Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.
– John Muir
One year ago, almost to the day, we first set foot in the Yosemite Valley. John Muir’s famous Range of Light certainly did not disappoint. From the giant sequioas in the Mariposa Grove, to the cascading waters of Nevada Falls, and whilst standing beneath the stunning heights of El Capitan, beauty and wonder were everywhere. In abundance, no less. We could see why Muir once wrote, “God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.” This was true of Yosemite where God may have done some of his very best work.
It was our honeymoon that brought us to Yosemite a year ago. Yosemite was the kind of place you dreamed about going to, and we actually made it there! So for our anniversary we set our sights on another spot we both dreamed of visiting. With our goal in mind we packed up the car and headed south towards our ultimate destination.
After a long, but scenic drive through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, we found ourselves nestled deep in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Here, far from the wide, busy concrete interstates, away from major cities, past the small towns that are dotted along smoothly paved US highways, we found ourselves on winding, graveled country roads surrounded by verdant pastures. Each road seemed narrower, and slightly rougher, than the last until we reached the ones where we had to slow and pull to the side just to let another car pass. The kind of places where drivers give each other a kindly wave even though they’ve never met.
Polyface Farm, if you haven’t heard of it before, is the home of Joel Salatin. Joel, and the rest of the Salatin family, are perhaps America’s best known farmers. Very much like Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm of the 1950s, Polyface is leading the revolution regarding restorative agriculture. Here, on roughly 900+ acres in Swoope, Virginia, Salatin’s farm is a showcase of what farming and direct farm sales can be.
Christine and I both became aware of Joel and Polyface Farm years ago. Her through a Food Ethics course that featured the documentary film Food, Inc. Me through a park sponsored showing of a later documentary, American Meat. Both of our experiences got us thinking about our food. Specifically where it comes from and how it is raised. We were both thrilled when we actually had the opportunity to meet Joel and hear him speak earlier this year at The Homestead Festival in Columbia, Tennessee. So a trip to Polyface to actually see these practices in action appealed to us both.
Sadly, Joel was away the weekend we were able to visit the farm. We knew this would be the case going into our visit so it came as no surprise. We were, however, pleasantly surprised enough to see his son, Daniel Salatin, during our stay. What is surprising though, and one of the most incredible aspects of Polyface Farm, is that anyone can come visit, walk the fields, see the animals, interact with the staff, and experience the farm at any time.
That’s right. You can visit at any time and see Polyface’s whole operation.
Complete access. Total transparency. Full accountability.
Not only will they permit you to enter – no waivers or non-disclosure agreements required – they actually encourage you to come explore the farm and are thrilled to tell you about their operations in detail. It’s truly incredible!
Seriously. Where else can you do that? Corporate feedlots aren’t going to admit you just to see the operation. Processing facilities won’t let you enter their premises just to satisfy your curiosity. Industrial farmers will prosecute you for trespassing before they’ll risk the liability of you venturing too near their herd or on thier land. Heck, you’re never going to lay your hand on the cow that made your McDonald’s hamburger.
But, at Polyface, you can roam the same pastures the cattle rotationally graze upon. You can put your hand on the snout of the pigs nestled in their pens. You can look across the laying hens or the broilers in chicken tractors on the hillside pasture. You see, smell, touch, feel, and connect to your food in a very real, truly authentic way.
As Christine and I walked along a farm track in search of pigs on top of the mountain, I was flooded with memories of my youth and visits to my grandfather’s farm. Things I had not thought of in years, decades even, came back into my conscious thought again clearly and distinctly. I was young at the time, maybe 8 to 10 years old. My memories are incomplete, but I remember that my grandfather raised cattle and had horses on a West Virginia mountainside farm. We visited periodically in the summertime when my father would take a vacation. A week on the farm was something worth looking forward to as a kid. Much like Polyface, there were animals, open pastures, woodlots, and farm tracks begging for exploration. I loved that farm and my experiences there. The terrain and atmosphere of Polyface Farm brought all these memories back in a very unexpected and visceral way.
It occurs to me now that it took being someplace like Polyface Farm to bring those childhood memories back. But how many places exist where you can have the experience that Polyface Farm offers? How many of us have had that experience to draw from? Not a pre-packaged, carefully curated, dressed up commercial interpretation of the farming experience offered through a farm park or other such enterprise. But rather offer a genuine and authentic experience, real in every way? Too few, I’m afraid.
Something else intrigued me on that walk as well. It was a beautiful autumn day in Virginia when we visited Polyface Farm. The temperatures were just about perfect. Low 70s with a slight breeze and sunny skies. While not quite peak color change for the area, the trees were bursting with bright, vibrant colors all throughout the mountainsides. Yet Christine and I were alone on most of our walk. While we had seen a few other visitors down by the shop and at the entrance of the farm, we saw no one else who walked out among the animals or walked up the farm track into the wooded mountainside. Why, in this beautiful pastoral setting, one that rivaled any park trail that would be packed on such a day, were we the only ones to walk out and follow a trail up the mountain?
I’ll go ahead and answer my own question. We were alone that day because we are weird. Sure, Joel is an attraction that wasn’t there that day. That likely impacted the number of visitors present. But a farm for a day out isn’t on the general public’s normal radar. Farms as friendly and inviting places just aren’t part of our cultural lexicon. Instead, “farms are dirty” and “animals are dangerous” and “there’s too much liability” drive the negative narrative surrounding the farming vocation. While parks and paid attractions draw visitors in large numbers, the thought of visiting a local farmer isn’t normalized and mainstream enough to draw anyone but the small crowd of aspiring homesteaders, those interested in non-traditional, regenerative farming practices, and a few other oddball novelty seekers. As a group we just haven’t attained sufficient critical mass to tip the scales in the right direction.
But I have hope that we will one day. And when we do we’ll all be closer to understanding where our food comes from, how it is produced, and why we need to embrace a better way of doing things.
We learned so much during our short stay at Polyface Farm. It was a very inspiring trip and a great way to spend our anniversary. The lessons we harvested we will adapt and utilize here on our homestead. Hopefully we can use this knowledge to grow our homestead. And in sharing our experiences hopefully we can inspire others.
In 2021, we made it to Yosemite. In 2022, we made it to Polyface Farm and the Shenanoah Valley. Who knows where we’ll make it to in 2023? In 2023, where will you be?