It was only a matter of time. I have been reading about Joel Salatin for years. First met him in The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Then followed his column in Foodshed, a magazine about food grown in the watershed from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay (and which has been kind enough to reprint my blog posts).

He’s a rebel. Or a visionary. Or a curmudgeon. Or a nut, depending on your viewpoint.

Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Swoope, Va., has been fighting with the USDA for decades, which is what piqued my interest in the first place. A farmer at odds with the federal agency tasked with helping farmers. Why don’t they like him? He was an organic farmer before organic was cool. So he’s fought the government over everything from inspections to what can be labeled organic to slaughtering rules and on-farm sales.

In the process, he’s gained some fame. Enough to draw city slickers by the hundreds to tour his farm and to convince the best Washington chefs to buy his meat at high cost. A menu item labeled Polyface Farms draws approval from diners.

Polyface Chickens (courtesy John Runyan)

Polyface Chickens (courtesy John Runyan)

What’s the big deal? He’s taken 100 acres of farmland – a pretty small chunk of  land, to this Dakota farm girl — and created a little nirvana for animals. While most meat that makes it to your dinner table is mass-produced from animals fattened on grain in crowded feedlots, Salatin’s animals enjoy a free-range “salad bar” of pastureland that is rotated religiously to honor the land and follow the grazing hierarchy habits of the animals, from chickens to pigs to cattle. Even lowly earthworms play a role in the Polyface food chain (“We’re really in the earthworm enhancement business”).

It really is a fascinating story. One has to admire Salatin’s audacity, even if you don’t quite buy the “we produce four times more than our traditional farmer neighbor.” If that’s so, why do they charge $14 a pound for chicken breasts and $21 a pound for flank steaks? To be fair, they sell their animals tail-to-snout – 30 chicken feet for $3, or a beef tongue for $2.50 a pound. Nothing goes to waste.

We toured Polyface Farms on a rainy Saturday, and came away impressed by a farmer who chose the road less traveled. And who can, with a straight face, charge $15 a head to 100 people for a tour fragranced with cow manure. Joel Salatin has figured out how to monetize the romanticism of farming.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.