A recap and “high points” of our recent visit to Polyface Farms
It had been months in the making, our visit to Polyface, Inc. None of us can remember the exact details of how our group was formed, but it did, and we had the opportunity to get a private tour of this enterprise from Mr. Joel Salatin himself. Our diverse group consisted of a journalist from Illinois, a dairy farmer from Wisconsin, an environmental impact modeler from the U.K., an artisan meat promoter from Ontario, a farmer from South Dakota, a dog breeder from Virginia, and me. Why did I go? I work with small farmers all the time, those interested in figuring out how to best stage their product in the market. This sounded like a successful example, so I went to check it out for myself.
Most of the team flew to D.C. where I met up with them in a nondescript University minivan on Tuesday evening. We joked about putting “USDA” magnets on the side of the stereotypical government transportation. Early Wednesday morning we headed south to Polyface, picking up our attending Virginian on the way. After that we engaged our inner boy or girl scout in order to decipher the hand-drawn map to get to the farm since it does not pull up on GPS. No problems.
Coming down the side of a hill on a gravel road, we spotted what we all thought had to be the place based on the pictures we had seen. Sure enough, we spied the sign and crossed the slatted bridge to get to the farm. My initial reaction was: “What’s so special about this place?” It appeared in many ways to be very similar to many other farms I have visited, even the farm on which I was raised. New things were being installed as lesser used items were starting to look a little run-down. Grass was overtaking pieces of equipment or vehicles which appeared to not have been used for a least a few years. Puddles in the driveway. The obligatory farm cat eyeing you. And the dog. There is always a dog.
We unloaded ourselves, put on our rubber boots, and was immediately greeted by one of the farm’s interns (well, I’m not sure if it was an intern, employee, or apprentice) who told us they were slaughtering chickens and that we could come observe if we liked. So, we did. Mr. Salatin was running some errands and arrived at the farm shortly after us. After our introductions, the interview began, and the so did the chicken plucking. Some random chicken parts were flying, bits of feathers, blood and fat, including one projectile chicken carcass that startled us all when it was ejected. Polyface can process up to 20,000 birds per year bound for retail sale without USDA inspection per a USDA poultry processing exemption. They also have an interest in a local slaughterhouse for their cattle and pigs, all of which is sold through a variety of outlets.
We then piled into the farm’s suburban for a tour, stopping first at a group of mob-grazed replacement heifers (with a few steers mixed in). I was surprised to learn of the size of the farm which is home to more than 900 cattle. Cattle and rabbits are the only species bred on the farm. Pigs and poultry are sourced from area farrowing operations and hatcheries. I asked whether or not Polyface’s customers are at all concerned about the management practices of the source pig and poultry farms. It seems that they really aren’t, given that they have a huge amount of trust in the farm’s judgements. The cattle and pigs appeared to be a rather motley mix of colors and sizes. It was said that the farm selects for phenotype, though I’m not exactly sure what that phenoytpe is given the diversity of the stock that I saw. Then again, spring was still new and cattle were just coming out of winter. The pastured broilers, all of which were of contemporary high-yield genetics, looked as though they were pulled directly from a large commercial broiler house and placed into a roughly 12′ x 12′ (I didn’t take measurements… maybe 10′ x 10′?) portable enclosures, at a stocking rate of about 75 per pen. The laying hens appeared to be breeds that only lay brown eggs. The pigs were piled on top of one another, presumably because they were cold. I took note of an anecdote Joel shared, that he had been contacted by a teacher in Denmark who noted that the pigs’ tails had been clipped. This is not uncommon, but is deemed “inhumane” in some Scandinavian countries. And all of the males had been castrated, another “questionable” practice in some countries.
Various interludes of grass-based farming strategies intertwined with thoughts about marketing made the discussion most interesting. In many ways, Polyface has “miniaturized” what some might call more modern or “big-ag” management strategies, including contract growing of livestock. The fundamental difference is that the the capital investment to become involved as a “contract grower” in this system is substantially lower than in the contemporary or conventional system, and the investment is more portable. This aspect of farm management makes sense to me. As with anything, however, there are pro’s an con’s. The point is, it works in this model. Aside from the purchased grain to feed the pastured poultry and pastured pigs (yes, there are feeders in the pens and pastures), Polyface is a vertically-integrated enterprise. Contracts and other agreements have been made for product sales, and the on-site retail store accounts for a significant portion of Polyface’s farm sales. What the farm is not a fan of is selling at Farmers’ Markets. Again, makes sense to me! Considerations like a non-guaranteed customer base, market commissions, and dealing with low purchase volumes (and sometimes picky people who ultimately do not purchase your product) seem reasonable.
Sure, there are some unique management strategies being employed at Polyface, Inc., and that helps make the farm unique. To me, this farm is simply a hybrid of many different farming strategies assembled into one system that makes sense for that farm. It’s organic-ish, it’s conventional-ish. Bear in mind (and of course, this is my take on it after having spent only 3 hours there) that one of the driving missions of this farm is to restore and ultimately improve the land of what was a once exhausted farm. There are many ways to go about doing that; this is but one example. What I saw was a creative farm family of folks that do many things for the same reason as many other farmers … they’ve figured out (and the processes are always evolving, developing, improving) what works for them. There is one key difference here, though, and that’s marketing. Market, merchandise, promote, repeat. That’s what makes this outfit the success that it is.