Week 9: Independent Projects for Independence Day

Week 9! Things here are settling into a routine, and I love it. This week there was a LOT of off-farm hay (big square bales) that kept Daniel and some of the other staff off farm, leaving us stewards frequently on our own for projects and chores. I really like chores, and I enjoyed the various projects that I was working on throughout the week.

Monday: Fixing Fence w/ Joel, Miscellaneous Projects

Monday was a mismatch of assorted projects, making the day go incredibly quickly. Continue reading “Week 9: Independent Projects for Independence Day”

Week 8: God’s Gift to Man

Week…8? Oh boy, I don’t want to think about how quickly this summer is going.

Monday: A Tour & Beating the Heck out of Multiflora Rose

Monday was a little bit unusual in that we took an off farm field trip to a local dairy farm for a tour. The farm is run by a former Polyface apprentice and his wife, a former intern. It is also the farm that we are all buying our milk from while we are here for the summer.

Part of the educational component of the summer stewardship program is several field trip tours to other farming enterprises, and this was the first one, conveniently scheduled during a rain-induced break in hay season.

The tour was really cool, and included a discussion of the actual milking process, marketing (which is interesting and important, but also something I’m not going to like because I don’t even know what all the social media words mean), and a discussion of how grazing dairy cows differs from beef cows. Since dairy cows (all Jersey in this case) have higher caloric requirements, it can be difficult to push the cows enough to meet ecological grazing requirements, while getting them enough calories. This particular farm devised a method of storing fermenting hay in an old grain silo. The fermenting hay is higher in sugar than fresh grass, and the cows get some every day after milking. Then they are turned loose on the pasture. So far, this seems to be working – and they are also breeding for grass-based success, of course.

In the afternoon, I was sent with Eric and a big team of stewards (Gabi, Brandon, Isaiah, Eli) to a rental farm to work on what my dad would call “bullwork” – uprooting a whole bunch of multiflora rose.

For those that don’t know, multiflora rose is a horrible, invasive, woody, bushy plant that is covered in thorns and gets massive. It was introduced by the US government in all of its brilliance (read the sarcasm here) and given away to farmers for free to create hedgerows. Now it is terrible and everyone hates it, because it takes over and ruins pastures…and is difficult and painful to get out (did I mention the thorns?). Since Polyface is committed to not using herbicides, keeping up with the multiflora rose requires beating the heck out of the plant and digging up the root ball using mattocks.

We did this for several hours, getting back basically just in time for dinner. It was hot – mid 90s. The work is tiring. My arms were scratched to pieces. And yes, I had fun.

There is something satisfying about destroying evil plants. You have to plan out your attack to minimize the damage that the thorns do to you, and it feels great when you finally pull out the root ball and overturn the whole mess.

Not only that, but this particular rental farm was perfect for appreciating how beautiful Virginia is. The field we were working in is on a rocky ridge, with a picturesque view of the mountains. In fact, we all paused in our work for a few moments to watch a rainstorm sweeping across the mountain range – we could see the rain falling over the mountains long before it hit us.

And no, I didn’t mind the rain this time – I actually enjoyed it. I was already soaked from sweat, ad the cool water felt wonderful. Besides, it didn’t last too long.

Tuesday: Wrangling Calves

Tuesday was the best day this week because it involved cows.

I love the cows.

First thing after breakfast, I was sent to wrangle calves with Gabe, along with Brandon and Eli. Gabe warned us that it would be a difficult day, and that we might be having a late lunch, and he wasn’t kidding. But it was awesome.

Basically, there was a pinkeye issue at one of the rental farms. They investigated the situation, and Gabe explained that it’s not an insect or parasite problem; they think it just came from irritation the tall grass. Apparently pink eye is really common among calves, and although Polyface is selectively breeding against it, it still happens once in awhile. The goal was to treat the affected calves to prevent blindness or permanent eye problems with a topical spray (similar to human pinkeye treatment) and an eyepatch to prevent further irritation. This was going to involve herding the entire group of cattle into the corral, then separating the calves from the cows, then treating and releasing the affected calves, and finally moving the herd back to the appropriate pasture. Gabe warned us that this herd had a few rather wild cows and that the calves were not going to be cooperative. He wasn’t wrong.

