So the weekend got away from me and I wasn’t able to post the rest of the Polyface Farms Lunatic Tour pictures. But, it’s a great way to start the week so here we go:
These are two of the hoop houses as you walk up the hill from the house and storefront. The two on the left are empty and the one on the far right is housing pullets
Here is the hoophouse full of pullets
This is a look inside the store where you can purchase all types of shirts, hoodies, books and even apple cider. Of course, meat and eggs are available at the store too
Here’s a closeup of one of the bunnies…what a cutie…and they’re so friendly!
Lest you think that the watering system for the animals in the pens is complicated…here’s a shot of the inside of the bucket with the tubing
Here’s the inside of one of the hoophouses that has been vacated of animals. Again, Polyface has multiple uses for every structure
This is down at the barn closer to the house. My assumption is that these pigs will be moved to the woods when they are larger
I had to include this picture…it shows how friendly the pigs are and how they are well conditioned to being around people
Here’s a wider shot of the barn and the pigs. I love how this picture shows the simplicity of the farm…a gate propped up against the fencing for reinforcement
You won’t find a picture like this at Smithfield
Here is a picture of the farm buildings as we traverse the hill up to see the broilers
Here is a shot of the pastured broilers and their alignment
This picture shows the dolly that is used to help move the broiler pens
Joel speaking to the tour group…if you see yourself, let me know!
This is a shot of the bunny/hen house. These bunnies are suspended above the floor and the hens pick through the litter to keep it sanitized. It is my understanding that these are the breeder rabbits and they need an area that isn’t as unpredictable as outdoors. If the does are with a litter and they feel threatened, they will eat their babies
The hens were enjoying treats off of my boots courtesy of walking through the cow paddock
This is the bounty out of one of the nest boxes in the bunny/hen house
More pictures of the girls hanging out around the eggmobiles
I like this picture…it shows the present and the future. The hens will be where the cows are in about 3 days
My son, Myles, surrounded by hens. He was fascinated by the eggmobile, just like his momma
A close up of two of the girls
Looking from the eggmobile back towards the barn where the piglets were in the earlier pictures
What a view
Back at the barn, the pigs were romping and having a ball
The closing shot of the day
We toured Polyface Farms on a Monday and allowed our kindergartener, Myles, to miss school. He went to the school library on Wednesday and brought this book home:
Job well done Joel! Thank you for showing my 5 year old (and his parents) that farming can pay the bills. That you can follow your dream of living off the land and help to heal the land in the process. And that I’m not so crazy for having this dream after all…
If you enjoy this type of discussion as well as learning about gardening, please leave me a comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list, become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!
In yesterday’s post, we talked about pigaerators a bit…how Polyface Farms uses them to turn their deep bedding into beautiful compost. Today I want to continue the tour and head to the pigs in the woods. In my quest for knowledge regarding animal husbandry, I’ve read time and time again how hard it is to confine pigs. I’ve heard of people using barbed wire at the top and bottom of wooden fencing, electric fencing at the top and bottom and all sorts of other homemade devices. How does Polyface Farms keep their pigs contained? Two strands of electric fencing. Again, simple but oh so effective.
Here is a picture of the pigs in the woods:
Sorry that the picture is a little fuzzy…my hands were trembling a bit from the cold. But here you can see that the pigs are rooting through the understory of the forest. You may be concerned that so much disturbance would disrupt the natural balance of the forest. But Joel informed us that there isn’t much that is naturally balanced in the forest anymore. When the bison and other herbivores roamed the land, they kept all of the undergrowth from taking over and allowed for perennial grasses to dominate the forest floor. Those days are gone and now the forest is filled with brambles and dense understory plants. By allowing the pigs to root and just be pigs, they are able to clear out much of the dense understory which in turn enables the perennial grasses to re-establish themselves.
Polyface Farms moves the pigs when they have eaten all of the feed that is in their feeder: it’s a ton…literally. They have discovered that when the feeder is empty, the pigs have rooted through the woods enough to prevent the brambly growth but not do permanent damage. I’m not sure how many pigs are contained in a given area or even how big the area is. At this point in the tour, my daughter was fascinated with the fact that her boots were making the sucking sound as she pulled them up out of the mud/poo mix so I was a bit distracted. And then she fell bottom first into the mud/poo mix…fun for everyone.
Joel told us that buy piglets for $80 and get $500 for them at slaughter. That’s over a 6-time return on their money. What’s your savings account paying these days? Polyface Farms will raise 1000 pigs between the main farm and the other 8 farms that they rent. That’s a lot of bacon.
