visiting the Salatins at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia

the entrance to Polyface farm in Swoope, Virginia.

the entrance to Polyface farm in Swoope, Virginia.

I have applied to be a Polyface Summer Intern with Joel Salatin and his family for two years in a row. The first year I did not make it past the first round of questions, but the second year I did, and was invited as one of 45 “check outs” for a two day visit this last December. I want to share my experience with you, but will first explain the application and acceptance process.

Each August (usually from the 1-10th), there is a link available on the Polyface website with instructions on how to apply. They send you a questionnaire with about 10 questions which you must respond to and email to them usually by the end of August. I do not think it would be fair or right for me to share all of the questions here, but I will give you one of them:

What is the hardest job you’ve ever done and why?

There are some simple questions, but a few difficult ones as well. They seem to rather accurately reflect the character, strengths, and weaknesses of each applicant. Once they receive all of the applications (there are usually 200-400), Joel and his wife as well as Joel’s son Daniel and his wife all individually read each application and rate the applicant with a “YES” a “NO” and possibly something in-between. Once they have all 4 individually read each application, they come together and figure out how each applicant scored. It is easy for them when a good number (at least 40) of applicants received “FOUR YESES.” Sometime they need to dip into the pool of “THREE YESES and a NO”. I have heard Joel say that at times they will each pick some favorites and spend time discussing and convincing one another of who should be chosen. In this last round of applicants, they said they were able to ask only those who had received “FOUR YESES”. I was one of them. Although, the year before I did not make it past this stage.

From there, about 45 applicants are informed that they have been chosen to come visit Polyface in early December for a mandatory 2-day “check-out”, where we have the chance to meet and eat with all of the Salatins for all meals, and for them to observe our work ethic and abilities with daily tasks like chopping and chipping wood, feeding animals, collecting and sorting eggs etc.

After two weeks of a whirlwind of cooking for, working with, and meeting dozens of applicants, the Salatins take a deep breath, order pizza, and share their observations and reflections. They each pick out their favorites and have to narrow down the list from 45 to 7-9. They take this task very seriously, and although I can’t claim to know their decision-making process, I am sure they choose a group of people who they can work with, who can work together, and who will be most positively influenced by the experience. I was told that for the first time in the 20 plus years of taking interns, this last year they didn’t have any “check-outs” that they wouldn’t have taken. So it was a tough year for deciding on the lucky 7-9, and I was not one of them.

But I had a truly fantastic experience with my 3 days and 4 nights at Polyface. I had some quality time with all of the Salatins, the best sausage and eggs I’ve ever had, some interesting work, lots of laughs, and great conversations. It was beautiful, educational, inspiring, and encouraging. Allow me to share a few of my photos. I did not take as many as I should have, but here are a few…

Intern housing

intern housing

I stayed in the little cabin in the foreground with the other gals, and the guys stayed in the larger red cabin in the background. It is a very quaint area with a lovely view of the surrounding hills. The photo below is the view I had from my cabin. I walking this pasture up the hill a ways and had a fantastic view of the little valley where the farm sits, and the surrounding hills. It was certainly very beautiful.

a pasture near the intern accommodations

a pasture near the intern accommodations

I happened to be at Polyface on a day of rest, so although I put in a full 2 days of work, I had a little time to stroll around around the farm. I found these bee boxes nearby the cabin where I stayed.

langstroth hives

langstroth hives

The following photo shows the view I had of the lane leading to the big, very old Salatin Farm House.

Polyface driveway

Polyface driveway

The pasture in the photo below is where the cows had recently been rotated from.

another Polyface pasture

another Polyface pasture

The following road led me to the back of the property, where I found several ponds, an old orchard, some back pastures, and some lovely woodland.

pond road

pond road

And here is one of the ponds I happened upon:

Polyface pond

Polyface pond

During my 3 days at Polyface, I spent time working with Joel, Daniel, the current apprentices, and my fellow applicants. We moved A LOT of firewood, chipped A LOT of wood, fixed fences, moved pigs, fed chickens and rabbits, washed and stacked A LOT of coolers, and dealt with the evening egg processing. During the winter, Joel keeps his hens, rabbits, and pigs in large hoop houses where he uses a “deep bedding” approach by providing a deep layer of wood chips that keeps the animals clean and warm. Here are a few photos of the animals in their winter homes:

a few of the hoop houses

a few of the hoop houses

young "pullet" hens

young “pullet” hens

hens with rabbits in elevated hutches

hens with rabbits in elevated hutches

waiting at the door

waiting at the door

Polyface pigs

Polyface pigs

I helped feed and water the chickens, pigs, and rabbits a few times. Joel keeps a few guard geese in the hoop houses, and they took their jobs seriously. These hens and pigs are of course out on pasture in the warmer months, but I will say that those deeply bedded hoop houses were both clean and warm. I am a big fan of this method, for over-wintering creatures. I did happen upon some of the famous Salatin “Eggmobiles” and “Broiler Pens”. They were stowed away at the corner of a pasture, lying in wait for the coming summer season.

an official Salatin eggmobile

an official Salatin eggmobile

I spent quite a bit of time washing and stacking coolers in the chicken processing area, shown below. Notice all of the “killing cones” in the background.

Salatin chicken processing area

Salatin chicken processing area

I met several dozen likeminded folks while I was visiting Polyface, listened to at least a dozen of Joel Salatin’s funny stories while sitting around their dining room table late at night, washed many many dozens of chicken eggs (and ate quite a few of them too). I knew it would be unlikely that I’d be chosen for the summer internship, considering that of the 7-9 interns, usually only 2-3 are women. But having the chance to visit Polyface farm in an intimate way, and to have a taste of the every day living there, was priceless. I even had an hour of one-on-one time with Joel himself, when he drove me to the airport. We talked about his book “Fields of Farmers” (which, by the way, is a must read for anyone interested in the internship or apprenticeship programs at Polyface), about the opportunities for young farmers, starting a business, Sepp Holzer, etc. It was truly a special opportunity, and one that I will look back to often. I may even apply again just so I can visit again, to hear more stories from Joel and eat more sausage. =)

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