The Conscientious Omnivore: Polyface Farm Appreciation
Polyface Farm is a model of sustainability, but as organic becomes synonymous with elite, does sustainable food remain out of reach for much of the U.S.’s population? At the Polyface Farm appreciation party, customers and farmers discuss accessibility.
This past weekend I attended a customer appreciation event for a local, sustainable farm. That, in itself, is a big deal. Polyface Farm isn’t your average local, sustainable, organic farm–it is much more than that. Some of you may have already heard of Polyface from Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, in which Pollan stays on Polyface Farm to observe the close circuit ecosystem at work. Polyface Farm is owned and run by the Salatin family in Swoope, Virginia (about 150 miles from DC). On the farm, the cows, chickens, pigs, ducks, rabbits, turkeys, and now lambs all work together to improve the health of the land (and provide some very delicious food!). The Salatins grow a variety of grasses on their fields, then cycle through cows to eat the grass. Once the grass is short, they bring in the chickens to eat the grubs growing in the cow pats and to disperse their own nutrient-rich manure, thus feeding the grass and removing pests. This method eliminates the need for pesticides and gives the animals and their byproducts a diverse range of nutrients. The animals are healthier because they spend their days outside and eat an evolutionary and nutritionally appropriate diet of natural foods, eliminating the need for antibiotics as well. Polyface sets aside land for forest growth to promote shade, water retention in the soil, and wildlife. The entire philosophy of Polyface is simple: return the land to its original state, then improve it. The farm functions as efficiently as possible and uses sensible, nature-based methods to achieve its modest goals. Polyface is a model of sustainability and of the common sense farming that the organic movement attempts to mimic, attaining “beyond organic” status. The farm is in sync with nature, harmonizing rather than trying to make one animal or plant outshine the rest.
I’m not the only one who believes in the Salatin’s farm philosophy. On Saturday night, I met quite a few people that raved about the meat they get from the farm, extolling its flavor and texture. If I had any doubts, the melt-in-your-mouth pork ribs convinced me. After two full plates, myself and the other appreciative farm patrons could talk about little other than the food. The ribs were rich without the heavy, cloying fat that your average pig carries around. In a speech to his appreciative customers (or, as Polyface calls them, cheerleaders), the Polyface pigs taste different because they spend their days in an open setting exercising and eating grains and acorns. This is not your average CAFO pig (concentrated animal feeding operation). When Daniel Salatin stood up to speak to his cheerleaders, he spoke of the need to renew the forest and make it better for the next generation. When he spoke, he connected the old and the new, saying that lard from his pigs is like the lard of our grandparents’ generation. His pigs, his family’s lifestyle, and his farm’s polyculture are returning the robust raw products lost when Americans lost touch with their food. Daniel Salatin discussed the roles each of his children play on the farm, each taking on a type of animal to raise and incorporate into the rhythms of the farm. The generations of Salatins getting closer and closer to the land, renewing the local environment and providing food with integrity, offers hope for many looking for a sustainable food option without going completely vegetarian. I recently stumbled across the phrase “conscientious omnivore.” I think many people are struggling with this title, wanting to eat meat without feeling as though the ice caps are melting with every bite. This is where the Polyface sustainable method of raising an ecosystem rather than an animal comes into play.
The problem with such a conscientious lifestyle though is accessibility. The word “accessibility” was thrown around a lot Saturday night. The sustainable and organic food movements are not movements associated with people of lower socio-economic status. Polyface meat is more expensive and it is often harder to access unless you have the financial means. Many people are intimidated by the movement, giving up on such yuppie organic foods before even looking into obtaining them. Throughout the night, Polyface cheerleaders said again and again that Americans need to commit more of their finances to food. Americans are paying less than ever on food, and this mentality is causing some of the food crises occurring around the country. I was surprised to learn from Daniel and Sheri Salatin that Polyface supplies Chipotle with some of their meat. Not all the Polyface meat is at local high-end restaurants these days. Polyface also offers a buying club that allows customers to come together to place a large meat order and then pick up all the food from one customer’s house. Customers have increasing options to access and support Polyface’s philosophy with their stomachs. At the other end of the supply chain, Polyface also faces challenges supplying growing numbers of retailers with animals that are raised in sync with nature. The food chain is a fine balance, too much demand can upset the farm’s carefully choreographed cycles.
The point I took away from the evening, other than the importance of supporting local and sustainable farms like Polyface, is that every food decision connects us to the past and the future. Our decisions carry lasting weight beyond the immediate. Whether it’s through SNAP’s multitude of food financing benefits (such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative) or through your inheritance, find a way to make your food purchases matter. Food has become a political statement, but that shouldn’t mean we should lose pleasure in eating or in meeting the people that make our food possible.
To learn more about buying clubs, visiting, or read one of Joel Salatin’s many books, visit: http://www.polyfacefarms.com/