Written by SMADC Intern Mark Dattilio.
“Alright, everybody on the wagons! The tour is about to start and we have a lot to see”. I was as giddy as a school girl. I couldn’t get this stupid, ear-to-ear grin off my face. Meeting Joel Salatin, a man whom I had come to truly admire and respect, and touring his farm on a beautiful Friday morning felt surreal. I had read some of his works like Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal and imagined what his Polyface farm looked like, with its compost creating barns and rustic farm house.
The reality didn’t quite match the conjectures formed in my head. It looked….well, like any other farm. Piles of wood strewn about, rusted patchwork barn roofs, custom built high tunnels. But what I had forgotten, when creating my idealistic images of Polyface, was a notion which I had learned in my own experiences on farms–it is not how it looks that matters, but how well it works.
And every barn, every “eggmobile”, every “gobbledygo” and the animals themselves were custom built for perfect efficiency in his “symbiotic, multi-speciated, synergistic, relationship-dense production model.” After touring Polyface, I realized that this lengthy and unusual phrase was actually the shortest and best way to describe a farming system which Salatin has perfected and made famous over his 30+ years on the farm.
Back tracking a few years, my own foray into farming came after a semester abroad in Alba, Italy. While there, I was exposed to the best food I had ever eaten. Every slice of pizza, every dish of carne crudo (beef tar tar), every glass of house wine was a revelation to my palate. And through the auspices of the Psychology of Food course I was taking, I began to think about America’s food culture or lack thereof and how it differed from the Italians. I came to the conclusion that the Italian’s food was superior because of the ingredients they used and the freshness of their ingredients. Every Saturday, there was a huge market in the town square where venders selling everything from Nike sneakers to White Truffles set up shop. In this single yet vast venue, every fresh ingredient needed to make a spectacular dish was available at your fingertips. With basic competency in Italian, a buyer was able to ask vendors the origin of their products. This transparent relationship between consumer and supplier/producer was, as I believed, what lacked in the mainstream American food system.
Fast forward a year. During my senior year in college, I began working part-time on an organic vegetable farm close to my school. I loved the connection I felt to the plants and animals, not to mention the exhausting manual labor which, heightened after years of athletic competition, satisfied my desire for physical fitness and overall personal health. I also began reading continuously from authors advocating exactly what I had discovered that the American food system needed, a better relationship between consumer and producer. My reading list included Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Barbara Kingsolver and my personal favorite, Joel Salatin.
Returning to the tour of Polyface, our first stop was at the “Eggmobile,” a custom built open air A-frame structure which is highly mobile yet offers adequate protection from both weather and predators. The eggmobile was surrounded by portable electric fencing that can enclose a ¼ acre pasture yet can be broken down into a roughly 20 lb. roll which one person could carry. His flock of New Hampshire Red hens was guarded by two white geese which ward off aerial predators. These hens produce thousands of dollars’ worth of eggs per year by eating bugs and scratching through cow dung, thus adding to the health of the pasture.
We then traveled to the “Gobbledygo”, a turkey structure that had wood beams as perches under a roof awning attached to their feed container. The turkeys move through the pastures every couple of days, eating grass and local non- Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) feed. Salatin commented on the perfect ratio of poult (baby turkey) to chick to give the turkey the guidance it needs to survive through its early stages, commenting “Poults seem to be on a never ending quest to find more creative ways to die”. So with a desired ratio of roughly 60:5 chick to poult, the chicks are able to convince the poults to follow their lead and not die in whatever way they can best come up with. But at about 5 weeks, they must be separated as the ungrateful poults begin attacking their survival instructors.
We then headed for the pastured broilers, or meat chickens. In comparison to the New Hampshire Red layers who have a life of roughly 2 years in the fields, these meat hens grow faster and have a life expectancy of 8 weeks after being introduced into the pasture rotation. Protected in the fields by portable floorless field shelters, the chickens are given new pasture every day and as much non-GMO feed as they want.
While visiting the broilers, Salatin began his explanation of his grazing system. The language that he used and the energy and confidence with which he described his system were captivating. He gathered a bouquet of more than 20 types of grass all gathered within a square yard and explained that each of these grasses does something different for the pasture and the animals, leading to his description of his product as “salad bar” beef for poultry, etc. He also explained his composting system. During the winters the cows come into the barns to feed and produce dung. He then adds wood chips, hay and some corn. He continues this layering process until his desired volume of material is attained. He then brings in his “pigorator” pigs which, while rooting through the layers for corn, mix up and aerate the layers to form beautiful, rich, dark compost. He then uses this compost in his pastures to add further fertility.
Salatin views the farm itself as one large SYMBIOTIC organism and he understands that the health of the organism is dependent upon the health of its parts. The grass, the cattle, the chickens and the pigs all are integral members of this organism. The SYNERGY of these MULTIPLE SPECIES creates a healthy organism built upon DIRECT RELATIONSHIPS with one another. These parts, skillfully managed, create a PRODUCTION MODEL that is so efficient, it would be the envy of any large corporation aimed on cutting unnecessary expenditures to gain ever increasing profit (all companies really). This “symbiotic, multi-speciated synergistic relationship-dense production model” is what I hope to employ on my future farm. He advocates for complete transparency in our food system, and he practices what he preaches by opening his farm to the public five days out of the week. He also refuses to ship any of his products anywhere, advocating that people should eat out of their own local food shed.
This tour of Polyface farm has left an indelible mark on my farming psyche. Joel’s emphasis on efficiency, environmental stewardship, market transparency and local retailing embody all the concepts which I saw that the Italian food culture employed and the American food culture lacked. He is a role model not just for me but for all who desire a more sustainable and viable food system in our country. Needless to say, I’ll be turning in my internship application this August.