I wrote the following words on Facebook a few weeks ago:
I first stumbled across a copy of Joel Salatin’s “You Can Farm” almost 15 years ago in a small library. I read it and was intrigued… maybe obsessed is a better word. His writing germinated in my mind, and grew ever so slowly as I attended medical school and travelled around the world. This morning, I had the opportunity to walk the land that was described in that book. Even though it is still late Winter and everything is brown, Joel’s farm (Polyface Farms) was still inspirational… It was worth the 15 year wait!
Now I want to share some photos and editorial…
Polyface Farms is in a very rural location. Granted, there are more isolated farms, but I doubt there are many that are anywhere as successful while still being so off the beaten path. I drove over roads that stretched across the brown Shenandoah Valley hills of Virginia farmland in late Winter for about twenty minutes and only passed one other car. The farm is an additional mile down an unpaved road. The drive was very pretty despite the lack of green and the fields of rather poorly managed land of the surrounding farms
As I pulled into Polyface Farms, I noticed that things didn’t look very different than neighboring land. Much of this was due to the fact that everything was still brown from Winter. I spoke with Joel Salatin the week prior at the Permaculture Voices Conference, and I knew that the farm would be at the tail end of its yearly slow period, just getting ready to be amped up for the Spring. However, as I pulled closer to the farm structures I started to notice a few things, and a smile spread across my face.
The first thing I recognized as being uniquely Salatin was the Egg-Mobiles (seen at the top of this article). These mobile hen houses get pulled around the farm so the egg-laying chickens can free-range the pastures for food. Supplemental feed is given, but this wild foraging produces some of the best-tasting and healthiest eggs possible. The Egg-Mobiles were not stocked at the moment, but not far from where they were resting for the Winter were three, large hoop houses (aka high-tunnels, polytunnels, hoop greenhouses), and I could hear some clucking.
The hoop houses are the Winter quarters for the egg-laying hens of the Egg-Mobiles. These are drastically different systems than the confinement poultry houses of modern agriculture (just run a Google image search for “confinement poultry, and you will see what I mean). You can smell a confinement poultry house from a long distance off, the chickens are packed in tightly, dead chickens are scattered on the floor, and you need to wear a hazmat suit to walk in there, literally. No… these chickens of Polyface Farms were happily scratching in the bedding on the ground, contentedly clucking, hopping into the nests to lay eggs, and the air did not have a stench. I did smell animals, but it was not bad… it was fowl, but not foul! I would have no problem with my children walking in there to collect eggs.
Each hoop house was divided into two sections. About one half or one-third housed the chickens, and the other part housed pigs. I am not entirely sure how this system worked, as I was doing a self-guided tour. Joel was out at a speaking engagement when I was able to visit the farm, and I only had a few minutes to speak with the current farm manager before he had to get back to work. But I am pretty sure that the pigs and chickens rotated back and forth to both sides of the hoop house. There were two areas that were/could be closed off in the center of the hoop houses, and I think these are used to move the animals while keeping the pigs separated from the chickens.
I will add that these pigs were great! Friendly, outgoing, and happy. They also had a bit of a pig smell, but nothing more than a well-kept petting zoo. Which is saying something, because there were a lot more animals here than in a normal petting zoo.
Less than a hundred yards down the slight hill from the big hoop houses were some smaller hoop houses. These housed the meat rabbits. I had read about Daniel Salatin’s (Joel Salatin’s son) rabbits previously, so it was also great to see these in person. The rabbits are kept in raised cages, and the egg-laying chickens “free-range” underneath. This stacking of function (literally and figuratively) enables two species to mutually benefit each other. The rabbits drop mature, hay, and feed which provide food and activity for the chickens. The chickens eat any pests that may normally harbor in the rabbit bedding and droppings. Since one animal is a chicken and one is a rabbit, there is a bit of pest/host confusion as well. This is a simple, yet very well-designed system.
I knew the Saltins raised turkeys as well, but I had not read nor heard how they did it. I saw this contraption sitting near one of the hoop houses, and I thought it was empty. As I was walking around it, I heard a little rustle inside. I peeked under the hood, and saw a bunch of very young turkeys. This seems to be a variation of the Egg-Mobile. My guess is that it is pulled around to free-range the turkeys… either that, or this was just a temporary holding location for the animals.
I then decided to wander over to the barn, and all the things I had read about came flooding back. The Saltins do not keep their cattle in the patures over the Winter. They keep them in the “barn”. This barn is not the typical dark, dank structure. It is an open-air roof with almost no walls. The cattle are given fresh hay and bedding on a regular basis. Corn is occasionally dropped as well. The cattle end up standing higher and higher off the ground as the bedding piles up. The corn starts to ferment a bit as well. Toward the end of Winter, the pigs are let into the barn in sections. They love the little kernels of corn, so they root and dig it up, loosening the packed bedding. After the pigs have everything turned over and aired out, the Salatins use a tractor to move this almost-compost out of the barn to be spread in the pastures as high-quality fertilizer. The cattle are kept high and dry for the Winter, and the pigs get to do what they love, root around looking for treasure. Another beautiful system!
I also want to point out that many of the built structures on the farm are simple posts or logs, unfinished and unmilled. Most still have the bark still on them. The cost in time and money to use finished wood is really a waste unless you are focused on asthetics. The Salatins are not. They don’t want things to be ugly, but they do care about the bottom line, and it shows. Extra cost is not taken on beautifying poles for a barn. Simple and efficient.
I don’t actually have a bucket list, but it I did, visiting Polyface Farms would be on it. I plan on visiting again in late Summer or early Autumn when everything is in high gear. There is only so much you can read in a book. Walking the land and seeing things in person allows us to learn a lot more. I tried to share a bit of that in these photos, but if you are ever near Swoope, Virginia, I would recommend you stop and visit.
Subscribe to TCPermaculture.com and receive updates whenever a new article is posted!
Photo References: All photos in this article are mine. If you would like to use them, please let me know!