We ran a nonelectrified fence to form a lane from the pasture into the corral. Since the route was down a fairly steep hill, the cows weren’t particularly keen on coming, and it took all three stewards with a bluff (nonelectrified rope strung between us) to get them moving. Then there was running to make sure they didn’t break out of the lane, especially since the calves had eye issues, couldn’t really see the lane very well, and were small enough to duck under it.

Maybe I like cows because it often involves running and/or lots of walking?

Anyway.

Once the cattle were in the corral, we started moving out the adult cows and any calves that were obviously healthy. Here, Eli’s former cattle experience came in handy as he manned a gate and Gabe determined which cows to allow through. Brandon and I just helped guide them through the appropriate gate, and occasionally rounded up specific cows for Gabe. I am fairly excited that I sort of, kind of, usually can bring around specific cows. I have to think about it, but Daniel gave us all a book about herding to study, and I can theoretically use the flight zones of the cow and certain movements to make them move in the right direction…usually. It will require endless practice to do it well, but even just knowing the concept is incredibly cool.

Once the calves were separated out, we moved them through various paddocks in smaller, more manageable groups. Then, one by one, we put the calves into a squeeze chute (very narrow, small paddock) and pinned them down to treat their eyes.

They did not like this part.

At first, Gabe and Eli handled the actual wrangling since, well, Eli has former cow experience and Gabe’s literal job is cows. Brandon and I assisted with the eye patches, spray, and getting the calves in and out of various paddocks per Gabe’s directions. We were all moving constantly. Having four people was perfect – nobody was bored or waiting around, ever, but the work was manageable and not stressful, except when the calves were furiously kicking and trying to not let us near their eyes. It would be great if we could have explained that the eye patches are to help them, but y’know, they’re cows. They don’t get it.

After a little bit, Gabe switched around things a little bit so that Brandon and I could both get in on some calf wrangling. He saved the little calves for me, since I am way smaller than Eli or Brandon, and showed me exactly where to pin the calves to avoid getting kicked. It was super cool.

A funny anecdote on the eyepatches: they are glued onto the calves faces with an extremely sticky adhesive. For the majority of the calves, I was holding the eye patch while Brandon applied a layer of adhesive, then passing it through the fence to Gabe or Eli – whoever had a free hand to stick it on the calves eyes. Well, at one point, Brandon was squeezing the tube of adhesive and the bottom broke, making a giant glob of glue start falling out.

“DON’T LOSE THE GLUE!” Gabe exclaimed as he dug his knee into the hip of a struggling calf. “We need it!”

Brandon proceeded to catch the glue in his hand, looking around in vain for a better solution. We ended up putting it on an empty box, but now his hand was covered in sticky, horrible glue. At this point, he started spreading the glue with his fingers (because what choice did he have?) getting it everywhere. Including all over my hands, although I ended up with way less on me than him or Eli (who also broke a tube, although I didn’t actually see that happen, so it was less funny).

Then, to add injury to insult, a bee flew by him, got stuck to his hand somehow, and stung him. It was hilarious. It was probably not so hilarious for Brandon, but it was pretty funny for me, Eli, and Gabe.

Wednesday: Processing Day
We processed chickens on Wednesday, per usual, and I did QC, also kind of per usual. Then we packaged chickens for what felt like a year.

I have decided that I don’t like packaging the chickens. Processing them is okay, but after lunch, I get really bored with putting endless chickens into endless bags, and sorting stuff, and labeling stuff. I’m not a big fan of the organizational jobs, which makes sense, since I don’t really like cleaning and organizing at home either. Cleaning is a necessary evil (unless I’m angry about something, at which point it makes me feel better), much like, well, packaging chicken. I like the stories about the early days of Polyface, when customers came on processing day to pick up the fresh birds and bring them home in a cooler full of ice.

On the bright side, I got to take a fifteen minute break to help Joel move cows. I like cows.

