A short history of Polyface Farms: an interview with Joel Salatin (part 1 of 5)

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Joel Salatin at the chicken houses

Joel Salatin at Polyface farms

Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin

Back in January as I was pondering the Liberty Garden concept, thinking about education, outreach, and scale – I asked myself, if I could interview anyone about the food system, sustainability, and the future of American food independence, who would it be? Immediately, I thought of Joel Salatin. Joel is the owner and founder of Polyface Farms, which in their own words is “a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.” Polyface has been featured everywhere from Michael Pollan’s bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals to the widely screened documentary Food, Inc.

Joel is himself a published author, a renowned speaker and expert on all things sustainable. On a whim, I emailed the farm asking if I could drive up to interview Joel and by golly if I didn’t get a reply back from the man himself inviting me up. I was a little starstruck. We set a date for early May, when the animals would be out and about (and the pictures would be a little prettier).

Finally May rolled around and I made the four hour drive up to Swoope, Virginia, a few minutes outside the only slightly better-known town of Staunton (that’s pronounced STAN-ton to you non-Virginians), and followed Joel’s directions through picturesque scenery up to his family’s farm. It was a warm spring day, though the skies were threatening rain. I opened my sunroof as I got closer to the farm, and inhaled the scent of the country. Grass, damp earth, cow manure.

Polyface farms

Polyface farms

As I drove up to Polyface, I don’t know what I was expecting to see. I guess all the publicity they’d gotten had built Polyface up in my mind. Even though I know Joel has built his empire with little more than grass, electric fencing, and a healthy dose of initiative and ingenuity, the fame of the place had made me picture a big operation – large barns, concrete floors, sparkling clean, unused tractors. Silly, since I knew to expect the opposite. And opposite I found. Polyface is a simple, non-pretentious family farm. A few outbuildings, a white farmhouse, stacks of firewood, a few hoop houses for growing vegetables and temporary housing for poultry. A small smokehouse made the whole place smell like delicious bacon. A few dogs ran about. Two tractors were parked with flatbed trailers attached to the back, stacked with fresh hay for the farm tour that would take place that afternoon.

The farmhouse

The farmhouse where Joel and his family live

I made my way up to the sales building, where a few of the Polyface staff greeted me and told me Joel would be along shortly. As I waited, I scanned the shelves of educational material, and peeked inside the refrigerators that lined one wall, which contained all the products of Polyface farms – pastured beef, poultry, eggs, and pork, along with a handful of other products (homemade quiche, apple juice, fresh vegetables).

Joel bounded into the room and with a firm handshake and not a little urgency in his voice told me that he had to deliver a water trough to a neighboring pasture where they were moving some cows that day, and did I want to come along for the ride and do the interview in the truck? I was up for it. I grabbed my video recorder and microphone and headed outside. A trailer with a large water trough was attached to his truck. I hopped up into the cab and waited.

I spent a little over an hour in the truck with Joel, talking about his family, their history, why he farms, his beliefs on food, sustainability, the new food movement in America, the ethics of caring for the land, innovations on the farm, and so much more. I’m bringing Joel to you guys in a five-part video series. I hope you learn as much as I did and that you are inspired to get back into your kitchen, discover your “farm treasures” and make a difference in the future of food independence. Also, I must say, please forgive my redneck-sounding self laughing and commenting along with Joel – after the first few minutes, it ceased to be an interview, and turned into a conversation. Here is part one, and over the next few weeks, I’ll post the remainder of the videos. Enjoy!

An interview with Joel Salatin: part 1 of 5

In this video: Who is Joel Salatin? His thoughts on activism, his personal history of farming (his family’s history in central America, how he got Polyface Farms started, and more). He also talks about new ideas for Polyface, and what may be in store for the farm’s future.

Polyface farms: a tour

After we hopped out of the truck, I took a break for an hour or so while Joel went straight up to another group of folks who were there to speak with him, and waited for the Lunatic Tour to start. Twice a month, Polyface holds these Lunatic Tours, hayride tours led by Joel that visit all Polyface’s pastured animals.

