There is no direct route to Joel and Teresa Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. To get there city folk need to pay attention. Joel Salatin's hand-drawn map is scribbled with turns that break off without warning onto skinny roads rimmed with wire fences curving in and out of fields of mustard and rye.
But customers eagerly make the winding pilgrimage to the farm to get Salatin's "World's Best Chicken." Why do they bother? At a time when America's love affair with chicken is threatened by reports of bacteria-loaded birds and eggs, financially strapped farmers and waterways polluted by waste from confinement poultry operations, these consumers are looking for an alternative that appeals to their health and conscience. And they're willing to pay for it.
Salatin and his family raise chickens, turkeys, beef cattle, rabbits and pigs in an unconventional holistic farming operation that requires a leap of faith, a sense of humor and a dash of harebrained madness to provide a good living. It's all done without government subsidies, cost-sharing, nutrient management plans or confinement livestock systems. And the farm makes money: yearly Salatin's operation brings in $200,000.
On conventional farms, high numbers of a single species are raised in automated controlled facilities, totally removed from their natural environment. These rabbit, poultry and hog operators argue that confinement farming is the most efficient way to make money, meet consumer demand and ensure a sufficient volume of a product of uniform quality at a reasonable cost.
Salatin disagrees. "The system is taking the biology out of raising animals. When farmers start pushing past what's natural, the costs add up. Nature always bats last."
Salatin has decided to bet the farm on Mother Nature. "It's not just science, it's art, and artists have to think and be creative. We're painting a landscape on our farm."
While Salatin's methods work for his high-end niche market,"there's room for only a few like him," explains Greg Hicks, communications director of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. "Most consumers can't afford to pay premium prices for chicken and eggs, so conventional farming will continue to be the norm."
Salatin doesn't wish to feed the world. His operation can't get much bigger and still maintain its environmental and ethical integrity. But Salatin hopes farmers will try a little "landscape painting" on their own.