2 Days on Polyface Farm (goodbye, life as I knew it)

I’ve been quiet for a week or so, but for good reason.
I’ve reached a turning point in my “Real Food” journey. It’s been “going” for awhile, but now it’s gaining greater direction.
Months ago, I had a sudden realization: If all the grocery stores and all the markets and all the farmers went away, how would I eat?
Yeah, I had a garden last year. It was…meh. And guess what? Unless you’re the best gardener ever, getting adequate calories (or even a decent portion of your calories) from plants is darn near impossible unless you buy-in to the generally non-local, mass-produced food system. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s be honest – the produce section at Whole Foods is a First World privilege. Salad is a modern luxury (if you’ve ever tried to grow your own lettuce, you know what I mean), and so are plant-based diets – unless you’re growing your own rice & beans or – blech – soy. Adding eggs from ducks or chickens that can roam and eat the goodies you may not want to – like bugs and grubs and such – makes self-sufficiency slightly more possible (animal products are a more renewable resource, and more calorie-dense). Adding livestock helps enrich the soil (so you can fail miserably at a well-fertilized  garden, like me) and means a dense source of calories that plants can’t match. I’m just sayin’ – if the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency, animals hafta be involved somehow.
I’ll be honest – this Cave Girl can barely cook; let alone grow, raise, cultivate or (gulp) farm. And farming is, in my opinion, the only way a non-nomad (ie a modern human being) can truly take care of him/herself in a way that, when done right, is pretty darn self-sufficient.  Especially if you let your animals eat what they’re supposed to eat: grass, bugs, and stuff that’s not a corn, soy or canola-based antibiotic-laced by-product of the vegetable oil industry. This kind of farming is a way to be a responsible steward of the amazing gifts the earth gives us.
Cave Husband and I do dream of one day cultivating family land and feeding ourselves and a million little Cave Children off of it. (Well, maybe not a million Cave Children. Also, let me specify that any CCs will be of the furry variety – such that nobody can frown upon my shoving them outside through a doggie door or making them sleep on the floor.)

Me, sleep on the FLOOR?

But what would it actually take to raise and cultivate my own food? I can typety-type all day about “Real Food” with the soft glow of my Mac illuminating my pristine CrossFit-abused fingernails, but that’s not going to put food on the table. As I pondered this idea – the concept of what it takes to produce food (ENOUGH food) sustainably and continuously – I realized that I truly, deeply, with all my heart wanted to know how. I wanted to put into action all the stuff I jabber on about. So I applied for a summer internship at Polyface Farms.
Polyface is among the few sustainable, ethically-run and grass-based farms in the nation that offers internship opportunities like this. Joel Salatin, Polyface front-man and well-known farmer, was featured in Food Inc. and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I have followed the happenings at Polyface since reading Salatin’s books – among them, Holy Cows & Hog Heaven and Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.
I was fortunate to be called through to the second round of consideration, which involved a 2-day on-farm visit. I very much intended to keep this entire journey private, but I was given gracious encouragement by the Salatins to write about my experience. I didn’t take pictures, however, except for one taken as I left the property – I wasn’t there to accumulate photos or “blog fodder.” I was there to work and learn.
And work and learn I did. It was the most physically difficult 2 days I can remember. I joked about it being a never-ending CrossFit workout (and may have promised a Polyface “benchmark” WOD). From sun-up to sun-down we lifted buckets and bales, distributed hay, mucked through wet earth, and spent hours clean-and-jerking and loading large, awkward stumps and branches into a trailer in order to haul them back down to the farm, unload, and repeat the process. It was beautiful and enriching and difficult and extraordinary. I loved every minute. I was bruised, tired, and exhilarated. And did I mention bruised?
If the stump is too heavy, don't be a hero. Just drop it. Nobody will judge.

That wasn’t all. I tended pigs, cows and chickens. I moved more heavy things and helped make (and deadlift) giant railroad ties on the saw mill. I high-fived the fantastically good-natured Mr. Salatin in the most out-of-context moment of my existence (but when you feel that high-five comin’ on, you just gotta go for it. And deal with the embarrassment later.)
The crazy thing is, this 2-day experience that changed me so completely is ongoing, daily work to those who actually make Polyface what it is. I’m a nobody in this process – just a passer-by who got to dig in for a few days. As over-wrought as it may seem, that experience will forever represent to me the true nature of good work, and the physical and intellectual demands of living with integrity. This imperative, to me, appears to involve considering the needs of one’s family, one’s land, and the health of one’s entire operation moment-by-moment, all while understanding how those demands interact with the pace of politics and global need. Does that make sense?
High five, Polyface. And thank you.

So I left Polyface a different person from when I arrived. I’m so grateful to have met the staff, including Daniel Salatin (who orchestrates the day-to-day at Polyface) and his amazing family – his wife Sheri, an extraordinary writer; and their three kids, who are all profoundly wonderful and sweet. I must thank them for their incredible hospitality and willingness to discuss everything from politics to the process of writing with a relative stranger. Thanks to Brie and Leanna, who were wonderful hosts and conversationalists.
Look, I know I was only there for 2 days. But when you’ve got no computer, no internet, no facebook, no time-sucking iPhones and no Housewives or Bachelors to watch, you actually end up with ample time to appreciate the talents, hard work, and terrific qualities in others. Who the heck knew?

