if you’ve read the Omnivore’s Dilemma or watched Food, Inc, you already know about Polyface Farm. their unique farming methods are only underscored by farmer Joel Salatin, who runs Polyface (the farm of many faces).
Polyface is located in Swoope, VA, and can be found on Google Maps here:
I found that because I didn’t have cell phone service (Verizon), it was better to have a paper copy of the directions printed from the “Visit” portion of their website.
You can read about Salatin’s sustainable agriculture and crop/animal rotation methods, but to really get on the farm and see it all in practice is truly a remarkable experience. This past June I was able to go visit the farm and spend a few hours taking advantage of their open door policy. They stopped giving paid tours of the farm, and instead lets the visitors walk around (as long as you don’t disturb anything) to see how things run on the farm.
As you drive up to the farm, it looks exactly what you’d expect a farm to look like, with large wooden barns and covered gardens and plenty of rolling farm land. as you get closer you start to notice things, like the Store, where we started our visit. the store sells all the cuts of meat and poultry they raise as well as the various apparel and books and postcards you can take home as souvenirs. But located next to the entrance is a map of the area which told visitors where each item of interest was that day. you had the hogs in the back part of the field, the chickens/roosters in the main long stretch, the cows off to the west, and the most recognizable from the books is the Eggmobile.
It is really refreshing and interesting that there is very little guidance when you walk onto the farm. no one really introduces themselves, you have to ask to see where to get started. it’s kind of nice that they treat you like you’re supposed to be there walking around and not like a guest that is babied and maybe not shown all the dark corners of the farm. you can search and search, and it looks like the only criticism Polyface has come across is the breed of chickens they use for meat – which considering the magnitude of the rest of the operation, is something I’m willing to let go. there were a few things I HAD to see, which were the Eggmobile, the outdoor chicken slaughter area, and the compost/fertilizer barn. these were the things described in Omnivore’s Dilemma that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
The Eggmobile is, and I can’t stress this enough, absolutely awesome. There are hundreds of hens all huddled around this eggmobile (it was really warm that day so they weren’t spread throughout the field). the hens were really calm and seemed like they had a lot of room to move around (if they wanted to). They would walk inside and eat their food and walk back outside. you can kind of see inside the eggmobile here:
It was exactly how I pictured it from the book, except I’ve never actually come close to a live hen before, so that was really exciting. in general I was kind of excited like a kid going to an amusement park for the first time. are farms to adult suburbanites what amusement parks are to kids?
close to the hens were small coops of chickens which were in these 6×6 foot cages that looked like they were slowly being dragged across the field so the chickens could fertilize the grass evenly. you can see how they’re staggered through the field:
I didn’t open any of the tops because I didn’t want this trip to become “the time I got bit by a chicken”, but I was definitely curious how chickens were around people. the organization of the chicken coops was really nice and appeared to be entirely hand-built on the farm.
We found the pigs at the end of the field in this penned off area where they were rooting around at just about everything in sight. they didn’t seem to care people were around, they just kept sunning themselves, eating grasses and leaves, and seem to be pretty happy hogs.
It made me feel better about all the space these pigs were given, as compared to all the videos and photos you see of pigs lined up so close you can’t see the ground. the pigs at Polyface were not piled on each other unless they chose to.
The compost/fertilizer barn was definitely not what I expected it to be. It was a regular looking barn with an “elevated” ground. it was elevated because of all the mulch, manure, and other things put in the layers to help it compost. I’m sure it’s a worm paradise. the floor was covered with chickens and rooster, which seemed to pick at the floor for insects. suspended about 3-4 feet above the chickens were rabbit cages. these were where the smaller rabbits were raised until they could be be out in the field in cages similar to what they put the chickens in (but not in the same area in the fields).
The last thing I had to see was the chicken slaughter area. It was much bigger than I expected it to be, but true-to-book, it was entirely outdoors. it is located on the far side of the Store, and you can see how clean and open the process is.
the only scary part is where you see the remnants of chickens right before they are processed.
we spent some time walking around the farm and got to see some more things like the chick house:
the piglet pen:
the hay barn:
As Pollan wrote in his book, there were so many times I kept saying “I can’t believe I’m on a farm”, because it didn’t smell like a farm at all. I’ve been on streets in Chinatown that smell way worse than standing next to a cowpie on Polyface’s field. As you walk around, you only get an occasional whiff if you’re practically standing on top of it.
The best part of the entire trip, better than the rabbits, hogs, and even the eggmobile, was actually getting to meet and shake hands with Joel Salatin. he was larger than life. a big booming voice that conveys his passion for farming, he wears his signature hat and glasses and still seems humble when you tell him how much you enjoyed your visit. I had a really good impression of both him and Polyface farms and I would highly recommend anyone go there if you read the Omnivore’s Dilemma or watched Food Inc. you can make a weekend out of it by going to the farm and visiting some vineyards.