Field Day at Polyface

TJ

According Joel Salatin, Polyface is the farm of many faces, but to the people who follow grass-based farming, people who are involved in farming politics, or people who have seen the film, Food, Inc., it has become a farm associated with one face – Joel’s.

I had never met the man.

He gave me permission to copy his material, sent me two cases of books to use in my classroom, responded to my letters, encouraged me, and wrote a forward for my book. All of this for someone he did not know.

So when Fred Walters, my publisher from Acres USA in Texas, said he was going to be at Field Day at Polyface, we decided we should go and take advantage of the opportunity to meet both of these men.

We stayed just outside of Staunton, VA, and had about a 25 minute drive to Polyface. The farm is situated down some narrow, twisty back roads. We arrived around 7:30, and I could not believe the line of traffic coming into the farm. I knew it was a big event, but I hadn’t realized exactly how big. When I saw an RV pull in, my jaw dropped. All I could think was that it was a good thing there wasn’t a vehicle coming in the other direction! I do not know how the driver navigated those roads.

About a minute after we got out of the car, I saw Joel. He was headed toward the barn. Many people were stopping him and from the posture, it looked to me like they were impeding his progress – he had someplace to be and couldn’t get there. Instead of pursuing him, we went to the registration table and got our name-tags. One of the cool things about the name-tags is that underneath our names, it stated a place, towns and states, so we knew where everyone came from. My daughter started a list and came up with 30 out of the 50 states being represented, plus a guy from Australia.

The tour started at 8, and we walked out to the pasture where the meat birds were living. Since I have read Joel’s books, seen him in a few documentaries, and buy from farmers who use Joel’s techniques, I was familiar with how much of this worked. However, to hear him speak was amazing. He has a great energy and passionate enthusiasm for his craft. He calls himself a lunatic farmer, and sometimes passion that borders on zealotry can look like lunacy, but in reality he is talking sense. The problem, the reason others make him sound like a lunatic, is because, in a sense, he is saying that the emperor (Industrial Ag) isn’t wearing any clothes. And he isn’t using metaphors.

As we walked to the next stop on the tour, the beef pasture, I noticed the variety of people who were in attendance. There were Amish and Mennonite, obvious from the traditional dress; there were a lot of John Deere caps, and Cabela’s T-shirts; there was a woman wearing monogrammed mucks (who knew they even existed), on her blinged-up cell phone; there was a family that looked like the Von Trapps, with all 8 children in matching outfits (jeans and red-check shirts – not a bad idea in a crowd that size); there was a man in a t-shirt advertising his radical Right Wing politics, assuring me that he votes; there was a couple with dreadlocks in tie-dyed shirts; there was a group from New York City who we overheard discussing how to scale down Joel’s processes to fit on abandoned urban lots; there was a couple from Oil City, PA, in line behind us for lunch who were living on a farm and ready to give some of this practice a try. Joel spoke a lot about diversity in the biomass… there was amazing diversity in the population mass!

We walked off the tour a little early and headed back to the book tent, so I could introduce myself to Fred Walters. There were but a few people looking at books, and we spent a good half hour chatting. I walked away from Fred and it finally hit me that I wrote a book that is being published. He was showing me different formats that they do, and what their books looked like. There was a sense of pride in each volume that he showed me. And I thought that next year, my book will be on the table at some event or other. Next year. My book. It was a little overwhelming.

Then we went to where lunch was being served. That was when the magnitude of the crowd really hit me. It was double the size I thought it was. And I kept saying, “How do you prepare a meal for this many people?” I was exhausted doing a cold supper for 80. As I mentioned earlier, in line behind us was a couple from Oil City, PA. It turns out that she is also a teacher, and we spoke about the need to “Salatinize” the education system. That will be a series of upcoming entries on my other blog, On Education. My only regret is that I lost track of them after we went through the lunch line. So, if you are the woman from Oil City, please contact me! You are so interesting!

Just as I finished my lunch, Joel was walking by to go get his lunch. I stopped him and introduced myself. Fred told him (warned him?) that I was there, so he knew who I was right away, which made me feel really good and he congratulated me on my book coming out next year. Hearing that come out of someone else’s mouth was very cool. That the someone was Joel Salatin was mind-boggling. I thanked him profusely for all of his help. I knew that a handshake was not enough and asked if I could give him a hug, and he said, “I would never say no to a hug.” And we hugged, and my daughter took a picture, and then he went off to have his lunch and I floated through the rest of the day.