Polyface farms tour

grass - the real commodity at Polyface farms

Two tractors with hay trailers full of nosy onlookers (me included) headed out from the sales building and drove down through the Polyface property. Trees, grass, ponds, animals, and electric fencing. That’s Polyface. Our first stop was the pastured pigs.

Pastured pork

pigs being pigs at Polyface farms

Polyface farms respects the "pig-ness" of the pig

Joel explained to us that one of Polyface’s principles when raising animals is to respect the animal’s essence. It respects the “pigness” of the pig, the “cowness” of the cow. Polyface asks, “what does a pig want to do?” And then it gives the pig what it wants. And it shows. I have never been around animals that were so happy just being themselves.

pigs being pigs at Polyface farms

happy as a pig in... you know what

The pigs at Polyface farm foraged for tasty insects and grass, drank water, snorted and nudged one another, and all the while they churned the soil, got rid of weeds, thinned out the forest undergrowth, and returned the land to a healthy state. Polyface uses their pigs to turn a bramble-infested, overgrown forest into a savannah, dotted with trees (which is how this part of the land was, before the settlers colonized it, even before the Indians made their homes here). The pigs move every couple of days. They are rotated to a new section of the land by electric fencing. Move the fence, move the pigs. Joel pointed to a bramble-ridden section of forest next to the cleared area where the pigs were. “In a few days, that will look like this. The pigs do what they are born to do. Be pigs.”

the happiest pigs I've ever seen

the happiest pigs I've ever seen

Joel also told us the story of the “pigaerator” – which was a small building near where the pigs foraged. Polyface literally backed into the pig business many years ago as a way to build compost. When we feed hay to the cows, they eat and lounge in a pole shed that we bed down with wood chips, sawdust, and old hay to absorb the excrement. This bedding ferments in the anaerobic conditions created by the heavy cows walking on it. Added corn ferments and offers a tasty salary for pigs to aerate the bedding–hence PIGAERATOR. The oxygenation turns the entire deep bedding into a compost pile, which is the backbone of the farm’s fertility program. 

Pastured poultry

pastured poultry at Polyface farms

pastured poultry at Polyface farms

Next was the pastured poultry. Polyface produces both broilers (meat birds) and layers (for eggs). To grow the broilers, they use 10 x 12 x 2-foot floorless, portable shelters. Each chicken house holds about 75 birds each. Every day the birds are moved to a fresh spot of pasture (pasture which the cows have already “mowed” to shorten the grass, which lets the chickens eat tender, fresh sprouts).

Joel Salatin moves a portable chicken house

Joel Salatin moves a portable chicken house

The shelters are cheap to build and easy to move by placing a frame (a few metal pipes attached to small wheels) underneath, lifting, and walking backwards. The birds get fresh air, sunshine, plenty of non-GMO grain feed, as well as all the natural “chicken-ness” a chicken could want. Scratching, pecking, dust-bathing, and eating bugs and fresh grass. Look upwards, and the whole scene is set against the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains. Not a bad life for a chicken.

portable chicken houses at Polyface farms

Polyface farms pastured poultry

The egg-mobile (which I didn’t get a picture of because of the weather) follows the cows in their rotation. The Eggmobile is a 12 ft. X 20 ft. portable henhouse and the laying hens free range from it, eating bugs and scratching through cattle droppings to sanitize the pasture just like birds in nature that always follow herbivores as biological cleansers.

Grass-fed beef

And speaking of the cows, meet the Polyface farms Salad Bar Beef crew:

the cows at Polyface farms

Polyface farms "salad bar beef"

By this time the rain was really coming down, so our stop at the salad bar beef was short, but informative. Polyface says, “Herbivores in nature exhibit three characteristics: mobbing for predator protection, movement daily onto fresh forage and away from yesterday’s droppings, and a diet consisting of forage only – no dead animals, no chicken manure, no grain, and no fermented forage. Our goal is to approximate this template as closely as possible. Our cows eat forage only, a new pasture paddock roughly every day, and stay herded tightly with portable electric fencing. This natural model heals the land, thickens the forage, reduces weeds, stimulates earthworms, reduces pathogens, and increases nutritional qualities in the meat.” 

pasture at Polyface farms

grass-fed cows are the only cows at Polyface

This model goes back once again to respecting the “cow-ness” of the cow. What does it need to live the best and most natural cow-life possible? Give it that, and you have an animal that is happy, fulfilled, healthy, good for the earth, and at the end of its’ life, really dang tasty and good for you.

