Polyface Farms, healing the Earth through agriculture
It isn’t a clinic or a hospital, but to owner Joel Salatin, his farm is an instrument of healing as important and powerful as the Oriental art of acupuncture or the Indian Ayurvedic herbs Boswellia and Gotu Kola. Perhaps more so, since Joel’s “healings” address a wide range of ecosystem components, from plants and animals to other humans, human communities and even human economies, right down to the very air, soil and water from which all this life springs.
As Joel says: “If it’s not healing, it’s not righteous enough to be done.”
He practices his unique form of healing at Polyface Farms, a “family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach” (his description, not mine).
The farm is located in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, and rests like a crown jewel in one of the most beautiful and fertile land areas in the United States. Called “The Big Valley”, the Shenandoah runs for 200 miles across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, and is so blessed by a mild climate and abundant rainfall that it is the source of many legends, songs and stories. When I visited my uncle in the Shenandoah Valley, I remember him singing “Oh Shenandoah“ to me as a lullaby when I was very small.
Joel has taken this natural beneficence and raised it to the 10thpower, combining technology with sustainable agricultural practices to offer “grass farming” (again, his words) techniques that promise to restore the land from the hundred years of megafarming that has left America fat, sick and nearly dead, in the inimitable words ofjuicer guru Joe Cross.
Joel expresses it more succinctly: “No civilization has ever had as high a per capita of income spent on food, and no civilization has had as high a per capita cost of healthcare. I would suggest that those figures are related.”
The American Heart Association, the American Cancer Association, the American Diabetes Association and other health groups agree. We have lost our respect for, and camaraderie with, the land and the animals – a loss Joel is curing through his unique perspective on raising cows, pigs, rabbits and chickens, which involves recognizing, even honoring, the essential nature of each creature on the farm (including, not surprisingly, the vegetables).
Pigs would be a prime example. Acknowledging the “pigness of the pig”, Joel allows his hogs, which are historically foragers, to perform salvage operations. But where in some areas this would mean foraging for acorns, eating fallen fruits or nuts, or gobbling up the “table scraps” of cheese making operations in Switzerland, at Polyface Farms pigs are put to works composting.
“We call them piggerators.” Joel chuckles. “We put corn underneath the bedding for the cows, which the cows trample to form a sort of anaerobic bedding. Then, in the spring, the pigs go in and root through the hay for the fermented corn, thus converting the anaerobic to aerobic compost simply by fluffing it.”
So simple, so natural, and yet so ingenious; it takes a singular talent to recognize all the modalities involved in this operation and to synthesize them into a “best practice” – one that hog farmers nationwide would do well to emulate. Joel’s pigs have clear eyes and the sort of alertness that indicates vibrant good health.
In addition, Joel notes: “This is also an example where an animal is not just viewed as bacon or sausage, but as a co-laborer in this great ministry of land healing. And pigs, unlike farm machinery, don’t need oil or spare parts. They actually appreciate (in financial terms), making the profit potential of a farm ‘size neutral’.”
A similar approach is used to raise laying hens, which are overwintered in “hoop houses” made of half-circle steel bands covered with plastic. The cold ground is covered with layers of hay, which generates warmth as it decomposes. This, combined with the body heat of the chickens, which huddle at night, allows the hoop houses to stay a comfortable 60 degrees day and night, or warm enough to keep chickens healthy, happy and laying eggs.
Broiler chickens are not overwintered. Instead, they are purchased as chicks in the spring, most recently from suppliers operating on Label Rouge sustainable poultry principles which originated in France. Joel has two reasons for this.
“First, we haven’t gotten where we are (in farming) overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight. In my short lifetime, I have watched the (broiler chicken) supply chain evolve from a local farmer, to a regional supplier, to a hatchery several states away. This example of the gradual demise of the community-based, diversified, secure food system, in favor of a much more vulnerable centralized system, heralds disaster.” And one we clearly need to work on, since food security is one element that can make, or break a nation, as witness Tunisia, where the country’s president actually had to run for his life when the food supply chain failed.
Second, Joel and his family like the slower pace of winter, a time for individual rest and healing – a policy extended to the land, parcels of which are grazed in rotation by the cows, who crop the fields enough for the chickens to come through and peck for bugs and seeds. Following that cycle, however, the land is also allowed to rest – a feature Joel feels is essential to the health of plants.
“Modern operations, where animals are always in the fields, are so debilitating that the plants can never ‘build up a head of steam’. Thus they deliver less nourishment, failing to transform the solar energy inputs into biomass, and, after that, into meat.”
This lack of seasonality, in lifestyles and in the U.S. food supply, is a definite liability, in terms of food security. It also isn’t sensible or practical to expect strawberries in Vermont in January, unless from a greenhouse.
“Even then, it’s probably not a good thing. It’s much more sustainable, and more appreciative of the ecological umbilical that attaches us all to the land, that we actually have respect for, and understanding of, seasonality.”
But it also takes technology to make Joel’s dream a reality. In order to let the pigs and cows and chickens run free, foraging in new pastures – what Joel calls “fresh salad bars” (and to get them out of their own feces), Polyface Farms requires electric fencing. Keeping animals warm in winter requires plastic. Neither of these has been available until very recently.
Thus, Joel notes, the 21st century also has its place, providing an “unprecedented capability to duplicate the nutrient and immunological functionality and vibrancy of wild herds (again, Joel’s words), and making it possible for the people of Polyface Farms to fully respect and honor the phenotypical gift and talent of each species to fill its niche in the most beneficial way.”