In a bad economy, why would 1600 people from all over the country shell out a hundred bucks a pop to hang out all day in the hot July sun amid the redolent smells of manure? Every three years Joel Salatin hosts Field Day at his Polyface Farm with a full day of demonstrations and tours and a chance to hear the guru of sustainable agriculture firsthand.
Polyface is nestled in the pastoral rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and Joel is on the forefront of a movement known as eco-agriculture. His 550 acre family farm is a living demonstration of the principles of land use and management that Joel calls redemption of the land and on some occasions "lunatic farming". In a summer offering not a lot of hope and change, it was refreshing to see so many young people obviously wanting to learn how they could adopt Joel's very different model of farming.
Dan Solderburg, the farm's head gardener and chef, explained "soil is the basis of the whole farm" and everything that is done at Polyface is geared towards building soil, using the animals to interact with the land and leave it enriched with their manure. Although the farm primarily produces pasture grass-fed beef, chickens, rabbits and pigs, there is enough horticulture going on to supply produce to several restaurants and feed the crew of 24 interns and apprentices. Dan explained how the farm uses "stacking", the idea of integrating more activities on the same amount of land. It's using livestock, composting, produce and even mushrooms to take an existing operation and make it sustainable for more people.
On a hillside near the farmhouse, visitors fanned out examining the chain of bottomless structures the tops partially covered with corrugated aluminum roof to provide shade for chickens happily grazing on the green bounty of grass and weeds. The chickens are enclosed, but with ample room to move about. Every few days these structures are moved giving the birds a new "salad bar" and leaving behind mowed pasture and of course, the magic manure. According to Joel they haven't had to seed a pasture for forty years.
After all nearly two thousand people had been served barbecued chicken, pulled pork, fresh cucumbers and peaches, the crowd gathered for the afternoon tour, with Joel using a mike on the hay wagon podium to explain what we were seeing. The first stop was at what was called the feathernet, basically an area corralled off with high-tech portable electric fencing. Hundreds of chickens were basically allowed to free-range within their confined pasture. The large structure in the middle of the corral was portable, allowing the flock to be moved to a new section of pasture every few days. Cattle are moved to a different grazing pasture every three days, then the chickens are brought in to finish grazing the cropped grass in a rotation that ensures optimal natural feeding for both the cattle and the chickens.
I knew that Joel believed that farm animals should be allowed to express their unique nature in as much as possible when being raised for meat, and seeing how he does it with pigs is pretty cool. The areas of the farm that are woods have been turned into pig glens, allowing the pigs to forage on acorns and roots, which not only saves how much feed is needed, but is part of a process of opening up forest thickets to become new pasture. According to Joel, "there's not one reason for a single confined pig house, not one." It's all part of "letting the pigs express their pigness."
Joel Salatin clearly has a big following and is on to something that is catching on all across the country with more young farmers wanting to get away from the industrial farm that is heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers, feed lots and raising fowl and pigs in overcrowded houses that cost a fortune to build and maintain.
It all goes back to his philosophy, which Joel freely dispenses to anyone who will listen. One intrepid young man asked if Joel would answer a hard question: "How did his faith influence his farming?" "We don't own this land, we're just stewards of it", Joel says. He explains that we better all be questioning some very basic things about the food we eat and how it was produced. Some of the things going on in our food production are just wrong, like feeding cows dead cows. Quoting a character from Jurassic Park, Joel said we should all be asking every day: "just because we can do something, does it mean we should?"
Joel is a voice for the new sustainable agriculture movement because he is living proof that "you can have a successful business model and still be ecologically sound." Not surprisingly, he's critical of Monsanto, calling their actions to patent lifeforms "a new permutation on slavery". In answering the young man's question, Joel gets in deep philosophical water saying he believes the Augustinian idea of the duality of flesh and spirit is "in error: it's all one." He says he's in the "redemption business" and that farming, "if it's not healing, it's not righteous."
The young people attending Field Day gave me some hope that maybe Joel's model is spreading and that the change we need will be lived out in a different way of viewing the land, our food, and each other. Dan Solderberg began his talk by holding up his one-year-old daughter to answer the question of why he's working at Polyface. It's all about the kind of future we want to create for ourselves and our children, a future that is more in harmony with nature, less dependent on corporations and which honors the sacredness of all life.
Polyface is open year-round and welcomes visitors 24/7, not just on Field Day. Joel Salatin is the author of "The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer", "Holy Cows and Hog Heaven" and "Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal". His unconventional methods are discussed in detail in Michael Pollan's "Ominivore's Dilemma".