Photo courtesy of Beyond the flavor/

It’s the first day of slaughtering season when I arrive at Polyface Farm, some 50 miles from downtown Charlottesville, Va.

Just behind the building where meat is neatly packaged for sale, about a dozen people in blue jeans, ball caps and industrial-strength aprons are transforming live chickens into food for the table. Four generations of farmer Joel Salatin’s family are here, including his mother, his wife, his children and his 6- and 8-year-old grandsons. Together, they’re quietly dispatching 340 birds—yes, even the little kids.

There’s no squawking, and no chickens are running about with their heads cut off. Instead, one of the men lifts the small, white-feathered birds out of plastic crates, places them beak down into funnel-shaped holders, and deftly slits their throats. From the funnels, the carcasses go into boiling water to loosen the feathers, and then into an agitator much like a washing machine, where the feathers are worked off entirely.

It’s a surprisingly humane and efficient process. Soon the chickens look like any other meat in the grocery store cooler—gutted, prepped and neatly wrapped in plastic. Still, I doubt I’ll be ordering chicken salad anytime soon.

Deviate from the standard tourist track and this is what you get: a peek behind the barn door at both the guts and the glory of bucolic farm life.  

Like thousands of people each year, I’ve come on a pilgrimage to the place that helped put locally grown, sustainable food on the map. Chefs come here, farmers come here, and foodies like me come here to see what the fuss is about before heading into Charlottesville to sample the finished products at farmers markets and local restaurants that rival those of much larger cities.

Forbes dubbed Charlottesville the “locavore capital of the world” in February 2011. And there’s ample evidence it deserves the title.

Chefs nationwide have embraced the locally grown food trend—but in Charlottesville, it’s not just a trend, it’s a lifestyle. This is a place where restaurateurs blog about their gardens, farmers blog about cooking Swiss chard and sugar snaps, and they all come together to share meals—whether informally or at an organized endeavor such as Hill and Holler, a monthly food event at which long tables are set amid fields or vineyards, with guest chefs, local purveyors and locally sourced wine.

The love affair with all things local dates back to Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president and perhaps this country’s first foodie. At his nearby Monticello, he famously experimented in his garden, sharing seeds and discovering what grew best in Virginia soil. He planted grapes, and his vineyard, which was established in 1774 and replanted more than two centuries later in 1981, continues the tradition. A festival held on the grounds of the great estate (on Sept. 15 this year) celebrates it all, with lectures, demonstrations and activities.

But if Jefferson and Monticello claim ancestral status, Polyface is the moral anchor of Charlottesville’s food scene.

Fifty years ago, Salatin’s parents reclaimed a worn-out piece of farmland and created a model for nonindustrial food production. Salatin, who lectures and writes about his sustainable approach to agriculture, calls it a “diversified, grass-based, beyond organic, direct marketing farm,” rejecting commercial fertilizers and other conventional practices. His cattle, which he calls “salad bar beef,” are moved frequently from one grassy “salad bar” portion of pasture to another to avoid exhausting the land and to spread the nutrients from their manure. Chickens and pigs are similarly moved about—each performing a function on the land.
Polyface serves 2,000 families, 25 restaurants and 10 retail outlets within a four-hour drive. Its only nod to corporate culture is the pork it provides to Chipotle, the Mexican fast-food chain.

Michael Pollan wrote about the farm in his 2006 classic, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press), and people from all over the country have been trekking to Polyface since. Salatin used to offer two-hour personal tours at $500 a pop, but decided it was too much trouble. He still does wagon tours twice a month for just $15. And as he notes on his website, anyone can come look around for free, which is what I’m doing on this warm day in May.

It’s a pretty property, set down a gravel road off state Route 262 near Staunton, with 550 acres of pasture and woodland and a group of modest buildings for chickens, farm equipment and sales. Cattle graze on luxuriously long grass, and through gaps in the cavernous chicken houses I spot young birds scrabbling about in the hay as their elders peck through a feast of grasses and insects out in the pastures.

There’s a vegetable garden near the slaughtering shed, along with greenhouses that shelter seedlings, from tomatoes and beans to peppers and corn.

To explore the entire property would take hours, but even a brief tour is enough to get the idea before I head to Charlottesville.

On a sunny Saturday, customers and vendors at the Charlottesville City Market downtown greet each other like old friends, exchanging gardening tips along with armfuls of flowers and bags of sustainably produced food. Musicians cluster on corners, plying their fiddles and guitars while picnickers balance pastries and coffee with their groceries.

