Sustaining Vision

On the second day of spring, Joel Salatin is down on his belly getting the ant’s-eye view of his farm. He invites me to join him, to have a look at the auspicious piles of worm castings, the clover leaves just breaking, and the two inches of fresh growth that one particular blade of grass has put on in the five days since this paddock was last grazed. Down here among the fescues is where Salatin makes some of his most important decisions, working out the intricate, multispecies grazing rotations that have made Polyface one of the most productive, sustainable, and influential family farms in America.

This morning’s inspection tells Salatin that he’ll be able to move cattle into this pasture in a few days’ time. They’ll then get a single day to feast on its lush salad bar of grasses before being replaced by the “eggmobile,” a Salatin-designed-and-built portable chicken coop housing several hundred laying hens. They will fan out to nibble at the short grass they prefer and pick the grubs and fly larvae out of the cowpats—in the process spreading the manure and eliminating parasites. (Salatin calls them his sanitation crew.) While they’re at it, the chickens will apply a few thousand pounds of nitrogen to the pasture and produce several hundred uncommonly rich and tasty eggs. A few weeks later, the sheep will take their turn here, further improving the pasture by weeding it of the nettles and nightshade the cows won’t eat.

To its 400 or so customers—an intensely loyal clientele that includes dozens of chefs from nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.—Polyface Farm sells beef, chicken, pork, lamb, rabbits, turkeys, and eggs, but if you ask Salatin what he does for a living, he’ll tell you he’s a “grass farmer.” That’s because healthy grass is the key to everything that happens at Polyface, where a half-dozen animal species are raised together in a kind of concentrated ecological dance on the theme of symbiosis. Salatin is the choreographer, and these 100 acres of springy Shenandoah Valley pasture comprise his verdant stage. By the end of the year, his corps de ballet will have transformed that grass into 30,000 pounds of beef, 60,000 pounds of pork, 12,000 broilers, 50,000 dozen eggs, 1,000 rabbits, and 600 turkeys—a truly astonishing cornucopia of food from such a modest plot of land. What’s more, that land itself will be improved by the process. Who says there’s no free lunch?

“Sustainable” is a word you hear a lot from farmers these days, but it’s an ideal that’s honored mostly in the breach. Even organic farmers find themselves buying pricey inputs—cow manure, Chilean nitrate, fish emulsion, biological insect controls—to replace declining fertility of the soil or to manage pest outbreaks. Polyface Farm isn’t even technically organic, yet it is more nearly sustainable than any I’ve visited. Thanks to Salatin’s deft, inter-species management of manure, his land is wholly self-sufficient in nitrogen. Apart from the chicken feed and some mineral supplements he applies to the meadows to replace calcium, Polyface supplies its own needs, year after years.

Salatin takes the goal of sustainability so seriously, in fact, that he won’t ship his food—customers have to come to the farm and pick it up, a gorgeous adventure over a sequence of roads too obscure for my road atlas to recognize. Salatin’s no-shipping policy is what brought me here to Swoope, Virginia, a 45-minute drive over the Blue Ridge from Charlottesville. I’d heard rumors of Polyface’s succulent grass-fed beef, “chickenier” chicken, and the superrich eggs to which pastry chefs attribute quasimagical properties—but Salatin refused on principle to FedEx me a single steak. For him, “organic” is much more than a matter of avoiding chemicals: It extends to everything the farmer does, and Salatin doesn’t believe food shipped cross-country deserves to be called organic. Not that he has any use for that label now that the USDA controls its meaning. Salatin prefers to call what he grows “clean food,” and the way he farms “beyond organic.”

