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January 29 2024

Polyface Farm - Part One

In which I meet my hero Joel Salatin and he introduces me to the pigs, hens and cattle of Polyface Farm.

So here I am. In the US of A.

Driving down long stretches of highways I’d dreamed of.

Straight. Double lanes. Easy driving.

A sparse Winter landscape without growth or green, still holding on to snow drifts here and there.

Big American cars stretching out beside me. The quintessential yellow school buses. I pull into gas stations to marvel at the row upon row of candy. Some holding childhood memories - flicking through comics splattered with ads for Twinkies.

Me, staying right. Remembering which country I was in.

Eventually highway became a road, becoming a meandering lane way.

And then the sign - Polyface Farms.

Unpretentious and unflashy. Practical, just like the owner - Joel Salatin.

I park and walk into the shop. It’s big and airy and full of food, clothes, books, drinks and skincare.

Everything beautifully, rustically, professionally presented.

I meet Daniel Salatin first, wide smiled and warm. Calloused hands grip mine in a firm handshake.

“You’re here for Joel?”.

I am.

Joel appears. Another warm, strong handshake.

It’s not wariness he greets me with. But a sense of reading, watching.

In response I’m polite.

Trying not to gush, but it’s hard not to.

I can’t help it, I’ve been following Joel’s farming methods my entire farming journey.

He’s a hero in the farming space.

Be respectful Kylie - I’m grateful to the core.

Pleasantries over, we exit the shop.

I fumble with the clip on the microphones I’d bought in Dublin.

They turn on but I can’t get them to connect to the Bluetooth.

Patiently, Joel stands by.

He clips on his mic and I secretly pray they are working.

I hit record on my phone and off we go.

We visit hoop houses (polytunnels, greenhouses) full of hens. The first thing I notice is the smell. There isn’t any.

Despite the 1000 laying hens in each tunnel, the smell is as sweet as the West Virginian air.

“You could eat a sandwich in here,” Joel says.

The hens are healthy. My hen health radar is at the very top of the happiness scale.

There are no de-feathered birds. Combs are a rich red. Bottoms are fluffy. Hens socialise in small groups, pecking at grain or dust bathe in the solid woodchipbeneath their henny toes.

I suggest the house could fit more. Joel says it’s at capacity. They are sure of it after years of trial and error with bird density. The number of birds per square metre is three per square metre. (1 per 3 square foot).

It’s precisely enough to ensure the bedding beneath the hens remains clean throughout the Winter.

Otherwise the manure forms a craggy sticky barrier under foot.

At this density the hens move the woodchip daily to keep it clean. A quick hoe to any compacted areas tidies it up.

Drinkers are low plastic tubs with a ballcock for water control. They are covered by a table like structure to keep the hen’s poop out.

There is no fancy equipment. No roll-away nest boxes. No hefty mortgage to set up infrastructure. Straw filled old style nests are inviting and clean. Manually opened and closed each day.

Did I mention how happy the hens look?

In a snowy, rainy Virginian Winter this is the nicest possible place they could be. In the Spring the hens make their way out to fertilise the pasture in mobile housing and their Winter home transforms into vegetable and fruit growing houses.

I’d love to see them in their movable houses stretched over Virginian pastures in the Summer but for now I have to make do with their Winter lodgings.

The hens are unperturbed by me, an unknown stranger and are curiously pecking at my feet. They allow us to pick them up and rub their feathery backs.

Joel gives me a quick lesson on hen holding. A method I didn’t know. He repeats it so I can catch it on camera.

Polyface Farm have started hatching their own fertilised eggs again, sending them to a local farmer to incubate and return as day old chicks. They raise both hens and roosters, hens making their way to the laying shed and the roosters the table.

Another step in being in control of their own destiny. There’s a lot of that. Supporting others but not relying on a broken supply chain.

It’s a beautiful, uncomplicated system.

There are many “a-ha” moments. But also “of course” ones.

It’s because so many of Joel’s management structures are following the basic rules of nature’s own principles of management.

Where there is life, there is death. But in death comes decay and lies the groundwork for new life.

A cycle.

Polyface Farm aligns daily practices throughout the seasons in line with how nature herself works. There are times of great growth and there are times of quiet senescence. While nature sleeps, a lot of the animals are kept close allowing the humans to also take a breath.

