An Augusta County farmer renowned for his contributions to the local-food movement is looking forward to seeing a documentary about his third-generation farm at the Virginia Film Festival.
“They have captured our essence better than any other videography crew that has come through,” said Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm.
Salatin and his family’s approach to farming is the subject of “Polyfaces,” a documentary produced by an Australian nonprofit group called Regrarians. The organization provides resources for people who want to regenerate depleted landscapes.
“We thought that if we made a film about Polyface Farm we could reach more people faster,” said Lisa Heenan, co-director and producer of the film. “The Salatin family has a great story that we wanted to tell and that we think resonates with both farmers and consumers alike.”
The film premiered at the Life Sciences Film Festival in Prague this fall and won the Minister for Agriculture Award. It will make its American debut in Charlottesville on Saturday.
Heenan and co-director Isaebella Doherty visited the farm several times over a three-year period.
“They were really able to capture the farm, as well as truly being alternative agricultural teachers and proponents,” Salatin said. “This is being done by people who actually have their roots in agriculture, alternative farming and permaculture.”
Polyface Farm is located in Swoope in the Shenandoah Valley. Salatin has lived there since 1961 when his parents bought the property. It was wrecked.
“It was a gullied rock pile,” Salatin said. “It was the most abused and exploited land in the community and because of that it was so cheap. That’s why we bought it.”
The Shenandoah Valley was intensely farmed during the first few centuries following colonization. In a young country, Salatin said there was always the option of pushing farther west to find virgin soil so there was no need to take care of the land. There were no conservation practices and no concept of sediment control.
“Arguably between 3 and 5 feet of topsoil washed out of the Shenandoah Valley during this time,” Salatin said, adding that rocky outcrops throughout the region demonstrate the damage done to the land.
So when his family began farming, there was a lot of work to be done to restore the land.
William Salatin, Joel’s father, looked to natural systems to figure out how to farm without chemicals. That meant using livestock to help take care of the land.
“There is no animal-less ecology,” Salatin said. “Animals are integrally and symbiotically woven into the fabric of the landscape.”
“Every day, people are getting burned out of the pharmaceutical and chemical approach, whether it is for medical or dietary issues.”
Joel SalatinJoel Salatin
Animals feed where vegetables grow and the nutrients in their waste are used as fertilizer. The Salatins invented portable electric fences that could be used to direct cows where to graze. Their hooves pound the dirt, opening and aerating the soil.
“At Polyface they have mixed species, planned grazing system where they move the cattle every day, which in turn is followed by … turkeys and chickens and, in some cases, pigs,” Heenan said. “This diversity of livestock and disturbances creates ecological opportunities to the land that increases plant and soil microbial diversity and volume.”
Over the years, Polyface also has been working to establish itself as a farm that only provides food to people in the region. They don’t ship their products long distances.
“We understood this idea of actually serving a local community with high-quality food and direct marketing,” Salatin said.
to order tickets for Saturday’s American premiere of POLYFACES
The Internet has increased the farm’s ability to communicate directly with customers, allowing for sales to grow.
“Every day, people are getting burned out of the pharmaceutical and chemical approach, whether it is for medical or dietary issues,” Salatin said.
Salatin has inspired a generation of farmers, such as the owner of Caromont Farm in Esmont.
“When I went to Polyface for the first time, Joel took us out on a hay wagon, and I saw the green fields and the chicken tractors,” said Gail Hobbs-Page. “I never bought another icky, pale, tasteless commercial chicken again.”
However, Hobbs-Page said she is concerned that regulations threaten the way she chooses to make her cheese.
“I own this Caromont dirt, and that is the only thing I can control,” she said. “We are going off a regulatory cliff, and it will be quite expensive for small businesses to comply.”
Heenan said she wants the film to be bigger than “Food Inc.,” a 2008 documentary about agriculture that has grossed $4.6 million worldwide. The difference with her film, she said, is that it provides hope.
“We made it to inspire people to become more conscious as consumers and to help save humanity by purchasing from their local producers who have the health of the planet and all its inhabitants as their main priority,” Heenan said.
“There’s a lot of fear in our culture,” he said. “People are afraid of a lot of things, and what this film does is offer hope. It replaces fear with faith, faith in a designed system, and that is a hopeful thing.”
The film will screen at 4:45 p.m. Saturday at the Dickinson Theater at Piedmont Virginia Community College, followed by a question and answer session with Salatin and the filmmakers.
Charlottesville Tomorrow will host a reception following the screening of Polyfaces in the Dickinson Theater parking lot where the public can meet local organizations who provide and support community access to local food. The reception is free and open to the public.
For ticket information, visit www.virginiafilmfestival.org.