Old-time innovator runs successful Polyface Farm

Joel Salatin uses few petrochemicals, except to power his tractor.
MinnPost photo by Peter Thomson
Joel Salatin uses few petrochemicals, except to power his tractor.

SWOOPE, Va. — The topography of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, crammed into the higher altitudes of the Shenandoah Valley, is more mindful of a Minnesota farm in St. Louis County rather than, say, Lyon County.

The property is hilly, even steep, with more rock outcroppings than a mower can stand, and heavily timbered. Oaks and other hardwoods cover about 450 of the 550 acres. Salatin’s ponds dot the gullies, and he needs all of them in a land where the average annual rainfall is 31 inches. That’s where the comparison to Minnesota topology ends, but that’s not the only difference at the farm.

Salatin, 50, would be a conventional farmer if the year were 1910. He doesn’t use many petrochemical inputs other than the gas for his old New Holland tractor. Enormous compost piles, portable chicken sheds, pasture for his cattle and a hay mow stuffed to the rafters are signs of an old-time innovator. “I’m a stereotypical Christian, Libertarian, environmental capitalist,” he said one day last week when I saw the farm.

The farm is famous because of its appearance in Michael Pollan‘s well-received book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Salatin is now in demand on the speaker-and-panel circuit, and he’s not a man short of — nor shy about — his opinions. He would make Hubert Humphrey sound reserved. For example: “We are a culture that has lost its moorings from its food systems,” he said. “A good food model will always be aesthetically and aromatically pleasant, not a place where you have to put on sheep dip and a moon suit to walk into the place.”

A favorite target: the USDA
Among Salatin’s frequent targets are the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), factory farms, Wall Street, the USDA, any politician not named Ron Paul, the agrichemical industry, the USDA, giant food processors and the USDA. If he could shutter the USDA, he would. The title of one of his books is “Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.”

“We produce circles around industrial food here,” he said. By his calculations — and he is nothing if not a very smart businessman — he gets $4 of income for every $1 of infrastructure; that’s the reverse of most corporate farms.

Salatin raises poultry, cattle and hogs. His meadows are for grazing and haying. The cattle are moved around the meadows, followed by the “eggmobiles.”  The hogs are fed nonadulterated feed until 200 pounds, then finished to 300 by allowing them to wander in the woods eating acorns. Electric fencing is a big part of the operation.

He does not ship food. He sells 10 hogs a week; the shoulder and part of the ham go to the Chipotle chain restaurant in Charlottesville, and the rest heads to 10 white-linen restaurants in Washington, D.C. “It’s a high-fat-content pork,” said Phil Petrilli, a regional manager for Chipotle. “And we wouldn’t do any of this unless it fundamentally improves the food. If it was a PR or marketing stunt, it would have fallen apart in a month.”

“State of the art 1950s genetics,” Salatin said.

A successful model
People drive from miles around to buy his chickens; the eggs are in high demand, too. In all, Polyface serves 1,000 families, about 30 restaurants and four retail outlets. The success of his business model has moved Salatin to acquire four more farms and a small slaughterhouse nearby. At any one time he might have 20 people, including his son, Daniel, working for him.

Not every idea has worked. Sheep competed with the cows and had to go; ducks brought in “to pick flies off of the cows’ noses” spent too much time in his ponds.

The last of the broilers were sold the day before I arrived as the farmers prepared for winter. “We are rich and tired in the fall, and poor and rested in the spring,” he said. There’s one more similarity to Minnesota farmers.

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