It’s not always easy to be the “most famous farmer in America,” a title bestowed on Joel Salatin by the Washington Post in 2013.

Salatin’s Polyface Farm, set amid the trundling hills of Shenandoah Valley’s Augusta County in Virginia, has for many years been a magnet for discerning buyers of pricey organic farm-to-table produce.

He’s written 11 books and been featured in such condemnations of factory farming as Michael Pollan’s 2006 bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the 2008 documentary, Food, Inc. He regularly travels the country and abroad to proselytize his green, nonchemical farming techniques. If you’re in the Bay region and are serious about tracing the environmental lineage of the steak sizzling on your grill or the eggs you fry for breakfast, you’ve likely heard of Joel Salatin, who calls himself a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer.”

Joel Salatin said that as a child he used to sell the farm’s eggs to local residents via bicycle.  Eggs from his Polyface Farm now fetch a high price. (Dave Harp)

But Salatin’s way isn’t for everyone, as his operation relies on a seemingly endless supply of free laborers, plus it caters to affluent, health-focused customers willing to pay a hefty premium for food that’s produced the old-fashioned way. It illustrates the tradeoffs many other farmers face in the Chesapeake Bay watershed as they struggle to make a living raising livestock and poultry in an environmentally responsible way in concentrated feeding operations designed to supply the mass consumer market.

Offering pastured turkey and broiler chicken, stewing hens, forage-based rabbits, free-range beef and pork from pigs that have lived and mucked about in green enclosures under the sun and with room to roam, Polyface Farm sells high-end meat to a deliberately small and focused clientele of individuals and restaurants that can afford the least industrialized meat in the Bay area.

Polyface’s “Beyond Organic” slogan means that the farm will not ship its products farther than a four-hour drive, which includes the locavore markets of Northern Virginia, Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, as well as Kensington, MD, and Annapolis.

The high-end meat goes for high-end prices: broilers sell for $20 each, and a single boneless ribeye goes for $33.38.

Laying chickens are kept in mobile pens that can be moved around to reduce their impact on individual fields. (Dave Harp)But to his fans, the taste — of everything from pork ribs to eggs to steak — is worth it, knowing that it is not coming from the large-scale animal feeding operations that supply most of the meat found in typical supermarkets.

“I drive to Polyface 150 miles one way in order to get clean meat for my family,” a customer identified only as “V. K.” wrote on the farm’s website. “These eggs just jump up and slap you in the face,” wrote another, known as “F. J.”

Salatin inherited his approach to farming from his father, but he’s certainly taken it up a notch. Salatin’s parents, William and Lucille, bought the initial 550-acre portion of what is now the 650-acre Polyface (“many faces”) Farm in 1961, when Joel was 4 years old. At the time, it was “the most worn-out, eroded, abused farm in the area,” according to the farm website. 

Joel Salatin said that as a child he used to sell the farm’s eggs to local residents via bicycle. After college, he worked for two and a half years reporting for the Staunton News Leader, but the family farm called him back.

Over time, as he assumed management of the farm, Salatin said that he amplified the environmental standards that his father, against the general practice, had applied to land management. These included planting trees, digging ponds and onsite composting, along with the daily rotational movement of cattle and poultry. He used portable electric fencing and “invented portable sheltering systems,” or mobile chicken coops, to shuttle the animals to different pasturing areas and maximize the fields’ grazing potential and subsequent fertilization. 

Polyface’s management techniques and a steady supply of idealistic farmhands means less investment in costly machinery, fuel and infrastructure. Salatin offers two categories of unpaid onsite learning that attract people from all over the country for a summer. One, an internship, lasts for five months; the other, an apprenticeship, extends for two full years past an internship.

Austen Fitzhenry of Charleston, SC, interned at Polyface in 2008. He was right out of high school, and said that his workdays varied, but were inevitably busy. 

Awakening at 5:45 a.m. to gather eggs and drag the mobile chicken coops to freshly cattle-grazed pasture, Fitzhenry and his cohort of “farm experiencers,” as the interns were labeled, were packed into the Roost, a “humble little mobile home, and absolutely perfect,” he said. 

Intern Jade Daniel (left) and Apprentice Renae Schlatter package chickens for shipment to restaurants. (Dave Harp) Fitzhenry said that some of his fellow interns were serious about farming, while others, like him, were simply there to learn about sustainable food production. Now a conservation biologist, Fitzhenry said that his experience at Polyface formed a lasting legacy on his professional and personal outlook. He raises laying hens bred from some that he acquired from Polyface.

“Understanding farming is important to understanding the solutions to almost every conservation issue,” he said, “so I consider my background with Polyface one of the most essential foundations of my career as a conservationist.”

This recurrent influx of low-cost labor, paid only in room and locally sourced board, is crucial to meeting Polyface’s particular nonchemical, mostly non-mechanical needs. Without it, Salatin’s operation might not be able to survive. But it’s one of the chief hurdles preventing many other farmers from following in Salatin’s footsteps — it’s hard enough to find paid help, let alone a legion of volunteers that can keep the costs of production so low.

But Salatin said that with his tutorial approach to farm management, there is a constant stream of applicants eager to learn his ways and spread the word about the farm. He believes that today’s farms are themselves pricing newcomers out of the business with their costly investments in heavy farm machinery, chemicals and infrastructure.

At Polyface, the cattle, sheep and pigs are fenced out of the farm’s waterways, an environmentally sensitive practice that’s still not caught on among many Shenandoah Valley farmers, despite the availability of state and federal funds to defray the cost of fencing and alternative animal watering systems. Salatin did it not so much to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay or to keep sediment and animal manure from fouling downstream; he did it mainly to prevent his own animals from drinking from a stream that may carry traces of hormones, antibiotics or other farm chemicals from his upstream neighbors. And in keeping with his libertarian views, Salatin paid for it all himself.

By providing steaks, ribs and drumsticks that are assertively not produced through Big Agra chemotherapy, but are gleaned from free range/cage-free animals, Salatin offers those who are able to afford it both a healthier and, in his view, an even more humane way to eat meat.

Clearly, Joel Salatin’s approaches aren’t for everyone, and certainly not for consumers who can’t afford his extravagant products. But for those who can, even if they don’t eat meat regularly and scrimp to purchase occasional extravaganzas on the side, Salatin said he believes that the knowledge of where our food comes from, and what went into its making, increasingly means that we must hold our suppliers accountable. Eccentricities aside, Polyface’s farmer contends he’s offering consumers a new — or renewed, historically speaking — appreciation of what’s really on their plates.