‘The Farm of Many Faces’

Posted: Friday, June 5, 2015 12:00 am
By Tessa Edick
For Columbia-Greene Media


Polyface Farm is America’s premier non-industrial food production oasis.


Joel Salatin is a third generation farmer and owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Four generations of his family currently live and work on the farm. Author of nine books, a celebrated public speaker and businessman, Salatin is an alternative farmer, who returned to the family farm full time in 1982 and continues refining and adding to his parents’ ideas growing perennial prairie polycultures representing America’s return to family farming and proving there is money to be made with ecological practices, an entrepreneurial spirit, business acumen and hard work.


Polyface Farms (“The Farm of Many Faces”) grows food for more than 5,000 families, 10 retail outlets and 50 restaurants through on-farm sales and metropolitan buying clubs with “salad bar beef,” pastured poultry, “eggmobile eggs,” “pigaerator” pork, forage-based rabbits, pastured turkey and forestry products using relationship marketing.


Profiled on the Lives of the 21st Century series with Peter Jennings on ABC World News, his after-broadcast chat room fielded more hits than any other segment to date. It achieved iconic status as the grassfed farm featured in Omnivore’s Dilemma by food writer guru Michael Pollan and the award-winning film documentary “Food Inc.”


I had some questions for Salatin that are useful practices and interesting ideas as we all look for more food education to preserve farming in America! FarmOn!


TESSA: Now that we have employees on the farm, we are curious about other people’s experience about how best to manage this resource?


JOEL: The short answer is: Like family. That is, assuming you get along with your family. Ha! We try to treat them like we would anyone else and like we would want to be treated. Everyone wants to feel appreciated and responsible for something. We never give wages; it should either be salary or independent contractor. You can structure the various work options to give independent autonomous opportunities. This means that rather than giving jobs, we give opportunities. We want people who can see an opportunity and then figure out their own compensation and responsibility plan. I’ve described this in great detail in my book, “Fields of Farmers.”


TESSA: The pastures our sheep are grazing seem to be slowly getting better. Is there a simple way to speed up that improvement?


JOEL: The quickest way to speed up pasture improvement is to adhere to mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization. (Say that five times fast, lol!) and drop the grazing periods down to 24 hours. If you give the animals only enough to feed them for one day and increase rest periods, this higher density, longer rest and shorter stay will stimulate forage succession, both in quality and quantity. Management always trumps buying in something from outside like fertilizer or seed.


TESSA: We know we want to start a market garden but have limited financial resources to buy land. What sort of innovative land rental arrangements have others used in a similar situation?


JOEL: Land leasing is as varied as the partners who make the agreements. The perfect landlord for you would let you use acreage in exchange for vegetables. A market garden does not require much land, so this type of arrangement is actually plausible. Another barter is to lease the land in exchange for labor the landlord may need. You can help make hay, for example, and barter off your labor. I would advise against mixing a landlord with your business, like sharing income or profits or being paid a royalty on production. Those schemes are fraught with misunderstanding. Keep it simple. Either pay a lease outright or create a clear barter.


TESSA: What’s your/the most profitable product to raise for livestock and method used?


JOEL: In general, the more income per acre, the more labor required per acre. The larger the animal, the less income per acre. Omnivores are easier to practice on than herbivores — more forgiving in product quality for novices.


I like pastured broilers because


1. They have a fast turnaround: 8-10 weeks.
2. Their infrastructure is cheap and portable.
3. The whole operation can be done without a tractor.
4. Government processing regulations (PL90-492) make broilers the easiest and cheapest to value add.
5. Easy to sell: America is eating chicken.
6. Difficult to mess up like grass finished beef.
7. Extremely high profit per acre ($3,000; gross value of $7,000).
8. They can’t hurt you easily, making them child friendly.
9. Easy to differentiate from industrial birds — the differences are obvious.
10. Easy to scale either up or down.


TESSA: We have just built a greenhouse. Do we have to heat it for winter production?


JOEL: A lot depends on how you built it, how cold it gets and what you’re growing. If it’s double-walled, either with a fan separating plastic or built with Lexan sheeting, it will be far more insulated than just a sheet of plastic. The guru on this is Eliot Coleman of Maine and Eliot has proven that if you also cover the plants inside, either with a cloche or covering like Remay, you can get another 10 degrees protection per covering. Obviously if you’re growing tomatoes rather than carrots or lettuce, you’ll need far more heat as well. Finally, you can use thermal mass-like barrels painted black and filled with water to offer nighttime protection. Also, if you cut soft drink cans in half, paint them black and glue them to the barrels — the thermal mass will even work better due to the increased surface area.


To contact Polyface Farm, mail to 43 Pure Meadows Lane, Swoope, VA 24479 or call 540-885-3590.


To reach Tessa Edick, email tessa@ or on Instagram and Twitter @FarmOnFarmOn.


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