It was fortuitous that we attended. In the literature we received, we found out that this is probably the last Field Day event that Polyface will host. While he will still do Lunatic Tours, and maybe that is a better small group learning environment, for me, to see the number of people motivated to come and learn from Joel, makes it more real that this movement toward better food is on a roll. The more people who commit themselves, even in a small way, to better food, the more likely we are to see a change in the food industry.

If you ever have the opportunity to see Joel Salatin speak, take it. If the man hadn’t been a farmer, he could have been a master orator.

Dreams Become Reality

chickens at Polyface FarmMy connection to Polyface began with the purchase of Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, and the subsequent events in the blog entry “Chain of Events.” However, the story doesn’t really end there. The following summer, I broke my ankle. Ever been in New Jersey in the summer? The week I broke my ankle was a heat wave, the first of five we would have while I was in the boot, with the relief weeks only in the high 80’s. Overnight low’s in the upper 70’s, and humidity to rival Carbondale, IL; it was punishing. And I was miserable. I live in a world without air-conditioning.

One afternoon, as my husband headed out to the pool with the kids, he said, “Why don’t you work on that book you always talk about writing.” So I hobbled around and collected my notebooks and outlines, found an old laptop computer a friend gave me (that didn’t connect to other computers, nor a printer, and used a rather unreliable floppy disk drive), and began to write. I pumped out a 120 page rough draft in about a week. I was rather astonished at my own productivity, until I considered the fact that I really couldn’t do anything else. As a wife and mother who works outside the home, there always seems to be something more pressing to do than writing. Writing is a guilty pleasure. Take this moment: I had planned to sit down at the computer and start working on a new project for my AP Lit class, but the weekend is too fresh and I am too scattered to think about school, so I indulge myself.

With the book written, I began exploring avenues for publication. I edited the book, rearranged some things, and had my most trusted colleague do some copy-editing. I learned a lot of things about my writing quirks – like my penchant for exclamation points. I should just remove the button from my computer. I’m worse than P. B. Shelley.

I started sending out book queries and received rejection after rejection. I decided to write to Joel Salatin for advice. I’m not sure why, but I thought maybe he would have something sage to say that would keep me going as I was giving up on the book. He did: that if a publisher didn’t want to pick up the book, I should self-publish and get the words out there. He referenced the famous authors whose books were rejected gazillions of times, like Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Dr. Suess (The Cat in the Hat). And he offered to write a forward, if the book was what he thought it would be. More editing. And then I printed it and sent it to Joel.

And write a forward, he did. I laughed because I wasn’t sure he was writing about the book I wrote. His enthusiasm got me rolling again with the book submission queries. And again, rejection after rejection.

This past January, I was on the verge of self-publishing. I copyrighted my material and purchased an ISBN number. That morning, after I had spent my limit of time on personal stuff, and got back to what I was really doing on the computer, creating a list of links to articles for The Politics of Food unit (where this whole thing began…). There I was, trying to find articles on the Acres USA website (and not connecting, and cursing my internet service), when I finally pounded on my mouse (because when the internet isn’t working, one should always take it out on the computer hardware, right?), and ended up on a page that read “Book Catalog” and on the sidebar was a box that read, “Submission Queries.” So I clicked. And I emailed. I mean, I had been messing around with this book for this long, what was one more query?

And I am glad that I did: so began my relationship with Amanda Irle and Fred Walters of Acres USA, the company that will be publishing my book , Ditching the Drive-Thru.  The release date is September 15th, by Spikehorn Press (an imprint of Acres USA).

Chain of Events

I bought the book, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal from Mark and Maryann Nolt.  I giggled at the title.  I listened to Mark talk about Joel Salatin.  On the ride home, I started reading.  About every other paragraph I would say, “Get a load of this,” and read it aloud to Greg.  I read the book from cover to cover in two days.  It was informative, enraging and funny.

