Inside Polyface Farm, Mecca of Sustainable Agriculture

August 2nd, 2011

The Atlantic
By Andrea Gabor

Two weeks ago, I joined about 1,700 farmers, foodies, and families from across the U.S. for a pilgrimage to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, home of his iconic model of local, sustainable agriculture.

Salatin, the high priest of “grass-farming,” as he defines his work, hosts a field day every three years on his 550-acre spread in Swope, Virginia, in the hills of the Shenandoah Valley. Visitors have come from as far away as Florida and Iowa to trudge through the thick, soft pastures and see how Salatin raises cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits, and poultry. It is a brilliant sunny day, warm already at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.

Walking up a gentle slope, we come upon a herd of cows “mobbed” under a shady canopy, nibbling grass and depositing patties of natural fertilizer in the acre-or-so where they have been herded for the day. Tomorrow the white plastic electric fence—so thin it is hard to see in the brilliant sunlight—will be moved, the cows transferred to a new paddock so they can feast on a fresh “salad bar.” Nearby, the chickens, in their big, floorless, corrugated tin-and-mesh mobile playpens are pecking at the cow patties left by the previous day’s mob, picking out the fly larvae, aiding the composting process. Like so much on the farm, it is a virtuous cycle, the cows and chickens working together to create the rich soil, grass, and insect ecosystem.

We cross over to a glen, where the pasture meets the forest: at about 400 acres, forest covers most of the property, which now supports three generations of Salatins, including Lucille, Joel’s widowed mother, who bought the land with her husband, William, in 1961. Here, more high-tech, hard-to-see fencing contains a herd of pigs, who are snuffling as they search for acorns, hickory nuts, grubs, and worms. “They disturb it, churn it up,” explains Salatin, for whom “disturbance” is the key to fertility and regeneration.

It is also a good way to describe the mission of Salatin, who describes himself as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer”—one who rails against industrial agriculture and government, and proselytizes about reconnecting consumers and farmers. (“Polyface doesn’t participate in government programs,” has no mortgage, and eschews organic certification, says Salatin, a former journalist whose new book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, is coming out this fall.)

On Polyface, it’s the pigs that best embody Salatin’s ideas of creative disturbance, as well as his holistic, waste-not-want-not management approach. As Salatin sees it, pigs have a plough at the end of their noses and a sign on their foreheads that reads “will work for corn,”—traits that make them ideal for mimicking the buffalo that once marauded through the area, turning the soil and creating fertile pastures. Like the cows, the pigs are rotated regularly. No paddock is occupied more than once per year, allowing the forest to regenerate.

Up the hill is the “pigaerator,” a key to why Polyface requires no chemical fertilizer or seed. We crowd beneath the tall metal-and-plastic canopy of an open-air barn-like structure—like many Polyface constructions, it was built of rough-hewn local oak and rot-resistant locust trunks. The pigaerator is actually a cattle-feeding station: one side is piled high with hay; the other side contains troughs on vertical chains with pulleys.

During the winter, when the grass disappears, the cows eat hay at the feeding station, depositing tons of manure and urine on a “giant carbon diaper” of hay, wood chips, and saw dust. Instead of mucking out the shed, the Salatins layer more bedding on top, adding corn into the mix. The cows stamp out the oxygen. The corn ferments. By March, the bedding pack can reach as high as 4 feet, raising the floor of the shed along with the cows—hence the pulleys.

In the early spring, when the cows return to pasture, the pigs move into the shed, digging for fermented corn and, in the process, aerating the bedding. In lieu of the giant machines used in windrow composting, Salatin relies on low-cost pig power to create natural fertilizer to feed the land. There is no manure-related pollution. No smell. No disease. No costly fertilizer.

One of the most striking things about the Polyface operation is its remarkable cleanliness. There are relatively few flies or mosquitoes—a surprise, considering the hundreds of grazing and pecking animals. Nor are there any obnoxious odors.

Best of all, Salatin says, his system lets animals roam relatively freely and behave as nature intended them to. It “fully honors the pigness of the pig.”

As he does frequently during the tour, Salatin digresses to matters more spiritual and political than agricultural: “The pig is not just pork chops and bacon and ham to us. The pig is a co-laborer in this great land-healing ministry.

