This past week, I had the true pleasure of speaking to Joel Salatin, the author, farmer, and most important, owner of Polyface Farms, a holistic “beyond organic” farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Salatin describes himself as a “Christian-Libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist farmer,” and after hearing his lecture I can tell you, none of those is an exaggeration.
To me, Salatin represents everything that could be right in agriculture, and if extrapolated, in business. Polyface Farms is a for-profit entity whose goal is simple: create value through their core competency of producing great meat. However, this value-generating purpose is couched in an understanding that most industries ignore: the fact that every successful long-term business venture must internalize the costs of its actions. Right now, the American food system relies on petroleum-based fertilizers and federal government subsidies. These create several external costs that go unrecognized by the market, including soil erosion, dead zones in our seas, and aquifer depletion (the list can go on and on, but I’ll spare you, dear reader). What does it mean to externalize these costs? Well, basically, our food system is causing long-term costs for which we will have to eventually pay, but fails to include these costs in their prices. This is why Americans spend less on food (as a percentage of income) than any other society in the history of the world, why McDonalds French fries might be cheaper than the potatoes at your farmers market, why our food system is obsessed with cramming extra calories into any processed food it can find.
Joel Salatin defies this system at Polyface Farms. Polyface Farms, in its current operation, could still be around 500 years from now. Think you can say that about Monsanto, or any other food giant?
The lessons Salatin is teaching to the agriculture industry are valuable for all business ventures. The baseline responsibility for all businesses should and must be to internalize the costs of all tangible externalities their operations create, whether environmental, social, or health-related. This is easily accomplishable if done voluntarily, rather than by government regulation. Salatin understands farming, his farm, and his land. For these reasons, he is in the best position to make his operations sustainable, and it shows in his product. It also shows in his costs and, subsequently, his prices.
It has been said that the slave of destructive business practices is the consumer who makes purchasing decisions based on price. It doesn’t need to be that way. If the food industry internalized costs the way Salatin does, Polyface Farms would be the cheapest meat you could find.