Posts Tagged ‘Personal Narrative’

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By: Jessica Miles

When I was in college, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. In the book, he mentions Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms. I was awestruck by the way Pollan described Joel’s philosophy on farming and meat production. Joel is known for saying that everything he wants to do is illegal. Yet, everything about the way Polyface conducts itself resonates with me. 

In September, I fulfilled a longstanding dream and toured the Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. I had the pleasure of meeting Heather Juda, who has raised animals for Polyface in the past and who was my tour guide.

Our first stop is to visit the pigs. I watch as young pigs immediately trot over to the thin electric fence. Heather points out pigs have a “built-in” shovel on their noses. Because pigs are omnivores, they love rooting for goodies on the forest floor.

Happily squealing pigs root around the ground or laze in the dappled sun.

By keeping the pigs in silva or acorn pastures, Polyface is reintroducing disturbance to the forest. When the pigs root through the earth looking for things to eat, they turn the soil over, providing favorable conditions for certain seeds and thinning the forest underbrush. The pig’s current pasture is very open, with broken stalks of plant matter jutting up erratically. Lush green undergrowth crowds an adjacent undisturbed field. Polyface pigs move every 7-10 days, ensuring the pigs’ activity never progresses from disturbance to destruction. Pigs are both sassy and stubborn, Heather informs us, so the only way to move them is by closing their feeding trough a day ahead of time, and then sprinkling a trail of feed for the pigs to snuffle and follow.

To get to the chickens, we have to hike up a rather steep hill. The view at the top is worth it. A lush green field ringed with mountains in the near distance, and clear blue skies lift my spirits. Out here, it’s peaceful, which makes it easy to forget that time is soup and the world is currently on fire.

Chickens at Polyface fall into two categories: broilers (the kind you eat) and laying hens. Broilers are kept in shelters that can hold up to 75 at a time. Compared to an industrial farming setup, Polyface chickens have a good deal. A chicken rests in the sun with its leg splayed out in front of it. Heather informs us the chicken is “sunbathing.”

Another key element of chicken operations at Polyface are the 3 M’s:

Mobile: Unlike industrial operations that utilize permanent infrastructure, Polyface’s broiler pens are mobile and can be moved by one person. Chickens are naturally eating and pooping machines. Chicken feces contain high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. To prevent runoff, Heather and other Polyface employees arrange broiler pens diagonally and move them daily to avoid overlap and nutrient oversaturation.

Modular: Each chicken shelter only costs 300 dollars to build. Compared to a traditional hen house, Polyface’s model is more affordable, requires less land, and is infinitely scalable, making it more accessible to beginning farmers.

Management Intensive: Both broiler shelters and the laying hens’ “Egg Mobile” are moved daily. The chickens spread the nutrients found in cow poop through the process of them scratching through cow pies in search of fly larvae.

One of the more shocking facts Heather shares is on the seasonality of eggs. At Polyface, they only raise chickens in the warmer months, to account for the chicken’s natural dislike and susceptibility to the cold. In an industrial setting, artificial lights prevent the hens from sensing when it’s time to stop producing eggs. Hence, the average person is always able to find eggs at the grocery store.

Our final stop is to see the cows. Unlike in a traditional setting, Polyface cows aren’t fed grain in any part of their diet.

The key element of Polyface’s approach to cattle grazing is in the grass.

Heather plucks a long blade of grass from the ground, holding it in a rough “S” shape. The bottom of the curve, Heather tells us, is known as the “diaper stage,” where the grass is young and isn’t growing much. The same is true for the top of the curve or “nursing home” stage. In this stage, the grass has grown as tall as available resources have allowed, slowing growth and carbon sequestration rate. However, the “teenage stage” in the middle of the curve is where the grass proliferates. Through photosynthesis, the grass sucks carbon dioxide out of the air.

By volume, grass sucks more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than trees. Polyface has transformed its soil from having 1% nutrients and organic matter to 8% in just 60 years. The same increase would’ve taken 100 years to occur naturally. Polyface cows are moved from pasture to pasture every day so that the grass is not grazed past the teenage stage, therefore remaining in a constant state of carbon sequestration.

Barn where cows are overwintered and Polyface creates its own compost through carbon bedding

I learned a lot while touring Polyface Farms. However, the most important aspect was the impact it had on my parents. Neither my mom or dad could stop talking about how surprised they were to hear of the differences between Polyface’s operation and traditional farming. My mom was particularly struck with the seasonality of eggs. To me, the effect this tour had on my traditional parents highlights the effectiveness of educating people in person about the impact of the food system. When it’s real and it’s in front of them most people find it hard to ignore. 


Jessica Miles is a graduate of Chatham University’s MFA creative writing program, where she studied creative nonfiction with a concentration in nature writing. She is passionate about the polar bears and the Arctic. You can follow her on Medium @jessthenaturewriter

An American River


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The Racial History of the Anacostia Is the Racial History of the United States

Photo: Crossing the Anacostia River outside the West Hyattsville Metro

By: Eliza Nellums

In these hazy days of social distance, I like to walk along the trails that follow the Anacostia River through Prince George’s County, Maryland. There I see my neighbors, mostly people of color, cooling off in the water and teaching their kids to fish. 

But the fish in the Anacostia are dangerous to eat and, in some places, just touching the sediment at the bottom of the river is considered a cancer risk – due to “legacy toxins” from industrial development. I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy toxins – of all kinds – lately. 

The Anacostia River is only nine miles long. It flows south from Prince George’s County, through Southeast D.C. – where it gives its name to a neighborhood in Ward 8 – before it empties into the Potomac. From there the water travels into the Chesapeake Bay. 

But along its short length, it contains six different superfund sites.

The river has a rich role in American history. The name “Anacostia” is taken from the native peoples recorded by Captain John Smith. They were pushed from their lands by the 1700s. When the site of the capital city was first being decided, the Anacostia was part of the reason George Washington selected the present-day location of Washington D.C. – because it provided access to the wealthy port towns around Bladensburg. But by 1800, the city’s development had made the river too full of silt to be navigable. The Navy Yard, carved out of its banks, was key to the Union Army’s strategy during the Civil War. By 1892, the Army Corps of Engineers was required to dredge the river and fill the wetlands. Prevented from flowing naturally, the river was considered a source of disease. Barry Farm, a settlement for African-Americans, was established on the banks in 1867. It was eventually cut off from the river by the construction of a freeway in the 1950s.

As Washington D.C. continues to develop, people of color are  pushed up the river into Prince George’s County. At one point, it was among the most affluent majority African American counties in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, industrial development has been pushed upstream at the same time.  As fossil fuel plants in the city proper have been shut down, more have been built or proposed in Prince George’s County. 

As my neighbors pull catfish out of the stream – a District Department of Environment study found that 74 percent of people fishing in the river were eating or sharing the fish they caught – I think about our toxic legacy. 

A river can represent the struggles of the people that live along its banks. And like its nation, the Anacostia River will require a lot more work before we can all be safe in it. 

Eliza Nellums is a writer and a resident of Prince George’s County, Maryland. She is the author of All That’s Bright and Gone, a novel.