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.
asks his father, Joel. He doesn't look up from the pile of freshly
plucked chickens he's eviscerating.
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
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.
compost: Before all the birds are cleaned
and on ice, their feathers and offal are in the
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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
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.