Later that year, due to a research paper assignment, and a student who borrowed the book and thought it was great, I decided to generate a new unit on the Politics of Food.  It was for a class that is co-taught with a history class, so I worked it out with my teaching partner.  I thought a couple of chapters from the Salatin book would be great to teach since his style is very engaging.  Don’t take this as complaining about teaching, take it as fiscal responsibility: I knew my district would not buy me copies of the book, because by the time I made this decision, we were out of money and in a spending freeze (that may be the year we ran out of copy paper in April).  So in January, I wrote to Mr. Salatin to ask for permission to copy a class set of three chapters from his book.

About two weeks later, I was sitting in my classroom grading papers through my lunch period (again, not a complaint, just what I do in order to leave as much work at school as possible), and the phone rang.  It was the secretary.  She said, “Natalie?  I have your friend Joel on the line.”

I have a friend named Joel.  Joel Fabian.  He is a Holocaust survivor, an extraordinary human being, and the custodian at my synagogue.  I had no idea why he would be calling me at work.

The call came through. “Hello?”  I was worried.  If Joel was calling me at work, something awful must have happened.

“Is this Natalie Winch?”  A slight drawl in the speech.  Not my Joel.

“Yes?”

“This is Joel Salatin.”  I’m not sure what he said after that because I was so dumbfounded.

We spoke for about 20 minutes.  He was so excited that I wanted to teach from his book in a school that he was sending me copies gratis.  And he loved my letter.  So much in fact, that he wanted to use it to write an article and publish excerpts from it.  I was very flattered.  And honestly, what English major doesn’t harbor some secret desire to see her words in print!  Of course I agreed.

I forgot about the whole article thing.  When the books came, Mr. Salatin also wrote me an awesome letter that I read to the students each year before handing out the books.  They get to see his handwriting, which, for whatever reason, makes him more of a real person.  We watch Food, Inc, and they read their assignment, with the voice of Joel Salatin in their ears.

Last summer, when we arrived at the Nolts, Maryann came out of the milk shop and asked, “What did you think of the article?”  I think I introduced myself wondering if they had us confused with someone else.  We only see them once a year, so it was quite possible they had us confused with someone else.  And then Mark walked over and asked, “What did you think of the article your friend Joel Salatin wrote about you?”

I was clueless.  So Mark ran and got his copy of the Stockman Grassfarmer so I could see that article.  That explained it: like most non-grass-based farmer Americans, I do not have subscription to Stockman Grassfarmer.  And there it was, on page 7, “Awareness Saga.”  I stood there, in the bright August sunshine, reading the article pointing at it and showing Greg.  “Look!” I said over and over.  I couldn’t believe it! There was my letter with Joel Salatin’s comments and encouragement.  Mark’s son went and copied it for me.  I looked up at everyone watching me read the article.  The Nolts were smiling at me, these big broad smiles of a shared pleasure.

In the beginning of our relationship, we were farmer and consumer.  After our first visit to the Nolts, Greg and I realized that they are also teachers.  In the intervening years, the Nolts became much more than the farmers who grew our food.  We watched their family grow, their business grow.  We watched trials and tribulations, and realized their true commitment to their standards.  These are not people who say one thing and do another.  They are teachers and mentors and guideposts on this journey through life.  The saga described in the Salatin article was instigated in great part by the Nolts, so it fit that Joel Salatin never sent me a tear sheet of the article.  The inevitable ending to the story is that the Nolts handed me that paper.  As more and more people embark on this journey toward better food, they will find the Nolts of their lives.  The most important lesson I have learned from Mark and Maryann is to do my work honestly with an open heart committed to high standards. I am indebted to them for the example they provide.

Unwitting Mentors

 

            Each year, we make a trip (now two) to Newville, PA to get meat from Nature’s Sunlight Farm.  It used to be one, because when we first started on this food journey, the Nolts were only producing veal, as a by-product of the dairy.  As they have expanded their product, we have expanded our shopping list.

            We always come away from the farm with some new lesson learned.  There was never a time when we weren’t greeted by one of the Nolts with a firm handshake and some time to talk.  And forget being excited by a clearance rack at Nordstrom’s, bring on the milk shop at their farm.  I walk in and start doing math in my head and spend every last dime of the budget on milk, cheese and other goodies.

          About five years ago, the goodies included a book called, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, the implications of which are fodder for another entry.  Mark said to me, “Oh Joel Salatin.  He is very interesting” and proceeded to explain who the man was and what he meant to grass-based farming.  Honestly, I picked up the book because I thought the title was hilarious.

