A Girl, A Farm, and an Outlaw
By: Jessica Miles
When I was in college, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. In the book, he mentions Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms. I was awestruck by the way Pollan described Joel’s philosophy on farming and meat production. Joel is known for saying that everything he wants to do is illegal. Yet, everything about the way Polyface conducts itself resonates with me.
In September, I fulfilled a longstanding dream and toured the Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. I had the pleasure of meeting Heather Juda, who has raised animals for Polyface in the past and who was my tour guide.
Our first stop is to visit the pigs. I watch as young pigs immediately trot over to the thin electric fence. Heather points out pigs have a “built-in” shovel on their noses. Because pigs are omnivores, they love rooting for goodies on the forest floor.
Happily squealing pigs root around the ground or laze in the dappled sun.
By keeping the pigs in silva or acorn pastures, Polyface is reintroducing disturbance to the forest. When the pigs root through the earth looking for things to eat, they turn the soil over, providing favorable conditions for certain seeds and thinning the forest underbrush. The pig’s current pasture is very open, with broken stalks of plant matter jutting up erratically. Lush green undergrowth crowds an adjacent undisturbed field. Polyface pigs move every 7-10 days, ensuring the pigs’ activity never progresses from disturbance to destruction. Pigs are both sassy and stubborn, Heather informs us, so the only way to move them is by closing their feeding trough a day ahead of time, and then sprinkling a trail of feed for the pigs to snuffle and follow.
To get to the chickens, we have to hike up a rather steep hill. The view at the top is worth it. A lush green field ringed with mountains in the near distance, and clear blue skies lift my spirits. Out here, it’s peaceful, which makes it easy to forget that time is soup and the world is currently on fire.
Chickens at Polyface fall into two categories: broilers (the kind you eat) and laying hens. Broilers are kept in shelters that can hold up to 75 at a time. Compared to an industrial farming setup, Polyface chickens have a good deal. A chicken rests in the sun with its leg splayed out in front of it. Heather informs us the chicken is “sunbathing.”
Another key element of chicken operations at Polyface are the 3 M’s:
Mobile: Unlike industrial operations that utilize permanent infrastructure, Polyface’s broiler pens are mobile and can be moved by one person. Chickens are naturally eating and pooping machines. Chicken feces contain high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. To prevent runoff, Heather and other Polyface employees arrange broiler pens diagonally and move them daily to avoid overlap and nutrient oversaturation.
Modular: Each chicken shelter only costs 300 dollars to build. Compared to a traditional hen house, Polyface’s model is more affordable, requires less land, and is infinitely scalable, making it more accessible to beginning farmers.
Management Intensive: Both broiler shelters and the laying hens’ “Egg Mobile” are moved daily. The chickens spread the nutrients found in cow poop through the process of them scratching through cow pies in search of fly larvae.
One of the more shocking facts Heather shares is on the seasonality of eggs. At Polyface, they only raise chickens in the warmer months, to account for the chicken’s natural dislike and susceptibility to the cold. In an industrial setting, artificial lights prevent the hens from sensing when it’s time to stop producing eggs. Hence, the average person is always able to find eggs at the grocery store.
Our final stop is to see the cows. Unlike in a traditional setting, Polyface cows aren’t fed grain in any part of their diet.
The key element of Polyface’s approach to cattle grazing is in the grass.
Heather plucks a long blade of grass from the ground, holding it in a rough “S” shape. The bottom of the curve, Heather tells us, is known as the “diaper stage,” where the grass is young and isn’t growing much. The same is true for the top of the curve or “nursing home” stage. In this stage, the grass has grown as tall as available resources have allowed, slowing growth and carbon sequestration rate. However, the “teenage stage” in the middle of the curve is where the grass proliferates. Through photosynthesis, the grass sucks carbon dioxide out of the air.
By volume, grass sucks more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than trees. Polyface has transformed its soil from having 1% nutrients and organic matter to 8% in just 60 years. The same increase would’ve taken 100 years to occur naturally. Polyface cows are moved from pasture to pasture every day so that the grass is not grazed past the teenage stage, therefore remaining in a constant state of carbon sequestration.
Barn where cows are overwintered and Polyface creates its own compost through carbon bedding
I learned a lot while touring Polyface Farms. However, the most important aspect was the impact it had on my parents. Neither my mom or dad could stop talking about how surprised they were to hear of the differences between Polyface’s operation and traditional farming. My mom was particularly struck with the seasonality of eggs. To me, the effect this tour had on my traditional parents highlights the effectiveness of educating people in person about the impact of the food system. When it’s real and it’s in front of them most people find it hard to ignore.
Jessica Miles is a graduate of Chatham University’s MFA creative writing program, where she studied creative nonfiction with a concentration in nature writing. She is passionate about the polar bears and the Arctic. You can follow her on Medium @jessthenaturewriter