I recently visited Polyface Farms in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. For those not familiar with the farm, run by Joel Salatin, I suggest the book Omnivore's Dilemma, which gives a great description of it.
What makes Polyface so interesting is the complete disregard for modern industrial farming practices. Joel makes a big deal about the moral aspects of his farming, and I have to say that, after seeing it myself, I have to agree. If I ate meat, I would only eat meat from Polyface. What makes the place so amazing is the symbiosis between the land and the animals.
That of course does not make it perfect. In fact, my visit has only confirmed my fears that Polyface, despite the claims of Joel, is not a sustainable or scalable model. Beyond the problem that the Shenandoah Valley is a very unique and amazing place to farm, the method is not as clean as many would like to believe. What follows are some photos and notes from the tour.
The eggs are laid by hens in the "egg mobile", who are totally free to move around.
Here we see Joel moving the broiler cages. All of the chickens feed off the land with a supplemental protein feed mix. Moving the cage ensures that the animals are picking up fresh bugs, etc. from the ground, as well as interacting with the land in a more natural way than factory farmed chickens. There's no wasted time or infrastructure from scooping chicken waste.
While its great that the birds have actual contact with grass, it's not sustainable. Polyface does not raise the birds in winter, and so must buy eggs from other farms to replenish their stock each year. Each chicken on the farm was thus the child of a factory raised bird. Without a (very) small scale home farm, there's no way to keep the chickens 365 days a year like this.
So, buying Polyface chickens is best for the birds on Polyface farms, but it still means a factory life, and the promotion of a factory life, for other birds.
Here we see Joel with his prized cattle. These are 100% grass fed for their entire lives. From watching them slowly move across the land, its not a bad life either.
Like all of the animals on Polyface, the cattle are a natural part of the land, not something that simply extracts from it, but also adding back. There are though at least three major problems with this system of raising animals.
First, as I have previously mentioned, there is the problem of land needed to raise cattle. In a factory farm, cows live for 400 days, yield 300 kgs of beef and requires 20.9 square meters of land per kg of beef. That's about 1.5 acres per cow per 400 days.
According to Joel (from the best of three answers I got about the raising of the animals), the land needs for the cattle on Polyface is 400 cow days per acre. The problem is that time to slaughter on Polyface takes 20-29 months. That's twice the lifespan of a factory cow, and so they take 33% more land. Pastoral cattle though normally produce about half the meat of a factory farm cattle, which makes this even worse. I don't know the final weight of the animal at Polyface, but this means a pound of Polyface beef takes at least 33% to as much as 167% as much land to produce. Given we are already using a lot of land to produce the meat people are already eating, this would not be a sustainable increase.
Second, in conjunction with the land needs, and along with the added costs of 100% grass farming, there is the price. A pound of beef at Polyface starts at $4.25 for ground beef and goes up from there. Average ground beef in the U.S. is about $2.50, going as low as $1.00.
The benefit of this is that Polyface beef is probably priced much closer to the real social price of beef, so I have no problem with the price. Scaling up of such a program, which Joel thinks is feasible, means that the days of $1 burgers at McDonalds would be gone. Again, fine with me, but there is no way Americans will be able to afford the amount of beef they eat now.
Finally, there is the environmental impact of the cows. I have gotten some letters from grass farmers in California and have responded to some concerns in the latest Scientific American letters section. The short of it is that pastoral cows are in fact still a major source of greenhouse gases, and they do not solve environmental issues.
One interesting note from Joel on the tour was his reference to the environmental benefits of grass farming. Specifically, to Carbon Farmers of America. This is where I must point out the disappointing part of Joel's rhetorical technique: his hatred of science, and (despite this) his dealing in absolutes.
During the tour, Joel made the claim that grass farming can sequester all of the carbon mankind is producing. This makes his farming method something of a panacea for the environment. Sadly, there is no evidence that sequestration works, or that grass farming can solve so much. The science is weak, and the numbers don't add up.
Despite my above critiques, I stand by the farming methods of Polyface farms, but not for the reasons Joel and other grass farmers would have us believe. 300 million Americans cannot each eat 92 pounds of beef a year and get it from environmentally or morally friendly sources. Polyface is the only future of farming that has any moral grounding, and it means everyone eats a lot less meat.