            As I watched Mark speaking about Salatin, I saw a glint in his eyes.  His voice grew more and more passionate as he explained why a grass-based system was so important for the entire food chain, from the grass itself, all the way up to the people who are consuming the eggs, chicken, veal, milk, cheese, etc.  He made the whole thing click in my head.  Choices and consequences:  how we choose to produce our food has a longer impact than what most people ever think about.  We live in a culture that lives for instant gratification, so the instant hunger is sated the consumer stops thinking about the food, and rarely considers the long term impact of its production.

            If that is true, then maybe the converse could also be true – if we get more people to think about their food, where it comes from, how it is produced, maybe we could improve the food system.

           I am not stupid and I realize that in an instant gratification culture people do NOT want to drive three hours to get their meat.  But the more people who do make the choice, the more demand there is for the product, the more people will realize that farming can be lucrative, that a small farm can survive and not be a part of the huge AgriBusiness that fuels industrial food.  Very slowly we are seeing this: more and more small farms popping up all over the country. The more grass-based farms we have, the less of a drive people will have to get this kind of food.

            I am an American, proud of the freedoms upon which this country was founded.  No matter how much politics have perverted it, I still have faith in the Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is [the people’s] right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”  The Industrial Food system has a long train of abuses and usurpations.  At the rate that the food giants continue to buy one another, we will soon find ourselves under a food despot.  As Henry Kissinger said, “He who controls the food controls the people.”

            The capacity to “throw off such government” is already ours.  If you don’t like the person in office, vote them out.  If you don’t like who controls the food, vote with your dollars and spend them elsewhere.  That is an overlooked beauty of the capitalist system: every day is election day when you spend with a purpose.  You only need know who owns what!  I vote to support farmers like the Nolts who care about the food in such a way that it creates a new vision of food security.

 

 

In Support of the Family Farm

 

            Once upon a time in America, farms were family operations.  If a farmer was going to be successful, he had to know the best way to manage his land, extracting maximum profit for minimum expense.  Sustainability was a necessity! If a farmer didn’t want his family to starve, he needed to figure out how to make his farm sustainable.  Yes, some farmers failed.  But not all of them.  Not even most of them – otherwise we wouldn’t have any food to eat.  Or we would be living Soylent Green!

            How does this translate into successful farming?  First let’s consider the land. The concept of crop rotation is mentioned in Roman literature. The Hebrews used a form of crop rotation by giving fields a sabbatical year.  Obviously, this isn’t a new concept, and yet, it took the disaster of the Dust Bowl in this country to put the practice into use.  And we seem to have forgotten the lesson not eighty years later: industrial farming has farmers planting the same crop in the same field, season after season, fortifying the soil with chemical fertilizers; a wicked cycle. 

            What makes good practice when it comes to the land? Rotation.  The ancients knew that the fields needed to be changed up and that they needed to rest: that is what  “sabbatical year” means – a year of rest.  Every seventh year, a field rested.  A resting field was a growing field: the next year, it was full of grasses for the cows to graze.  And then they pooped in the field. And the next year, that field was ready to be planted, made fertile by some of the best fertilizer known to man (manure).  And best of all, that fertilizer was free.

            Rotation also refers to a system of interchanging crops so that what one plant uses, another puts back into the field.  George Washington Carver (of peanut fame) was the genius who figured out that plants could help to sustain one another.  That was back in the 1800’s.  Rather than spending money on chemical fertilizer, which does help increase yield, farmers could plant crops that could be sold, or used to feed farm animals, and prevent the soil from becoming depleted, all in one.  So what’s the problem?  Maybe it is just too simple. 

            Small family farms are nearly a lost culture in America. The good news is with more and more people seeking out sustainably produced food, the small family farm just might make a come back.  My son told me that he wants to be a farmer when he grows up.  He was seven at the time and I know he will change his mind about 17 million times between now and when he actually chooses what he wants to do with his life.  But it made me sad to think that the conventional odds are against him.  Luckily, we have good examples in our lives thanks to the farmers in our lives: the Nolts, the Fishers, Jeff Tober and our friends at the Fernbrook Farm CSA, and the writings of people like Joel Salatin, who have all made a success of farming.