Dotted throughout the farm are my favourites - the pigs. Some in hoop houses alongside the hens. Some next to cattle in haybarns.

Come Spring they too will shift to the great outdoors to the Oak and Maple forests further up the farm. Always on the move to fresh ground.

Right now they are deep bedded on woodchip and straw and have access to hay at all times. It changes the composition of the manure. Adding carbonaceous material. Instead of the craggy mess pig manure can become when their diet consists completely of grain or pellets.

Joel opts for the former. “You know what you’re getting, crushed whole grains are always going to be more nutritious and readily available to the animal compared to heat extruded pellets.”

Again, it makes sense.

I make a mental note to “change pig’s diet” when I return home.

The pigs are also content. Digging down in to their deep bedding. A natural instinct etched in the pig’s psyche. It’s part of what they are.

Some are gathered around the heavy duty feeders. Some munching contentedly on hay. Some stretched out lazily - reclining fully with outstretched heads and legs. It’s a sign of pure pig pleasure.

Small groups, similar sizes.

A hen hoop next to pig hoop, next to a rabbit/hen hoop.

A short walk to a haybarn that on closer inspection is also housing cattle. And pigs.

Around a third of the shed is full of hay. Both small squares and large squares.

All made on the farm. They don’t use round bales anymore. They don’t breathe as well.

“It was a good year for hay”, Joel says.

He’s being humble.

It’s an art form making good hay. But when your pastures are as rich and diverse as they are at Polyface, you are creating something special from the get-go.

The hay is sweet and fine. Feels like soft wool between your fingers. It’s as clean as I’ve ever seen. Racehorse hay.

But as suitable as it may be for equines, no hay leaves the farm. A precious resource that is kept to nourish and grow the 200 head of cattle wintering on the farm and the 800 on leased land.

They are in beautiful condition. A mix of breeds and types. Joel prefers the South Pole or South Pole cross.

She is smaller in stature than her European cousins, ideally with a coat that isn’t black (it gets hot in Virginia).

Lighter in bone, she directs her feed conversion to muscle gain. She is neat, compact and the perfect grass conversion machine.

The rations are hay, hay and hay all Winter. No grain, ever.

Cattle are herbivores Joel reinforces, designed to eat grass.

When you work as a soil farmer, constantly aiming to improve organic matter in your soil, everything lifts its game.

The microbes improve, pasture improves, conditions encourage dormant seeds to grow, livestock eat the pasture and return invaluable nutrients to the soil.

And just like the perfectly conducted symphony, the livestock move on, choreographed by the farmer.

It’s beautiful to see in action.

There is a sense of calm contentment amongst the herd, they gaze upon us with curiosity. Beneath them the famous Polyface “carbonaceous diaper”, soaking up all of the manure and urine, capturing the goodness before it is spread over the land in Spring to increase organic matter on the land.

The only smell is a mixture of wood chip, hay and the heady aroma of cow. It’s blissful. You could eat your lunch here too.

As Winter continues, more wood chip is added underneath. But here’s where the magic happens. Before a new layer of wood chip is added, kernels of corn are spread across the base of the barn.

Along with the organic materials supplied by the cattle, a unique fermantation takes place, gradually building on itself during the cold days of Winter.

This heat doesn’t just keep cattle warm, their bedding becomes a happy hunting ground for the pigs come Spring when the cattle return to pasture.

The vacant barn is opened up to the pigs. Digging and rotavating (pigerating) through the valuable compost, aerating as they go.

What would have been a wasted resource had the cattle out Wintered becomes a free, perfectly balanced and valuable resource for the waiting pasture in Spring.



Aerated and turned by the pigs, the compost is returned to the pasture via a manure spreader.

A beautiful, closed circular bio-economy in action.

I say to Joel, “it’s kind of magic the way it works”,  but then again, it’s how everything in Nature works.

Magic and relatable and obvious all at the same time.

Of course it works beautifully, that’s how Nature works.

Yes, there is probably a mountain of scientific explanation as to why it works, but that’s part of the beauty and mystery of Nature.

Not quite understanding her but being astounded by the simple wonder of it all.

I feel child-like. Amazed. Reassured. Hopeful.

Nature has it all worked out. We just have to trust her.

(Keep an eye out for Part Two, coming soon!)


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