Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Polyface Farms - Swoope, VA - Days 12 and 13

Joel Salatin is a Paul Bunyan looking character. Thick as a tree trunk across the chest, he walks, talks, and guffaws in a big way. I first met Joel less than a week ago when I attended the Farm, Food Voices program at West Albemarle high school. Joel was the MC for the night and was dressed in khaki’s and a sport coat. Joel is a difficult man to place. He doesn’t really look like anybody you’ve met before. He wears glasses and has a real attentive look about him, and so in some ways he struck me as slightly nerdy, in a Brad McLane sort of way (sorry Brad…if you’re reading this).

When I arrived at Polyface farms, late, around 8:30 (this seems to be a popular time for me to arrive), I was slightly surprised at the man who came to greet me. The farm itself didn’t strike me with wonder. The white house with red shutters was a fairly standard looking farmhouse, somewhat flat on the front, no porch, not much of entrance. The walk up to the house was grass with a little gravel before you got to the concrete.

Before walking up to the main house I heard some flapping sounds coming from the barn and I thought I might find someone there. A stretch of the legs after a good long ride is always a good idea anyway so I moseyed over to see if there was still some work to do. I typically like to dive right in to whatever is going on. It reduces the necessity for trivial congenialities.

The barn also didn’t look like anything particularly special. It was a rather large barn, open air, filled with hay on the front two sides, with a clear path through the middle. I walked in and began suspecting that the noise was nothing more than animals feeding. Turned out, that was a good guess because on the backside of the barn were maybe 20 pigs in a pen. They scooted a little when they saw me and then came right up to the fence sticking their ginormous wet noses out wanting attention, food, or possibly conversation. The flapping noise was a plastic door on the feeder that they pushed up with their heads and then closed behind them.

OK, that’s enough snooping around. I headed back to the house. Dusk was settling in good. I rang the bell and Teresa came to greet me. “You must be the fella who’s riding his bike.” “That’s me,” I said. Joel came right behind her, and that’s when I first saw the real Joel. Wearing a t-shirt covered with dirt and sweat, and jeans equally dirty, Joel looked like one might think of a farmer looking; one who had been working real hard all day. They came out onto the small little porch and talked about what it’s like to ride your bike across the country. Joel was real curious, and quite amazed by the whole thing. We chatted for about 20 minutes or so and I asked them where I should pitch my tent.

“Well, you’re welcome to camp anywhere you’d like, but you might be most comfortable at our haybarn. It’s got potable water and you could sleep right on the hay if you’d like.” They both agreed if it was them, they’d rather sleep on hay than in a tent. These were the real deal farmers right here. Neither one had probably spent much time camping, was my guess.

It was getting late, I was tired, they were tired, and from the sound of it, it was going to be a busy day. I gave Joel my general plan, I would work all the next day, stay again that night, and then set off the following day. We now had an arrangement and a plan, so I pedaled on down the dark gravel rode and immediately got lost. When you’re tired, and its dark, and you’re pedaling around dragging 60 pounds worth of gear, getting lost is no fun. There came a point in the road where there were three to four options. I took one, and it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere. He had said that I would pass his son Daniel’s house. I could sort of see a house through the woods, on the other road. I backtracked and drug my sad tired bones up the hill. The nightlife was impressive. Lots of frogs, beautiful sky. I considered sleeping in the hay, but remembered how sick I had gotten as a kid on a hay ride with Dawson Memorial Baptist church. They loaded up a bunch of kids and hay in the back of a Tractor Trailer and then left us to our own devices. Hay was getting kicked up everywhere. That was my first memory of going home, blowing my nose and having dark black boogers. I didn’t want to risk being allergic to hay and ending up worthless on my first day on the farm.

I pitched my tent in front of the barn where loose hay had piled up making it nice and soft. I hadn’t eaten yet and also hadn’t bought any extra food so I had two big bowls of oatmeal with fresh granola sprinkled on top. I was gonna need my strength the next day.

Morning chores start at sun up, and that means 6 AM. I awoke about 5 till 6 and then had to get dressed, put contacts in, wash my hair, and move the tent. I knew it would be in the way later that day. By 6:30 I arrived at the pastured poultry fields.

So before I continue I should mention that I know a little bit about poultry. In addition to living in a poultry raising community for 3 and half years, I was fortunate to have gained some rather unique experience working for an industrial poultry business for the four months prior to my bike ride. So I understand the basics of conventional poultry pretty well. When I had mentioned to Joel the night before my familiarity with broiler houses, he had corrected me saying, “Now these aren’t houses. These are pens. Everything here is going to be completely different.”

