A visit to Polyface Farm

Originally published on my first blog on May 13, 2011, moved here for posterity 🙂
This one should be subtitled- “Food Inc. and other Crock-u-metaries”
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In this economy.

Boy, I hate that phrase.  I hate the reality of it even more.

In this economy, we have to make sacrifices, budget our money as carefully as possible, cut back.  We’ve set specific limits for all of our family’s needs, and this includes a strict limit of $450 a month for groceries and related household goods such as cleaning products and personal care items for three people.  I’m a pretty talented cook and can make that work, and still provide nutritious meals for my family.

One hears many things though, about food quality and food safety. The internet abounds with articles, blogs, and videos from animal rights groups, farm advocates and self-proclaimed experts. It’s enough to make your head spin.  So what’s a concerned mom on a limited budget to do?

The same thing she tells her twelve year old daughter every day- “Do your homework!”

Over the course of the past three years, I’ve been immersed in a self-guided course in American agriculture. I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve gotten my hands dirty and kept my eyes and my ears open.  So when the opportunity to visit Polyface Farm near Staunton, Virginia presented itself, I couldn’t wait to go.

On a cheerless rainy spring morning I drove two hours to meet with a diverse group of agricultural tourists, including a dairy owner, a rancher, and multiple PhD’s.   I wanted to learn for myself what the fuss was all about in regards to this location and its production methods.

Pulling into the driveway at Polyface, I was reminded of many of the farms I saw growing up in rural northeast Ohio.   The countryside in this area of Virginia is exceptionally beautiful, and the cloudy day didn’t diminish my appreciation for the landscape.  We were greeted by a young lady who informed us that chickens were being processed at that moment and we were welcome to  watch.

Let me preface this next part with a few facts about me; I grew up in a hunting family and have butchered my fair share of wild game. I’ve been to Ohio Amish and California Asian markets where you could buy fish or poultry live and dress it yourself at home. I’ve been to commercial slaughterhouses. I’m confident I can observe everything from multiple perspectives objectively.

The processing area was an open air affair with just a roof built off a steel building.  A flatbed truck sat with stacked plastic cages containing about a dozen birds each. I was immediately struck by the condition of the birds themselves as well as a pile of dead birds near the crate. They were rather dirty, had obvious wounds and a good deal of feather loss. An employee or intern was taking birds from the crates, inserting them head first into a spinning device with twelve inverted metal cones, each with an opening at the bottom for the chicken’s head. After inserting a bird or two at a time, he worked deftly to cut the throats, spun the structure and repeated, allowing the chickens to bleed out into a catch basin at the bottom. Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface, jokingly referred to the contraption as “The Wheel of Fortune”.  The birds were not subjected to electronic or atmospheric control stunning or otherwise rendered unconscious by any means, and thrashed in the cones, sending a spray of blood into the wind blowing through the area.  After being allowed to bleed out for a bit and without checking to see if the birds were still conscious, the worker grabbed them by the feet and threw them into a scalding tub, with paddles that churned through the water to loosen the feathers. Next the birds moved to a spinning tub which removed the feathers and in at least one case, chucked a bird out into our group.  More workers were waiting on the line of steel tables, over which small hoses maintained a steady stream of water. The source of this water was never identified, but based on the farm’s remote location it was not city sourced. I should add I did not at any time see any treatment or filtration systems for any of the water on the farm.  Feet were removed and tossed into five gallon buckets at the workers’ feet, as well as livers, both of which were items for sale in the Polyface store. Two dogs lounged nearby and I watched as two very happy farm cats gorged on chicken parts; some thrown to them and others they pilfered from the buckets and bins. As chickens were completed, they were tossed into either a large plastic water filled bin or a set of steel water filled bins. A request to explain the sorting was politely answered that one was for employee meals and the others for saleable birds.  I’m not sure where the run off from the processing area went though I did note a small pond adjacent to the set up.

Mr Salatin stated that they process about 20,000 birds this way every year, a number not based on expected sales but rather on a limit set by the government on how many can be produced for sale before a USDA inspector is required. Based on comments made throughout the visit, it seemed the production number was restricted based solely on Mr Salatin’s objections to having an inspector on site. Having seen the processing first hand, I can understand why.