The values of this place are steadfast, the ideas are big and crazy and given away for free, and everyone on the farm from the animals, to the humans, to the bugs are grinning ear to ear. This family and its’ farm doesn’t just pay lip service to the sustainability movement, they live it every day. Stay tuned for the rest of the video interviews here, or learn more about Polyface farms, their metropolitan buying clubs, their values and products, and sign up for a farm tour at Polyface Farms.com.

A huge thanks to Joel Salatin for the generous gift of his time. And a second big round of applause to Amanda Krueger of Bake It Pretty, without her time and talents with editing, these videos would have never seen the light of day.

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  1. PaleoTrainer.com
    August 22, 2011 at 11:23 am

    I have a quick question.

    If the chickens are fed organic grain feed does this still increase the omega-6 content of the meat and eggs?

    Eddie

    • Amber Karnes
      August 22, 2011 at 11:30 am

      Eddie, it might… but grain is part of chickens’ natural diet, it’s something they were meant to eat. It’s not like feeding grain to cows (which are ruminants, meaning they can’t properly digest it). Make sense?

      • Will Mangham
        August 25, 2011 at 6:43 am

        I’m a former Polyface intern (summer 2010) and current pasture-based urban farmer in Mobile, Alabama. First off, thanks for the post. I’ve often thought the weakest point of Paleo approaches is that they don’t link food to food production methods–evidently I haven’t been paying attention lately because this is spot on. To Paleo Trainer: as farmers, we cannot raise chickens on a production scale for either meat or eggs without feeding them grain. Grain provides the calories to maintain weight gain on broilers and laying rate for the layers. But look at it this way–pastured poultry is the best option you have going, unless you want to raise some backyard birds and experiment with giving them kitchen scraps. Grain provides calories, but grass provides the micronutrients (and increases omega 3s), and bugs provide extra protein. Pastured is so much better than what you can get in the store! Despite the pretty labels, store eggs don’t have any of the good stuff.

        • Robb Wolf
          August 25, 2011 at 7:52 am

          Great to hear from you Will!

          • Will Mangham
            August 25, 2011 at 3:52 pm

            Robb, the more I look at the site the more impressed I am. I remember your site from a few years back but it was nothing like this!

            I’d be really interested in doing a “getting started with chickens” article (or maybe it would have to be multiple posts) for your liberty garden section to show people how to raise chickens for both meat and eggs.

            Let me know what you think.

          • Robb Wolf
            August 25, 2011 at 8:48 pm

            Sounds fantastic! Bring on the chickens!!

      • Carrie Taranova
        October 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm

        I also raise (on a much smaller scale) in Florida natural raised laying chickens and I also use non-GE feed. But it is not Omega 6 you are aiming for – it’s Omega 3, the beneficial one, that is produced from the feed. Just thought I’d comment on that issue.
        Also may I suggest that y’all pray for this wonderful farm as the DC Federalists are after to close down anything ‘NATURAL’ and force all family farms out of business and regulate those they choose to save. NAIS is an evil that is being forced on those who know they are NOT to obey it. Defy it and anything from DC. DC Feds have no Constitutional right, permission or power to have ANY authority outside of their own DC borders and everyone needs to know that. No matter what threats they use or bribes or blackmail – reject it all – and even threaten them back with a law suit. They are not use to that. Never show fear – that is what they are after. Once the public knows the real truth about the DC corporation (DC is not a ‘govt’) they will not only defy all the UN-Constitutional Feds but take charge themselves over them. Your Sheriff’s DUTY is to protect their county FROM all Federal entities. NO Federal entity has any right to even be IN any state, much less try to raid it, run it, or operate in it !! It’s the PEOPLE who must force the Constitution to be obeyed and to control all the actions of DC. It’s our DUTY as Americans. DC is NOT our “ruler” – THEY need to get that message !