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28 Responses

  1. One of the best posts I’ve EVER READ!! Sounds like an amazing experience, my favorite part… .” I high-fived the fantastically good-natured and strong Mr. Salatin in the most out-of-context moment of my existence”
    Thanks for writing this!

  2. FINALLY!! someone gets what my dad and rest of my family does! thank you so much for writing this. i hope it gets linked and passed around everywhere. and yes you are right, farming is one crossfit wod that never ends…should inspire some WODs. 😉 thank you for writing this and look forward to some more 🙂
    carrie (former pike county, IL farm girl)

  3. I just finished reading the omnivores dilemma and loved the polyface farm story! It made me want to heck out my local farms to see if there is anything as sustainable around me (I looked into going to polyface but it’s about 4.5 hrs away). I’m very excited you got this opportunity and hopefully you can go for the full internship to write more!

  4. So one dilemma, as I see it, is that while this kind of real farm supplies the most natural food for us and the most humane and natural setting for the animals, most consumers aren’t willing to pay the price for it. Hence the agribusinesses and feed lots. How do we convince the consumer that this labor is worth paying for?
    Thanks for sharing. I look forward to reading more about it and to hearing your thoughts as the experience continues to gel in your thinking.

    1. Something I forgot to add to this post is that the sheer volume of work I did made me want to sell my TV and one of our cars, move to a smaller house, and take on a second job just so I COULD pay three times as much for grass-fed beef. This food is worth even MORE than we’re typically asked to pay. Everyone should have to spend a few days doing this, and the willingness to pay wouldn’t be a question. The overarching problem is – we DON’T know what it takes to create good food.
      Heck, even if everyone started a small garden they might get a CLUE about how hard it is to create good food.

      1. If any of my tax dollars go to this particular type of farm, I’d be fine with it. It’s a relatively small family farm that serves the local community and is set up as a low-to-no-waste system. Those are the types of farms I support whenever possible.
        Yes, big agriculture receives plenty of my money. That irks me. But I don’t intend to support them in any other way (that’s what this blog is all about).

  5. Wow Liz!!
    How awesome of you to do this!!
    I’ve read Salatin’s “Folks this Ain’t Normal and “Everything I Want to do is Illegal” and can’t help but be completely inspired by what they do at Polyface.
    When will you know if you get the summer internship? Good luck!

  6. I grow all the vegetables and fruits my family eats – carrots, peas, green beans, shell beans, a little corn (oh the horror), squash, broccoli, tomatoes, asparagus, lettuce, spinach, garlic, onions, potatoes, peppers, peaches, blueberries – and lots more. And for fun, I have a 350-foot-long perennial bed. And a full-time job. I frequently find in the growing season that mondays are welcome, so I can go to work and get a break. It is unbelievably hard work, but oh so rewarding! I know that what I cook has been raised without commercial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. I’ve done this for 10 years, and don’t ever plan to change, physical condition permitting. Some days I’m so sore I can barely walk – and I’m in great shape! It’s all worth it. And “playing’ in the dirt is about as therapeutic as anything I can imagine.

      1. I started gardening on a small scale 20 years ago, with a little 5′ x 5′ raised bed. Every year it got bigger, and I learned more. I think that’s the way to go (start small), because you don’t get overwhelmed and then give up. The Rodale Institute isn’t a bad resource for learning about organic gardening, too.

  7. omg!!!! how exciting!!! oh, i pray you get the internship!!! imagine how life changing 4 months with the salatin’s would be!?!
    happy monday!

  8. Fantastic, inspiring, humbling. Love your approach Liz, and commentary on the day-to-day lives of those who, so nobly, supply the rest of us with the essentials. Such a genuine profession – providing us with nourishment! I 100% agree that we should make every effort to support those folk who do the hard yards, suck it up, and pay them what’s fair for such diligent and thoughtful farming. Sounds like a life-changing experience.
    I’ve been a huge fan of your blog for a while now, but thought there was no better post/time to come out of the woodwork, introduce myself, and give a big !!! to your blog and philosophy. Amazing work, your humour and intelligence is muchos inspiring 🙂

  9. Excellent post, it sounds like it was such an amazing experience! I would love to try to do that sometime…if I could keep up!

  10. Because I have 80+ years of history behind me, I”ve seen a lot of attitude/values changes. I confess that I have snickered a bit at people joining gyms and working out in recent years with nothing to show for it but some subtle changes in bodily strength and/or appearance.
    “In my day” all that sweat and strain was expended to produce food on the table and a roof over the head and money to pay the bills! How dilettante it seems to buy a gym membership and special workout gear when you could get the same strength/endurance/exhaustion and have a new roof or outhouse or cistern to show for it!
    Of course, diffrent strokes for diffrent times. Still, I gotta smile to see the swing back to potato planting from high-rise couch-potatoing.

  11. Awesome post – I was in love with Polyface Farm after reading the Omnivores Dilemma, you’re experience going out there lets me live vicariously (I wish I could take off time to do something like that!).

  12. As always, this post makes me <3 you even more (and vow to read every word you ever write). I'll be more respectful, too, since stump-n-railroad-tie-liftin'-you could *easily* kick my ass.

  13. A wonderful post Liz! Sorry about the bruises, last summer I don’t think I was ever without a handful of them. Part of the territory I guess. It was fun to have you here for 2 days! Thanks for coming!

  14. What can I say? Haha…great read and also very sweet and real. 🙂 great job fellow superhuman! Haha….stay in touch….do you have FB?

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