We next climbed into a farm truck and made the trek up the hill to see more of the farm’s methods up close and personal.  Along the way, Mr Salatin explained the farm consists of 550 family owned acres, and an additional leased 1100 acres of pasture. We followed a single lane track up to a pasture where a small herd of beef cattle were grazing.  A pasture area adjacent to them, separated by a hot wire, was home to rows of portable chicken enclosures ten feet wide by twelve feet long by about two feet high. Each contained approximately 75 birds. These were in two rows of eight pens each, in three separate sets that I could see on the hillside. The grass beneath us was sparse and liberally coated with large black watery streaks of manure. Mr Salatin explained that he places the chicken pens, for raising meat birds, in pastures recently vacated by the cattle.  The birds, he said, graze on the grass left behind and peck for insects.  They are also given a supply of water and feed bins, with a mixture I couldn’t begin to identify. The pens, we were told, were moved daily to give the birds access to clean space.  Mr Salatin gave us a demonstration of how this was accomplished by grabbing a wire handle on the pen (there are two on each, on opposite sides) and dragging the pen several feet downhill.  The birds were required to keep up with the dragged pen, and I noticed some being caught in the support structure and between each other as it was moved.  The rear of the pen, in contact with the ground, also dragged a good portion of fresh chicken droppings along with it.  The birds exhibited the same characteristics as those I had just seen in the processing area in regards to dirt, feather loss and wounds. I decided at this point, for sure, that a broiler would not be on my shopping list at the end of the day.

The cattle themselves were an odd mix. When I inquired to breeds, Mr Salatin said that he doesn’t bother with them, but instead picks his beef animals based on phenotype. He stated a clear aversion for anything in the color black, saying it was just a personal preference.  He also admitted that they are not bred on the farm,but sourced from “wherever I can buy them”.  This included “commercial” farms.   The cattle I saw seemed healthy and content in their field, occasionally coming closer to our group to see the tourists. The source of the watery black manure was the cattle and I was informed later this could be due to the grass only diet and recent wet weather conditions. We learned a small group had just been sent for processing at a local slaughterhouse. We were not given a name or location and when I asked how many pounds of beef are produced annually on the farm using their methods, I couldn’t get a straight answer. I was told that the cut rate (percentage of meat produced from the animal vs waste) was between 54 to 59%.   Did any of the waste go to any other use, I wondered?  No. Hides, I was told, are not processed due to poor sale price, especially for small slaughterhouses, and nothing else was used; all waste was simply sent to a rendering plant. I did find that about 900 animals are harvested there every year.  I saw only a few dozen the entire day.  Where were the other 800 +?

Back into the truck and up the incline we went.  We came near enough to see but did not directly come in contact with a large flock of egg producing hens, allowed to roam over an open field, with portable nesting housing. These large buildings are actually constructed on trailer beds, which can be easily attached to any ball hitch and moved nearly anywhere on the farm.  The birds looked fit and all appeared to be breeds laying brown shell eggs. A member of our groups asked about the chicken’s exposure to Avian Influenza, since Virginia can boast thousands of migratory bird species.  The answer shocked me. Mr Salatin claims that domestic chickens are conferred immunity to Avian Influenza by eating a few blades of grass per day.  I’m not aware of any studies that would confirm this claim and I’m still searching for documentation.  We weren’t told how often the eggs were collected or how often the mobile structures were cleaned. Too many red flags for me.  I crossed eggs off my potential purchase list.  As with any pastured birds, Salatin said he experiences some loss to predation, mostly by raccoons. Anatolian Shepherd “Michael” is on the job to keep those numbers as low as possible.

Further up the hill we went, to what Salatin promised would be “something beautiful”.  He was right; the view couldn’t be beat. In a shady high field lounged a group of hogs of various breeds and ages.  Mr. Salatin does not farrow his own hogs, citing concern for potential worker injuries from “sow anger” and buys them from any nearby producers he can.  The hogs are moved from field to field, staying only long enough for a central feeding station to go from full to empty.  The mixture inside is created for him by a local mill and he proudly boasts that it contains no GMO grains. The hogs, he stated, are finished on acorns.  The animals I saw were inquisitive of our group, active, and appeared to be acting like, well, pigs.  They were busily rooting up stumps, nibbling on grass and resting in sunny spots.  They seemed leaner than hogs I have previously viewed though overall my impression was of healthy animals.   Hogs, like the cattle, are processed at an outside facility when they reach an appropriate weight.  Predation in these high fields hasn’t been much of a problem, and Mr Salatin welcomes experienced hunters to his property to help prevent losses.  We spent the greatest amount of time on the farm with the hogs, and the animals were calm and comfortable with our presence.

We did travel just a bit further up the hill to see one of the collection ponds used to provide water, by gravity, through several areas of the farm.  According to Mr Salatin, there are three such ponds on the hillside.

