I got to ride behind Joel Salatin...
...you'll just have to believe me. In the days before pictures, the written word was all we had to capture thoughts, impressions, moments. Well, that's all I've got to use today to convey my visit to Polyface Farm Saturday...heartbroken, almost...as all 110 of my glorious photos went the way of a curious 4 year old playing with buttons on the digital camera. He found the "trash all" button, and they were lost forever.
How can I convey how happy I was, privileged, blessed, in fact, to be riding on the hay wagon directly behind the Lunatic Farmer HIMSELF, Joel Salatin, who was driving the red tractor pulling about a hundred of us? A man with so clear a vision, and so unwavering a focus upon it. It was his mission today to explain to those of us that came to the benefactor event of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund and Farm to Consumer Foundation what he is doing at Polyface Farm, and why he and other small farmers need the organization and the support...and he got choked up later in his speech after lunch as he expressed his gratitude for their assistance twice since its inception.
It was a beautiful day in Swoope, VA. Bright sun, a lot hotter than the forecast had promised. My son and I arrived about 15 minutes early, as I wanted to deliver 10 quarts of fermented Peach Chutney and fermented Lemon Thyme Garlic and Garlic Dill Pickles to the caterer upon arrival. We were met by Mike, a white dog who stands taller on all fours than my very tall 4 year old. He welcomed both of us by jumping up and placing a paw on Bodhi's chest, knocking him over. The day at the farm had begun! We will see ducks, pigs, chickens, (layers and broilers), cows and rabbits before the day was over.
So...instead of a chronology of the day...just a few "snapshots" (pardon the pun)...
I went over to say hello to Joel, who had just flown in the night before from somewhere, whom I hadn't seen since I was honored to be on a panel with him and Sally Fallon Morell to discuss FRESH: the movie last November. Gosh, had it been that long? I introduced him to my son, Bodhi, who was so excited about meeting The Farmer, Joel. He said he liked Joel's hat, (yes, that beat up, worn out, full of holes farm hat that is Joel's trademark) and told him he had brought his cowboy hat, too. They decided together that Bodhi's brand new white cowboy hat from Cheyenne, Wyoming was probably a lot like Joel's "city hat", which he would rotate in after his farm hat had truly lived its last days. Bodhi was thrilled to "talk hats" with Joel. Then he ran off to play with the cat.
The first animals we saw on the hayride were pigs...fifty or so pigs, some pink, some brown, some spotted brown on pink...the pigs see Joel's red tractor approaching and RUN to greet him and us. Came right up; no fear. Each pig about 50 pounds, running and playing and chasing each other in a paddock, contained only by a single wire of electric fence. They seemed to laugh, giggle, romp and roll. They would move in a day or so to the next paddock we could see over the hill, where the grass was green and tall. They would grow to about 400 pounds on grass and acorns and starchy roots. (This is about 160 pounds more than confinement pigs...they grow that big foraging and rooting around...one thing confinement pigs do not have the pleasure of doing.) Joel explained that the job of the pigs was to create upheaval--in their routing around with their snouts, and running around with their hooves, they overturned much...creating the space for new growth to begin after them. As Joel explained the ecology and economy of it all, he invited us to take a big sniff and notice their was no odor. A far cry from the conventional pig farms, where one can smell the stench of confinement miles away.
The fields...sooooooo beautiful. So lush, so green. A horticulturist's dream. I looked around and identified a few species, some of my favorites...the steely blue-lavender color of chicory against its dark gray/black stalks, gorgeous, bright golden yarrow swaying in the breeze, thistles! Oh, the thistles! Rich lavendery-purpley-magenta thistles...dark green, tall, woody stems and prickly leaves. Red clover...grasses that looked like brush-tails and 40 or 50 more species growing, growing. When Joel stopped the tractor in the middle of a pasture to ask folks to note the variety of plants growing, and that this pasture had already been grazed 2 or 3 times this year and would be grazed again, I had a fantasy that he must have noticed me pointing out the beauty of it all to my son as he drove. "Where did they all come from?" one of the guests asked. No seeds were ever planted, no species introduced. This is Nature creating as she does when all is in balance. When one stewards the Earth.
Next, the broilers. A thousand birds on one pasture...all in movable chicken houses, all on the grass with shelter and sun...a line of 10 or 15 of these movable houses I am guessing with about 15 birds each (could have been 20; I didn't count). Again, you could see where the houses had been yesterday--that grass had been "mowed" down to the dirt. The houses are moved daily to new, fresh grass... so there were stripes of already eaten pasture, covered with chicken poop and then stripes of lush pasture not yet travelled...all the way through. It was here that my boy found the most exotic and exquisite caterpillar that he played with while Joel spoke...yellow and orange and black, with black spikes sticking out all over and two black antennae. (You'll have to trust me on this one, too. The close up of the insect was beautiful.)