At one stand, Sylvie and Tom Moore proudly show off the blue ribbons their fruit pies have won at state fairs. Wearing matching orange toques, the white-haired couple also sells freshly made crêpes that can be eaten at little café tables nearby.

At another stall, a young hipster named Daniel Perry sells “Jam According to Daniel,” including a delectable strawberry lavender. As he takes a rare break on the tailgate of his truck, he explains that he began making jam in his mother’s kitchen four years ago, at age 23. The first year he sold 1,500 jars; last year he counted 10,000.  

Other stands overflow with fruits, vegetables, cheese, meat, baked goods, flowers, freshly fried doughnuts, breakfast sandwiches and even crafts. Cecile Gorham was a University of Virginia student when the market began in 1972, and later became a plant vendor and market organizer. She remembers when there were only 10 vendors; 40 years later there are 102.

“Charlottesville is fiercely loyal to its food producers and to the retailers that sell [their products],” says Gail Hobbs-Page, who runs Caromont Farm about 20 miles south of town. She sells the cheeses from her goats and dairy cattle to restaurants and shops all over town—including several I visit later that weekend.

The restaurants in Charlottesville are largely clustered in the downtown pedestrian mall, along Main Street and at “the Corner,” across from the University of Virginia. I find L’Étoile tucked into a converted brick home on West Main, with four small dining rooms, warm wood floors, exposed brick and local art hanging on the walls. Within minutes, I’m enjoying a glass of crisp white viognier from the Jefferson Vineyards.

Chef-owner Mark Gresge, who lived in Richmond until he was 10 and then moved to Chicago, says his approach to L’Étoile was inspired by this question: If Chicago has pizza and Memphis has ribs, what can Virginia claim as its particular cuisine? To figure that out, he visited Monticello, the farmers market and made the pilgrimage to Polyface Farm.

Gresge found that Virginia’s first foods are ham, peanuts and pole beans, all of which appear on his menu at different times. You’ll find traditional (and locally produced) Virginia ham in a meltingly luscious ham and brie sandwich; quiche made from local farm eggs; salads from local greens; and my choice for lunch: succulent (locally farmed) trout stuffed with cherry tomatoes, chanterelles and greens grown in the kitchen garden.

Local residents who have extra zucchini, tomatoes, kale, eggs, whatever, can bring them in, as well, and Gresge will not only feature the items on the menu, he’ll reward their bearers with dinner on the house.

The next day, I head to Keswick Hall, a sprawling country club about seven miles east of Charlottesville with a sweet lunch spot overlooking a golf course. A garden plot, tucked behind and to the side of the estate’s grand mansion, provides peas, spinach, lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, beets, arugula and more to several restaurants on the grounds, including two that are open to the public.

For Keswick’s new executive chef, Aaron Cross, a dedication to locally sourced foods means using more than a dozen farms to source his kitchen, and cultivating a 1-acre plot for grapes that is expected to produce 400 to 500 bottles this year. I enjoy a perfectly dressed chicken salad (enough time has passed since that visit to Polyface), but the menu also promises a Cobb salad that’s a favorite among regulars and a classic club sandwich with greens from the garden.

That evening, I can’t decide between two highly recommended restaurants—so I choose both.

Tavola, a favorite among the locals, is located in the mostly residential Belmont neighborhood east of the town center, and I feel like a local myself when I recognize someone I met earlier at the farmers market. Tracey Love, who manages the front of the restaurant, is a friend of Daniel, the jam maker.

The goat cheese salad is a tribute to how fresh ingredients can make a dish: The creamy cheese from Caromont Farm is baked crispy on the outside and meltingly warm on the inside, perfect with yellow and red beets and refreshing watercress.

I can observe the tiny, busy kitchen from my bar stool, and I’m inches from where a waiter creates a deconstructed bruschetta, with mozzarella, a local arugula pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and bread from Charlottesville’s Albemarle Baking Company.

Next door, The Local lives up to its name by featuring everything local, from salad to handcrafted bar stools. There’s a cozy dining room, as well as a rooftop deck. At the bar, I sit next to a woman who works at nearby Blenheim Vineyards, which the restaurant staff recently visited for a wine tasting. She offers me a bite of her goat cheese cheesecake. Made with that Caromont cheese, it strikes a perfect balance between sweet and tangy, rich and light.

It makes me want to meet the goat farmer. Then I realize I certainly could—at the market, at Hill and Holler or maybe even right here during another friendly night at The Local.

That’s the kind of place Charlottesville is: so small and so intimately connected through its food that you not only know where your produce comes from, but who’s growing it.