Beyond Organic: An Inside Look at Joel Salatin's Famous Polyface Farm
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"I'm from a long line of out-of-the-box thinkers, and we've been on this lunatic train for a long, long time," proclaims ruddy-cheeked Daniel Salatin during his introduction to what is perhaps America's most sought-after farm tour.
"Let me give you some housekeeping rules," he booms. "There are none." The 75 of us on the tour smile conspiratorially from our perches on hay bales lined up along the floor of a flatbed trailer. Soon, we will be pulled by tractor through Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, a food and farming mecca of sorts, thanks to its dedication to sustainable practices and the prominence of the Salatins, especially patriarch Joel, a farmer, author and speaker who had prominent roles in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's 2006 best-selling critique of industrial farming, and in the 2009 documentaries Food, Inc. and Fresh, both examinations of our modern food system.
While Polyface Farm leads the flock in name recognition, it is but one of hundreds of farms around the world opening their doors to a public hungry for an up-close look at how their food is grown or raised. Be they family-run or supported by an entire community, these farms are pushing back against the industrial food model by implementing sustainable agricultural practices, and they encourage the public to come see how it's done.
That's what we, the faithful and the curious, along with our families and two groups of college students, have come to do at Polyface, deep in the Shenandoah Valley. We have gathered together to hear the gospel according to the Salatins.
While the Obamas may have planted an organic garden at the White House, the Salatins are arguably America's first family of farming. Father and son run this self-proclaimed "beyond organic" livestock farm, which Joel's father started in 1982. On the day we visited, Salatin Sr. was out of town on one of his many speaking engagements, though he does regularly lead tours to the delight of his fans.
Polyface has been widely praised by sustainable-farming and local-food advocates for its commitment to Earth- and animal-friendly practices, including rotational grass grazing, humane treatment and local processing. With an annual average population of 6,500 laying hens (for eggs), 24,000 broilers (for meat), 1,000 head of cattle, 200 hogs, 500 turkeys and 250 rabbits, Polyface is classified as a commercial farm, but it's on the smaller side, defiantly spurning one-size-fits-all United States Department of Agriculture regulations. One of Joel Salatin's most popular books is titled Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front.
"We have an open-door policy," continues Daniel Salatin, 29, donning an Australian bush hat like his father's before leading us on a fascinating and fact-filled two-hour-plus tour of a tiny portion of Polyface's 100 acres of pasture (an additional 450 acres are wooded). "There are no copyright issues here," he bellows over the wind. "It's all about everybody else doing it--the consumer, the customer, the farmer. We share what we know." In contrast, imagine the top dogs at mega-industrial farm Perdue saying such a thing, or allowing visitors to see their operations at all. (They don't.)
To the Salatins, transparency is more than a buzzword. After Omnivore's Dilemma hit the bestseller list, requests to see the farm grew to the point that the family began to offer regular guided tours, hosting some 3,000 people last year. For many years, visitors also have been able to take free self-guided tours Monday through Saturday. Joel and his wife, Teresa, are making one concession to privacy. This spring, they're putting up a "rustic fence" around their yard and modest farmhouse, with a sign noting that the home is private.