A Day at Polyface Farm

6:45 a.m. Saturday: The clouds have yet to lift off the mountains, but as I peer out the window of the dining room at the Hampton Inn in Staunton, Va. (pronounced without the "u"), the skies of the Shenandoah Valley, are promising plenty of sun. I'm not the only one awake at this fine hour on a Saturday morning; the hotel's breakfast area is packed with people who, like me, are headed just eight miles down a bunch of narrow country roads to the little town of Swoope (pronounced Swope) about 150 miles from Washington, D.C.

A view of the Polyface fields, dotted with portable chicken and turkey shelters. (Kim O'Donnel)

By seven, my farmer-friend and I pile into her car and join the caravan of cars snaking their way through the valley until we arrived on a dirt road called Pure Meadows Lane, home to Polyface Farm, where we would spend the better part of the day. If you've read "The Omnivore's Dilemma," the best-selling and award-winning 2006 book by Michael Pollan, the name Polyface will likely ring a bell; about 10 percent of the book's 400 pages is devoted to the farm and the farmer -- Joel Salatin.

The author of several books (most recently "Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal), Salatin, a self-described "Christian libertarian environmental capitalist" has become the rock star of back-to-nature farming. But let's get something straight -- and he'll be the first one to tell you -- just because you won't find a drop of pesticides, herbicides or any other industrial farming chemical on his family's 550-acre property, don't starting calling Polyface an organic farm. It's "beyond organic." And even though he raises cows, chickens, pigs and rabbits, Salatin refers to himself as a grass farmer. Salatin's passion for the "healing of the land" and working off the grid in which to do so, has attracted a legion of like-minded followers from around the country. At Saturday's event, there were 1,550 people registered, excluding the estimated 100 children and equal number of walk-in registrants, a total of nearly 1,800 people. My informal scan of participant name tags generated a list of 35 states (and Canada)!

Joel Salatin greeting his fans. (Kim O'Donnel)

Tickets for Saturday's event, the first in three years, were $90 ($150 after June 1), which included a 3.5 hour tour, an hour of Q&A in the open-air barn and lunch. If you can't wait another three years for the next tour, you can shell out up to a $1,000 for a guided two-hour tour (self-guided tours are free). Salatin is charismatic, passionate and highly opinionated, and the folks there are trying to sponge up as many nuggets of wisdom as they can to take home and implement on their own farms. Our "herd" of the interested and curious are shepherded by Salatin, who's perched on a tractor, as he explains the hows and whys of each part of the farm. The "Racken" (a marriage of both rabbit and chicken) house is where older, less productive egg-laying hens live with rabbits. The highly odiferous manure and urine of the rabbits, which drops onto the shed floor, is spread around by the hens, which create a compost floor. This is just one example of "stacking" that you hear mentioned throughout the tour.

Polyface's pasture-raised products (try saying that five times fast) are available for retail, kinda sorta. Other than driving to the farm, where the farm store is open on Saturdays only (or by appointment), getting your hands on Salatin's goods requires a fair amount of planning and dedication, through one of Polyface's metropolitan buying clubs. Twenty-some D.C. area drop-off locations currently serving about 1,400 families receive customized orders, all paid in advance. "Ninety percent of my buying club customers are organic supermarket dropouts," Salatin said on Saturday. Polyface recently began supplying Chipotle's Charlottesville store between six and eight pigs per week for its carnitas burritos and tacos.

The endless throng of Field Day participants. (Kim O'Donnel)

And if all that effort doesn't seem to make sense for your household, Salatin recommends seeking out another local producer doing pasture-based farming. The important thing, he says, is to support the folks who are "helping to heal the land."

Here's one of Salatin's nuggets to chew on for the road: "If every farmer practiced grazing, in less than 10 years, we'd eliminate the carbon produced from the Industrial Age." Thoughts?

