On Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm “Lunatic Tour”

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Joel Salatin with his pastured laying hens.
Joel Salatin with his pastured laying hens.

The local food movement is as popular in Crozet as anywhere, and with our rich agricultural heritage western Albemarle has a better chance than many areas to make it real. Meanwhile, how?

One of the leading lights, even a celebrity, of the anti-industrial farm movement is showing how next door in Augusta County. Joel Salatin and his Polyface Farm in Swoope, touted in Michael Pollan’s recent best seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the movie Food, Inc., as well as news stories in leading national newspapers and magazines, is so busy coping with pilgrims to his farm that he can barely keep up with his chores. Or with his real occupation now: advocating for an alternative concept of farming that stresses practical cooperation with natural processes. Salatin, who labels himself a “pastoralist” in signing the columns he writes for Acres USA, a sustainable farming publication, is the author of six how-to books on farming. Besides Acres USA, Salatin also writes for The Stockman Grass Farmer and the American Agriculturalist. As he states it, his goal is to “develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises.” He maintains a strenuous speaker’s schedule and will be appearing in Australia this month.

The farm hosts two tours a month in the warm months, each accepting about 100 visitors (at $10.50 each) who will ride hay wagons across the pastures and talk with Salatin about the operations that he or his son Daniel describes. This summer’s are booked full through July. The April 27 tour included visitors from Kansas and northern New York state as well nearer parts of the South and mid-Atlantic.

Salatin’s farm supplies what he calls “salad bar beef,” pastured broiler chickens, turkeys and eggs, “pigerator” pork, and rabbits to 3,000 families, 10 stores (among them Greenwood Gourmet Grocery in Crozet) and 50 restaurants across Virginia and Maryland, the limit of the range he will take on. The farm also harvests and saws timber.

Polyface scissor-truss hen house.
Polyface scissor-truss hen house.

Salatin, 53, came home to his family’s farm in 1982 with a B.A. in English and took up what we now call sustainable farming practices that were already being championed by his father. He runs the farm now with his wife Teresa, son Daniel, and another eight employees who are involved in deliveries and bookkeeping as well as farm duties, as well as a half-dozen apprentices who will one day run their own farms. The team also manages five rented farms with the prospect of three others who are asking to be part of the program.

Salatin is of medium build but in brawny shape and hale. He maintains a youthful agility springing up and down from the tractor, a Massey Ferguson, that pulls the tandem-hitched trailers. He wore a battered straw hat, clean jeans and a chambray shirt with a Polyface Farm logo—a stylized tree that contains the profiles of a cow and chicken—embroidered on it.

Polyface Farm is essentially a livestock finishing operation that brings animals to slaughter weights nearly exclusively (except for a little shelled corn for the hogs and mash for the layers) on a grass diet. Salatin’s goal is to raise more meat by raising more and better grass. Daily rotation of animals to fresh pasture, imitating their behavior in nature, is his key strategy. He is relentlessly thrifty and his buildings, fencing and farm equipment show off a determination to get a job done with the least fuss or frill.

The first destination on the tour was a flock of 1,000 laying hens confined in a electrified net fence. In the center, in an area about a quarter of an acre, a 44-foot covered, scissor-truss structure on two steel skids provides an ingenious and economical shelter that has ample roosts. Nesting boxes flank a center aisle that eases egg collection. The layers are Rhode Island Reds (Salatin also uses Black Australopes and Barred Rocks), which show some wear from plucking on their tails. There were two roosters in the crowd, but their presence was irrelevant to production. A dozen 5-foot feed troughs fanned out behind a covered feed wagon that served as the front hitch for towing the entire rig including the “coop.” A large white Anatolian Shepherd dog lounged among the hens, who were busily scratching through cow pies searching for fly larva and other insects.

“We have two rules,” said Salatin: “No topic is off-limits. No taboos here. And we’re not politically correct. We don’t tip-toe.”

The hen house occupies a one-third smaller footprint than any previous design he’s attempted, he explained, and has the advantage of keeping eggs cleaner because hens climb up to get into nesting boxes. The fence is more about keeping coyotes and other predators out, he explained. But the real deterrent, especially after dark, is the dog. “He’s death at 35 miles per hour with enormous jaws,” said Salatin respectfully. “He kills things. He starts barking and that’s usually enough to deter a fox.”

Salatin’s broiler pens can be moved by a single person in about one minute.
Salatin’s broiler pens can be moved by a single person in about one minute.

“These are working women,” he noted about the hens’ appearance. “They get a little bedraggled.” Meanwhile scores of birds cheerfully approached him as he stood alongside the fence. During the whole tour, whenever Salatin’s animals saw him they came over to be near him.