“Our culture doesn’t ask about preserving the essence of pig, it just asks how can we grow them faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper. We know that’s not a noble goal. That’s why the average NFL football player is dead at 57, ’cause when your neck is bigger than your head you’re a freak of nature and nature weeds you out.”

Laughter fills the shed.

“Nature moves towards balance,” Salatin intones. “I would suggest that a culture that views life from that kind of disrespectful arrogant standpoint will view its citizens the same way and other cultures the same ways.”

“Amen,” says a woman next to me; she is breast-feeding one of the four small children with her.

Salatin opens the floor to questions, of which there are many. Can he quantify the soil gains from the acorn glen? (Not yet, though Salatin knows there is more biodiversity here than on his neighbors farms.) How much salt does Salatin put in the hay? (Twenty-five to 35 pounds per ton.) How, without using fertilizer, does he control weeds?

Salatin pauses before countering: “You think my pastures are weedy?”

“Yeah, I do” is the response.

“Okay, well I don’t,” Salatin says, noting that thistles are just about the only thing his cows won’t eat. “If they are control grazed tightly in a mob, they will eat things you will never believe they’ll eat with relish, gusto,” he adds.

With that, Salatin invites us to lunch. Heading back through the pasture, I pass a Mennonite family from Ohio. I chat with Bryna Fisher, whose family—recovering “city-folk”—have bought a farm in southern Illinois and are “learning as we go.”

Lunch is a barbecue of Polyface chicken, beef, and pork, with sides of cucumber and peaches. We eat perched on bales of hay under another open-air barn, where I meet Gregg Korbon, an anesthesiologist from Charlottesville, and his 15-year-old son Matthew, who tells me that the $50,000-rabbit operation run by Daniel Salatin, Joel’s grown son, has inspired him to raise rabbits.

After lunch, I stop by the airy “rakin” (rabbit-chicken house) to learn more about the rabbits. There I meet Roberta Pineda, who tells me, in Spanish, that her family owns two local taquerias. They have come to see about buying meat from Polyface because of its superior “calidad.” Local Chipotle branches already buy from the farm.

The visitors this field day include a bigger contingent of foodies, including at least one chef (Brian Robinson of Washington, D.C.’s Restaurant 3), than those of earlier years. But the majority are farmers. The Salatins don’t track how many have adopted Polyface methods, but Daniel Salatin concedes that the numbers are relatively small. “Change is hard,” the younger Salatin says. That’s especially true for those who have invested in the costly infrastructure of traditional farming. Then too, he adds, “We’re not endorsed by the powers that be,” the extension services that give farmers advice or the salesmen who shape the lion’s share of the decisions farmers make.

Another obstacle is lenders. James Showalter farms a 530-acre spread about 20 minutes away from Polyface and is one of the few farmers in the area who has at least partially “Salatinized” his farm. After years in the dairy business, Showalter now raises a variety of animals and crops. He has a small mortgage on his property, but, he says, he can afford to experiment because he is less dependent on lenders than many farmers. “The lending institutions need to be able to open a text book and bring up averages,” Showalter says. “And there are no averages on a pioneer. There’s no way a lending agency can know what to expect” from these methods.

Indeed, while Salatin can quantify the gains from some methods—his pigs dig enough food up off the forest floor to substitute for as much as $500 of feed per year—there are many more things, like the value of regenerating his forests via pig rotations, that are harder to quantify.

Nor are Polyface’s methods for everyone. For example, Showalter initially, closely followed the Polyface approach to raising chickens, but soon decided to give his poultry more room to roam; his chickens, he insists, are healthier than Salatin’s because they can exercise. By contrast, although he tried, and eventually abandoned, a pigeraetor, he thinks that Polyface’s approach to raising pigs is superior to his own.

Showalter is also in awe of Salatin’s marketing ability.

Polyface, with 900 head of cattle and about 700 pigs, is growing fast. Revenues this year will top $2 million, nearly double the figure five years ago, says Salatin, who has expanded by leasing seven local farms, which are run by former Polyface interns and apprentices, many of whom are at field day, identifiable by their matching sky-blue polo shirts. Salatin is not sure when it will be time to stop growing, but he’s sticking to 10 core values that he says will keep him from ever being “Wall Streetified,” including never setting a growth target and selling only to customers within a four-hour drive. The field day pilgrims, of course, have traveled much farther.

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