P.S. Today is the last day to sign up for the Eat Local Challenge, which kicks off this Saturday, July 19. Go the ELC link for the details on participating.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 14, 2008; 12:14 PM ET Eco-Bites , Sustainability
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Many good ideas and strategies here, but I would hesitate about swallowing this (or any) philosophy whole.

Here in the desert southwest, water management is key. Quite a bit of what farmers in wetter climates do just won't translate here. Also, "grass farming" is great if what you're raising grazes, but goats are browsers, meaning that they eat trees rather than grass. If you're not careful about what a dairy animal (cow, goat, or sheep) eats, the milk will take on off flavors.

Finally, I have a hard time with "organic", mainly because I believe that there is a place for the JUDICIOUS, not promiscuous, use of antibiotics. I cannot bring myself to watch an animal suffer a slow, grisly, horrible, painful death when I can prevent it quickly. I just can't do it. So, when I and my vet think it's called for, I DO use antibiotics. I don't ever use them in feed, or as a preventative of any sort, but to heal a sick animal, yes.

Eating local has a lot to say for it. Sorry I won't be participating in the challenge this year. We're in the middle of building a house, and eating without a kitchen is enough of a challenge. Raw, microwave and electric skillet are my future for the next two months. Have a great time doing it, though. I'm sure you'll all learn a lot.


Posted by: lsgc | July 14, 2008 12:53 PM

Hi Kim,
As a native Stauntonian, I'm so glad to see that you posted the pronunciation of both Staunton and Swoope! It's the little things that make a girl happy.
Polyface Farms has been around a long time; it's good to see their time has finally come.
I hope you got to see some of the other great things the Valley has to offer.

Posted by: Dawn | July 14, 2008 2:26 PM

Kim, this post came at such perfect timing as I'm on page 139 of "Omnivore's Dilemma," right smack in the middle of Salatin's farm and "supermarket pastoral." Will you write more about your experience, a day on the farm? Did you do any hands-on stuff, like scything or threshing? Just wondering.

I spend as much time as I can on our friends' farm (she provides a CSA to subscribers). As circumstances have it, right now I spend most of my time herding toddlers (hers and mine) when I'm there, but I have grand ambitions to get my hands dirty with planting, weeding and harvesting in a year or two.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | July 15, 2008 9:21 AM

Linda, please note that certified organic farms are not prohibited from the judicious use of antibiotics. It's just that an animal that is treated with antibiotics can't be considered organic any longer. As a matter of fact, the organic regulations specifically state that withholding antibiotic (or other prohibited) treatment from an animal specifically for the purpose of maintaining the organic status, is prohibited. Farms will lose organic certification over withholding appropriate medical treatment.

Posted by: OrganicGal | July 15, 2008 11:18 AM

Loved reading this update on the Polyface farm! It definitely inspired me as I read about it in Omnivore's Dilemma.


Posted by: Sally Parrott Ashbrook | July 15, 2008 11:25 AM

I'm a big Salatin fan and believer in pastured beef for numerous reasons, but I'm curious about his comment on the carbon benefit. I've seen conflicting views on that aspect. Wired's controversial green myths article (May) says that grass-fed beef produces more carbon than conventional, because they live longer (not sure that that's a bad trade-off, but for the sake of argument...). Did Salatin give any rationale for his statement?

Posted by: FoodieTots | July 15, 2008 11:53 AM

Kim, this is great! Thanks so much for telling us about your experience. I read Omnivore's Dilemma two years ago and the boyfriend and I were driving home from a weekend in West Virginia while I was finishing the last chapter. We decided to stop by Polyface on the way home. What a happy accident that turned out to be! Right as we parked at the Salatan's home, Joel's son was getting ready to give a tour of the farm to some of their friends from church. They asked if we wanted to join in and of course we said yes and then got a tour of the entire farm that took more than an hour. How lucky we were! I remember it was my mom's birthday that day and we brought her a big brisket as a present, which she served for the Jewish New Year a few weeks later. Such great memories :)

Posted by: Julie | July 15, 2008 3:01 PM

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