On Saturday, July 12, 2008 my family attended Field Day at Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA. For those who are not familiar with Polyface Farm and the Salatins who reside there and operate it, Polyface (farm of many faces) is a forerunner in the environmental livestock farming movement. Joel Salatin has written several books on his experiences in raising various animals on pasture. He laughingly admits that he had to 'learn how to think' and by doing so he has healed his pastures without chemicals, fed the masses chemical-free, hormone-free meat and taught many of us new ways of raising our own food.
I thought it would be interesting to share our experience with you from many points of view, so I briefly interviewed my family about the "Polyface experience." M-Martina (who is 6), T-Travis (who is 16), MO-Mark (my husband) and B-Bettina (me)
Q: What surprised you about Polyface Farm Field Day?
M: How different their pork tasted. The grass fed pork was good.
T: The number of people there because I thought it would be a small event--more local than that.
MO: The lack of modernization. They are making everything work in the most simplistic way.
B: I, too, was surprised by the masses of people there. Mark heard that there were over 1,800! What was most surprising to me about the farm, though, was the size of the pastured poultry boxes. They were far larger than I expected and far larger than our tiny, little tractors which hold 2 laying hens each.
Q: What did you find most interesting at Polyface?
M: The poison ivy growing all over a pile of wood.
T: The Racken house. The way the rabbits and chickens work so symbiotically.
MO: The Racken house where rabbits and chickens cohabitate.
B: The poultry processing set up. Here at MTBar, we work with a minimalistic processing set up but I see how Polyface has taken minimalist and made it really, beautifully fuctional. Stainless steel is nice. Really nice.
Q: What did you learn about rabbits?
T: That they can eat themselves out of house and home because their manure is so fertile that clover grows where they poop and clover is too rich for them to eat.
MO: The local breeds are better than the imported breeds. (Daniel told us that rabbits raised near where you live are already bio-adapted to your region.)
B: I learned a lot about line breeding and also the number of weeks at which a bunny can be bred, should be weaned, pastured, butchered and rebred. I also loved the Racken house and hare-pen (isn't that a *great* name?). I've been convinced that rabbits would do well in a tractor situation, similar to the ones we keep our hens in, but Mark wasn't so much convinced. Now he is, and because he's the lead carpenter, maybe we can get moving in that direction now.
Q: What did you learn about chickens?
M: If the chickens weren't there, the rabbits wouldn't be there. (regarding the Racken house, where both rabbits and chickens are housed.)
MO: You can fit a lot more of them in a small space than I thought you could.
B: This is more of a reinforcement, but the chicken served at lunch was really good. It was barbecued and a bit burnt, and still it was obvious that the meat had more texture and flavor and less of that jelly-like, mushy quality than commercial house-raised chickens have.
Q: What did you learn about processing chickens?
M: I didn't ask her this one because she has not been an active participant in this activity yet.
T: That people really like to use machinery! Some of those pluckers look like they could hold 5 or more chickens at once.
MO: 145 degrees for 90 seconds. (Speaking of scalding before plucking.)
B: That processing can be done in a small area if you have your set-up right.
Q:What did you learn about internships at Polyface Farm?
T: They accept 2 per year. The youngest was 16 and the oldest in his 40's.
MO: Only 2 per year for 12 months.
B: That most of the focus for interns seems to be on the chicken processing facet of the operation. Also, they are booked up years in advance. Being accepted into the internship program is a huge deal, as it should be. You basically become part of the Salatin family.
Q:Are you interested in environmentally sound farming practices?
T: Yes, very much so.
B: Duh. We paid a lot of money to buy those tickets and spend the weekend in the mountains! We are trying hard to incorporate sane farming into our lives and into our menu.
Q: What is the most important or useful thing you learned?
M: Not to climb on the hay because it might tumble down or have snakes in it.
T: That the hay racks in the cow barn are movable and can go up as the cow's manure and hay build up the floor level. MO: Keep it simple. It doesn't take a lot of money to make it work.
B: That it's much easier to produce and sell rabbit meat than poultry because it's still such a small, niche market.
I came home feeling like I am doing the right thing for my family by trying to raise much of our own food. We are still heavily dependent on markets but there are days when we sit down to supper and I realize: "Hey! We grew all of this." It's a great feeling and I thank the Salatins for sharing their lives and farming practices so freely with us. Because of Joel and his family, our lives are easier. I am also trying to keep in mind and take to heart the idea of sharing my farm with others, to quote Mr. Salatin, "Farmers and eaters occupy center stage here." It's not just about people who are trying to grow food. It's about those people who care about what they eat.
Bettina Colonna Essert is a native of the Virginia/North Carolina borderland. She currently lives on a 'farmette' in rural NE NC with her husband, 2 home schooled children and a menagerie of farm animals. Bettina is an Equine Sports Massage Therapist.