Polyface Farms might be the coolest place on the planet. Okay, it’s probably not even on the coolest list unless you are a fanboy for regenerative agriculture and Joel Salatin is one of your favorite authors and presenters in the agriculture/Permaculture space. In that case, Polyface is pretty darn cool. First off, the lunatic farm tour they offer every other Saturday from March thru October is a bargain at $20.00 per ticket. The tour was the primary destination for the Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy’s trip to Virginia recently. We went other places and learned other things but Polyface was the place we wanted to go.
Because we had traveled to Polyface the afternoon before we knew how long it was going to take us to get there. The Mad Farmer showered, had the coffee going and most of the stuff packed into the family truckster pretty early the morning of the actual tour. Miss Mercy said it was plain to see that I might be a little bit excited. That part is definitely true. I’m not sure exactly when I heard my first Joel Salatin podcast, might have been on Jack Spirko’s The Survival Podcast, might have been on Diego Footer’s Permaculture Voices Podcast, either way since that first podcast I have listened to a lot of interviews with Joel Salatin. The first time the Mad Farmer got to meet him in person was several years ago when he was a keynote speaker for the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS. I’ve read several of Joel’s books but my favorite is “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal“. Miss Mercy’s favorite book up to this point is probably “The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs“.
Anyway, the Mad Farmer is a self-proclaimed fanboy. The tour is either led by Joel himself, or his son, Daniel. It would be great if Joel was the guide, but it was a 50/50 shot who would be guiding the tour (okay probably more 90/10) but, either way, we were really looking forward to the tour. I kind of felt like I knew Daniel – reading about him growing up, his early start in business raising rabbits and all the other family experiences that were described in detail in the books. So either way, we would be happy to take the tour no matter who was the tour guide.
When we first pulled up we were about a half hour early, but we weren’t the first ones there by a long shot – we also weren’t the last, so that was good. The farm has been doing tours for a while and they approach it like everything else on the farm, they study the best ways to do things, then they put that process in place and tweak it until it works. Your first impression of the farm is the actual layout as you drive up the road, the second, is people directing parking, answering questions and just generally being super helpful.
The first other visitor we met when we got out of the car was a gentlemen who was a long-haul trucker from Missouri. The trucker thought it was “great to meet people from Kansas who had come farther than he had”. A pleasant fellow, we chatted briefly and then we went into the Farm Store.
The store is rustic looking, has a bank of fridges and freezers for the grass-fed, grass-finished pork, beef and chicken they sell and also has racks of shelves and other items that are display. Lots of T-shirts, books, local produce, jams, jelly’s and such. It’s an inviting place, easy to move about and the people staffing the store are helpful, cheery and give you the impression you’re not a bother – they are glad to help you. There’s an autographed picture of Joel with the band Train – pretty random, but very cool, especially since we’ve seen them in concert in Kansas City. Miss Mercy and I decided to buy our T-Shirts early and leave them in the car before the tour. The Mad Farmer was as happy as a Marvelous Pig that he was able to get an “Everything I want to do is Illegal” shirt.
Right on time the tour started. The Lunatic Farm Tour is kind of like a hay-rack ride. Two Tractors with two hay wagons attached provide seating for the tour participants. The tour is limited to about 100 people, but because of how it is set up it doesn’t seem crowded and everyone has a chance to see, hear and ask questions. Plenty of water is provided, which is a good thing, because, on a two hour tour in the Virginia sun in June, (cue the Gilligan’s Island Theme song) there is more than enough time to get dehydrated if you are not careful.
It was Daniel who showed up to lead the tour, and shock, shock, he’s a grown man with a family. You read about Daniel in the books as a young boy, and even though later Joel talks about him getting married and having a family, in the Mad Farmer’s head he was always a “young boy”. Clearly not the case. Daniel comes across as a highly competent, clearly intelligent, individual who is in charge of running a large farm operation.
