Over the weekend I had the privilege of joining two other physicians for a visit to Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley. Located in Swoope, VA just outside of Staunton, the Salatin family has developed Polyface Farm as a model of responsible, humane, and sustainable farming. If you have ever seen the documentary Food Inc., you may recognize Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface who is featured several times throughout the movie. He is also featured in Micheal Pollan’s influential book, The Ominivore’s Dilemma. Mr. Salatin has become outspoken in sharing his innovative chemical-free farming practices favoring natural ecosystems over large scale industrial farming.
Once every two years Polyface hosts a “Field Day.” Members of the public are offered an in depth tour with lectures on Polyface’s ingenious farming practices by Mr. Salatin, his family, and members of their staff. I joined approximately two thousand other attendees traveling from as far away as Washington State and even Australia to find out what makes Polyface tick. Upon entering the 550 acre property, I was struck by how beautiful the farm is and how LITTLE it smelled like a farm. At various parts of the day I heard, “If something smells bad, it means something is wrong”. Almost 50 years of experience has taught the Salatins how to use each animal as a worker to take care of a job. The cows “mow” the lawn. The chickens are the “sanitation crew” that follow the cows, cleaning up the cow manure by removing fly larvae and processing it as fertilizer. A pair of geese guard the chickens from natural predators. Pigs are used to aerate compost made from cow bedding. These symbiotic relationships between the animals keep the farm chemical-free, disease-free, beautiful, healthy and efficient. It is Mr. Salatin’s goal that the land is not depleted by farming but enhanced. He calls this method of farming “beyond organic”.
The day was organized with various tours and specific talks on everything from rabbit farming to horticulture. Mr. Salatin personally led a walking tour of the entire property answering questions along the way. An engaging speaker, Mr. Salatin lectures all over the world on sustainable agriculture and shared many stories and lessons learned from his travels and experiences. At lunchtime, Polyface fed us a king-sized meal of their own barbeque chicken, pork, and beef. We also ate fresh peaches, cucumbers, and a slice of buttermilk chocolate cake-HEAVEN! If this is what eco-farming tastes like, sign me up!!
Polyface is a wonderful place for Virginians to introduce their children to ideal farming practices. The animals are well cared for and treated with respect. The resulting food is healthy, delicious and much cleaner than the food produced on an industrial scale. To learn more about how you can visit Polyface Farm with your kids, visit their website. I would also highly recommend the movie Food Inc. to watch with teens (as there are some graphic scenes of industrial meat processing that may be disturbing for young children). If you make the journey, bring a cooler packed with ice so you can visit their farm store. I plan on going with my kids later this summer to tour the farm and purchase some of their eggs and meats. Although buying meat from local farms may be more expensive than the local grocery, we’ve decided that the extra cost is worth it and can be overcome by eating smaller quantities (as seen in the new USDA recommendations). For those unable to make the trek to Swoope, Polyface recommends the website Local Harvest, a site that can help you find local farmers closer to home using your zipcode. Mr. Salatin strongly believes our population can be sustained by a model in which people know their local farmers and farmers use responsible practices. After a day at Polyface, I believe him.
(Joel Salatin enjoying a farm feast at Field Day)