Polyface, “the farm of many faces”. My fiancé, Phil, and I had the opportunity to truck down past Staunton to the middle of nowhere Virginia for a spot on one of Polyface’s Lunatic Tours hosted by Joel Salatin. After hearing his methods and ideologies in the many food documentaries out there, including Food Inc., Fresh and American Meat, I wanted to see the operation in person.
Polyface is a multi-generational farm that was purchased in the 1960s. Supposedly at the time of purchase, the farm was desolate and hardly any form of vegetation existed. Despite consultants telling the family the best way to farm would be by using chemicals and fertilizers, and that growing corn and soy was their best option, the Salatins chose a different route and are now thriving. Their mission is: “to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.” So what are they doing and how are they doing it?
We showed up for our 10am tour not knowing entirely what to expect. Turns out there were 100 adults and 60 kids signed up for this tour. We meandered around before the tour began and found these cuties. They begin in elevated shelters and are fed unmedicated alfalfa pellets and hay or fresh greens. They are finished in the pictured below portable shelters which are moved daily to provide them with fresh greens.
We hopped on the tractor and headed up the hill to where the broilers are kept. Each of these pens are moved on a daily basis and don’t hit the same spot for an entire year. Constantly moving the pens means one of two things. Firstly, this keeps pathogens at bay because the chickens are always moving. Cows are also brought through to graze several times, which is beneficial for confusing pathogens. Secondly, the broilers are always provided fresh ground to forage. Supposedly if they were let loose in the space, they would eat all the “dessert” first. Keeping them penned encourages them to maintain a balanced diet. And there is plenty of room in the pens- they’re more spacious than they may look.
Next we got to see the pigs. Those were some of the happiest pigs I had ever seen. As soon as the crowd showed up they greeted us with their muddy, smiling faces. They get moved from paddock to paddock about every 5-10 days. The amount of greenery they go through in that time frame is mind boggling. The photo shows the paddock towards the end of its use. The pig herds rotate through 12 paddocks.
At this time, Joel shared his strong opinions about the environmentalists that just leave things be. His belief is that we can work with nature to help enhance the existing ecological systems. By allowing the pigs to demolish a paddock, that paddock is able to come back rejuvenated. He referenced how fires destroy land but then offer it the chance to renew and rejuvenate itself. Interesting thought.
After the pigs, we rode up to the neighbor’s land that is being leased. There was a visible difference in the greenery there than on the Salatin farm. It was really interesting to see how the methods of farming affected it. Pictured below are the turkeys and the Gobbledygo, which gives them shelter inside a paddock surrounded by a high tech, super light weight electric fence.
Here we learned that turkeys get a brain after about 7 weeks. Until they are 7 weeks, they are kept with the baby chickens, who supposedly teach them the ropes. I never would have guessed they obtain a brain after watching a handful of them chasing around a fly. In any sense, the turkeys are raised similarly to the broilers and are rotated every few days to a fresh paddock for fresh forage. Supposedly you can transport 400 birds on the Gobbledygo. We also learned that this particular breed of turkey is easier to manage and has won every taste test against the more difficult to manage heritage turkey breeds.
After loading back up onto the tractor, we headed up the hill to see the cows. These guys are rotated through pastures and immediately followed by the Egg Mobile (further down this entry). He talked here about the importance of maintaining the original diet of the cow- plants- and expressed his concern about current “farming” practices like feeding dead cows to cows, which is said to happen in some industrial systems. Again, working with ecology creates an emotional and spiritual satisfaction that can become lost when strange things happen like feeding meat to an herbivore or not allowing the animal to behave in their natural ways.
Our last stop was at the famous Egg Mobile. This is where the egg laying hens hang out. And boy do they hang out. As soon as we pulled up they all came swarming toward us. The kids on the tour had a blast chasing the dear birds around the Mobile. The Egg Mobile is rotated immediately behind the cows. As the hens are foraging through the manure for fly larvae or other insects, they simultaneously manage to spread the manure throughout the paddock. This in turn helps to build the pasture. And again, rotating constantly keeps parasites and disease at bay because it has no time to develop. Amazing isn’t it?
Rotation, portability and working with ecology were the big things that I learned. Rotation keeps a balanced and consistent diet and keeps diseases at bay. Portability of structures makes your work much easier. How simple is it to just wheel the Egg Mobile in behind the cows? While less human disturbance is probably a good thing for the land, working WITH the ecology and helping to enhance it beyond what it is able to do with no activity is even more beneficial.
And last but not least. If you’ve seen the documentaries, you’ve probably heard this from Joel Salatin before, and this was a very important underlying theme as we visited each animal:
“Plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health.”
Chew on that one.
Krista works at MOMs Central Office.