The cows...oh, the cows. I will never forget the sound of the munching of the cows. Munch, munch, munch. Have you ever heard a cow munch grass? Just wonderful. So...chewing, chewing, chewing! I noted that we were driving over a pasture that had been grazed very far...down to the dirt...and how it was covered with cow pies! (Did you know that grass-fed cows drop 50 pounds of cow pies a day?! and that when you step on them, they are bright GREEN inside?!!!) On the far end, in the grassy pasture, were 50 or so cows, and opposite from them, in the "already been grazed, almost dirt, covered with cow pies pasture" was an "egg mobile" with lots of hens running around outside it, pecking the ground, pecking the cow pies for luscious, divine fly larve. (Did you know that cow pies contain all the enzymes that chickens need to digest their food?! Gosh, Nature really knows what she is doing!) Sooooooooo on one end, the cows grazing in the lush green grass (the "teenager grass" Joel calls it, the high growth grass that one WANTS cows to graze--timing is everything when you are a Grass Farmer!) and on the other end, the chickens, laying hens, doing what Joel calls "Sanitation" on the field. They go through and EAT AS CHICKENS ARE MEANT TO EAT, BUGS out of the cow pies. Not "vegetarian feed enhanced with omega 3s"! (I had pictures of those cow pies and those chickens pecking through them for treats!) The result? Nutrient-dense, ORANGE-YOLKED eggs. Pure nutritive gold.
Transparency. This is a word Joel uses all the time--transparency. The ability to see through, to see all. The willingness to be seen...to be looked at, and to be held accountable. Michael Pollan used this word in The Omnivore's Dilemma when he wrote about his experience at Polyface. Transparency and the circle of life. And the naturalness of the circle... I will never forget the scene of my 4 year old child swinging on the swing in the tree right next to the open killing shed. He and a bunch of girls and boys ages 4-9ish...running, swinging, laughing. Yep, just a few feet from where the chickens are slaughtered and cleaned for sale. I had no worry about germs...this was Polyface farm and I knew that because of the way birds are processed on this farm all was well. The birds are "processed" right outside where all can see, in manageable batches once a week, instead of in a big factory operations that reek of the stench of killing thousands of birds at a time. Here, by hand, no odor, no stench...just transparency. Come and look and see where it is done, how it is done. And then choose to eat or not.
How happy I was, how grateful, yes, feeling blessed to be in the presence of one hundred or so like-minded folks who care enough about their rights to real, fresh from the farm food (really, not just proclaimed on a box from a supermarket) to offer up $250 or more each to help ensure small family farmers do the work of farming, and lawyers do the work of defending their right to do so. We shared a meal of local, sustainable meat, cheese, wine and vegetables with others who had come from as far away as Gainesville, Florida and Minnesota, Arizona...all to support each other, to support the farmers, to support and ensure their right to sell directly to consumers, and for the consumers right (that means you and me) to purchase directly from them. We heard from the head of the FTCLDF and from others who are spearheading the movement to protect what Joel calls "the rights of my several trillion members" i.e., the right to feed one's own body with the foods one chooses...and the challenges to that right. Sally Fallon Morell, another visionary, another of my favorite people...I met Sally 12 years ago when she taught me and a group of others how to make butter from real cream. Sally's efforts inspire me daily to "teach, teach teach...". She is one of the founders of the FTCLDF, FTCF, and of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Thank you Sally for all you do for all of us. And for the children. Sally spoke about the three things are needed for a successful renaissance in farming: 1. Creation of customers (WAPF does this), 2. Legal Defense (FTCLDF does this) and 3. Figuring out the best ways to farm. . . the farmers do that. And after a day at Polyface, it was clear to all who attended that Joel Salatin has done that.
Cathy Raymond of the FTCLDF raffled off lots of donated items in thanksgiving for people having come...homemade, artisanal bread, local wine, hard copies of Nourishing Traditions, one of my own DVDs: The Ketchup Revolution and a Preparing Whole Grains and Legumes chart, gift certificates to the Polyface Farm store (you know they don't ship!)...among others. Our day ended with a visit to the farm store ourselves, for a couple dozen of those ungraded Polyface Eggs, the best hot dogs in the world (made from real meat and not meat parts you wouldn't want to eat), and of course, chicken. As I packed a happy, exhausted child into his car seat and began to drive out, I caught Joel's eye and waved my thanks. He stopped his conversation and walked over to me in the van, and grabbed my hand to thank me for coming down. He asked after my husband, whom he had met 8 years prior, and was happy to hear of the miracles that have happened in his health this year. The last thing I said to the self-proclaimed "Lunatic Farmer" was to thank him for being my inspiration. "Whenever I am foggy about why I am here or what I need to do", I said, "I think of you and your focus and your clarity, and I say, Joel is my model." May I be as clear about why I do what I do, and as focused in bringing it to fruition. Thank you Joel Salatin, for all you do for all of us. As I write, I am choked up and grateful. And maybe we'll just have to take another trip down to Polyface Farm soon. With the camera. :)