Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Lunatic Tour at Polyface Farm

Did you hear about the farmer who won an award?
He was out standing in his field.

I've been following Joel Salatin for a long time.  Who is Joel Salatin you ask?  Joel is a third generation farmer at Polyface Farm located in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.  Joel takes pride in raising animals in the most holistic and natural way possible and is legendary in the natural food community.  Joel has been featured in numerous documentaries including, Fresh (2009), Food Inc. (2008), Farmageddon (2011), (all of which I highly recommend) and the upcoming American Meat (2013).  He has written multiple books and he's been interviewed in several podcasts (here, here, and here).

We had plans to travel in April.  My wife did some research and found that Joel's Polyface Farm, was located not far from our route.  As it just so happened, they had a Lunatic Tour scheduled for the day we planned to return.  So without hesitation she ordered tickets. 

We arrived at the farm around 12:40.  We were met by a large crowd of people waiting for the tour to begin at 1:00.  It wasn't too long before the crowd made its way towards the hay wagons.  It was then that we heard it, "Folks, you're here for the lunatic tour and I'm your lunatic farmer."  It was Joel Salatin.  I got chills.  I was a bit starstruck.  The web site said that tours were given by Joel or his son Daniel so we hadn't known if he was going to be there or not.  He gave a brief introduction and mentioned some safety concerns.  He went on to say that every tour is different.  Their animals move, so the tour always goes to a different places.  The tours also vary by season.  Right now they were in the midst of moving the animals from their winter locations to their summer locations.

We loaded onto the wagons.  Our first stop was the eggmobiles.  There were two 20' long wagons that house 900 layers.  Joel explained that the eggmobiles were used to mimic nature.  First the cattle go through and area and a day or two later the hens are moved in.  The chickens scratch and peck the cow patties.  In the process they eat all of the fly eggs, and larvae and spread the patties.  This gets more nutrients into the soil and causes the grass to grow. 

Our second stop was at the broilers.  Joel explained the design of the tractors.  Each one houses 75 Cornish Rock Cross birds and can be moved by a single person.  The tractors are moved each day.  This gives the birds access to fresh grass.  The chicken manure is left behind to rejuvenate the soil.

We saw cows on our third stop.  Joel explained that that cows are relocated every day.  They are kept in using portable electric fencing.  Polyface cows spend their time outside doing what cows are supposed to do.  They eat grass.  They aren't ever fed corn or dead cows. 

Here's a picture of one of the hay wagons.  This was half of the tour group.

Our final stop was at the pigorators.  I think this is truly ingenious.  During the winter the cows are brought under the roofed structure shown below.  It's basically a barn with no walls.  During there time there they eat hay.  Each day while eating hay they deposit 50 lbs of processed hay on the ground.  The farmers put carbon based material down on the floor.  They use sawdust, wood chips, peanut shells, straw, whatever they can get.  The cows mash it down and press all of the air out of it.  During the process of adding carbon material they also put down layers of corn.  By the end of winter there is several feet of compressed, fermented, corn/straw/hay/manure.  So what do they do next?  They bring in pigs.  The pigs are eager to eat the corn.  They turn over all of the material and in the process aerate it.  This causes it to compost quickly.  Once it's fully composted it is removed and spread on the fields. 
I've read about the processes used at Polyface previously, but seeing it in person is so much better than reading about it.  Hearing Joel speak was amazing.  This guy just exudes passion for farming.  He really gets excited when talking about cows, chickens, and being good stewards of the Earth. 

There's another aspect of Polyface that I must mention.  We live in a world full of intellectual property.  Businesses are constantly patenting and copyrighting everything they do in an attempt to thwart and stifle competition.  They'll sue for the slightest infringement.  I read stories about these types of lawsuits almost weekly.  This is obviously not the case at Polyface.  They could keep their processes secret.  They don't have to offer tours.  But they do.  They have an open door visitation policy.  They say, "Come see what we do and how we do it."  I didn't hear it said explicitly, but they seemed to imply, "You should do this too."

So was the tour worth it?  Absolutely!  The tour lasted for the full two hours and Joel stayed around afterwards to talk to people individually.  I'd like to go again during a different season and see some of the other things they do.  They didn't have the turkeys and the rabbits out yet.  I'd recommend going if you get the chance.  A word of caution though.  Wear old shoes.  It is a working farm.  Tours are done rain or shine.  It was quite muddy while we were there.   

If you can't get to Polyface, there's a wonderful six part series of videos on youtube.  In the videos Joel gives Dr. Mercola a private tour. 


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