Visiting Polyface Farm

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The J-Term classes of PLAP 3160, The Politics of Food, STS 2500, Sustainable Agriculture, ANTH 2890, Unearthing the Past, and EDIS 2910, Beyond the Second Year: Academic Realities and Skills were able to visit Polyface Farm on January 7th.  After traveling the winding roads through Augusta county’s beautiful farmland, and crossing over a wooden plank bridge that many were a bit nervous about, we were greeted with a wonderful surprise- Joel Salatin himself.  Joel Salatin, a second generation farmer, owner of Polyface Farm, and the rock star of the farming world was gracious and welcoming as he explained the history of his land, and how his farming methods were so closely linked with that history.  It was a bitterly cold day, and snow was falling as the tour began, but Salatin’s energy seemed to melt away the frostbite. 

Our first stop was a hoop house which housed rabbits, chickens, and pigs.  He explained the symbiosis of how these animals, along with his cows, all work together to repair the soil, and produce healthy meat.  Walking in the hoop house, the first thing one will notice is the lack of odor.  It smelled just earthy, and having visited conventional industrial chicken farms myself where the smell of ammonia is overwhelming, you understand right away the difference in the health and living conditions of Polyface animals, compared to those animals on factory farms.  The animals were inside due to the cold temperatures, but still had so much room to run around and play. The pigs were housed in the same hoop house, and it was thrilling to get to walk through a pig sty next to 30 or so squealing pigs, and there was no mess, no smell, just cute little pigs, who were rather unsure about having 100 students walking through their house.  But since Polyface Farm rocketed to national stardom from the mention in Omnivore’s Dilemma, I imagine that they are getting used to all the attention, and visitors.  We learned that the animals stay inside for no more than 100 days during the cold and then as soon as temperatures warm enough, they will be outside for the rest of their time on the farm. 

The next stop on our tour was the cow feeding barn.  Again the one thing that was noticeably absent was the “farm smell.”  The cows have a winter pasture area, and a specially designed barn area that they can enter and exit at will.  Inside the open-air structure, complete with skylights, Joel has installed a special pulley system to raise their food, as the “deposits” from the cows build up over the winter.  The deposits are amended with corn and grass, and as the cows step over this area to eat, the deposits are compacted to prevent runoff, which is harmful to waterways.  In the spring, the cows, chickens and rabbits, move to the pastures, each animal working to do their part in healing the landscape.   Joel equates his chickens to “hard working women” who clean up after the cows and just happen to leave behind some of the freshest best tasting eggs around.

The last area we visited on our tour was a wooded area where the pigs will be moved.  Joel explained the importance of forest health, and how disturbances, like fires, or animal movement, are so important to maintaining healthy forest systems.  The pigs will move to this area, after they spend time churning the winter cow area into compost. 

The day was a wonderful eye opening experience for all.  One of the many questions asked this day was can a farming method like this feed the world.  Joel’s answer was absolutely YES.  He explained that on average grazing cows in our area get 80 cow days, which means that one cow can be fed on the land for 80 days or 80 cows for one day.  His farming method provides a system that equals 400 cow days per acre.  He explained that farming must not only provide health food, but also provide healthy soils for the future to be a truly sustainable model and that so few models do this.  Our current farming system will not be able to feed the world, according to Salatin, and must be changed.  Bright thinkers like Joel, and the students in the J-Term classes studying food systems will be the driving forces in changing this system.

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