I recently got back from a crazy five-day trip to the D.C. area. In that time, I spread some DIY Bacon love to Maryland where I taught a private lesson on bacon curing, I got to hang out with the wonderful Celia from On Cardamom and Cast Iron, and see the sights from the windows of a train, but best of all was my trip to visit Michael Kilpatrick, of Kilpatrick Family Farm (KFF), at Polyface Farms. (Editor’s Note: Michael applied for and was selected into Polyface Farm’s apprenticeship program, more specifically their 4-month summer program.)
When Michael left at the beginning of summer to begin his apprenticeship, I knew I’d have to find a way to go visit. No matter the cost or hassle, I wanted to get a first-hand look at a place I had only dreamt of.
Back in early 2009 my husband was reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He was telling me about Joel Salatin and how he wouldn’t ship any of his products all of the way to Michael Pollan. That really struck me. This farmer in rural Virginia wasn’t going to ship meat more than four hours away; even to a guy who was going to put him in a book??! Wow, that was conviction!
Around that time I started thinking about how great it would be to go down and see the farm. It seemed like a very far off dream. I knew Joel did speaking engagements so I just assumed it would be more likely that one day I’d travel to hear him speak somewhere. When he made a visit to KFF and spoke to a smallish group, it was more than I could have expected. So when Michael told me Joel would actually be over at the Mother Earth News Fair during my visit, I wasn’t upset at all.
As I drove through the winding roads of Swoope, Virginia to the farm I couldn’t believe how absolutely beautiful the area is. There are rolling hills, stone walls, lots of cows, and the leaves were just barely beginning to turn. It was picturesque and I could hardly believe it was real. When I got to the entrance of the farm I just knew I was in for a treat.
There were several people in the farm store buying meat and Daniel Salatin was talking to a few customers. When he was done, I asked him if he knew where Michael was and one of Daniel’s young sons was nice enough to escort me over. Michael was over by the tools and scrap metal, working on a woodworking project. After we said our “hellos” he took me around the farm.
The farm was so much different from what I had pictured it in my mind. It’s not how you would think of a typical farm, because it isn’t. It’s more like a nature preserve that has some animals in a few places. The land and animals seem to coexist perfectly, each taking what it needs from the other, nothing depleted.
The back of the property is a mountain and Michael drove us halfway up to see two different areas with pigs. One area was a place where they had made a pond and the pigs were lounging around it. The other was a clearing in the woods where the pigs could forage for acorns.
We saw all of the pastured chickens and Michael explained how they come out each morning to move the pens to fresh grass. He also showed us the area where they process the chickens. (The processing area also happens to be in one of the most remembered scenes from Food, Inc..) They work as a team and can get almost 400 chickens completely processed in about 2 hours. That was absolutely amazing to me.
When we visited some laying hens I stumbled across a small egg, laid haphazardly on the floor, and nestled it back into a laying box. Meanwhile I was being squawked at by hens and gawked at by rabbits. Joel has made the most of the vertical space in the area where these animals live so the rabbit cages are elevated and the chickens walk below. All of their droppings become rich compost. Everything used, everything has a purpose.
Michael showed us a structure that is being built for next year’s interns. One large beam inside was actually cut by him, as Joel has been letting him do some woodwork. Next to that building is the building where the female interns stay. I met a few other interns earlier in the day, but then got to hang out with two of the ladies all afternoon in their cozy little house.
They served us homemade kombucha and I got to share all sorts of tidbits about KFF that they wouldn’t otherwise know. We talked about food and animals and about their summer so far. Then Michael and I went into nearby Staunton for some pizza and ice cream. Staunton is a really lovely town and if you ever happen to be near it, I suggest you check it out.
Michael comes home very soon. This summer went by so fast. I’m really glad he was able to have that experience, and I’m excited about what it could mean for KFF going forward.
Two days after I left they surprised Joel by decorating the whole farm with balloons to celebrate his 30th year of full-time farming. Most everyone thought he was crazy when he left his job at a local newspaper, not only to farm, but to farm (in his own words) like a “lunatic.” Michael is a bit of a lunatic farmer himself. He took a huge leap of faith by leaving his own farm during the busiest time of year to have this incredible experience.
In being there, and just seeing how things looked so “normal” to me, and in taking that journey with my seven-year-old to boot, I’m fairly certain I must be something of a lunatic too. The farm just seemed right, although it’s quite the opposite of conventional. As I begin my own journey into farming I realize I’d much rather be in this company of lunatics than do it any other way.