“We’re trying to stimulate the ingestion of the ‘salad bar,’” he said. “Chickens follow the cows through a pasture by six days. They like shorter grass. It’s a more palatable condition. There is a beautiful leader/follower choreography.” He meant it to apply generally to all the rotations on the farm.

The feed is locally grown (from Sunrise Farm in Stuart’s Draft) and contains no genetically modified ingredients. It amounts to about 15 percent of the birds’ diet. It contains soybeans, oats, kelp, phospate, and limestone. Oyster shell is offered free-choice.

Hens are kept for production for two years and then become stewing hens. “We don’t want birds to lay too heavily because they will cannibalize their bodies for calcium [to make the egg shell]. Nature never runs with the accelerator to the floor. Nature runs toward a balance.” The poultry industry, meanwhile uses up birds in a 10-month lifespan. “Balance is more valuable than the highest production,” said Salatin. In winter the hens go into large “hoop houses,” which resemble plastic covered greenhouses, joining rabbits and pigs in the same space. In summer, corn is planted in the manure bed that develops in the floor of the house.

Salatin is famous for his “eggmobiles,” mobile chicken houses from which birds are released in the morning to range where they will and then return to at night. He termed that approach as “extensive’ and the net fencing, which is also moved frequently, as “intensive.”

Asked about disease control, he began a short lecture on Louis Pasteur’s discovery of germs. “They are villainous. Get them first before they get you.” But Pasteur had a contemporary rival, Michel Beauchamp, with a different theory. “He said health is not about annihilating germs but about the terrain they live in and whether it allows bad germs to proliferate. Pasteur recanted his opposition to Beauchamp on his deathbed. Beauchamp was articulating the foundation of everything that western science considers quackery. Our culture is still worshipping Pasteur. We’re not about building a friendly system.” But Polyface is solidly on the Beauchamp team and the goal is to grow the healthiest terrain for all the life that depends on it.

Salatin answering questions about the hogs.
Salatin answering questions about the hogs.

“We could not design a more pathogen-friendly system than the modern conventional farm.” He suggested that his visitors try to see if they could tour a modern poultry house where owners are terrified that a visitor might introduce a germ among their closely-confined flocks.

“We move things around. That keeps pathogens down. We let chickens have their chickenness.”

Salatin’s pastured broilers are meat birds, Cochin Crosses to be specific, the same breed used in conventional farming. They are raised in 10’ by 12’ by 2’ frames, partially enclosed in metal, that are skidded with the help of a simple wheeled dolly to fresh ground every day. Each square of ground the birds cover is used by them for only that one day a year. For the rest of the year, the spot rests. Salatin has 120 cages, each holding 75 birds, a population that was arrived at through experiment to achieve the best balance. “Smaller groups give you more opportunities for chiefs,” he explained, referring to the issue of pecking order among birds. Cages go into operation in March and shut down in October. Birds are introduced to pasture at 18 days old. At seven weeks the 10 largest birds in a cage are harvested and all the birds are slaughtered by nine weeks. There was no odor around the chickens and they were quiet and serene. “A farm should not smell,” Salatin stated.

“We have very little problem with predators,” he said. “By ‘seldom’ I mean losing two birds a year. Farms are really alive with predators at night.

“We try to benefit the predators by fencing off the woods [virtually all the fences on the farm are hot wires attached to car batteries] where voles and mice can grow to feed the predators. We create wildlife corridors to make diversity to feed them. We take out the ones who can’t be satisfied with that. We have no compunction about that.” Any land that is too steep to drive on should be in forest, he added.

Water for all the animals is piped down from ponds built higher in the nearby mountain ravines. Five miles of pipe supply 80 valves distributed along the pastures. “The solution to river flooding is farm ponds, not levees,” said Salatin. We could be flood-proof and drought-proof. We should be damming ravines with small ponds.” He said he has a chapter on water management in his new book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, due out September 1.

“My duty is to build forgiveness into the land,” he said. “I have to give it the redemption that has been given to me. We have to build resiliency into the things we influence. We have to build emotional equity into our children. When these principles span ecology and relationships, and they are consistent top to bottom, then you know you are on to truth.” Salatin does not make a display of his Christian belief to visitors and neither does he hide it.

In the next pasture, about 25 100-pound pigs all seemed to be grinning. When Salatin called for visiting kids who had entered it to come out (“You could lose a finger”) the pigs promptly romped over to him. They are raised in barns until they are 75 pounds, rotate through pastures until they are 200 pounds and are released to forage in the woods until they reach a slaughter weight of 300 pounds. These were Yorkshires. Salatin does not breed his young stock, but buys them from neighboring farms.

“People forget that the ‘heritage’ breeds are the result of 300 years of breed development in England from the 1600s to the 1800s,” he explained. “They were developed to fit their locales.” Hence their names are commonly places. “We should be developing a Swoope pig. I call it nativized genetics.”

