By Diane Daniel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
"I'm from a long line of out-of-the-box thinkers, and we've been on this lunatic train for a long, long time," proclaimed ruddy-cheeked Daniel Salatin, 28, during his introduction to what is perhaps the country's most sought-after farm tour.
"Let me give you some housekeeping rules," he boomed. "There are none."
The 75 of us smiled from our perches on hay bales lined up along the floor of a flatbed trailer. Soon we would be pulled by tractor through Polyface Farm, a mecca of sorts, thanks to its dedication to sustainable practices and the prominent treatment given it by author Michael Pollan in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," his 2006 critique of industrial farming.
The faithful and curious, along with their kids and two groups of college students, had come to this farm deep in the Shenandoah Valley to hear the gospel according to the Salatins.
The Obamas may have planted an organic garden at the White House, but the first family of farming is arguably the Salatins. Patriarch Joel is the famous face of this self-proclaimed "beyond organic" livestock farm, which he took over from his father in 1982. On the day we visited, Joel was out of town on one of his many speaking engagements. (His stock is set to rise even higher: The new documentary "Food, Inc.," opening June 12 in Washington, paints him, once again, as a prophet among demons.)
Polyface has been widely praised by sustainable-farming advocates and foodies for its commitment to Earth- and animal-friendly practices, including rotational grass grazing, humane treatment of animals and local processing. With an annual average population of 6,500 laying hens (for eggs), 24,000 broilers (for meat), 1,000 head of cattle, 200 hogs, 500 turkeys and 250 rabbits, Polyface is classified as a commercial farm, but it's on the smaller side, defiantly spurning one-size-fits-all USDA regulations.
"We have an open-door policy," continued Daniel Salatin, donning an Australian bush hat like his father's before leading us on a two-hour-plus tour of a tiny portion of Polyface's 100 acres of pasture (an additional 450 acres are wooded). "There are no copyright issues. It's all about everybody else doing it. The consumer, the customer, the farmer. We share what we know."
After "The Omnivore's Dilemma" hit the bestseller list, demand for tours grew to the point that the Salatins began to offer one freebie a month from spring to fall (reservations tend to fill up far in advance) and otherwise charge $800 for up to 100 people, with an extra $200 to guarantee Joel or Daniel's presence. But visitors can also take free self-guided tours from Monday through Saturday.
My husband and I turned our tour into a locavore weekend. After Polyface, we visited the much-smaller Green Fence Farm in nearby Greenville. The specialty produce and livestock farm is owned by Kate and Nick Auclair, Washington transplants who not long ago were deeply entrenched in government work and are now just as deeply entrenched in soil and feathers. Later we dined at area restaurants including Staunton Grocery and Zynodoa, each of which uses ingredients from one of the farms.
"We're land stewards," Salatin said at our first stop, where we examined the open-bottom cages his broilers would soon go into to peck at feed and fertilize the soil.
"What excites us is to see land heal," he said. "All of that hinges on making earthworms and soil happy and healthy."
As directed, we bounced on the spongy earth, oohing and aahing over its richness, even if its texture had been created by earthworm excretions.
"As the first tour of the season, you're probably the only ones to see the pig-aerators," Salatin announced on the way to the next stop.
That excited the crowd, many of whom had read about this Polyface practice. Instead of removing the manure that cows produce during the winter, farmers let it pile up. All the while they add small amounts of corn, like frosting in a layer cake. In early spring, when the cows are taken out to pasture, the pigs are brought in to root for the corn, turning the soil over and over. The end result: a rich compost.
"We're standing on literally tons of cow manure, and I'm not smelling much, if any," Salatin said when we reached the corral of 22 grunting pigs. We nodded in agreement.
"Look at this compost," he said, scooping up a steaming handful and stretching out his arm to the crowd. "If anyone wants to grab this and feel how warm it is, go ahead."
Surprisingly -- for this crowd -- there were no takers.
After visiting a cow pasture, the tour stopped at the brooder (chicken nursery), teeming with 3,000 adorable day-old peeping chicks. In three weeks, these broilers would be out in the fields. Five weeks later, they'd be ready for slaughter.
Like a museum exhibit that ends in a gift shop, ours ended at the farm store, where, if visitors are interested, they can buy a processed Polyface broiler for the trip home. We filed into the small concrete building, checking out the steaks, poultry, pork, even dog food. One of the shoppers was Salatin fan Amy Troppman, 33, who lives three hours northeast in Lovettsville. She picked up a pound of ground beef ($4.25) and a dozen eggs ($2.50 medium, $3.75 large).
"I'd read 'Omnivore's Dilemma' and was very excited to hear Polyface was so close. It's a thrill to be here," she said. Troppman had brought her parents, visiting from Cincinnati, who had also been eager to visit the famous farm.
"I was particularly struck by the pig-aerator and the lack of smell," she said. "And the animals all look so happy."