Pastured poultry is a fascinating concept. So most people envision what they hear called free range chickens and they think a huge field with some fences with the chickens all spread out across green grass. I hope to go to some actual free range farms at some point, and I doubt it will look anything like this. In fact, USDA regulations only call for free range chickens to have some kind of access to the outdoors. So that means they can be kept in a 50 by 500 square foot building with a six foot opening to the outdoors, and that’s considered free range. Congratulations America, you’ve been bamboozled yet again.

Pastured poultry is not free range chickens. The chickens are instead kept in manufactured pens that are 8x12 feet square and about 1.5 feet tall. The pen is constructed of wood, tin and chicken wire, with ¾ of the square covered to protect the birds from the elements and predators, and chicken wire along the sides of the front half, and on the roof of the last 1/4. At the front of the pen, a bucket of water is attached to a tube leading to a red drinker, dangling inside the cage. The birds have to have constant access to water. Each pen also has a feeder trough that’s filled with mashed corn and soybean feed. And that’s it. Only, each of these pens holds about 75 birds, and the Salatin’s have about 30 pens. That’s 2,250 birds. Although a fraction of what one typical conventional poultry house grows (those houses can contain as many as 10,000 birds), these birds live their entire lives outdoors, and on grass. And that’s the difference.

Joel is a grass lover.

Every morning, the field hands, which consist of Joel’s son Daniel, and two interns, Nathan and Jordan, go out and place each pen on a dolly, and roll that pen off of yesterdays patch of grass that has been defecated upon, and onto fresh, new, green pasture. The pens are staggered in a z pattern so that each pen is pulled onto fresh pasture. In this way, the animals are kept healthy by being rotated to fresh pasture, and then the nitrogen from the litter is applied directly to the field.

We spent the morning filling water buckets and feed trays, and moving the pens the 10 feet forward to fresh pasture. Poultry are omnivores and they also eat bugs. Though not a considerable part of their diet, they do, no doubt find bugs in the grass.

The major preoccupation of conversation during the morning chores is how to deal with predators. A number of chickens had been killed during the night and I was curious what varmint was responsible. I expected a fox or a coyote. Surprisingly, the responsible party was a raccoon. Unable to actually extract the chickens from the cages, they simply sneak up to the cage and grab one through the chicken wire, whereupon they pull whatever part they can through the fencing, gnawing away at it, leaving the rest to waste.

There were two types of chickens kept in the pens. One was the standard variety used by the poultry industry, a white bird. I will have to request the name. The other was a black chicken, that they referred to as pullets, which typically expresses the early development stage of laying hens.

This is a photo of turkeys in an electric feather net at dawn

We finished the morning chores and headed in for breakfast around 8 AM. I met Joel and Teresa inside. Breakfast is a big deal on the farm, its an opportunity for Joel to catch up on phone calls, read the morning paper, chat with Teresa and the kids, and load up on plenty of fuel for the days occupations. I quickly came to realize that it is also Joel’s favorite time to talk. He is fresh and invigorated after a good nights sleep followed by the full circulation induced by the morning chores. Breakfast consisted of Polyface farms sausage and eggs, and fresh milk from a dairy down the road (milk is a staple product on a farm). There was some moist, dark sweet bread as well. With little provocation from me, Joel began an unforgettable discourse on the principles of his farm, and how they fit into his overall world view.

He began by laying a foundation for his philosophy and pointed out the ironies inherent to being an environmentalist, a Christian, a libertarian, and a capitalist. Polyface Farm is a livestock operation, pure and simple. They raise beef, pork and chicken and that’s about it. What makes their farm different is that the perennial grasses of the landscape are at the heart of the operation. He points out some important things to recognize when considering the ecological background of cattle. Firstly, they’re herbivores. If you observe herbivores in the natural environment, they graze intensely in one area, then migrate to a new area and graze there. Two things are accomplished, they don’t stay in areas they have contaminated with their own wastes, and they are always grazing fresh grasses, while allowing previously grazed areas to recover. Secondly, they are herding animals.

I’ll pick this stream up and tell you more about my Polyface adventure…soon. There is a lot, lot, lot more to tell.

This entry was posted on 6/21/2006 5:23 PM

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