Who’s Your Farmer? A Visit to Polyface

Do you know where your food comes from?

Our family took a trip to Virginia this past weekend for the Polyface Farm Field Day. My husband got a bit of ribbing at the office when he told his coworkers he’d be spending the weekend learning about sustainable farming. But hey – this was a big deal. Polyface is an internationally recognized model of ecologically appropriate agriculture, and farmer Joel Salatin and his family host this particular event only once every three years.

When Joel Salatin speaks, people listen.

People are so willing to listen, they book hotel rooms and spend a very hot day following him through poopy pastures. That’s right - poopy pastures. (We were so not prepared for that. There’s a reason farmers wear boots.)

Farmers. Foodies. Suburban Greenies like myself. People from all over the world converged on Polyface to learn from the Salatins. So what are you waiting for? Get your boots on and come along – we’re taking a tour.

Starting with the grass.

At Polyface, it’s all about the grass.

As Joel Salatin puts it in Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “these blades are our photovoltaic panels.”

The grass captures the sun’s energy, turning it into free food for ruminants (like cows) - those species who have evolved with the grass. Ruminants are designed to eat grass. Grass is designed to be grazed. It’s a natural relationship, and one of the primary goals of Polyface is to mimic patterns found in nature.

If you look carefully, it’s not just grass. It’s a whole “salad bar,” as Joel Salatin refers to it, of a wide variety of leafy species:

Clover. Plantain. Fescue. Alfalfa. Many more species I’ve never heard of. But I know enough about ecology to know that biodiversity = good.

Just as the salad bar reaches its peak of leafy green deliciousness, in come the cows.

Doing what they were meant to do. Acting like cows. This is another overarching principle at Polyface: Let a cow act like a cow, let a pig act like a pig, let a chicken act like a chicken.

So the cows hang out in herds. And eat. And poop.

When they’re done with that little patch of pasture, well, it looks like crap.

But that’s okay. The cows move on to fresh pasture, leaving this patch to recover and regrow. All that poop is free fertilizer. Soon, it will be teeming with juicy fly larvae. Other farms apply chemicals to kill parasites – Polyface just sends in the egg-laying chickens in their portable henhouse. Just as birds help clean parasites from herbivores in nature, these birds follow the cows around the pasture, cleaning up after them - breaking up the manure and picking out the bugs.

Other residents include the broiler chickens in their movable pens, inching their way across the entire pasture, pooping and pecking as they go, enriching their diet with fresh shoots and bugs.

Or the turkeys, traveling around the pasture in a portable bit of shade.

In fact, a whole parade of animals passes over the pasture at one point or another – eating little shoots of grass, munching on little bugs, breathing in the fresh air and enjoying acting like the animals they are.

When all is said and done, the pasture has been thoroughly fertilized and bug-pecked. All manner of animals have pooped on it, and it’s worth noting that this is a whole lot of animal poop that has not made its way into a local stream or river. It’s all stayed right here, serving its ecological purpose as environmentally-appropriate fertilizer, enriching the soil.

The “salad bar” is allowed to grow lush and strong again, maintaining its diversity of species.

When the time is right – for optimal pasture health, as well as for optimal bovine health – the cows, having grazed their way around the farm, return and chow down on this little patch once again.

And the cycle continues. Cows graze, cows poop, poultry peck and graze and poop some more, and the pasture regenerates. This is some healthy land, and these are some healthy animals.

But there’s more. See those forested hills in the distance? Some of that land is actually part of the farm. The Salatins could have cut down all of the trees to make room for more pasture. But they’ve kept them forested, logging selectively when wood is needed, and digging a series of ponds coming down the slope to provide a source of water for the farm. Joel Salatin claims that if every farm did this, the Shenandoah Valley would be drought-proof.

The presence of these woodlands also keeps the pastures cooler, making for happier animals.

Also within those forests – areas of savanna for foraging pigs. Again, the animals are moved on a regular basis for fresh forage and to avoid overtaxing the land.

And there’s so much more – really, this is a gross oversimplification of what goes on at Polyface. If you haven’t already read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it is a must.

Finally, orchestrating and overseeing it all: a farmer willing to speak frankly about his farming practices to large crowds of complete strangers with cameras. How refreshing.

The funny thing is, there’s an element of, well, duh! about all of this. You’d think this style of farming would be more commonplace, because it just makes sense. But no.

Salatin has made the case that thoughtful farmers deserve a white-collar salary. We’re so accustomed to cheap food – but I suspect that if we could see the conditions in which our hamburgers and chicken wings started out - actually see the animals, in their actual living conditions - those of us who could might rethink our food budgets, don’t you think?

A number of cars parked in front of Polyface this past weekend had bumper stickers asking, “Who’s Your Farmer?”

I think that’s a question worth keeping in mind. Almost everything you eat can be traced back to some sort of farm. A farm that treats animals in a certain way. A farm that treats the land in a certain way.

Do you know? Who is your farmer?

If you’re in the MD/DC/VA area, you, too can purchase farm goods from Polyface through a local buying club  - just sign up and get on their email list! Polyface rocks. But so do the less-famous farmers at your local market - go talk to them!

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8 comments to Who’s Your Farmer? A Visit to Polyface

  • How awesome that you got to see this! Incredible photos and thank tou for sharing. like many, ever since Omnivore’s, I have been wanting to see it in person.

  • Cool post! I feel like I was actually there, minus the poop on my shoes. :) Seriously though, it’s really sad that this just isn’t the norm for farming. It all seems so obvious, and so right!

  • I love this post! The pics are great and it’s all so interesting. Next time, I’d love to join you!

  • Hi there…
    I’m always interested to see how people arrive on my virtual doorstep so I’ll share mine with you. I put in a search for “portable animal shade” and got a pic of a pastured turkey shelter. Then it linked to your blog and low and behold you have a post about my favorite farmer and speaker/author, Joel Salatin.
    We have meat chickens and turkeys on pasture and hope to have cows next year. All because of Mr Salatin. We so wanted to take his Intensive Discovery Seminar this summer but alas, finances didn’t permit.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.
    I am always interested when folks talk about “expensive” food. I know I’ve read some stuff somewhere about the fact that in the 70′s, the average American family spent about 17% of their income on food and in 2010 spent less than 9%. So we spend less now then we did 40 years ago because of subsidized food and food manufacturing processes. If food actually kept pace with inflation….it would match the cost of “organic” and grass fed meat…as it should. It’s a shame we are brainwashed to think food should be cheap. My personal opinion is that cheap “food” is not really food but a food-like substance that cannot support human growth and survival. This is evidenced in the significant rise in the incidence of disease in the last 40 years.
    A great resource to understand human nutrition is Dr. Weston A. Price’s book, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration”. I’m not a fan of either “foundation” that sport his name but his original work is phenomenal.
    And I just have to laugh about your comments on poop. Salatin says that a farmers job is really moving poop around. And after having 8 Bourbon Red turkeys and 50 meat chickens….and 11 layers…I would have to totally agree.
    Again, thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Bethesda Locavore

      Thanks, it is interesting to hear how someone finds my blog! I agree with you completely about cheap food. The more I read, the more I am willing to devote a substantial portion of our household budget on quality food. And, in fact, I just got Dr. Price’s book and am hoping to have some free time at some point to read it. Very interesting stuff!

  • [...] Age.  The example of Polyface farms also comes to mind.  They try to take advantage of the synergistic relationship between cows and chickens using modern portable electric fencing.  All these ideas [...]

  • [...] Age.  The example of Polyface farms also comes to mind.  They try to take advantage of the synergistic relationship between cows and chickens using modern portable electric fencing.  All these ideas [...]

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