SEJ Food Shed Trip Part One


The sun rose to our right beyond wave after wave of blue ridge as the bus headed north along I-81 on Thursday morning–Day 2 of the SEJ conference. Touring journalists could not have asked for better weather for the two hour bus ride north from Hotel Roanoke to Polyface Farm near Staunton.

Following the mission of giving tour attendees the most possible information bang for their buck, an informational data-stream was offered by a number of guides, leaders and experts who took their turn swaying at the front of the bus with a microphone, their purpose–to help us understand what we would be seeing and better understand how the diversified 550 acre Polyface farm fits into the context of future farming practice, not just in Virginia but as a model for a successful and sustainable national bottom-up agriculture.

Tour leaders freelance journalists Joseph Davis and Christine Heinrick and Senior Rodale Institute Editor Dan Sullivan deserve the credit for arrangements at the day’s destinations, coordinating travel, and arranging for the lunch meal (provided by Chipotle and enjoyed at the Frontier Culture Museum near Staunton.)

I took copious notes that day–my handwritting under the best of conditions I can barely read. Taken on a bus at 70 mph, it seems I lapsed into Klingon. I’d planned a long narrative of the trip but life intruded. So I’ll offer a lesser recap in snippets with a few pix, probably in two parts.

  • Farming is a $70B business in Virginia employing 49,000 folks who give their occupation as farmer. (Mention was made that being “just a farmer” was about to change; in the future, farmers–especially those like Joel Salatin who we were soon to meet, would become folk heroes.)
  • The number of farmers whose incomes fall between $5K and $250K are falling; the “small family farm” is disappearing–not because people have stopped needing what those farms once produced
  • Journalists need to be able to tell the stories of farmers, to “give a face to our food” and to encourage readers to “enlarge their educational footprint” with regard to the food they buy and eat
  • more direct relationships are growing between university and school food services and farms and farm co-ops; the trend is toward local production. Even so, it is still difficult to get Virginia products into Virginia schools (the example of apples was given).

Speaker Lyle Estill was a business major before life imposed different directions for him (as one’s occupational life often does.) In 2002 a search for something useful to do with several gallons of used oil from deep frying some left-over turkey began his unexpected career in turning fats into fuels.

He is now co-owner of Piedmont Biofuels whose production from various organic oils and fats has surpassed a million gallons a year. During the past six years, Lyle has learned a lot of biology, chemistry and carbon math. What’s more, he is very passionate and articulate about his experience and his future energy hopes–and his misgivings–about supplanting fossil fuels with bio-fuels of any stripe, especially when food crops are the source. His well-reasoned and informed position is offered–among many other places–in this recent essay.

So this would probably be a good place to end for today and begin in part two where I’ll be better able to read my notes taken from the moving haywagon navigated across Polyface Farm by Joel Salatin–whose erudite and highly-impassioned monologue would fill an entire notepad. I’ll offer more snippets.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. This all is very interesting! Thank you for sharing as much of this as you can.
    By the way, the note cards arrived safe and sound. I spent some lovely, dreamy moments looking at them over and over. Thank you for sending them out.