I guess it’s worth having to package endless chicken to also get to play with cows.

I will also add that getting to look at mountains while processing chickens makes the whole thing substantially more tolerable, as does the knowledge that processing day is a gigantic money maker that enables the other, more fun stuff. I appreciate that Daniel shares some of the details about “here’s how much money we are making from all these birds” – it mitigates the pain of endless packaging.

Thursday: Trees & Hay!

On Thursday, we got to go back to hay! I have decided that I like hay.

But first, a lesson on forestry – for our usual Thursday “shop talk”, Joel gave a lesson on turning trees into fence posts, and it was awesome. Basically, we followed him out to a fenceline where he chainsawed some trees, and showed us how he divides them up into 8 foot posts for permanent fences and 5 foot posts for electric fences. The rest of the tree goes into a wood chipper.

The first big takeaway from this lesson was the simplicity of it. The tree does not have to be perfectly straight. It does not have to be pretty. It just has to work, and you can get a lot of fence posts out of a simple tree. In the two hour lesson, Joel cut over $250 worth of posts – that’s a big deal.

The other big takeway was the impotancce of long term thinking when it comes to forestry. This particularly fenceline hasn’t been cut in twenty years. It won’t be ready to cut again for another twenty years. And yet, via managment and allowing sections of woods to grow between pastures, the Salatins have managed to grow pretty much all their own fenceposts. You just have to manage things properly. Joel also explaned that it is often possible to get people to let you harvest their trees for free, or sometimes even get paid to do it, since farmers don’t like it when the woods starts encroaching on their fields. This is very valuable information for all of us!

There were a ton of miscellaneous projects to delve into after the forestry lesson, and for me that looked like weeding, unloading some pallets into a freezer, and converting eggs from flats to cartons to help out Leanna (who is in charge of inventory stuff, in case you forgot).

But after lunch it was time to start teams rotating through hay again. After a break due to some scattered rain earlier in the week, we were preparing to bale two large fields.

I did not go first. Instead, I worked with Eric on making a new feed system for a turkey shelter on a rental farm. This involved working with metal, which was really interesting because I haven’t really done anything with metal before. Eric had an old, rusty feed barrel that he wanted to covert to a portable feed barrel that could be pulled with a tractor along with the turkey shelter. He explained some mechanics stuff to us, and then showed us how to use hand tools to work with the metal. This was great, because power tools are expensive!

As hay started heating up, Eric ended up leaving me and Brandon to finish making the apparatus (well, not quite finish, but finish the part we were doing that day), with instructions to do broiler chores and then check in for our turn doing hay. It ended up being a bit of an adventure, since neither of us knew what we were doing, but it was great experience to actually work the metal ourselves – we also split the work evenly so we could both get a feel for the tools we were using.

As we were coming back from broiler chores, Eric pulled up beside us with an empty hay wagon – perfect timing. We hopped on and headed out to the hay field, along with Steward Daniel and Charlie.

When we go there, Brandon and Steward Daniel relieved two of the other stewards. I waited for the next wagon, then jumped in.

I proceeded to stack three hay wagons with Brandon and Daniel, working well past dinner time…but finishing the hay field. Eric was monitoring us – especially since Eli was driving the baler for the first time – and helped us overstack the last two wagons in order to cram all of the hay on. It was heavy, sweaty, and absolutely satisfying.

Also, food never tasted so good as it did that evening at 8pm when we finally got to the pavilion for supper.

A note on my allergies: They are fine. I sneezed maybe three times while stacking hay on Thursday, and my sinuses remained clear. The hay was a little itchy, but I washed off my arms and proceeded to enjoy a good meal with friends, and even stayed late to help with dishes before heading back up to the camp to shower. Raw milk & honey, combined with exposure, was highly effective at solving my problem. As you may remember from a few weeks ago, this is in stark contrast to my first time stacking hay in the field, when I ended up covered in hives, coughing, and unable to breathe through my nose for days.

Natural remedies can work, boys and girls. Also, my life is much more awesome now that I am not constantly sneezing.

