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.
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)!
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.
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.
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