A short history of Polyface Farms: an interview with Joel Salatin (part 1 of 5)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
And speaking of the cows, meet the Polyface farms Salad Bar Beef crew:
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.”
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.