That it certainly is. The fact that Salatin doesn’t spray any pesticides or medicate his animals unless they are ill is, for him, not so much the goal of his farming as proof that he’s doing it right. And “doing it right” for Salatin means simulating an ecosystem in all its diversity and interdependence, and allowing the species in it “to fully express their physiological distinctiveness.” Which means that the cows, being herbivores, eat nothing but grass and move to fresh ground every day; and that chickens live in flocks of about 800, as they would in nature, and turkeys in groups of 100. And, as in nature, birds follow and clean up after the herbivores—for in nature there is no “waste problem,” since one species’ waste becomes another’s lunch. When a farmer observes these rules, he has no sanitation problems and none of the diseases that result from raising a single species in tight quarters and feeding it things evolution hasn’t designed it to eat. All of which means he can skip the entire menu of heavy chemicals.

You might think every organic farm does this sort of thing as a matter of course, but in recent years the movement has grown into a full-fledged industry, and along the way the bigger players have adopted industrial methods—raising chickens in factory farms, feeding grain to cattle on feedlots, and falling back on monocultures of all kinds. “Industrial organic” might sound like an oxymoron, but it is a reality, and to Joel Salatin industrial anything is the enemy. He contends that the problems of modern agriculture—from pollution to chemical dependence to foodborne illness—flow from an inherent conflict between, on one hand, an industrial mind-set based on specialization and simplification, and, on the other, the intrinsic nature of biological systems, whose health depends on diversity and complexity.

On a farm, complexity sounds an awful lot like work and some of Salatin’s neighbors think he’s out of his mind, moving his cows every day and towing chicken coops hither and yon. “When they hear “˜moving the cattle,” they picture a miserable day of hollering, pickup trucks, and cans of Skoal,” Salatin told me as we prepared to do just that. “But when I open the gat, the cows come running because they know there’s ice cream waiting for them on the other side.” Looking more like a maître d’ than a rancher, Salatin holds open a section of electric fencing, and 80 exceptionally amiable cows—they nuzzle him like big cats—saunter into the next pasture, looking for their favorite grasses: bovine ice cream.

For labor—in addition to his six-foot, square-jawed, and red-suspendered self—the farm has Salatin’s wife, Teresa (who helps run their retail shop and does the bookkeeping), children Rachel and Daniel, and a pair of interns. (Polyface has become such a mecca for aspiring farmers that the waiting list for an internship is two years long.) Salatin, whose ever-present straw hat says “I’m having fun” in a way that the standard monogrammed feed cap never could, insists, however, that “the animals do all the work around here.” So the chickens fertilize the cow pasture, the sheep weed it, the turkeys mow the grass in the orchard and eat the bugs that would otherwise molest the grapes, and the pigs—well, the pigs have the sweetest job of all.

After we moved the cows, Salatin showed me the barn, a ramshackle, open-sided structure where 100 head of cattle spend the winter, ever day consuming 25 pounds of hay and production 50 pounds of waste. Every few days, Salatin adds another layer of wood chips or straw or leaves to the bedding, building a manure layer cake that’s three feet thick by winter’s end. Each layer he lards with a little corn. All winter the cake composts, producing heat to warm the barn and fermenting the corn. Why corn? There’s nothing a pig likes more than 40-proof corn, and nothing he’s better equipped to do than root it out with his powerful snout. So as soon as the cows go out to pasture in March, the “pigaerators,” as Salatin calls them, are let loose in the barn, where they proceed systematically to turn the compost in their quest for an alcoholic morsel.

“That’s the sort of farm machinery I like—never needs its oil changed, appreciated over time, and when you’re done with it, you eat it.” Buried clear to their butts in compost, a bobbing sea of hams and corkscrew tails, these are the happiest pigs you’ll ever meet. Salatin reached down and brought a handful of compost to my nose; it smelled as sweet and warm as the forest floor in summertime, a miracle of transubstantiation. After the pigs have completed their alchemy, Salatin spreads the compost on the pastures. There, it will feed the grasses so that the grasses might again feed the cows, the cows the chickens, and so on until the snow falls, in one long, beautiful, and utterly convincing proof that, in a world where grass can eat sunlight and food animals can eat grass, there is indeed a free lunch.

Did I mention that this lunch also happens to be delicious?