Although the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR team is currently “hunkered down” in response to stay-at-home guidelines related to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still planning to host the FAIR at Polyface Farm in July! One of the things we are most excited about for this unique event is the opportunity to highlight in-person several special facets that are critical to the successful operation of the farm. We are calling these areas “Points of Interest.” They will be on display ongoing throughout the two days, and we will schedule special gathering times around each one so that a Polyface representative can discuss how they are important to the fabric of the entire operation.
Points of Interest
At Polyface Farm, farmers move cows to a new paddock every day. That requires portable water, portable fencing, and portable shade. Those are the tools of the trade. The art is knowing how much area to allot, computing cow days, and giving adequate rest periods. On most farms, moving cows is a bit of an ordeal; at Polyface, a simple call brings them running. The result of this system is increased fertility, increased production, and a vegetative mosaic that stimulates pollinators and wildlife.
Most hoop houses are built for vegetable production, but at Polyface, hoop houses provide comfortable winter housing for poultry, rabbits, and pigs. The other 250 days of the year, the hoop houses shelter vegetables or — as will be obvious during the FAIR — serve as great staging areas for events and seminars! Built for both plants and animals, these dual-purpose structures are relatively cheap housing alternatives that can generate cash year-round from widely different enterprises. Plus, diverse enterprises help reduce pathogens and encourage cash flow throughout the year.
Starting chicks is both science and art. In both stationary and portable brooders, you’ll see techniques for comfort and hygiene to get both chickens and turkeys off to a good start. Bedding, temperature, water, grit, feed, and ventilation all come into play with these simple home-built structures. Anyone who sees these functional brooders will realize that scaling up is doable.
The ‘Raken’ House
Multifunctional infrastructure is a theme across the Polyface landscape. This combination rabbit-chicken (“raken”) house uses the permaculture stacking concept to enjoy cubic footage rather than just linear floor footage. Rabbits in hutches at eye level and chickens on the floor provide symbiosis. Chickens aerate the rabbit bedding to stimulate composting, and rabbits enjoy an ammonia-free living environment. In winter, pigs practice deep tillage and ready the structure for spring cleaning.
Polyface integrates forest and open land as the foundation of its carbon economy. A commercial-scale wood chipper turns crooked and poorly formed trees into chips that form the basis of animal bedding during winter housing. This deep bedding offers a carbon-rich absorbant habitat for good bugs to keep bad bugs in check. Stockpiling carbon where it can dry down ensures that its pores can uptake the urine and nitrogen in livestock waste. According to Joel, “If all the money spent on chemical fertilizer were repurposed to forest management, we would have a brand new sacred industry to honor folks who enjoy working outside, and we would have higher organic-matter soils.”
Using an “X-truss” skid structure and Premier poultry net, this 1,000-layer portable setup offers truly pastured eggs at scale. The quarter-acre netting oval leapfrogs across the field in three-day moves. A guard goose protects the chickens from aerial predators. These chickens don’t have to be closed up at night, and their perimeter fencing keeps them controlled. This land-intensive system is good for smaller areas where total free range can result in damage or unhappy neighbors. The skid structure is wind-resistant, never slides down a hill, and can’t get a flat tire — all positives. The Millennium Feathernet is located in the south field (outside of the FAIR footprint), and attendees can view it on the way from or to their vehicles.
One of Polyface's most iconic innovations, this portable henhouse follows the cows and provides sanitation in the pasture. The chickens scratch through cow patties, spreading them and eating out fly larvae. The hens also pick up newly exposed crickets and grasshoppers, turning all this abundance into top-grade pastured eggs. Attendees can stop by the Eggmobile to learn how to train hens to go in at night, and to hear about moving logistics and densities. This model is land-extensive and not recommended for acreages under 50.
A silvopasture featuring pastured pigs highlights all the components necessary for a successful operation. Land requirements, moving regimens, resting protocols, fencing, and water all need proper attention. Many people struggle to control pigs with electric fence; at this stop, attendees can see how Polyface handles hundreds of pigs a year, even in remote pastures. Since pigs can’t see very well, a highly visible fence is a key to success.
Under Public Law 90-492, the Polyface open-air poultry abattoir is and has been a keystone of the farm's success. While the current structure is more sophisticated than the first one, it still shows the simplicity of design that makes this a doable enterprise. The Polyface setup, with a well-trained eight-person crew, can run 160 to 200 birds per hour. Two people can do 40 to 50 birds per hour.
Polyface currently handles about 200 dozen eggs per day. This is too many for the little $200 bucket-style washing units, and too small for $50,000 commercial units. A local farmer in the Shenandoah Valley spent several years designing and building a midsized washing machine for operations in the 100 to 500 dozen per day production category. It has many unique features, not least of which is a U-turn so it occupies a small footprint; the same person who starts the eggs into the unit can retrieve them from the same spot. Ingenious.
Andrew Salatin, Joel's grandson, has been keeping a small flock of sheep for several years. This flock of about 50 ewes and lambs has not been wormed for five years; they’re hair sheep and crossed between Katahdin, Dorper, and St. Croix. Andrew moves the sheep frequently, and Polyface is experimenting with numerous ways to incorporate them into the greater farming operation. These sheep are as close to goats as sheep can get, offering excellent weed-control opportunities.
Travis Salatin, Joel's grandson, has been raising Khaki Campbell ducks for several years. This flock of around 200 provides him with a steady egg income from folks (especially pastry chefs) who appreciate the extra richness. Ducks eat far more grass than chickens, which makes for deep-orange yolks and thick, creamy whites.
Pullets for Backyard Flocks
Lauryn Salatin, Joel's granddaughter, raises, hatches, and sells exotic pullets for folks who want small backyard flocks. Although she’s only 12, she can address fertility, mini-scale incubation, and brooding. She can hold her own in the chick department.
If one things bears the Polyface signature the most, it’s probably the pastured broiler enterprise. The subject of Joel’s first book in 1991, Pastured Poultry Profits, this enterprise is still the heartbeat of the farm. Attendees can see the simple (some would say crude) portable shelters up close. Polyface staff ill move some during the FAIR so attendees can see the logistics and discuss density, water, feed, and other elements of this enterprise. The single biggest error people make when duplicating this proven model is to build shelters too complicated and too heavy. A demonstration will prove the efficiency of this setup, perfected over five decades.
For more information and to register for passes for the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR at Polyface Farm, please visit here.