Polyface Farms Lunatic Tour with Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin and the salad bar beef

Joel Salatin and salad bar beef

Monday Tim and I took prearranged personal days off from work to visit Polyface Farms, a local family-owned farm here in the Shenandoah Valley.  At the low cost of $10.50 each, we enjoyed over two hours of exploring the farm, listening to a farmer talk, and purchasing some food that we actually felt good buying and eating.

Like so many other people (and about half of the people on the tour), I first heard of Joel Salatin when I read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I was interested that a Virginian like Salatin, who sounded like a pretty good salt-of-the-Earth kind of guy, had such radical ideas about how food animals could be raised, killed, and consumed without destroying our planet or our souls.

I should preface this by sharing that I have meat issues. As a child I hated eating chicken that was “juicy” because it reminded me the chicken had once been alive. I’ve never eaten a pork chop of my own free will, and several times I’ve cooked a wonderful turkey on the holidays only to watch my family enjoy it while I picked at bread stuffing. I hate handling raw meat, and any act of raw poultry in our home leads to me declaring the prep area a “contamination zone,” followed by copious amounts of sterilization after Tim gets the meat in the oven.

To make matters worse, I read about animal processing. I watch movies and documentaries that detail how animals are raised, slaughtered, and processed. I also read about how the United States grows its food and how we as a people consume it. “Food, Inc.,” “Supersize Me,” “Fast Food Nation,” “King Corn,” “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral,” and, of course “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” All of these and others have gotten me fired up about food.

I finished reading Pollan’s book with two “must go see” spots in mind. One was to finally stop at Ecofriendly Foods in Moneta, Virginia, (a place I passed a few times each year). The other was to go see Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia. The first I was able to do immediately. Polyface took years…but it was worth the wait.

hogs relaxing in the shade

hogs relaxing in the shade

We arrived at Polyface Farms around 9:30 Monday morning after driving a while through the beautiful countryside in Augusta County, Virginia. The entire trip took us about 1 1/2 hours from our home to theirs. After greeting Michael, a large white dog who guards the poultry at night, 100 or so of us piled onto three hay wagons and began our two-hour tour.

We stopped first at the hog “pens”, and Salatin, who served as tractor driver and tour guide, explained a little about the history of Virginia. In the past the forests were routinely “churned up” by animals migrating through. This turned the leaves down into the soil, killed off small seedlings, and helped clear out underbrush. Imagine the destruction a herd of bison can leave behind.

Polyface allows its hogs to recreate this process. They are rotated between 5 or 6 pens. At each, they eat down the growth, turn up the soil, and help restore some balance in nature. What Salatin pointed out and what I had already noticed is that unlike other hog pens, there was no stench. In fact, I noticed only a slight muskiness or animal odor. There were no lagoons of waste, and the large, fat hogs seemed quite happy spending their day relaxing under the shade trees.

chickens

chickens

Our second stop was a field full of small little chicken coops. The coops are moved every morning, which allows the broiler chickens and young turkeys access to new grass and bugs. The field had a bit of a checkerboard effect where the chickens had been the day before. There was also a large pen of turkeys nearby.

This stop is where Salatin spent some time explaining why his method of farming is different from others. In a nutshell (and I did not take notes, so forgive any inconsistencies), he moves cows onto pasture. After a day, they are rotated to a different bit of pasture. Once they move off, the chickens and their moveable coops come in. They pick and scrape through the cow patties and eat bugs, grass, and seed, thereby not only helping the cow manure decompose but spreading a bit of their own fertilizer as well. Once the chickens have slowly migrated across the field, the bigger turkeys in their open pen are moved across the field.

Joel talking chicken

Joel talking chicken - what a view!

In this way, in essence, each type of animal touches the same spot of land a few times a year, which not only allows the grass plenty of time to recover, but it confuses the parasites and bad bugs that can flourish in a single-animal operation such as a feedlot.

Joel Salatin’s eggs aren’t infected with salmonella. His cows don’t eat fermented silage or corn.

By allowing animals to live as they should, eat what they are made to, and die in a quick, humane method (not covered on the tour but addressed in Pollan’s book), Polyface Farms has grown animals that look, smell, and, yes, taste like animals should.

We purchased two dozen eggs, a chicken to bake, and a nice sirloin steak. The prices for the meat were similar to what we pay at organic grocery stores, and the eggs were less than I’ve paid for free-range organic eggs in the past. At these prices it’s only a little more expensive to “eat clean.”

salad bar beef

salad bar beef

followup:

The steak was wonderful. Grilled over charcoal with only a little salt, it has a wonderful beefy flavor and it was nice and tender. The eggs have beautiful golden yolks and, well, they taste like eggs :) And with the recent salmonella outbreak and recall, it’s nice to not have to worry about nasty bugs.

*** This personal blog is comprised solely of the opinions, views, projects, and travels of its author, Stacey Morgan Smith. She is lucky enough to have loving family and friends whom she drags along with her on her adventures and whom she puts to work on her little farm. She uses this blog to help promote living in the mountains of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, from Roanoke to the Potomac River.**

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