5 Ways We Can Scale Sustainable Farming

Joel Salatin helped grow his family farm into a highly successful sustainable business by following these commonsense farming practices.

  • Scalable Farm Systems
    Scalable systems, such as these multipurpose structures, enable producers to expand incrementally.
    Photo by Deborah Welky Miles
  • Portable Broiler Pens
    The author’s portable broiler pens require minimal investment and can be easily replicated.
    Photo by Kristen Kilfoyle
  • Tractor Duties
    One tractor can perform multiple duties: just add implements.
    Photo by Kubota
  • DIY Eggmobiles
    These do-it-yourself eggmobiles keep startup costs low.
    Photo by Kristen Kilfoyle
  • Movable Hoophouses
    Movable hoophouses, such as these turkey shelters, can be useful for farms of various sizes.
    Photo courtesy Polyface Farms

  • Scalable Farm Systems
  • Portable Broiler Pens
  • Tractor Duties
  • DIY Eggmobiles
  • Movable Hoophouses

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.

2/3/2015 8:42:45 AM

Norrie, our entire magazine is pretty much devoted to folks with smaller acreages or large gardens. If you haven't read it, please check it out. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised!

1/25/2015 3:46:57 PM

The questions "but does it scale down?", and "folks with smaller acreages are asking "Where do we fit in?" haven't been answered here. I love what Joel does and the passion he exudes, but what ABOUT us with smaller acreage not wanting to make it a business, just wanting to raise the food for our families? I'm beginning to think that Joel's mission is to get all the farmers to grow things this way and keep expanding until we put the big bad guys out of business. But by just farming to feed our own families the same permaculture way, it keeps us out of the super markets, thereby reducing demand from those big guys too. Doesn't it? Why can't he offer up some helpful information for people who only have 5 or 10 acres with a pair of sheep, goats, cows, rabbits and some chickens in the yard? Once in a while.?

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