    • Michele
      August 23, 2011 at 5:34 am

      I buy all of my chicken, pork and eggs from polyfaceyum.com (the retail side of Polyface) and they are fantastic. I know that they posted the nutritional profile of pastured eggs before, but I couldn’t find it. I emailed them asking if they could send it to me or to post it here.

  2. Melissa
    August 22, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    I have loved Joel Salatin ever since I read Pollen’s book and have wished that would be a movement started among the small farmers here in Washington.

    Thanks for that interview and I look forward to the rest.

    • Amber Karnes
      August 22, 2011 at 2:34 pm

      Most definitely! I have been a fan since I read the book too :)

    • Seadanes
      August 25, 2011 at 5:49 pm

      Melissa, if you mean Washington State, check out Baron Farms. It’s in Wapato, and is where we buy our beautiful pastured eggs and grass fed beef. Great little family farm, great people and great products. He studied Salatin’s book and was inspired to start his own farm.

    • Sarah
      September 4, 2011 at 4:50 pm

      Melissa, there is a movement going on in Washington state – check out Washington Tilth – they put on a great conference every year and many small farmers are involved.

  3. JP
    August 22, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Very cool Amber. Looking forward to the rest. I remember Joel from Food, Inc. Ever since I saw him, I’ve wanted to know more about his operation and here you’ve done it! :-)

    Thanks!

  4. Steph Greunke
    August 22, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    I second that! This is great, Amber!

  5. Nutritionator
    August 23, 2011 at 6:18 am

    Just found out Joel’s farm is only 3 hours north! Our Crossfit box has a field trip coming up!!!!

  6. AJ
    August 23, 2011 at 6:41 am

    Thanks so much for doing this! Can’t wait for the rest of the interview!

  7. Robb Wolf
    August 23, 2011 at 8:03 am

    Great post Amber! Looks like this has been picked up by a few news outlets.

  8. Darius Gilbert
    August 23, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Awesome stuff Amber!! I visited Polyface a couple of weeks ago for a visit and of course some good grub. The folks there are so friendly and the food is simply the best. Looking forward to the rest of the interview!

  9. Sonya
    August 23, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Very cool! Thanks, Amber. We’re banned from watching the videos here at work but I look forward to watching when I get home. Love Polyface and hope it does inspire others to follow suit.

  10. Pavil, the Uber Noob
    August 23, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I have never seen any farm as productively progressive Polyface. This is definitely a farm to track.

    Ciao, Pavil

  11. Tom Nikkola
    August 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Thanks for the great post. I’m sure it was an amazing experience. Too bad he is the minority. If only Tyson, Golden Plump or Purdue were so smart.

  12. Jim Fantone
    August 24, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Hey Robb,
    I just watched the video with Joel Salatin. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. He seems like a sincere guy and his farm sounds like a fun place to visit. I love the Lunatic Tour!

    Anyway, I am a Fitness Professional living in New York City. My business is in personal training. My wife and I started on the Paleo diet in January of this year, and I love it. I stay in great shape because I am a trainer, but I lost 10 pounds of fat in 2 months and have been living Paleo ever since. My wife,who doesn’t usually stick to diets, lost about 20 pounds. She is back to her teen-age weight. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with the world. I bought the Paleo Solution back in January and the Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain immediately after. Great stuff guys!

    Jim Fantone
    fantonefitness.com

  13. Jamie Gisby
    August 27, 2011 at 7:28 am

    As I understand it chickens are able to convert seeds such as linseed to EPA and DHA ‘in the egg’. So the chicken is high in omega 6 but the egg is high in omega 3 (but only if fed seeds rich in omega 3). We are poorly able to transform linseed fats to DHA and EPA but the chicken can kindly do this for us. Omega 3 rich eggs are widely available here in the UK. Just wish we had more farms like Joel Salatin’s.

  14. T Hut
    September 1, 2011 at 9:35 am

    I live in Idaho and had the good fortune to find a local rancher that supplies pastured beef, pork, and chicken. They’re Homestead Foods if anyone is in the SW Idaho region.

  15. Royce Renegar
    December 2, 2011 at 12:06 am

    Hi!!I’m a mexican boy, i really love u!!! i don’t speak english but i can tell you, that i’m in love!!

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