Chicken Day at the Salatin Farm, Part 2
Where chickens are sold before they're raised.
And customers pay full cost of delivery.

Marketing and delivery, the last of 2 parts. By George Devault
Check out part 1: 'Chicken Day' at the Farm of Many Faces

Marching orders: Like a general on the march, Joel Salatin hands invoices and
last-minute instructions to waiting delivery driver Doug Porter.

 

 

Sell It First
"We do not take the risk of selling the
birds after we've raised them. They are sold, or contracted
for, in writing, even before we receive
the chicks."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quality Sells Itself
"The chickens are superior enough that customers come for them like a religious observance, like a pilgrimage."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




The Salatin family and their helpers are working furiously to finish processing 250 broilers before the deliveryman arrives at their farm at 11 a.m.

"Oh no!" mutters Daniel, as he starts on the very last crate of eight birds.

"What?" asks his father, Joel. He doesn't look up from the pile of freshly plucked chickens he's eviscerating.

"Doug's here," Daniel groans, motioning toward a late model SAAB sedan slowly rumbling across the new bridge over the fast-flowing mountain stream beside the gravel road at the entrance to Polyface Farm. It's 10:30 a.m. The deliveryman is early, a full half hour early.

Joel's face darkens slightly. A look of mild irritation flashes quickly across his boyish features. "Well," Joel says matter-of-factly, while opening up another chicken carcass with a flick of his knife, "he'll just have ... to wait."

That's perfectly fine with the driver. "I'm in no particular hurry," Doug Porter says as he saunters up to the processing outdoor pavilion where the seven workers have been plucking and dressing chickens non-stop for the past two hours. Doug knows he's early. He says he just didn't have anything else much to do, so he went out for a drive on a beautiful sunny morning and wound up at the farm a little sooner than usual.

"It's no problem," Doug adds. "Take your time. I'll wait." Doug delivers Salatin's freshly dressed chickens, eggs and a growing list of other farm-fresh products to as many as 10 gourmet restaurants that are up to 240 kilometers away from the farm. He works for himself, so he can set his own schedule to match the needs of his customers.

Despite the interruption, the processing line continues to run like clockwork. All of the birds have now been bled out, plucked and eviscerated. At the head of the line, Daniel begins hosing down and scrubbing the killing cones, scalder/dunker and chicken plucker. Pat O'Connor, a visiting helper for the day, begins scooping wet, matted chicken feathers out from under the plucker with a silage fork. He trundles them off to a nearby compost pile in a large wheelbarrow. At the opposite end of the processing line, 10-year-old Rachel Salatin and apprentice Joshua Griggs still have a large pile of birds to finish dressing.

Automatic compost: Before all the birds are cleaned and on ice, their feathers and offal are in the compost heap.

Joel quickly finishes with the last chicken at his station in the middle of the processing line. He slips off his black rubber apron and turns his blue Polyface Farm baseball cap around so that the bill faces forward. He has his businessman's hat on now. Joel carefully weighs two metal washtubs full of stewing hens, then rinses his hands. He glances around to make sure everyone is doing what they're supposed to be doing. Then he sits down in an aluminum lawn chair and begins filling out delivery invoices for Doug. Joel's desk is a folding card table set up at one corner of the processing pavilion. Fingers that just moments ago were gutting chickens now dance across the keys of an electronic calculator, instantly translating the morning's hard work into dollars and cents. The total is more than $1,000 -- plus delivery.

"Delivery is a separate item on the invoice," Joel explains, glancing up from his paperwork. "We have broken it out, despite all of the advice to the contrary. The customer knows exactly how much is in transportation. We wanted our restaurants to understand just how much of the food cost is transportation, that the packager gets more than the farmer. If they have a person who wants to come over here and pick up their order instead, that's fine. We just want them to understand that the farmer is not getting this.

"Doug is not acting as a broker, but strictly as a delivery person," Joel adds. "He's a delivery sub-contractor. He works three to four hours, one day a week, and takes home right on an average of $200 a week.

"Some people say, 'If you get much bigger, he'll be making $500 a week!' And that's just fine with me," Joel grins. Doug's pay comes solely from a sliding percentage of sales to restaurants that day. On orders of less than $50, for example, the delivery surcharge is 33 percent. Doug gets 15 percent on orders of $250 or more. So the more Doug makes, the more Joel makes.

"We don't want to be in the delivery business. We like to farm too much," Joel explains. "This allows the delivery person to work half a day a week and earn a couple hundred bucks. I get to stay on the farm, which I enjoy. He doesn't. In this case, one plus one is three. You have each party doing what they enjoy doing. It's win-win for everybody.

"We are protected from him doing a bad job because he's not guaranteed a dime. He is strictly out there on his own. If he slacks up, he's out. That protects us from having a typical employee who does not put ice on the chickens or handles the eggs rough and cracks eggs. This protects us from all of that. It also protects the customer from any one of us being slipshod.

"When we started, I did the deliveries, myself," Joel adds. "There is a time when you just have to hustle. But once the cost of delivery hit about $100 a week, that was enough of a return that Doug took it over, and he has doubled it again. We have seen the demand for chickens go through the roof this summer. His goal is to get it on up to $500 a week, and I hope he does." When he's not making deliveries for Salatin, Doug works as a financial manager for two nearby restaurants. His wife, Lisa Joy, is the chef at the historic Joshua Wilton House more than 40 kilometers away in Harrisonburg.

Eggs Came First

Don't forget the eggs: Joshua Griggs lug crates of 30 dozen eggs from a walk-in cooler to the delivery car, while Joe keeps chickens on ice.

Joel first cracked the restaurant market for eggs three years ago. He carefully drew up a list of quality-conscious chefs at better restaurants and gave them one or two dozen eggs to try -- for free. "We said, 'We have the world's best egg and we'd like you to take a look at it.'" he recalls. "Samples do work, especially when you're introducing a product that no one is familiar with. A lot of people never had a stewing hen. We gave everyone who came for broilers a free stewing hen. Now, stewing hens are in big demand. I've never given anything away that didn't come back to me four times."

The chefs were paying 60 cents per dozen for eggs from conventional sources. But Joel's farm-fresh eggs produced such superior dishes, especially baked goods, that many chefs gladly began paying $2 a dozen for them. That quickly opened the door to other products.

"I was working at Galileo Restaurant in Washington, D.C. The pastry chef was a big fan of Joel's eggs. I got his number and called him up about chickens," says Chef Angelo Vangelopoulos, who serves up to 120 meals a night at his Ivy Inn in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the 95-seat restaurant in partnership with his parents.

"Now, besides his chicken and eggs, I also buy his rabbits, turkeys, ducks, guineas and, through his deliveries, vine-ripened tomatoes, red and golden baby beets, shell and fresh beans. We don't buy beef or pork, because we're a small restaurant and can't use too much.

"Quality and freshness are just beyond compare. And, personally, I'm a big advocate of anyone who produces things with the environment so much in mind. I like, whenever possible, to support local farmers," adds the chef. He also buys shiitake mushrooms, lamb, bison, lots of local produce at the farmer's market in Charlottesville, goat cheese and other products from local farmers. Depending on the season, up to 60 percent of the food served at the Ivy Inn comes from area farmers.

Joel finishes up the paperwork, while Joshua carefully packs the back of Doug's car with 10 large cardboard cartons. Each case contains 30 dozen eggs. Then Joel and Doug add three large, plastic ice chests full of freshly dressed -- and iced -- broilers and stewing hens to the car. Doug is on his way into town, long before the first pickup customers begin arriving at the farm by appointment in early afternoon. By 5 p.m., all of the customers and the chickens are gone.


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