So good, it’s not legal: A visit to Polyface Farm

By Johanna Kolodny

I didn’t find out until the end of Polyface Farm’s Field Day last month that this gathering -- set in the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Swoope (pronounced Swope), Virginia -- was illegal. Polyface owner Joel Salatin, the farmer made famous in Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” was answering a question at the final gathering in the barn when he explained that technically, the farm needed government permits to host a paid event for such a large group. Oh, and they should have gotten the health department involved, because they served lunch. But they didn't.

It’s not so unusual for Salatin to partake in illegal activities. One need not look further than his most recent book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From The Local Food Front." For him, selling his meat out of a store on his farm (violation of food-safety laws and commercial regulations) or charging us to attend this event (violation of zoning laws -- he runs a farm, not a theme park) is just part of everyday life. But I found it exhilarating. I have a clean record, you know.

Salatin explained that he purposefully only advertised through two farming magazines and the farm’s website in order to fly under the radar. Even so, people came from far and wide: from Oregon, Florida, and everywhere in between, plus Canada. Word in the crowd was that one attendee came from as far away as Africa. The final day’s count was 1,650 adults, and there were plenty more children. I’d estimate there were 2,000 people. For all those in attendance, this fun-filled farm day was a pilgrimage to what many might call farming’s Mecca. It was hard not to observe, though, that the majority of the attendees were Caucasian, which I believe speaks to the lack of diversity in both farming and the food movement in this country.

Though it was put on by law-breakers, this was a totally professional event. The day ran like a well-oiled tractor. The day’s schedule was followed precisely; a hundred volunteers — Salatin family members along with former and current apprentices, who stood out from the crowd with their bright red collared shirts — were on hand to answer questions throughout. About a dozen exhibitors, including poultry-processing equipment makers, mushroom cultivators, and representatives from the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, set up shop.

Here's how the day unfolded:

Optional participation in “early bird chores” started at 6 a.m. I chose to arrive closer to registration time at 7:30, as there was a farmers’ market in nearby Staunton (pronounced Stanton) that opened at 7. I came away with some blueberries, homemade fruit leather, and walnuts and wheatberries grown by Mennonites.

And then I joined the morning farm tour with Salatin, which lasted from 8 to 10:30. I’ve heard Salatin speak before, so his sharp, politically-infused sense of humor was no surprise -- but it was definitely still entertaining. He’s a pro at capturing his audience’s attention. A master communicator and orator, with a melodic, preacher-like speech pattern, he is thick with intelligence and wit, succinct and focused in his thoughts. He communicated by way of a portable microphone and amplifier system set atop a tractor.

It was a good thing he was well-versed in working with animals: He masterfully instructed the herd, including myself, to each destination, and hundreds of people proceeded ahead in an organized and calm fashion. Salatin brought up the rear with his tractor, pulling a hay-covered platform on wheels for those less mobile. It was quite a sight to behold. At one point, when I reached the top of a hill, I looked back at the long line of people marching up behind me like a trail of ants. It was a moving moment -- to think that all of these people cared enough about the food movement to gather on this day, coming from far and wide.

The grass couldn’t have been a brighter or a more vibrant green, and never have animals looked healthier or happier. None of the intense, putrid smells that characterize factory farms emanated from the animals; no strong manure smell came up from the land. Livestock were spread out far enough across the farm that nature could take its course.

The farm tour included a veritable mouthful of sights, including visits to the gobbledygo feathernet (right), the pigaerator, the eggmobile (below), pastured turkeys and broilers, and salad bar beef. (Best look at his books for explanations!) Spread throughout other parts of the day were a talk on relationship marketing and a workshop on hay shed pigaerator composting held in the barn. Talks on rabbit production using a raken house (rabbit and chicken cohabitation) and chicken brooding were also offered.

Lunch included barbecued pork, chicken and beef, sliced peaches and cucumbers, and chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream frosting. I walked by the smoker and barbecue area several times before lunch salivating with anticipation. The food was delicious and homemade, served to us buffet style. I plopped myself down on the grass under a tree to shade myself from the midday sun; some visitors took shelter under the same tree, while others took cover in the barns or endured the heat of the sun. An Amish or Mennonite family sat on one side of me, their young children eying the processed drinks, which were obviously not a regular component of their diets. And then we ate. Let’s just say that I didn’t need to have dinner later that night.

In the afternoon, the farm store opened and was flocked by attendees wanting to buy farm products. I came away with a dozen eggs and a broiler chicken. I can’t recall how much the eggs cost, but due to the high demand for broilers, Salatin set a flat rate regardless of size, and I paid seventeen dollars for my four pound chicken.

I fried up some eggs for breakfast the day after my return home and was thrilled to see bright orange yolks glowing in the pan.

Johanna Kolodny is dedicated to working to change the food system at multiple levels. She has worked with the NYC Greenmarket and Slow Food and taught undergraduate courses about the food system. A graduate of Williams College, she received her MA in Food Studies from New York University.

6 Responsesto “So good, it’s not legal: A visit to Polyface Farm”

  1. Nice write up. Must have been fun. May have to pick up Salatin's book.

  2. Christian in SF says:

    Nice post. I was super-inspired by Joel when I read about him in Omnivore's Dillemma - if anyone hasn't read it, it's well worth it.

  3. Thanks for this article about the day. I was very interested in seeing what the tours were like.

  4. Lulu says:

    Here's another piece on the Polyface Field Day from washingtonpost.com food blogger Kim O'Donnel:
    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/mighty-appetite/2008/07/a_day_at_polyface_farm.html

  5. Twwly says:

    We own all of his books, and enjoy his tone, politics, vigor and farming practices too.  Sadly watching his DVD is as close as we're ever gonna get to his farm.  
     
    Fantastic he had such a great turn out, although I am not surprised.

  6. Chicken farm says:

    thanks for your great post I am completely in love with chickens . But I realize that marriage between man and chickens is considered weird, so I will just keep raising them on my backyard :-)