So the tour starts out with everyone getting on the hay wagons and we chug off across a stream and up a hill towards various areas of the farm. The first leg of the tour was about a mile by tractor and stopped at the current location of the chicken tractors. Many of Joel’s books discuss the chicken tractors – portable shelters that protect the very small chickens and still let them feed on grass and bugs and keep them relatively safe from predators.
Each chicken tractor is made from light weight materials and can be moved by a single person. It only takes a couple of minutes per tractor and 1500 birds can be moved in under an hour. Very efficient and a proven method that has been tested over decades. Everything about Polyface farms is about flexibility, light weight and mobility. If you aren’t sure it is supposed to be a permanent fixture then it probably shouldn’t be. The tour then moved on to the chicken roosts
The roosts are surrounded by electric fencing which helps keep predators out and chickens in. The portable structure provides a place for laying eggs and nighttime roosting. It’s proven it’s working, plus the water storage and chicken feed storage is attached to the front, so everything is easy to hook up to a tractor and move. Polyface is all about making things work – a life lesson for everyone to be sure.
The next stop was the fabled “egg mobile” or is it “Eggmobile”? Either way there aren’t fences around the area. These chickens are as close to “free range” as is possible in a world where they don’t crap on everything you own, especially your porch. Polyface also raises Turkeys in a similar fashion.
The last stop on the tour was the cattle. We had hoped to see the pigs reveling in the Marvelous Pigness of being Pigs but Daniel told us they were several miles away in fields that were not conducive to easy access by tractor and the time to get there and back would have taken longer that could be accommodated. So we tractored on a bit and came to a shady wooded area near a stream that was full of cattle. Just up the hill was a very nice pond.
We were told the pond was man-made and collected run-off from all the fields above, helping to keep the stream below flowing and allowing the water to be used for many other things downhill. Land and water management is a huge part of Permaculture and it’s a huge part of Polyface Farm’s land use. The last part of the formal tour was being able to watch the Polyface interns “paddock shift” the cattle to the next grazing location, opening electric fencing and “calling” to the cows. The cows are used to the process, appear to look forward to new grass, and seem eager to move. In just a couple of minutes all the critters had moved to the new area and started grazing.
When the Mad Farmer was much younger he used to walk out to the fields with his Grandpa Farmer (a man who farmed successfully all his life, with hard work from sunup to sunset) and used to bring the dairy cattle back to the barn. I can tell you that experience was night and day different from what we saw at Polyface. I loved my Grandpa, but he was definitely a product of his time. Grandpa was born before airplanes flew and passed after man had walked on the moon, but I’m pretty sure what is happening on a daily basis at Polyface would have left him shaking his head at the “newfangled notions” and confused him mightily.
After the tour went back to the main area we were invited to stay as long as we liked, ask questions and take a look around anywhere we liked. Miss Mercy’s first beeline was to the chicken coops, where there were hundreds, if not thousands, of very cute baby chicks being grown big enough to go out and “get on the grass”. It wasn’t smelly, they weren’t standing around in their own poop and we knew the birds we were looking at would shortly be having the best experience poultry being raised for egg laying or for later “freezer camp” can have.
After a short walking tour around the grounds and work areas Miss Mercy and the Farmer ended up chatting with Daniel for a bit. Yours truly forgot to ask him what it was like constantly having people drop by the farm while trying to work (guess we’ll have to go back again, oh darn). Miss Mercy asked him about the pigs. We were told where they were and that we were welcome to hike up and take a look. Daniel also mentioned there were a lot of younger pigs that were currently in the barn and we could go check them out if we liked. So moments later we are in the barn, taking the in Marvelous Cuteness of piglets (come on, you know they are). After a bit we started toward the field where the larger pigs were grazing.
Pop-up lightning and the start of a fairly intense rain storm cut the sojourn to the pigs short and your intrepid wanderers left the wonderful place that is Polyface Farms and started our journey back to the homestead. The trip home was stormy, long and ultimately uneventful. Your weary homesteaders arrived tired, happy, and having been some wonderful places and learned some amazing things.