2000s Archive

Sustaining Vision

Originally Published September 2002
Deep in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley lives a self-described “grass farmer” who is living proof, as Michael Pollan discovers, that there is such a thing as a free lunch.

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, interspecies 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 year.

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-duty chemicals.

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