Polyface Farm Pioneers Permaculture, Offers Agritourism
Posted on June 27, 2019
Polyface Farms in Swoope (pronounced “swope”), Virginia, is a holy grail for farm-to-table junkies like me. While I know their uber-sustainable agriculture practices are at an extremely high level, I believe these can and should spread. And if/when they do, I hope those farmers grow food to feed my next seven generations.
I first stumbled on Polyface Farms and self-proclaimed “lunatic farmer” Joel Salatin in author Michael Pollan’s 2006 bestseller “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” In the book, Pollan writes about the ethical responsibilities of choosing what we eat. Salatin, with a non-industrial approach to farming that goes far beyond organic, is a hero in the text.
In May, I made the 400-mile trek from Northeast Ohio to the southern Shenandoah Valley to research a travel story. While I was excited to learn about the food, culture and history of the area, my personal reason for visiting was the Salatin farm. I wanted to see their operation and feel the energy.
Though some farms in the Shenandoah countryside reach back seven-plus generations, the Salatins are only on the fourth generation of land stewards. Their story starts in 1961, when Joel’s parents William and Lucille Salatin moved their young family from a farm in the highlands of Venezuela to the safer dusty, unpaved backroads of Swoope (population 1,300).
At that time, the DuPont slogan, “Better living through chemistry,” was still part of pop culture. And Rachel Carson’s pesticide-expose “Silent Spring” hadn’t yet been published. Nonetheless, the Salatins were part of a movement skeptical of factory farming.
So they initiated new — or perhaps old — practices for the worn-out 550-acre property they had purchased. They built compost piles, dug ponds, moved cows daily with portable electric fencing and invented portable sheltering systems to produce all their animals on perennial prairie polycultures. They avoided chemicals for alleviating weeds, killing pests or fertilizing crops. Primarily a livestock farm, they avoided unnecessary medical intervention and sought the most natural approach to raising meat animals.
Polyface isn’t just organic. It goes beyond whether animals eat grass or grain. The Salatins and their crew are actively developing a farm environment that is naturally healthier and more productive.
That translates into nonconventional farming practices. For example, during my visit, I walked into the Raken (rabbit-chicken) House. There, 50 rabbit cages sit above a free-ranging flock of 200 laying hens. Rabbit waste drops into the wood chips below the cages, which chickens scratch through and mix into compost. The compost, which doesn’t smell, attracts bugs as a dietary supplement, and thus the chickens continue to scratch through the base. Everyone wins. The animals are healthier, and the farm waste is easier to manage.
In another building, Pigaerators enable Polyface to make large-scale compost without equipment. Cows are bedded in a carbon-based material such as old wood chips, leaves, old hay or straw. This absorbs and molecularly bonds with volatile and leachable nutrients.
Whole shelled corn is added to that layer and ferments in the anaerobic bedding. (It’s anaerobic because the cows tromp out the oxygen.) Pigs seek the fermented corn and aerate the pile with their snouts. The result is an organic compost that smells and looks rich and healthy
Anyone can visit Polyface — which has grown to 650 acres and has another 1,200 acres under lease — to see these practices and more. While it sounds scientific and preachy, it’s truly educational and fun. During my visit, Joel’s son Daniel explained the processes. And Daniel’s daughter Lauryn, 11, offered chicks, chickens and rabbits for petting.
By fall, the farm will further enhance its agritourism attraction with a corn box for playtime digging, a natural teeter-totter and other farm-influenced playground fixtures for the youngest generation. The Salatins want to encourage and well serve 15,000-plus visitors each year.
Farmers such as the Salatins are important to me because I choose to change the world by how I spend my money. When I shop my values, I support the “good” guys and help them thrive. By boycotting the “bad” guys, I lower demand for their products/services and hope that they’ll either change or go away.
Of course, local is one of Polyface’s principles. With that in mind, Polyface doesn’t ship and delivers only within a four-hour radius. Visitors can buy meat from the farm store. I didn’t have a way of keeping the meat cold during my trip back to Northeast Ohio, so instead I ordered the Cornish Cross chicken breast at dinner. Chefs at Zynodoa, in nearby Staunton, one of many local restaurants supplied by Polyface, brined it in sweet tea before roasting. The texture and flavor were perfect.
While the breed is commonly used for meat, Polyface’s chickens grow about 20 percent slower than factory-farmed chickens because they aren’t subject to article lights at night or confined to cages. That care helps me justify my carnivore ways and makes me a fan of sustainable, local production epitomized by the Salatins.