The tour ended with my favorite part: the eggmobile. I don’t know what it is about the eggmobile that fascinates me. Maybe it’s the fact that hundreds of birds (800 if I’m not mistaken) work so hard to sanitize the fields. Or that they produce an entirely new revenue stream for the farm. But it probably has a lot to do with the fact that they don’t have to be slaughtered to generate income. Don’t get me wrong…I eat meat at least twice a day and I have total respect for the farmers that produce the meat that I consume. I’m just not sure if I can be the one doing the slaughtering. I’ll find out next Tuesday, May 1, when I go to Avery’s Branch Farm in Amelia to help process chickens. I need to know if I can kill an animal to feed myself and my family. And I need to push myself past my comfort level. Otherwise, I won’t ever know what I’m capable of. Do you ever feel that way? I’m sure I’m not the only one. Back to the eggmobile…
Polyface Farms runs the eggmobile behind the beef cattle but they wait three days before bringing the girls in to work their magic. The reason for the three day delay is that it takes that long for the fly larvae to develop and the chickens can procure a sizable amount of their protein from the larvae. They take a cow patty that is a 1 foot circle and scratch through it until it’s about 3 feet in diameter. This helps to spread the manure fertilizer around and also decreases the amount of grass that the cows avoid when they are moved back to the same paddock. Cows don’t want their lips near their own poo when they’re grazing and the chickens help to reduce the repugnancy zones.
The chickens are wonderfully friendly and seem to enjoy human company. They cluck and carry on and wander into the eggmobile to lay their eggs and then get right back to business. Here are some pictures of the girls:
I love the picture of my son standing in front of the eggmobile. He’s muddy and cold but oh so happy. I really think that he would be right at home on a farm. If there’s mud around, my daughter would be as happy as a pig in, well, you know. While Myles and I explored the eggmobile, Maddie explored a mud puddle with a stick.
When I asked my kids what their favorite part of the farm was, Maddie replied “the mud mommy” and Myles said “the poop momma”. I love my kids. My favorite part was the fact that I was able to experience Polyface Farms in all of its glory. I love the fact that the buildings aren’t perfect and so much of it is made out of re-purposed materials. Sure it was a cold, wet and muddy experience but the warmth that emanated from the staff and their animals was amazing. We are already planning our return trip…my husband and I joke that we’ll end up there once a month to attend the “Lunatic Tours”. And we just might do it. Oh yes we can!
I still have a bunch of pictures and short video clips that I didn’t use in these posts. We have a busy weekend planned but if I can find the time, I may post them over the weekend as a pictorial tour. If you enjoy this type of discussion, please leave me a comment below or e-mail me at email@example.com. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list, become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!
In yesterday’s post we looked at pastured broilers at Polyface Farms. Today, we’ll explore Joel Salatin’s “salad bar beef” and deep bedding. I think I would be correct to assume that the bread and butter of Polyface Farms is the beef cattle operation. Well, that and grass. Without the grass, none of this would be possible. I must say up front that I didn’t catch all of what Joel said while we were seeking shelter from the rain in the barn. My daughter had to use the potty so she added a little more ammonia to the deep bedding further down in the barn. Don’t worry, we shielded her with an umbrella.
Here’s is what I did learn in the barn. Joel runs his cattle on 2.5 acre paddocks and moves them to fresh grass everyday around 4:00 PM. I’m not sure how many cattle there were…here’s a picture:
The cattle are kept in their 2.5 acres by two strands of electric fencing. Two strands. No expensive, hard-to-maintain wooden fences. Two strands of electric fencing. This “portable infrastructure” as Joel calls it allows the cows to be moved easily to the next salad bar. At this point in the tour, it was probably around 2:15 and the cows knew that moving time was on the horizon. As we exited the paddock (after seeing the pigs in the woods) they were getting antsy. I think Joel said that they wanted to get to the candy bar grass…that’s the prime eating in any paddock.
Joel, in his infinite wisdom, has studied the habits of wild herbivores whether they be buffalo, antelope or zebras and learned how they move in their natural habitat. Herbivores follow the three “M”s…mobbing, mowing and moving. Let’s look quickly at what each of these M’s mean.
MOBBING – in nature, herbivores move together in close proximity to each other. This allows protection from predators.
MOWING – while these herbivores are packed tightly together, they mow the grass to a level that the grass can easily rebound from. While the animals are grazing together, they are also pooping…alot. So what do they do?