Back on level ground we were shown a barn where meat rabbits are kept.  This set up intrigued me, since the rabbits were in elevated wire cages and laying hens were permitted to roam the deep litter mix below.  The rabbits were all heavy with thick coats.  Many does had multiple kits that also appeared well fed and healthy.  I noted feather loss and wounds on hens in this area as well as pieces of what recently used to be hens scattered amongst the bedding.  There were eggs in several nesting boxes that were of good size and even color. I didn’t see any on the floors, and again, didn’t know how frequently they were collected.  Mr Salatin stated that all the meat rabbits were tightly line bred from the same small colony started by his son years before. He said they suffered very high losses in their first few years. As a long time hobby breeder of conformation and working dogs, I would counter that the rabbits were actually heavily inbred. In either case, they looked like rabbits I wouldn’t mind putting on my plate. Unfortunately, there were none to be had at the farm store. Maybe next time.

A short visit to see the chick hatchlings, chickens and turkeys together in one large, warm barn, and our tour was done. All seemed content and adorable. Yes, I admit my food can be cute.

We ended with hearty handshakes and mutual appreciation talks in the farm store, where we were directed to a smiling young lady who offered to help us find anything we needed.  Based on our tour and my observations, I was most interested in rabbits, pork and beef, in that order. I had no desire to attempt broiler chickens or shell eggs, seeing as I was not personally comfortable with them from a safety standpoint, and that the breeds were no different from what I could find at my local market.

Sticker shock assaulted me at the freezer section.  Each individually wrapped item was clearly listed for product and weight, but not price.   That could be found by consulting a list posted on the doors. While Mr Salatin had previously claimed his products average about twice the amount for the same cuts in cost, I found his estimate to be woefully inaccurate.   Eggs, for example, average $1.50 per dozen for extra large white eggs at my local store. At Polyface, 12 large brown eggs were $4.00.  I buy sale priced cuts of beef at my grocery and ask them to grind it fresh for me, a free service, resulting in an average price of $2.00 per pound.  At Polyface, ground beef is $5.50 a pound.  Boneless skinless chicken breasts typically cost me about $2.00 per pound. At Polyface, they cost an astonishing $13.00 per pound. Whole broilers? My cost about a $1.00 per lb, theirs $3.25 (cut is $4.30, while I usually spend less than $1.50). Chicken legs and thighs? About $0.49 to $0.75 per pound for me, $4.50 a pound at Polyface.

Mr Salatin defends his pricing and his methods passionately, and I have no doubt he is a devout believer that what he is doing is right. For his property, for his purposes, and his production goals, I have to agree he uses his resources well. As a consumer, I wonder just how many people can be fed from those 1650 acres, two thirds of which isn’t even his own, and the answer seems frighteningly small in comparison to alternative operations. Salatin says he is not an elitist, and challenges anyone who claims not be able to afford his foods to give up other things in their lives. That if he were to visit their homes, he’d better not see a big screen tv, a gas hogging SUV, a flier on the family’s upcoming Disneyland vacation or coffee in the pantry.  To some extent I can concur. But I think it’s only fair to understand that some folks have so called luxury items from a previously way of life they may not be able to afford anymore, need larger cars for employment purposes and save money by making sacrifices in some areas of their lives in order to give their children a happier experience.  He won’t find a home theater system, Navigator truck or a vacation any further than the local park’s fishing pier at my home- though trust me, he really doesn’t want to see me without my coffee. We’re struggling right now with everyday expenses and trying to put enough by for emergencies.

I bought two items that day. A 2lb London broil and a 2lb bone in pork roast, both marked at $7.00 per pound. This is well above the average I would pay for these cuts at my local shops, and I expect to do a taste comparison between them when I get the chance to buy identical cuts in similar sizes at the grocery store. But I can’t do that yet. I’m too busy trying to balance in the nearly $30.00 spent on these two cuts alone, an amount equal to two entire days’ worth of all food and household products for my family.

Do I expect them to be good? Only a taste test will tell, but I can be sure that no matter how good the taste, I can’t consider the expense worthwhile when I can use my talents as an educated consumer to choose tender, tasteful cuts at chain grocers and employ my not insignificant kitchen skills to using each cut as best I can to maximize flavor and stretch the servings.  I just can’t afford to buy into the notion that a production method assertively touted as the ecological and morally superior choice is better in any way for my family. I can’t accept all this talk of model sustainability when introduced to free labor in the form of interns and apprentices, $50 DVDs and other kitschy merchandise, and recent publications by the owner asking for donations to keep his operation running. This doesn’t meet my definition of realistic production methodology.

But that’s just my opinion. I appreciate the opportunity I have to choose healthy foods from modern agricultural sources and respect the choices of those who believe, as Mr Salatin does, that his methods are appropriate for their families.

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