Friday: More Chickens, More Hay

This was a double processing week, so we processed more chickens on Friday. This time I did the end QC job, which is my favorite, then commenced in the packaging chickens for years thing.

But this time, before we were quite finished, Eric pulled me aside to see if I wanted to go with Parker and Eli to do more hay things. He warned me that I might get to dinner late, and I would need to grab a snack from the store to take with me. Was this fine?

Obviously, the answer was “YES”.

The catch was that this was big square bale hay, not small square bale hay, which meant it was equipment stuff. I had received a crash course on driving a trailer that morning after catching chickens for processing with Eric and Oleg on a rental farm, and Eric asked if I was okay with driving a trailer full of hay.

Sure? I guess? If they trust me to drive a trailer, well, I’ll do my absolute best to drive a trailer.

And so off we went to Greenville, a rental farm dedicated to hay production. Daniel had spent several days at Greenville, working on mowing, raking, and baling hay, and now he was stacking it. This was tractor work, and he needed me and Eli to drive trailer loads of hay from the field to the piles where he was stacking it. Parker would be using a different tractor to load the trailers in the field.

This ended up being a lesson on interpreting sign language, as Daniel indicated where exactly I should drive. Daniel is impressively amazing at nonverbal communication, and he directed my extremely poor driving skills to go to the right spots and then back up the trailer (AGH HELP BACKING UP A TRAILER). Once he unloaded my first trailer load, I headed across the field to Parker, where I got to learn a different set of sign language to go where he wanted me to go.

I got the hang of it, mostly. There were definitely moments when Daniel was not there and I parked wrong and he had to direct me how to fix it, but I got more comfortable with the trailer as the evening went on, including turning it around tight corners. I only messed up turning it one time, and I managed to stop before I hit anything. Daniel laughed and moved the hay bale for me so I wouldn’t have to back it up to fix it…I’m LEARNING. Equipment is HARD.

It was kind of boring, of course, because it was just driving. But I played the radio, and I enjoyed watching the number of giant bales in the field gradually shrink. We ended up working until dark, getting back to the farm around 9:30…but it was worth it. The girls had saved me dinner, but I only had a few bites before deciding that what I really wanted to do was go to sleep, not eat.

We make hay while the sun shines, and I’m not sorry. Hay is important, and I like it. I like physically stacking it better than driving trucks, but I just like hay in general.

Saturday: A Tour & A Ladies Night

I was off this weekend, but I helped out with Saturday chores, per usual, then decided to go on a Lunatic Tour that Joel was doing on farm this weekend. I went with Gabi, and it was fun to watch Joel in action – he thrives on public speaking, and it was really cool to walk through the farm with the group of tourists and hear his official presentation about some of the farm highlights.

After the tour, I worked in the store for about an hour, since there is always a mad rush of business after a tour and all the people officially working were off doing more hay at Greenville, so Wendy could use the help. I talked to several people, and even met a couple from my hometown of Livonia, which was a bizarre coincidence! They live only a mile from where my house used to be, and were showing me pictures of their front yard garden, which was super cool and reminded me of my old front yard garden. I’m glad to see more self sustainment happening in the city, even in pins-and-paper cities like Livonia!

I ran some errands in the afternoon, then came back to the farm to help out with evening chores. We were trying to finish chores quickly, since we had some plans that evening – a Girls Night at Wendy’s house! All the girl stewards were going, along with Lydia and Grace, Sheri, and Christina (Gabe’s wife).

And it was super fun. We ordered pizza from a local bakery (that uses Polyface chicken and other local products) and it was incredible pizza. We all hung out, looked at Wendy’s vast library and beautiful garden, and told stories and jokes. It was so nice to relax and laugh with all the women in a non-work context, and we stayed up way too late…but once in awhile, that’s worth it.

Of course “way too late” here is 11pm, which I’m sure will make my friends laugh. But when you get up at 5:15, well…

Sunday: Church & Chilling

Sunday, as usual, is the day of rest. I didn’t even help with chores this morning, although I woke up at chore time and spent some quality time with my writing and a pot of coffee.

