There is probably no one left in the food and farming community who hasn’t heard the name Polyface, the Shenandoah Valley super-farm famous for its lush pastures, happy animals and natural husbandry overseen by self described “lunatic farmer” Joel Salatin. The farm has been featured in books and films, including Food, Inc. and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. The farmer himself travels the US spreading the word about sustainable agriculture. As a small farmer seeking to build a sustainable farming system, it’s no great leap to imagine that Polyface and Salatin rank among my top “farming heroes.” And since the farm is here in the Mid-Atlantic, I made it my mission to visit the place and see for myself the foremost face of sustainable, local, ecologically-sound, community-driven farming in America.
The trip from Sussex County, Delaware to Swoope, Virginia, home of Polyface, takes almost five and a half hours and more than 275 miles. It involves crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a feat which invokes in me the kind of raw terror usually reserved for giant, hairy spiders, public speaking or the threat of a zombie invasion, so I have to have a really, really good reason to cross. And a dear friend, and sustainable foodie herself, who lives outside of Baltimore suggested we go together and make it a girls’ weekend, sweetening the deal even further. A chance to visit the farm of my dreams and spend a weekend free from home/child/farm obligations? Calgon, take me away!
I started out on my journey to Polyface sometime around five in the morning, crossed the Bay Bridge while still too groggy to work myself into a frenzy (luckily for all involved) and arrived outside Baltimore around breakfast time. From there, I got to sit in the passenger’s seat as my friend drove us up and into the gorgeous Virginia mountains. Did I mention how gorgeous it is up there? Even the freeway views of picturesque farmhouses, giant red barns and rolling pastures dotted with cows were enough to take my breath away and had me thinking up schemes for saving up enough for a down payment on one of those mountain farms sometime before I turn 50.
Polyface sits well down a narrow country lane, the kind where one side drops off perilously into what looked like a giant cliff to my flatlander eyes. On one side, the rocks rise, blocking any view. On the other, rolling, green fields of the valley floor stretch out and up. Polyface is surrounded by other farms, beautiful old farm houses and cows munching in emerald green pastures. At the end of the Polyface lane, we were greeted by a certain degree of chaos that I have come to accept is simply a part of farming and living and working in the same place. There was a building in the midst of construction on one side, hoop-houses that looked recently emptied and untidy on the other. Stepping out of the car and into the mud, I recognized instantly the faint but unmistakable odor of manure.
We were greeted almost immediately by a Polyface intern—a cheerful young man with blond curls. He pointed us up the hill and told us where to find the chickens and pigs. The pastures at Polyface rise up behind the house rather than sprawling out around it. The first stop on the trudge up the hill was a crowded hoop-house full of mostly pullets, with at least one rooster near the front making his noisy presence known. “Guarding” the hoop-house was a very large goose with a very bad attitude who made it clear that my presence was not appreciated. We moved on quickly to the layer pen, a grouping of hens confined in portable electric netting (the Feathernet) to keep them safe from predators.
They were also protected by the watchful eye of the strangest livestock dog I’ve ever seen—he looked perfectly normal when laying down, but when he rose to make sure he was always putting himself between us and the hens (good dog!) he revealed the longest legs I’ve ever imagined a dog could have. He was like a Great Pyrenees on stilts! If I am being 100% honest, I have to admit that the condition of some of the layers dismayed me. There were hens that displayed signs of stress and feather loss that can come from crowding too many birds into a small space. I can’t say with any certainty that was the case with the Polyface hens, but the possibility of it continues to niggle at my conscience.
From the layer pen, we headed out across the pasture, carefully avoiding the abundant cow patties, to see yet more chickens—this time the broilers. Housed in 10’X12’ “chicken tractors, these birds are completely contained and safe from predation, yet they get all the benefit of green grass, warm sun and fresh air. Most of the pens lined up in the pasture were filled with heavy, white Cornish cross chicks, but along one side were pens of Freedom Rangers, a breed originally developed in France for the Label Rouge program. I was very happy to see something other than the Cornish out on the pasture. Cornish cross chicks have been so overbred for the production industry that they often live their short, 7 week life in misery as their bones and internal organs are unable to keep up with their astronomical rate of growth. They have also been bred for confinement rather than pasture or range and are typically not active enough to do much foraging.
Past the layer pen, we continued up the hill looking for the pigs. We found them in a large pen set into the edges of the Polyface woodland. Big, fat and happy are the only way to describe these animals. They were active, running up to the gate to greet us. They were curious, sniffing and exploring, trying to figure out if we had brought them treats, I suppose. They were happily playing, one even playing fetch with himself—throwing a stick around and catching it in his mouth. One contented-looking porker snoozed at the edge of a great mud pit. It was truly a beautiful sight to see these bright, inquisitive animals treated with such respect and dignity. It was wonderful to be able to see what happy lives they were leading.
On our way back down the hill, we began to run into other visitors, mostly families with children out to see the animals. Back down in the sales room, business had picked up, too. It was obvious that Polyface was doing a brisk business.
Leaving Polyface, I was struck by how very ordinary our visit was. It was wonderful, no doubt, and I was very gratified to finally see in person the farm so many of us in the field of sustainable agriculture want to model our farms after. But, there was no magic, no other-worldly glow about the place. In fact, I couldn’t help but think of Greenbranch, an amazing organic farm local to me inspired by some of Joel Salatin’s methods and madness for sure, but also by other local farms like Provident, which have been in the business of sustainable agriculture since long before Joel Salatin became America’s foremost farmer. I can’t say Greenbranch and Provident are better than Polyface, but are they just as good? Yes, I certainly think so. And they are local to me and driven to serve my own community, so perhaps that really does make them better, for me and my neighbors, anyway.
Polyface was wonderful and I am very glad that they have become a role model across the country for farmers looking for a healthier, happier way to make a living off the land. But, I suspect there are dozens of Polyfaces in every farming community in every state. They may not get the national recognition or the film spots or the write-ups in bestselling works of non-fiction, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it. Seek them out, support them! There may be some ring of prestige to being able to say, “I had a Polyface steak for dinner,” but for me, it’s probably more authentic to the spirit of the sustainable community if I can say, “I had a Greenbranch steak.” And, in fact, I think I’ll head down to the Greenbranch market stand tomorrow and pick up some of that amazing pork and beef!
Joya Parsons is the owner and principal operator of Quite Contrary Gardens Homestead in Sussex County, Delaware. A former IT professional and US Navy veteran, she has spent the last ten years learning the art of organic growing and sustainable living. She is working within her own community to make a local, sustainable food system a reality through education, outreach and example. If she’s not outside getting her hands in the dirt or tending her chickens, she can normally be found with her nose in the latest issue of Mother Earth News.