Days 267-270: Virginia! William McDonough Architects and Polyface and Blenheim Farms

What a terrific couple of days in Virginia! Holy cows!
We stopped by William McDonough & Partners in downtown Charlottesville, where Kira Gould showed us the creative building rooms and concepts for commissions all over the world, and architect Kevin Burke, Director of Practice, described how architecture is changing to reflect sustainability and how McDonough’s vision of imitating natural systems is put into practice by the partners in the firm. (For those unfamiliar, William McDonough co-authored an amazing book called Cradle to Cradle with German chemist, Michael Braungart, which rethinks design so that “waste” is understood for what it is – an inefficiency, a flaw in the system. This book joins about 20 others that we consider to be the most important environmental reads of our time, and which make up our traveling YERT library. It’s exactly the kind of thing that innovative and industrial Americans can sink their teeth into, and it’s FUN. I HIGHLY recommend it.

Another book the YERT team can’t speak highly enough of is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma…though here’s where I admit to being the sole YERT traveler who has not yet put the e-book into my headphones thing… Still, that didn’t take away from my enjoying our wonderful visit with farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. I loved it.

We left our little nest at the Comfort Inn in Charlottesville for Swoope, VA, early in the morning, hoping that the full grey skies would hold off letting loose for the afternoon. After driving an hour through beautiful rolling hills and countryside, we came to a great patch of green pasture with russet-colored chickens running all over it, and some little wagons. This had to be it.

Joel’s wife, Theresa, came out to meet us, shook hands and told us that Joel was up with the pigs and would be down shortly, Why didn’t we make ourselves familiar with the chickens in the yard while we waited? We dodged the electric fence and Ben and Mark filmed b-roll of the perky birds until Joel showed up to make proper introductions to “the ladies.” He showed the boys how to catch a hen and hold her with just one hand, showed the nests and eggs in the “eggmobiles.” I had fun filming Mark with the little camera chasing after chickens and getting smeared with chicken poop. Ben helped Joel empty buckets of grain into the little shelters, and we watched Joel pull one unlucky hen from a completely stuck position between the slats…and the rain held off…

There is plenty on the Polyface website to describe what Joel is doing but my take was this: Like Cradle to Cradle, Joel uses the animals and natural systems in the most common sense way possible – a closed loop of resource, rebirth and healing for the earth and her critters…

His cattle graze on pasture, mowing the grass (to a manageable length for poultry) while adding their own manure as compost. Then they are moved on to new grass and the eggmobiles are brought in so the chickens can “sanitize” the cowpies, eating the fly larvae and adding their own droppings to the fertility of the soil.

Then Joel showed us the pigerator. In the winter, a layer of corn is laid down in the dry barn where the cows are kept, and hay is constantly layered thick for bedding, keeping them dry and clean, until by Spring the floor under the cows’ hooves is several feet high. When the cows are let out in warm weather to pasture, the pigs are brought in from the forest (where they have been foraging acorns, among many other delectable things). What results is Hog Heaven! The pigs spend a joyful month rooting around this seemingly endless pile of cow manure and rotting hay for the fermenting corn beneath, turning and aerating the layers into the best compost (really good dirt) you ever saw. And it didn’t smell like pigs, or at least not the pungent stench I remember sharply accosting the nostrils from pig farms in KY and Indiana back when I was growing up. It mostly just smelled like dirt! (People who tune in to YERT will eventually see some pretty fine footage of Ben trying to help the pigs do their job and of Mark accidentally riding one.) Though Mark and Ben got right in there with Joel and the porkers, I still had trouble getting past the fact that they were wallowing in ****, so I pretty much kept my interaction on the level of…conversation, from outside the pen. The animals seemed to really like Joel, coming to him for scratches and pets, and running between his legs. I asked Joel if he ever felt bad/sad taking a pig to market, and he said, “No way. Each one’s got a $500 price tag!” And that is how a farmer makes his living. I sort of rolled that around my brain as one of the bigger pigs came over for my side of the fence for a scratch with the stick I was holding…and then it started to rain…

We left Polyface Farm with a dozen gorgeous eggs, 3 wonderful books which Joel authored (Thank you, Joel!) (he has several), and many new thoughts about pigerators and eggmobiles to take with us on our travels, as well as Joel’s suggestion to visit one of the restaurants which sells Polyface meat. Ben called Angelo Vangelopoulos, the owner of Ivy Inn in Charlottesville, who set up a tasting for us! All I can say is The food was AMAZING. All 3 of us agreed that it was one of our very best meals of the entire trip. Polyface wasn’t the only local organic food on the menu; there were several farms’ fares. But Joel’s pigs were delectable. Mark swore he could taste the trees. And the creme brulee, made with Joel’s ladies’ eggs, was delicious. Mark said it rivaled what he’s eaten in France, and Ben ate the 2nd half of mine. I thought it delicious and I don’t even like creme brulee!

The next day we returned to record Angelo’s thoughts about the challenges of running a small restaurant with organic local food within the guidelines of the FDA, while supporting small farmers. He let us know right away that it isn’t easy but to him there is no other way. Our tummies were rewarded, as is Joel’s livelihood. Before we left, we asked him where he goes when he is looking for something fast, good and not too expensive. He answered with our favorite fast food joint on YERT: Chipotle’s. Already we had come to love and appreciate the hormone-and-antibiotic-free meat, but when we got to the counter of the Chipotle’s just out of town, we couldn’t believe our eyes – they were making burritos with meat from Polyface! Quite thrilling, not to mention outrageously good.

Our last scheduled interview was at Blenheim Farm, on our way to Washington DC. Family-owned and operated by Lawrence & Becky Latane (prounounced “latnee”) and their three 20-something kids on a permanent conservation easement, Blenheim Organic Gardens is part of a larger 400 acre preserve. It began as an organic vegetable garden that expanded as needs and opportunities arose to a fully operating certified organic CSA, with presence at farmers markets.

We spilled out of the car and were greeted by the most gregarious of the family dogs, Gus (who stole much of the film footage, I warn you now, and you will see why at at later date.) I’m terribly sad that I haven’t any photos to show of this lovely family and their fantastic little farm – I started getting a migraine right when I got there, so I couldn’t really see for most of the time we were with them, and then I was off my game! UGH. I was whisked inside and given coffee while the youngest, daughter Sage, passed around homemade lemon squares and then made me eat raw potatoes (she heard they help headaches – Thank you, ladies).

Outside, the boys interviewed Lawrence, and let Becky, Sage, and son, Cameron, say what they love about organic farming. Becky Latane plucked me the sweetest spinach I have ever tasted. EVER. I have never thought of spinach as sweet. She thinks it’s the dirt. Maybe it is. Or maybe its the love. Or maybe I am pregnant and gushy. I am thrilled every time we run into people who are making good things with the earth, every time we encounter respect and harmony.

From Joel’s respect for the pigness of the pig, to Angelo’s regard for real food’s making people happy, to fast food chains willing to take a chance on healthy local meat, to the Latanes’ love for the earth and producing with it, I felt renewed. I feel full of superlatives but that was Virginia for me, and they all made it – wonderful. And baby gets no pesticides!!!

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