Monday, January 19, 2009

Fooding off the Grid: The Polyface Model

Few things are as visceral and close to the human condition as food. We can get along without electricity, petroleum, or computers. But we can’t do without food.

He who controls food controls the people. And the fewer people who produce food, or know how to produce food, or cook food, or store food, or have any knowledge of food, the easier it is to control people. Creating a dependent civilization requires disconnecting and disenfranchising people from their food.

Here at Polyface Farm, we’ve been fooding off the grid for half a century. While this may seem an ungrammatical use of the word, it portrays exactly the kind of food freedom we espouse. The liberating spirit that naturally occurs when we can produce food with little or no energy inputs and stockpile it in the basement without bar codes and supermarkets is truly remarkable.

For sake of this short discussion, I will use our farm model as a template to articulate fooding off the grid.

PRODUCTION We produce beef, pork, poultry, and rabbit using perennial pastures as the foundation. We look at the animal or plant and ask: “How can we provide a habitat that most closely accentuates your physiological distinctiveness?” For example, how can a pig fully express its pigness, or an apple its appleness?

By looking at God’s design in creation, we can see patterns. Cows, which are herbivores, should mimic natural herds like bison or wildebeests. And what do they exhibit? They don’t spread out over an area, but stay clumped in a mob for predator protection. They don’t stay in the same place, but daily move along to a new area. And finally, they mow forage. They don’t eat carrion and bird manure.

As a result, at Polyface we practice mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization. I know that’s a mouthful, but it sure beats a corn-based feedlot relying on tilled annuals, copious petroleum inputs, machinery, and long distance transportation. Instead, we use portable electric fencing to move the cows daily to a new salad bar of solar-energized perennials. The cows simply walk into the next paddock. This system increases production astronomically and makes meat and milk higher in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid.

In nature, what follows herbivores? Birds. At Polyface, then, we follow the cows with Eggmobiles. Free range laying hens sanitize behind the herd, scratching through cow pats, eating out parasites and fly larvae, and incorporating the manure into the soil. All without petroleum, pesticides, or permanent buildings. Eggs are simply a byproduct of the biological sanitation procedure.

Using natural principles like symbiosis, stacking, and synergism, a grass-based, multi-speciated farm is more insulated from all the power wielded by grid structure and politics.

PROCESSING The average farmer takes his production to a further processor, whether it’s a soup company, grain elevator, or slaughter plant, and essentially accepts whatever the grid says his commodity is worth on that day.

By de-commodifying farm production, Polyface makes an end run around the price politics played by the grid powerbrokers. Normally, farmers envision themselves as price takers instead of price makers, and that creates marketing dependence on corporate board rooms outsourced from the farm.

By turning a small plot of corn into cornbread to sell to neighbors or a chicken into a table-ready bird, the farmer becomes the envied middleman and receives the profits from value adding his production. Today in the U.S. farmers receive on average about 10 percent of the consumer dollar. Just 50 years ago, that figure was 35 percent. And it continues to trend downward.

Indeed, more money goes to the paper manufacturing company to make the box than goes to the farmer who raised the corn that fills the box of Wheaties. Farmers who practice on-farm value adding by cooking, slaughtering, and packaging deal a serious blow to the stranglehold of the industrial food system grid.

MARKETING At Polyface, we call this relationship marketing. Essentially, we want food to be about much more than business and labels. When buyers know producers, and vice versa, a food community develops. This community shares knowledge about cooking, storing, drying, and fermenting food.

Moms discover their kitchens, and children learn that milk comes from a cow and drumsticks from chickens. Ultimately, the fierce loyalty and transparency created by direct farmer-to-plate interaction creates a food security environment. The breakdown of top-down food security could not be more apparent in our day. No culture has ever had more bureaucrats scurrying around carrying more wheelbarrows full of food safety regulations. And yet no culture has had such dramatic food borne illnesses, recalls, and general paranoia about food.

In the final analysis, transparency is what creates integrity, and integrity is what creates security. When our dinner date on the plate is a nameless, faceless entity from a foreign country consigned to the hold of some ship’s bilge and placed into our mouths with licensing stamps of approval by the grid powerbrokers, we can be fairly confident that it will not grant health and wealth to the peasant class. Far safer to patronize local farmers, cultivate food relationships, and enjoy a truly secure food chain.

But how to market to the masses? How to scale this relationship concept? At Polyface, we service metropolitan drop points eight times per year. An email reminder with attached newsy letter communicates directly with customers who meet our delivery vehicle at a hostess house when we come to town. This under-the-radar marketing scheme flies directly in the face of bureaucrats, chicken police, bar codes, slotting fees, four-color plastic fancy packaging, and foreign ship bowels.

Beautifully, our patrons who opt out of the food grid appreciate the superior taste, texture, and nutrition of pasture-based food. And the prices can undercut the artisanal foodie supermarket prices because it’s being sold and inventoried nearby. Patrons know we will take care of them, and they can come out and actually visit the farm to see their food being produced. What a novel idea.

LABOR How do we get all the work done? In addition to our family, of course, we use apprentices. These are young people who aspire to be entrepreneurial farmers on their own someday. And while teaching them is not cheap, it rewards our family with the satisfaction of investing in the future and trying to duplicate these principles to a critical mass that will eventually topple the grid’s power.

We have both long-term and short-term apprentices. In addition, we hire local people to be part of the team. We try to enable each team player to create his own salary through commissions and bonuses. That way each person can excel to his own potential.

We use subcontractors as well, and continue looking for ways to incorporate self-motivation into the performance equation. Along with this, we don’t want to hire rote employees who will get repetitive motion illness. Everyone should be somewhat eclectic and rotate from skill to skill. This keeps life interesting and all the muscles working without being overworked.

The bottom line at Polyface is that we are about healing. If we’re not healing, then we’re diseasing. We want to heal the land, the soil, the rivers, the stewards of the landscape, and ultimately all the wonderful people in our bio-region who depend on farmers for their food. But farmers, unfortunately, have embraced the grid, and it shows in the demographics. In the U.S. today, we have almost twice as many prisoners in jails and prisons as we do farmers.

That’s what embracing the food grid does. And we have a brand new lexicon of Latin words like E. coli, salmonella, pfysteria, camphylobacter, bovine spongiform encephalopathy. These are all the direct result of a food grid that disrespects the peasants, that dishonors the pigs, that prostitutes the gene pool, and adulterates our air, soil, and water. We can food off the grid. Each of us. Let’s start today.


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