If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then you might remember the author making a trip to rural Viriginia to meet with Joel Salatin. He has been at the forefront of sustainable farming, grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and pork, being “beyond organic” for the past thirty years. His farm, Polyface, just outside of Staunton, Virginia, is completely worth a trip if you are interested in sustainably eating, growing, or raising food.
I’ve read a couple of Joel’s self-published books and scoured You Tube and Itunes for podcasts and lectures he’s given. He is featured in the films Food, Inc. and Farmageddon. Did I mention I’m a fan? Luckily, Chris is also a fan and was totally game when I dreamed up a visit to Polyface.
It is a decent distance from us – just over 8 hours in the car – but a nice drive through the Smoky Mountains. We stayed in a beautiful B&B in Staunton and enjoyed the small town’s offerings, but went for a “Lunatic Tour” of Polyface. This is a farm that prides itself on being open-door and completely transparent. The Salatin family believes that in order for people to begin to be reconnected to their food origins, consumers must cultivate relationships with their farmers. There is nothing they do at Polyface that they feel should be hidden, unlike most large scale poultry, beef, and pork operations.
We signed up for a two-hour tour. Joel was out of town speaking at a convention, but we got to meet son Daniel Salatin who led the tour. He is every bit as charming and educated as his dad and was a pleasure to listen to.
It was a rainy Saturday – not quite pouring, but with a steady cool rain. I knew it was going to rain, but had somehow not packed an umbrella or raincoat or anything even remotely weather resistant for us to wear (all I can say it was a crazy week before we left for town and I was quite tired). So, we got rained on, which might account for the limited number of photos. They encouraged us to take photos, video, and ask as many questions as we wanted during the tour.
There was a large group – two large tractors hauled us all over the farm. I was pleased at the number of folks interested and completely engaged in the tour.
This photo doesn’t begin to capture how lush and beautiful this part of rural Virginia is. Can you see the mountains behind the rain clouds in the distance?
First, we visited the free-ranging laying hens.
There is as you can see a large coop where the hens lay, and a large area where they are kept in by light electric netting. They get to free-range, enjoying all the grass and bugs they want, and they rotate the layers through their pastures. There is a mixture of breeds of hens, as they are going to start breeding their own layers. Daniel said they’ve found that the hens they’ve been getting in recent years seem less bred to be good free-rangers and they want to cultivate smarter and hardier stock.
Next, we visited the pigs.
These are kept in wooded areas and rotated every few days, turning where they’ve been into rich compost. We got to get up close and personal with these guys. They were happy and friendly.
Then we visited the pastured broilers, or meat chickens.
Meat chickens are very different from laying hens. They have been bred selectively over the years to plump up quickly, over about eight weeks, and aren’t interested in ranging too far away from their feed bucket. However, what makes these chickens different from large scale poultry house meat chickens is that they do get to be out in the fresh air and sunshine, scratch in the grass, eat bugs and grass, and live far healthier, happier lives than any chicken raised in a large chicken house. The Salatins have been raising chickens this way for years and Joel has written a book on the topic that I am currently reading. They get moved daily to fresh pasture and the chicken poo feeds the soil by fixing nitrogen into the soil. They are fed non-GMO feed and processed on site after eight weeks.
Finally, we visited the salad bar beef. The way they raise beef is really special.
As you can see, there are some cows off in the corner of this picture. They just got moved to fresh pasture. The flat grassy area is what they just spent about 24 hours on. Three days later, they move laying hens through this same area. The hens will scratch through the cow patties and pick out the grubs, spreading the manure through the soil which will aerate it and build it up. Once the grass has grown back at just the right height, they will bring the cows back through, and the process will repeat itself throughout the season. This is a model that is established in nature; herds prefer to be close together and move onto fresh pasture daily. They are kept on their pasture with portable, lightweight electric fencing (something this farm highly utilizes). Birds will then follow the herds. This model increases earthworms, thickens the pasture, reduces pathogens, and makes what the cows are eating even more nutritious. Let’s not forget that cows are intended by nature to eat grass – not corn. And let’s keep in mind that if all cattle operations switched to grass-fed models, the amount of green house gasses, erosion, water runoff, etc., would be completely eliminated. It is a sustainable, pro-environment model.
We didn’t check out the forage-based rabbits as we were a bit cold and tired from getting rained on. We did spend a little time visiting with the group and Daniel in one of the hoop houses. We also spent some time in the Farm Store but didn’t buy anything (only because, once again, lack of planning – we didn’t have a cooler to travel back with items that should stay frozen or cold). Chris asked and they do have honeybee hives on the property and harvested honey that had sold out quickly.
It was interesting to hear the response to a question that was posed: “Why haven’t your neighbors and fellow farmers switched to your model?” Daniel laughed and said lots of people in the area, even their next door neighbor that has a pasture separated by a fence, aren’t able to move past the years of doing things the way they have been done. It is pretty obvious when you compare said neighbor’s pasture to the Salatins. This pasture has the greenest, tallest, most varied grass I’ve ever seen. It is truly a sight. A continuously grazed pasture will never have a chance to get like that.
I was truly inspired by our visit. It was good to know that not only does Polyface exist, but its farmer is doing everything possible to “spread the gospel” and open their doors so that anyone can come see for themselves what we should be asking from our food producers.
Now, if I can just find me a pasture or acreage where I can run some broilers, I’d be in business . . .