He is unsentimental about raising animals to eat. “Everything is eating and being eaten. Go lie in your flower bed for week and you’ll find out. Nature  is a hard taskmaster. Any individual that doesn’t make the cut, doesn’t make the cut. The ones with the best balance of traits for the environment make it.”

Having had to make his way against the current of modern industrial-style farming, Salatin is openly critical of government, which he sees as abetting the wrong practices. “We don’t take any subsidies and we don’t know where any government offices are.” He thinks that instead of taxing high fructose corn syrup products like soda, the massive subsidies paid to corn growers should end. Operating according to the dictates of local sustainability, the farm makes financial cuts the same way nature does. “We have benchmarks on return-to-labor and if an idea doesn’t work [meaning pay], we don’t do it.”

Happy "pigerator" hogs.
Happy "pigerator" hogs.

The “pigerator” is the “heart and soul of Polyface,” Salatin said as he stood outside a loafing shed were a dozen or so heavy hogs were rooting in a manure pile about three feet deep. Cows are feed under the roof over the winter from feed racks suspended on pullies. As cows build the manure floor and tramp it down (he called it a “bedding pack”) gradually raising the level where they stand, the racks are likewise hoisted. Periodically, Salatin broadcasts shelled corn into the manure. The cows can’t pick it up and it gets packed down. When the cows go on pasture in the spring, pigs are brought in to the barn to root for the buried corn. The entire manure pack is dug up and tossed by their snouts as they go after every last kernel. It ends up as a miraculous compost, richness, fluffy and virtually odorless. The farm has large piles of it waiting to be used in the gardens and pastures.

“We don’t own a plow or a disk,” said Salatin. “In 50 years, we’ve gone from having 1 percent to 8 percent organic matter in our soils. Our culture has a mechanistic view of life. We are letting our pigs express their sacred pigness. We want happy pigs. Restoring sacredness to food is what this is about.”

Scanning his large cattle herd, confined in a small area by electric fencing, Salatin said, “There are three principles to herd animals in nature: one, they are always moving to fresh grass; two, they are always mobbed up for protection; and three, they are mowing. They are not eating other dead cows [a reference to industrial-style feedlot practices]. A cow is a portable sauerkraut vat. Around the world, perennials and herbivores  are what builds soil. The grass cycle is more rapid than the tree cycle. We’re simply mimicking what nature does. Our cows get moved everyday to a new paddock. There’s no grain, no silage. They go straight to slaughter. If every farm in the U.S. handled cattle this way we would sequester [in the soil] all the carbon we’ve released so far. This is the most efficient way to do it.

“In rotation stocking, the principle is impact and then rest. In Augusta County the cow-acre per day average is 80. At Polyface, it is 400. That’s how powerfully this grazing system is.”

Salatin said his farm is not certified as organic. “I do not participate in any government programs and the whole certification process has been corrupted to where it doesn’t mean anything any more. There’s now a revolving door in industrial organic farming and the USDA.”

Indeed, the universal happiness of the livestock is one of the strongest impressions a visit to the farm makes. Second is the astonishing vitality and diversity of the pasture grasses.

About selling to restaurants, Salatin observed, “The key is quality and perserverance. You have to have a better mousetrap and you have to be willing to take rejection. Farmers don’t do it because they love what they do and they can’t take that rejection. Very few people are good marketers.” Salatin will only distribute within a four-hour drive of the farm. He tells customers beyond that to look for farms nearer to them. Northern Virginia is one of his best markets.

Salatin shows off his sweet smelling compost from the “pigerator.”
Salatin shows off his sweet smelling compost from the “pigerator.”

“We get resistance from anybody who is not doing this,” said Salatin to answer a question about how neighboring farmers have reacted to his approach. “Conventional farmers think we are threatening the world’s food supply because we don’t vaccinate and they think we threaten their crops with our weeds and pests. They don’t have a clue that its working. If they knew, they would have to change [how they farm]. Paradigms are big things.

“It’s not you’ll believe it when you see it. It’s you’ll see it when you believe it. That’s the truth. Your heart is a filter that determines what your eyes will see.”

The tour was confirming some believers, many of whom arrived as pilgrims. Young Jaden Barnes, there with his family who have a small farm in Suffolk, sat down on a gravel pile to write notes on what he had heard. “I’m writing down how to build a coop and move it and how to build soil,” he explained. If it takes 50 years to rebuild soil, he represents what hope there is for the future.

Cathy Clary of Afton, also on the tour, was invigorated by it. “It’s such a treat to see it and feel better about everything—to see a man who has found his calling in life that allows him to fully express himself and to do good.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. This guy is a modern day saint anyone who criticizes him is in bed with corporate greed and the corruption of the food system – VERY POLITICAL!

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