MOVING – animals are not stupid. They don’t want to stand in their own feces anymore than you do. So they move. They move onto new fresh grass and away from their manure. What they leave behind is fertilizer for the grass.
Doesn’t that make sense? So why does the industrialized food production model pile cattle into CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations)? Beats me too.
The barn that we sought shelter in serves as the winter housing area for the cattle. Polyface Farms practices a method known as deep bedding. In case you don’t know what this is, it’s basically a method that as the bedding is soiled, it’s not removed. Fresh bedding is added on top of the soiled bedding. Polyface can’t settle for just adding a fresh layer of bedding….they’ve made it work even better. Before they add the fresh bedding, they put down a layer of corn. Why you ask? This is where Polyface Farms knocks it out the park. They do this over and over through the winter and then they release the pigs into the bedding in the spring. The pigs then root through the deep bedding in search of the corn that is now fermented. By doing this, the pigs are aerating the bedding and turning it into beautiful compost that is later applied to the fields. Joel calls the pigs his pigaerators. They get to express their pigness by rooting and the farm benefits by having the bedding turned. He believes in having the animals do the work for him and he pays them for their work; in this case, it’s corn.
One more awesome thing that Polyface Farms does: the area outside the barn is a sacrifice area. It’s an area where the grass won’t grow anymore because of the heavy hoof traffic during the winter. Instead of sowing seed to establish new grass (which by the way they have never done since the farm was purchased in 1951) they grow their potatoes here. By the time the soil is warm enough for potato sets, the cows have been turned out into fresh pasture. So Polyface Farms plants their potatoes and covers them with straw. That’s it. Here’s a closer look:
I want to leave you with a video of Joel speaking to us about the role of the herbivore in nature. Please take the time to watch the video…it sums it up so well.
Yesterday we looked at the rabbit operation at Polyface Farms. Today, we’ll continue our tour and mosey on up the hill to the broiler operation. For those who don’t know, broilers are the chickens that we eat. They differ from the layers that provide eggs in that they have a very short life. Joel said that you can raise a broiler in the same time it takes to grow a radish: 8 weeks. Most people don’t realize how quickly baby chicks are transformed into 4 pound birds that are ready for the table. I won’t profess to know all of the details; after all, I’ve just started reading Pastured Poultry Profits and my kids required a lot of my attention during this part of the tour. It was raining at a pretty good clip and the kids were worried about their umbrellas.
Polyface Farms’ broilers are moved everyday to fresh grass. Joel said that they have the cows come through and mow down the grass because chicks don’t particularly care for tall grass. This also provides cow manure for the chickens to pick through. The portable houses are 10′ x 12′ x 2′ tall. Up to 75 chickens can be housed in each shelter. Here’s a picture to give you a better idea.
See the simplicity again? Sheet metal roofing, chicken wire sides, a bucket on the top with rubber hosing and a feeder. These pens are also moved by pulling them with the rubber covered wire to fresh grass. Joel stated that it takes one minute to move each pen and one person can move 60 pens in an hour…impressive.
The chickens in this particular portable shelter are actually pullets. The broilers are Cornish Rock Crosses which are the industry standard. But these chickens are grown without antibiotics, arsenic (to stimulate their appetite) or any of the other pharmaceutical cocktails that are given regularly to factory farm chickens. Joel told the tour group that these chickens never touch the same piece of ground twice in a season; in fact, no other chickens will be grazed on that patch of ground until the following year. The reason? Soil health. The soil can only capture and metabolize 200# of nitrogen/acre in a season…any more than that runs off and is lost. His chickens are capable of producing enough free fertilizer for the grass that synthetic fertilizer isn’t even a thought. Here’s a video of Joel discussing the pastured broiler operation. It was taken with my husband’s non-smartphone so it’s a little choppy. Sorry.
I was interested in predator protection. These broilers are out in the middle of a field and they can’t be seen from the house. How is it possible that they aren’t eaten by raccoons, foxes, skunks or other wild animals? That is the main reason that I haven’t pursued getting chickens for our backyard…we have raccoons that we could claim on our taxes they’re here so much. They’ve become so use to us that they just stare at us if we interrupt their forays in our trashcan. So what keeps Polyface Farms’ broilers safe? The answer is this guy:
Not the cute little girl in the monkey hat…that’s my Maddie Tate. Her friend for the day was Michael. From what I could gather from Joel through my daughter’s chatter, Michael is 1/2 Great Pyrenees, 1/4 Anatolian Shepherd and 1/4 Akbash. If I got that wrong, please leave a comment with his true heritage. Michael can run 37 mph and is a fierce protector of the broilers. Joel figures that Michael successfully takes care of skunks, raccoons and possums on a weekly basis. I’d say that Michael earns his keep at Polyface Farms.
