Recently (as a birthday gift!) I visited Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA, with my family. Joel Salatin’s family turned eroding hillsides and bare dirt into a lush, family-supporting farm and food business with 50 years of patience, thought, innovation, and labor. Joel and his son Daniel are sought out for teaching the methods and thinking behind their sustainable, commonsense, innovative model. (And locals enjoy some really great food raised at Polyface.) Joel’s ways with soil, plants, and animals not only make for healthy and tasty food, but have shown respect to God’s creation and inspired others to connect with farming in a new way. His farm is featured in the documentary Food, Inc. and in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Joel’s way with words have opened my head about the food choices I make, and have given me plenty of crazy-sounding late night chuckles, too. No wonder he is known to some as a ‘lunatic farmer”.
I have photos, stories and insights to share: there’s chickens, children, pigs, and cows, but also real stewardship and tips on how to grow great food in small places.
The fast flow of 80 pullets zooming around the warm chick house trying to escape some happy kids.
In just three weeks, those fluffy yellow chicks grow this big, and get much faster. It was very warm and cozy in there, and it smelled like a wood shop from the deep bed of hardwood shavings.
The look of joy and deep engagement on my daughter’s face.
Three of our girls were chasing chickens around the pasture. Chasing, not catching. Our farm apprentice guide, Brie, invited them inside the Eggmobile, where they had better luck. When Gigi, who hadn’t heard us calling her–she was so deep into what she was doing–finally came to the portable hen house door with an armload of live Rhode Island Red, this is what she looked like:
I have happy kids, I think. I have seen even the moodiest of my daughters happy plenty of times. Even just last week. But the radiant look on her face today was a more profound and connected joy than I think I have ever seen on anyone’s face, ever. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I need to see that look on her face again. It was a soul deep smile. When she has found her life’s work, or her man, I am certain I will know it. There will be that face.
The (yes it was) soothing sound of clucking.
This might be hard to believe, but in the pasture, with soft sun and breezes, all that clucking and cooing was soothing. The way the sound of a leaf blower going on and off is not. The way Muzak is not. You can hear yourself think in the sound of chickens, and you can also hear people talking to you. Well, maybe not in a 10,000 bird poultry house, but that’s an article for another day.
The Eggmobile is a portable hen house that can be moved from one fenced pasture to another, following the beef cows’ grazing. The chickens clean up after the cows, eating parasitic insects in the pasture and in the cow manure. They also scratch the cow patty into the soil, aerating it and helping it to decompose and return the unused nutrients to the soil. The by-products are: chicken manure, which also improves soil and grass health for the next round of grazing, and lots of glorious eggs. That is a “by-product” I have been paying $5 – $7 a dozen for at Whole Foods.
The surprise of walking around a bend in the road to see pigs come running to meet us. Jumping up on hind legs at the fence!
What is “the pigness of the pig”? Brie explained that Polyface uses the pigs’ instinct for “plowing” with their snouts. Their pens can be rotated, too, to put them right where their work is needed. In wooded areas, this aerates the soil, folds in decaying leaf matter, and turns up seeds buried too deep to germinate. (In a “Raken” house, with rabbits and chickens, piglets constantly turn the bedding, aerating and breaking down the rabbit and chicken manure and keeping the house healthy and clean.) Pigs are smart: they designate their own ‘bathroom’ area, keeping their food and water clean, and they have an instinct for digging a wallow in the just right spot where it will fill up with water.
Catching my breath at the open top of a wooded hill and a sudden expansive view.
After the pigs, we walked up a muddy, wooded slope. Without hills at home in Florida, and a 5-month-old baby in a front carrier, this was a challenge for me. I knew I was doing okay, though, because I was able to answer Brie’s questions about our restaurants while ‘climbing’. She didn’t lose her breath or break a sweat. The idea that her daily work could keep her in great shape physically makes me think all the gym membership and exercise video money I’ve spent was just silly. We came out of the woods as we crested the hill.
The sudden expansive view of more rolling hills of pasture and trees was a lovely reward.
The thrill of seeing a place I had only read about.
I first learned about Polyface Farm in 2006. I happened to be reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma in Chautauqua NY, and as we traveled on, I found some of Joel Salatin’s books in a bookstore. After reading Family Friendly Farming, my understanding began to crystallize of how we could possibly get back on track with our ‘food systems’ in our country. Whenever more food-scare news, locavore preaching, or recipes insisting on fresh-local-seasonal ingredients abraded, thinking of Polyface Farm would soothe my mind like a balm. Before that, I had read only definitions of the problems. Joel Salatin offers a solution. He is a farm hero. And his search for a solution is expressed in his working family farm.
So when I sat in a cozy cabin the morning we arrived in Virginia, and Daniel surprised me with his plan for our tour of Polyface, my jaw dropped. I got goosebumps. I was going to walk around the pastures of Polyface and meet the people who worked there. I was farmstruck!
My impressions of the farm made me think of Jobim’s song The Waters of March.*
The stillness. The motion. The pasture coming into focus as dozens of plants differentiate from a mass of green. The mud. The mushrooms.
The contrasts were many at Polyface, but without melodrama, without jumpy adrenaline-fueled excitement. I could see how simple, even if the path the Salatins have taken was hard and long and trying, I could see how God meant us to live with the land.
* Jobim’s lyrics
A point, a grain,
A bee, a bite,
A blink, a buzzard,
A sudden stroke of night
A pin, a needle,
A sting, a pain,
A snail, a riddle,
A wasp, a stain
And the riverbank talks
of the waters of March,
It’s the promise of life in your heart, in your heart
In case you actually do want to hear the soundtrack in my head, here’s my favorite rendition: