Small Biz

The Most Innovative Small Farm in America

A Virginia farmer is attracting attention with his unconventional farming techniques that emphasize the self-sufficiency of a closed system

By David E. Gumpert

Small farms typically offer quiet pastoral scenes of rolling pastures, grazing animals, weathered barns, and a chicken coop or two.

Polyface Farm, a 550-acre spread in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, is different. The rolling pastures are there all right—but quiet they're not. Each day, men move fences, roll portable henhouses, and redirect cattle from one area to another for grazing. Trees are cut down for lumber and pigs set loose to roll in wood chips and cow manure to create compost.

It's all part of a plan that the owner, celebrity farmer Joel Salatin, carefully honed over the past 25 years to maximize productivity of his 100 acres of farmland and 450 acres of trees. He says the mobile approach enables him to produce not only much more beef, chicken, pork, and eggs than he could ever have done using conventional farming techniques, but better-tasting and more nutritious products as well.

The goal of the mobile approach is to systematically use the manure from his animals as fertilizer for his pasture, thus reducing his energy and feed costs. It's his secret quality-improvement ingredient. He figures his farm's revenue at about $3,000 per acre, vs. about $150 per acre for typical small and medium-sized farms that emphasize grazing. “We can feed the world with this technology,” says an exuberant Salatin, who has written several books describing his techniques and offers popular weekend seminars to farmers and wannabes.