The broilers at Polyface Farms are processed after three weeks on pasture so they have another batch of chicks ready for the pastured pens when the older ones move on. Polyface is all about efficiency while not compromising the ecological integrity of the land. Through years of experience, they have learned how far they can push an operation to increase revenue without sacrificing the land that they have worked so hard to develop. Joel said that when his parents’ purchased the 550 acre farm in 1961, it was the worst farm in the whole valley. There were large areas of shale exposed and through the Salatin’s careful stewardship of the land, those areas have been rehabilitated and now grow beautiful grass. Grass that the bunnies, pastured broilers, beef cattle and layers can enjoy. So that we can enjoy them.
So yesterday my family and I went to Polyface Farms in Swoope, VA. It was a 2.5 hour drive from Chesterfield where we live and we hoped the whole way there that the weather would improve. When we left, the thermometer on the car registered 47 degrees. As we went over Afton Mountain near Charlottesville, the temperature dropped to 35 degrees…that’s not the way we hoped the temperature trend would go. When we pulled into the drive of Polyface Farms, the temperature was 40 degrees. And it was raining. The rain continued for most of the day but it didn’t put a damper on our visit.
We saw Daniel, Joel’s son, when we arrived. He said that his dad would be conducting the 2 hour “Lunatic Tour”. Joel arrived back at the farm about 45 minutes before the tour started. He had been in Florida for a week and was leaving for Michigan the next day. But yet, he still conducted the tour for the roughly 100 folks that showed up on this day of poor weather. That’s dedication. That’s how you can tell that someone is living a life that they are passionate about.
I am still in awe of the Polyface Farms operation. It is so simple and unglamorous, if that’s a word. It is everything that a farm should be. There are animals that are happy to be working, and people that mirror that happiness. How can an animal be happy to work? It’s simple…it’s in their inner being; it’s who they are. A chicken loves to scratch and peck and stretch its legs. A pig loves to root and run and play with other pigs. Beef cattle love to eat grass and chase each other and poop. Lots of poop. The bunnies love to eat grass and feel the grass under their feet. They love for people to feed them grass and that’s what people did. Including my kids.
I love the simplicity of Polyface Farms. Look at the harepen that these bunnies are housed in. Chicken wire for the sides, sheet metal roofing, slatted floors so that they can eat the grass but not dig out. A bucket on the roof with a piece of rubber tubing provides them fresh water. A piece of wire covered in rubber tubing on the front of the harepen makes it easy to pull their accommodations to fresh grass. Again, so simple!
And what is the result of this setup? Poop. The bunnies keep the grass mowed and fertilize the area as a result. There are fruit trees growing in this area and they are provided with a readily usable source of nutrients. Have a look for yourself.
Now people that take issue with these bunnies ending up on someone’s dinner plate should consider Joel’s words (and I’m paraphrasing here): “My animal’s live a wonderful life and have one bad day”. That day, of course, is the day that they are slaughtered and end up as dinner. I think that the bunnies at Polyface Farms live a better life than those that are kept as backyard pets. Most of the backyard bunnies are kept in hutches off the ground and their little feet never touch the ground. There aren’t grass stains on their paws.
Back to the tour: we visited the broilers, the cows, the pigs and the layers in our 2 hour tour. We’ll dig deeper into these operations as the week continues. After the tour, Joel was kind enough to sign my copy of his book You Can Farm. I didn’t have a chance to read what he wrote until we arrived back home. Here it is:
Oh yes you can. If you are interested in homesteading, check out the Homestead Barn Hop where you can discover people pursuing their dreams of living a simpler life. Click here for Part 2 of the Polyface Tour. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!
Today, my family and I are visiting Polyface Farms. For those who don’t know what Polyface Farms is, it’s Joel Salatin’s family farm. If you don’t know who Joel Salatin is, I highly recommend that you Google him. To sum him up, he’s the rock star farmer who has brought sustainable agriculture to the forefront. His farm was showcased in the movie Food, Inc. and he’s also in the movie FRESH. His premise is so amazingly simple but yet it is so far from where our current food production model lies. He is an acclaimed author who has written the following books:
Family Friendly Farming
You Can Farm
Salad Bar Beef
The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer
Pastured Poultry Profits
Everything I Want to do is Illegal
Holy Cows and Hog Heaven
Folks, This Ain’t Normal
One of my favorite YouTube clips is this one from FRESH. If you can spare 1 minute and 42 seconds, please watch this. What a wonderful life.
This week, Mid-Atlantic Gardening will be focusing on our trip to Polyface Farms and all of the wisdom that we can glean from the experience. Truth be told, we aspire to have a farm similar to Polyface Farms. We don’t aim to copycat Polyface completely…we would like to have dairy cows instead of beef cattle. Being that I’m a horticulturist, we’ll focus more on plants than animals but we would still like to have meat birds and laying hens. And possibly sell some to have multiple revenue streams.
You may be wondering what all of this has to do with gardening. To me, it has everything to do with gardening. By learning how to grow vegetables, fruit trees, nut producing trees and shrubs that provide you with food, we are one step closer to being able to feed ourselves. Also, as gardeners, we are stewards of the resources that God has provided us with. Whether those resources are plants or animals is irrelevant to me. To know that we have been entrusted to take care of them is awe inspiring. I know that I’ll be in awe and inspired visiting Polyface Farms. I can’t wait to fill you all in on the details. Let me know if you’ve been on a “Lunatic Tour” at Polyface Farms. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at email@example.com. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!
When you hear the word soil, you may be thinking of the red clay in your backyard or perhaps your sandy soil that drains water as quickly as you apply it. While both of these describe soil by its very definition, healthy soil is a vibrant dance of microorganisms, organic matter, small bits of rocky material and sheer beauty.
Healthy soil is soil where plants flourish, earthworms eat and poop with reckless abandon and water and air are in almost perfect balance. This may be a far cry from where your soil is now but there is one magic bullet that can fix almost any soil…compost. Most gardeners are well aware of the benefits of compost; that it adds aeration to clay soils and helps bind sand particles together. But many people aren’t aware that even a small amount of compost, when measured by total soil volume, can yield huge results in soil quality.
Consider this for a moment: it is fairly common for disturbed soils (that includes the great majority of soils in subdivisions) to be comprised of only 1.5% to 2% organic matter. The other 98% to 98.5% is made up of soil particles like clay, silt and sand. If you increase the organic matter only a small percentage, the clay particles start to break apart to allow water to pass through and the sand particles start to stick together to keep water from moving so fast through the soil. The great Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia has increased his percentage of organic matter from 1.5% to 8% over the past 50 years by allowing the carbon cycle to occur without negative interference.
Let’s look at how nature does this without any assistance from us. In a deciduous forest, like the great majority of those on the East Coast, the trees produce an absolutely astounding amount of leaves each spring and summer. The leaves assimilate and process sunlight and at the end of the season, the trees drop all of these leaves around their feet. The leaves contain some of the nutrients that the far reaching root systems have mined throughout the year and now they are being placed exactly where they are needed…at the trees’ roots. These leaves are compressed by rain, snow and animals big and small who walk on and through the leaves, thereby speeding their decomposition. Each year these leaves are on the sliding scale of breaking down from oak leaves larger than your hand to pieces that are hardly even recognizable. All of this is adding organic matter, or nature’s compost, to the soil. The result is healthy soil that is loose and friable.
Contrast that to the typical neighborhood yard with a couple of trees. The leaves are collected in the fall and removed from the area completely, sometimes even bagged to be taken to the landfill. Then we apply mulch around the trees and wonder why our soil becomes poorer and poorer with each passing year. What we have essentially done is removed all of nature’s fertilizer and compost.
The first step to improving your soil is to begin adding that compost back to the soil. Start a simple compost pile in your backyard and/or shred the leaves and then apply them in a layer under the mulch you usually use…just be sure to keep the total depth of mulch in the 2″ to 3″ range. In the case of mulch, more is not better. See my mulch volcano article for more info on that. If you’d like to improve the appearance of your lawn, when you aerate in the fall, apply a 1/4″ to 1/2″ layer of compost and then overseed. If you keep this process going, you should be able to eliminate or drastically reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizer that you have to apply to cool-season turf in the fall.
If your tomatoes seemed stunted this year, add compost. If you are planting a new Camellia this fall, add compost. If your Astilbes seem a bit chlorotic, add compost. You get the point…compost is king. Without it, all you end up with is DIRT. And dirt won’t give you the results that you are capable of producing!
I’d love to hear your stories of growing great soil and the results of your hard work. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or add it to the comment section below.