'Chicken Day' at the Farm of Many Faces

Reveals how a couple working 50 hours a week for six months
on 8 hectares can NET $25,000.

First of two parts. . . .By George DeVault

Above: The assembly line on one of the 4 "chicken days" that happen each month during the 6-month season.  


From late May through early October, the Salatin family slaughters up to 8,000 broilers on their farm in the scenic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Today is another 'Chicken Day.' Seven workers gather in the farm's open-air processing pavilion. They are eager to start, because the driver who will deliver the freshly dressed chickens to gourmet restaurants in cities 80 to 240 kilometers away will arrive in just two-and-a-half hours. Besides, it's cold and windy this morning. The workers need to keep busy to stay warm.

The group represents three generations of the Salatin family: Matriarch Lucille Salatin, her son Joel, his wife Teresa and their two children, 16-year-old Daniel and 10-year-old Rachel. Then there is Joshua 'Cowboy Josh' Griggs, a 20-year-old from the state of Washington, who is living at the Salatin farm for a one-year apprenticeship. (Another apprentice, Daniel Bergen, left that morning to return to his home state of Maine after spending two months on the farm.) Pat O'Connor from Florida just happened to be in the area. He stopped for a day to learn by helping.

Polyface Farm has become a Mecca for beginning farmers who want to follow in the Salatins' pioneering footsteps. The farm is called Polyface -- 'Farm of Many Faces' -- because, unlike most American farms, it is highly diversified. Instead of producing only grains, milk or meat, Polyface offers beef, eggs and poultry (broilers and stewing hens), turkey, pork, rabbit, firewood and other forest products and even some vegetables. All of the animals are fed on pasture as much as possible rather than on grain.

'I am the privileged third generation to continue the principles based on the belief that God created the Earth and established humanity as its steward, to nurture, protect and embellish. This philosophy precludes the use of toxic chemicals, debasing substances, and erosive practices, and instills instead an insatiable thirst for agricultural truth,' Joel Salatin wrote in the introduction to his popular 1993 book 'Pastured Poultry Profits.' The book explains, step-by-step, how a couple working 50 hours a week for six months on just eight hectares can net at least $25,000 a year with an investment equivalent to the price of one new medium-sized tractor. 'Seldom has agriculture held out such a plum. In a day when main-line farm experts predict the continued demise of the family farm, the pastured poultry opportunity shines like a beacon in the night.' A former newspaper reporter, Salatin has also written a book on his 'Salad Bar Beef' and produced a video on the entire farm.

Consumers also flock to his farm. Polyface Farm now has about 400 regular customers who want to buy fresh, more nutritious meat, eggs and vegetables directly from the people who produce it all. Many consumers drive more than 200 kilometers to pick up their meat and produce at Polyface Farm. They pay $3.19 per kilo for broilers and $2.97 per kilo for the larger 'stewing hens,' which have been laying eggs for the past two years. Those customers will begin arriving midday. They will be gone by 5 p.m. And so will all of the 250 broilers that still must be killed and cleaned -- in just the next two hours.

Slaughter begins promptly at 8:30 a.m. The goal is to be completely finished by 10:30 a.m. O'Connor, the least skilled of the workers, manhandles the first of 30 crates of birds from a stack on a tractor-drawn trailer outside the pavilion. The birds were taken off of feed and crated about 12 hours earlier so that their craws would be clear for slaughter. He grabs the birds by their feet. Wings flap. Eight white chickens are up-ended in the galvanized metal 'killing cones' at the far end of the processing line. Razor-sharp boning knives flash in the early morning sun. The chickens' throats have been slit. Bright red blood flows down a metal trough and into a large plastic bucket. In a minute or so, the chickens are 'bled out.' They're moved on to the next station in the processing line. And a fresh batch of birds is inserted into the cones.


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