Polyface Farms

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.

Polyface 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.

Polyface Chicken Tractors

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

Polyface Chicken Roost

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.

Polyface Egg Mobiles

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.

Polyface 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.

Polyface Cattle

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.

Polyface Pigs – enjoy!

Traveling to Staunton and some really good Pizza

So after we toured Monticello we had decided to build in another leisurely driving day, this was a vacation after all. We decided to drive-by Polyface Farm on our way back to make sure we knew where we were going, and just because we wanted to – the farm was the whole reason for the trip in the first place. So we put the farm address into Waze, left Charlottesville and headed toward the farm (or so we thought).

You might remember from an earlier post that the Farmer said we were trying out Waze as a directional app and that they all have some quirks. At one point, on our way back, Waze directed us to turn onto the “Old Virginia Turnpike” . There actually seemed to be a sign that indicated the road we turned onto was the “Old Virginia Turnpike” and originally it started out paved. After a ways it turned to gravel, then it turned narrower and twisty and eventually it turned into a one-lane dirt goat path that went on for miles. GPS and satellite signals were non-existent, sporadic or few-and-far between and not necessarily in that order. Many miles into the path, where we had a top speed of approximately 15 mph, we finally got an updated signal and according to Waze the path we were on went around in a circle, with no apparent way off for probably another 15 miles.

Old Virginia Turnpike

Pulling over into a small clearing we decided we really didn’t want to drive on this particular road for the next 10-15 miles at 12-15 mph. Options were discussed and it was decided that we would turn around and head back to concrete highways and more visible indications of civilization. The return drive (back to the highway Ben Stone…) was uneventful and went much faster since we had already been down “that road” once. There were “drive-ways” deep down that forest road, we even saw a “property for sale” sign once, it reminded the Farmer of a lot of properties deep in the Ozarks, where we used to vacation at my Uncle’s cabin when everyone was younger. Probably a nice, remote place to live, but it might be tough to commute from there to a day job, so definitely off-grid homesteading possibilities if you are leaning that direction. Check out Staunton, VA real estate here.

So at that point we ended up back in Staunton and being a mite peckish decided to stop at the Shenandoah Pizza & Tap House. We weren’t expecting much and man were we blown away by this place. It was early afternoon on a weekday, so the place wasn’t that busy but their pizza options were varied and delicious. They had some excellent local brews on tap and if you are passing anywhere near Staunton, VA, we would highly recommending stopping in for a slice. It really hit the spot and clearly we can’t say enough good things about the place. Try if for yourself. After the bite to eat we decided to go ahead and drive out to Polyface and see what the trip was like, get the “lay of the land”, so to speak.

It’s about a 20-30 minute drive out to Polyface from Staunton. The roads were mostly paved (except for the last mile or so) and it was a lovely drive, right until the heavens opened up and unleashed a driving rain you literally couldn’t see through for more than a few hundred feet. The rain combined with the winding roads and unfamiliar territory did slow us down considerably. The last mile or so turned into gravel, with exceptionally large potholes (reminded us of Topeka roads) that you couldn’t really see because they were full of water. We apologized to our suspension multiple times on that drive. Finally we did arrive at Polyface. We decided based on the rain not to go on in (they are open any day you care to go, farm operation transparency is their thing). We decided to turn around, head back towards Staunton and get to our Airbnb location for the night.

Polyface Farm

We were booked into a stay at Fordell Farm near Staunton, VA. We were really looking forward to staying at the Fordell Airbnb site. The Airbnb listing looked fantastic and we weren’t disappointed, and the owners have really set the place up to make the stay very pleasant. There are currently several options and we stayed in the apartment suite attached to the main house. There was a walk-out patio, with a nice sitting area and the suite itself was very cozy. The owners have put a lot of effort into making the experience traveler friendly and inviting. The space was super clean, the furnishings comfortable, informative visitor information was provided about things to do in the area, places to eat and coffee table books on the history of the area. When we arrived we had a nice chat with Randy the owner. Even though there was a light rain, it was great to just sit for a while under the umbrella on the patio without having to be anywhere. Randy was easy to talk to, not intrusive and very knowledgeable about the history of the area. Overall, if all Airbnb experiences were all like this we would never stay anywhere else.

Fordell Airbnb Patio

Next up: Polyface Farm Tour!

The Mad Farmer’s Trip to Polyface Farms

For those who personally know the Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy it may come as no surprise that this year the TSL Urban farm duo decided to take a trip to Polyface Farms owned and operated by Joel Salatin. For those who don’t know, or who tune out when the Mad Farmer starts talking about subjects that interest him (but perhaps not the listener), Joel Salatin is a pretty big deal in the world of regenerative farming. He is often a keynote speaker at Mother Earth News Fairs, a sought after guest on permaculture and farming podcasts, the author of multiple books, including, “Confessions of a Lunatic Farmer”, and “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal” (the Mad Farmer’s personal favorite) as well as a bunch of others. He offers a farm tour every other Saturday in the summer at his Shenandoah Valley farm.

Because Miss Mercy might be the most understanding and loving spouse on the planet, when the Mad Farmer came home from his day job (he is an IT professional at a very old and established bank in Kansas) and said “it’s time to get out of Kansas, let’s go see Joel’s farm”, she did not hit him with a rolling pin, have the Farmer declared insane and file for Power of Attorney or throw heavy objects at him, she said “that’s a great idea” (told you she wins “The Most Understanding Spouse” award). For those not familiar with fore-mentioned award the first year it was awarded was when Joel Salatin said to his wife “Honey, let’s start a grass fed beef farm”.

So the Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy started planning their trip to see what a working, regenerative, soil-building, farm looked like. By “planning” we mean that Miss Mercy looked online, saw that tours of the farm were offered every other Saturday in the Summer and the tickets were $20 per adult, asked the Mad Farmer if he wanted to do this, and, when told “yes”, booked tickets. That ticket purchase set in motion two things: One, the most spontaneous and loosely planned trip the Farmer and Miss Mercy had ever undertaken and, two, an instant increase in devotion and love for his spouse beyond what the Mad Farmer thought possible. That statement might seem either trivial or overly dramatic, depending on who is reading it but, for the Farmer, already really enjoying his marriage to his favorite partner and best friend, it was a kind of “Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day kind of moment”.

It is always a surprise to the Mad Farmer that, in God’s infinite mercy, He allows room in the human spirit and heart for growth beyond what you think is possible. When the Farmer’s first daughter was born the Farmer really thought “How could you love anyone more than this tiny child”? When the Farmer’s second daughter was born, he discovered the answer to the first question was “This is how you can love more. You don’t have less love for the first, your heart just grows to hold love for the second”.

When the Farmer met and married Miss Mercy, his heart grew some more. Miss Mercy has put up with a lot of wild goose chases, random quests and downright off-the-cuff projects from the Farmer. She puts on a smile, checks her common sense at the door and either follows the Farmer down the path, or puts bread crumbs on the path back to sanity so, when the Farmer comes to his senses, he has a trail to follow back to solid ground. When Miss Mercy got on board for the trip to Polyface, the Farmer’s heart grew, the Universe made a little more sense and a trail of bread crumbs sprang into existence.

Next: Planning and the Trip