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At Polyface Farm, the old is new again


Spend a day with a passionate alternative farmer like Joel Salatin, on Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley, and you see so much that’s unique it’s hard to find a focus.

I’m drawn first to the “old is new again” approach used on the 550-acre tract. I visited after meeting the self-reliant farmer during coverage of a special event in Orange.

Despite the fact that 450 of the 550 acres on the hilly tract are forested, Salatin and his family raise thousands of chickens, pigs, turkeys and rabbits, creating annual revenues Atlantic Monthly recently estimated at more than $2 million.

The key, Salatin and followers say, is letting animals feed on nature’s bounty. That’s why they use portable fencing and rolling devices like shade-makers to inspire cattle and other animals to move daily to fresh grazing grounds, where they munch on a cornucopia of naturally regenerating grasses.

Consider that animal waste fertilizes those pastures, that chickens turn problematic insects into dinner and that rooting of pigs and fowl stimulates decomposition and new seed growth. You’ve replaced the critical need for costly fertilizer and chemically enhanced feed that discerning customers want to avoid.

“It’s why we advertise salad-bar beef,” said the smiling, 54-year-old Salatin from beneath the cowboy hat he favors. “The grasses our cattle chow down on make the meat better for you, cheaper to produce and, pardon me for saying it, but it just plain tastes better.”

Salatin is a second-generation farmer. He learned from his father, William, who bought the farm in 1961. But Salatin goes beyond the nature-based approach that sees what nature provides as a gift from God.

The chief honcho of Polyface—which sells directly to more than 3,000 families, 10 retail outlets, 50 restaurants and a slew of buying clubs around Virginia—has written nine books, and tours and speaks extensively about his beliefs. He was featured in the best-seller “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by food writer Michael Pollan.

Beyond that, the former newspaper reporter has turned the family business into an educational enterprise. They employ eight interns each summer, as well as two apprentices who work for a year on the property. There’s a retail shop and a communal dining room, where the family breaks bread with staffers each day.

Beyond the farming approach that has worked so well that Polyface now leases land on seven nearby farms, two things stood out in my visit to the place Salatin described as “worn-out and gulched, the last piece of property in the valley anyone would have chosen for farming.”

One is the can-do, self-reliant spirit the place exudes. As Salatin took me for a butt-rattling tour of the property on the back of a four-wheeler, he noted the spot where he and crew members had felled several old-growth trees.

Seems they are building a dormitory for the interns. Instead of going out to buy lumber, they felled the trees and milled them in the on-site, band-saw mill.

Farm staff were doing most of the construction of the building. To comply with local regulations, it was designated a hunting lodge.

“We’ll put a sign up on it that says ‘Polyface: Hunting for the truth!’ ” said Salatin with a chuckle.

My other takeaway: the unique direct-to-consumers marketing he’s intentionally limited to those within a four-hour drive of Polyface. Salatin said he learned basic lessons of selling and doing the right thing for consumers, starting as a teen selling vegetables, butter, eggs, rabbits and jars of “boneless chicken” at Staunton’s curb market.

“There were these two older women selling there and they really took me under their wings, teaching me everything from the right way of displaying my wares to dealing with customers,” said Salatin.

It was also as local and fresh as food sales can be, something that’s been a part of his business model ever since. He gets a kick out of the fact that some people see the local, farm-to-table model as new and trendy.

“It’s as old and natural as farming itself,” said Salatin, who is working hard to break what he calls barriers in big-time food distribution to small farmers. “But if some folks want to see it as the cool, new thing, we’re fine with that.”

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415