A writer joins hordes of farmers and tourists for a once-every-three-years look at Joel Salatin's pioneering "grass-farming" operation
Salatin, the high priest of "grass-farming," as he defines his work, hosts a field day every three years on his 550-acre spread in Swope, Virginia, in the hills of the Shenandoah Valley. Visitors have come from as far away as Florida and Iowa to trudge through the thick, soft pastures and see how Salatin raises cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits, and poultry. It is a brilliant sunny day, warm already at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.
Walking up a gentle slope, we come upon a herd of cows "mobbed" under a shady canopy, nibbling grass and depositing patties of natural fertilizer in the acre-or-so where they have been herded for the day. Tomorrow the white plastic electric fence—so thin it is hard to see in the brilliant sunlight—will be moved, the cows transferred to a new paddock so they can feast on a fresh "salad bar." Nearby, the chickens, in their big, floorless, corrugated tin-and-mesh mobile playpens are pecking at the cow patties left by the previous day's mob, picking out the fly larvae, aiding the composting process. Like so much on the farm, it is a virtuous cycle, the cows and chickens working together to create the rich soil, grass, and insect ecosystem.
We cross over to a glen, where the pasture meets the forest: at about 400 acres, forest covers most of the property, which now supports three generations of Salatins, including Lucille, Joel's widowed mother, who bought the land with her husband, William, in 1961. Here, more high-tech, hard-to-see fencing contains a herd of pigs, who are snuffling as they search for acorns, hickory nuts, grubs, and worms. "They disturb it, churn it up," explains Salatin, for whom "disturbance" is the key to fertility and regeneration.
It is also a good way to describe the mission of Salatin, who describes himself as a "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer"—one who rails against industrial agriculture and government, and proselytizes about reconnecting consumers and farmers. ("Polyface doesn't participate in government programs," has no mortgage, and eschews organic certification, says Salatin, a former journalist whose new book, Folks, This Ain't Normal, is coming out this fall.)
On Polyface, it's the pigs that best embody Salatin's ideas of creative disturbance, as well as his holistic, waste-not-want-not management approach. As Salatin sees it, pigs have a plough at the end of their noses and a sign on their foreheads that reads "will work for corn,"—traits that make them ideal for mimicking the buffalo that once marauded through the area, turning the soil and creating fertile pastures. Like the cows, the pigs are rotated regularly. No paddock is occupied more than once per year, allowing the forest to regenerate.
Up the hill is the "pigaerator," a key to why Polyface requires no chemical fertilizer or seed. We crowd beneath the tall metal-and-plastic canopy of an open-air barn-like structure—like many Polyface constructions, it was built of rough-hewn local oak and rot-resistant locust trunks. The pigaerator is actually a cattle-feeding station: one side is piled high with hay; the other side contains troughs on vertical chains with pulleys.
During the winter, when the grass disappears, the cows eat hay at the feeding station, depositing tons of manure and urine on a "giant carbon diaper" of hay, wood chips, and saw dust. Instead of mucking out the shed, the Salatins layer more bedding on top, adding corn into the mix. The cows stamp out the oxygen. The corn ferments. By March, the bedding pack can reach as high as 4 feet, raising the floor of the shed along with the cows—hence the pulleys.
In the early spring, when the cows return to pasture, the pigs move into the shed, digging for fermented corn and, in the process, aerating the bedding. In lieu of the giant machines used in windrow composting, Salatin relies on low-cost pig power to create natural fertilizer to feed the land. There is no manure-related pollution. No smell. No disease. No costly fertilizer.
One of the most striking things about the Polyface operation is its remarkable cleanliness. There are relatively few flies or mosquitoes—a surprise, considering the hundreds of grazing and pecking animals. Nor are there any obnoxious odors.
Best of all, Salatin says, his system lets animals roam relatively freely and behave as nature intended them to. It "fully honors the pigness of the pig."
As he does frequently during the tour, Salatin digresses to matters more spiritual and political than agricultural: "The pig is not just pork chops and bacon and ham to us. The pig is a co-laborer in this great land-healing ministry.
"Our culture doesn't ask about preserving the essence of pig, it just asks how can we grow them faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper. We know that's not a noble goal. That's why the average NFL football player is dead at 57, 'cause when your neck is bigger than your head you're a freak of nature and nature weeds you out."