the scale, it loses credibility as a viable business. While spare-time production is wonderful, limiting an enterprise to this scale dooms it to the periphery of agricultural systems. Though I’m a big fan of tiny — and lots of tiny producers can add up to serious production volume — we also need systems that can offer full-time salaries and support many families well.

The capacity to expand or contract the size of a sustainable farming business must be seamless up and down the scale in order to make room for any willing, knowledgeable participant to take up the profession. The industrial agriculture model presents itself as the only economically viable approach to feeding large numbers of people. We disagree with that assumption, but to prove it, we’re going to have to expand our capacity — without breaking the bank and sending sustainable producers into debt. Here are my recommendations, based on commonalities among the scalable systems I’ve observed.

Portable infrastructure. This includes shelter, water and fencing as well as specialized equipment necessary for your farming enterprise. Portable systems tend to be cheaper, and can be placed anywhere, whether the land is owned by the farmer or leased from a neighbor. Eliminating the cost of purchasing land will go a long way toward enabling entry into farming. This flexibility encourages more farmer-to-farmer collaboration.

Do-it-yourself infrastructure. Possessing basic construction, fabrication and welding skills can transform an otherwise capital-intensive project into a low-budget venture. The difference in upfront costs between doing these essential tasks for yourself or hiring them done can make or break profitability.

Additional units rather than bigger buildings. Big buildings are cheaper per square foot than small ones. That economy of scale pushes us to build larger than is necessary on the front end. If expansion can come from additional units instead of larger ones, grandiose building at the outset loses its economic appeal. Rather than imagining how big you could build something, think how small it could be while still remaining viable in function and profit. If one unit works, build more!

Multipurpose infrastructure. If you have to buy a machine or construct a stationary building, make sure it can fulfill a number of objectives. Never buy or build a single-use structure. Let your tractor perform multiple functions by adding implements, and don’t purchase any dedicated, single-function machines.

Use it. Don’t let a machine or building sit empty or idle. Depreciation happens regardless of whether something is being used. If you own it, use it. Rent land, equipment and machinery as long as possible and purchase as a last resort, when you have enough volume to justify the expense.

A truly sustainable agricultural model that can move seamlessly from small to large and large to small represents the best farming practices — an adaptability that fosters hope for how our side can continue to grow itself.

Joel Salatinpractices sustainable agriculture with his family on Polyface Farm in Virginia. His books include Fields of Farmers; Folks, This Ain’t Normal; andThe Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.

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