I’ve been attending Daniel’s church, and enjoyed a great worship service, before stopping by Walmart to purchase some ammo. The pastor is preaching a series on what the Bible has to say about fools, focusing heavily on Proverbs, along with several passages in the New Testament, and it is excellent so far. Now I’m finishing up these posts, and have a few more hours of relaxing, potentially followed by movie night at Daniel’s house…or perhaps an early bedtime. We’ll see.

I’m loving life here in Virginia. The mountains are still incredible, I adore the people, and work is fulfilling and meaningful. Next weekend will be the fourth of July and I have some plans, so I may not make it into town to post – but rest assured that I’m probably having a good, albeit difficult, week doing something that, so far, I absolutely love.

I want to end this week with a Bible verse that I think really epitomizes how I feel about this summer:

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live, also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man. –Ecclesiastes 3:9-13

Week 7: Fun, Guns, and Saving Chickens from Drowning

[Edit: Posted late. Sorry]

As predicted, Week 7 was less fun than Week 6 because of the STUPID, STUPID RAIN.

That being said….Week 7 ranks super high. I feel like the longer I am here, the more I am enjoying the work. I’m not enjoying it in quite the same way anymore (I’m no longer thinking OH MY GOSH I GET TO HANG OUT WITH CHICKENS), but I’m deeply and genuinely enjoying pretty much every work day. I do have my favorites of course, and I don’t like every task (cough carrying water buckets cough) but I feel happy and satisfied at the end of basically every day.

10/10, glad I’m here. Anyway.

I liked the day-by-day format I did last week, so I’m gonna do that again, even though I think it probably makes things longer. My blog, I’ll do what I want. Ha!

Monday: Gun Stores & Ice Cream

During normal weeks, we get a long breakfast on Monday (like 2ish hours) so that the leadership can have a weekly meeting, then we meet up in the egg room to have an everybody meeting where we go over the plans and projects for the week. It’s always a nice break that usually involves being productive and cleaning the house or meal prepping. This week though, I’m pretty sure I just drank a lot of coffee and rolled around on the floor laughing with my roommates. Whoops.

Anyway, I got assigned to work with Buzz for the day. Buzz is the staff member who fixes all the broken stuff. We are rotating through so that everybody gets a chance to work with him, and it was a pretty cool – and different – side of farming. We started with assessing a few projects that he has on the it’s-broke-fix-it list, and ended up working on installing screens in the floor of the corn box to help mitigate some of the dust.

For the uninitiated: a corn box is a sand box (or a ball pit) for children that is filled with corn instead of sand or balls. There’s a giant one outside of the Polyface store, along with some other kid stuff. The complaint was that, to use Buzz’s words, the kids come out looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost, so he wanted to figure out a way to put vents in the floor to strain out some of the dust.

The cool thing about this project, is that Buzz didn’t really know exactly how he was going to do this, so it ended up being a session of problem solving mixed with trial and error. It was pretty cool because Buzz explained and taught me things about tools I didn’t know how to use, but also wanted my contributions to the brainstorming and creative problem solving.

I’m not sure if anybody realizes this or not, but I really like creative problem solving. I remember scoffing at my physics teacher in high school when he assigned us crazy projects like ‘build a giant tower out of pasta that holds a bunch of weight’ and explained that he didn’t care if we remembered any of his physics equations, but he wanted to teach us how to solve problems. I thought this was the stupidest thing I had ever heard, and hated the homework load of the frequent and seemingly arbitrary projects…but now, ten years later, I really appreciate his point…and I really like creative problem solving.

Anyway. I enjoyed working with Buzz in the morning, but was in for quite a surprise when Buzz started to send me to lunch and Daniel intervened with an announcement that we were all going to the gun store in the afternoon. Or at least, we had the option to, so we were all taking a late lunch at the same time.

The nice thing about entrepreneurial enterprises is that the people in charge can randomly decide to take the afternoon and go to a gun store.

So basically, the big (farm related) afternoon project was going to be catching chickens at Cedar Green, a rental farm that is almost all the way to downtown Staunton. In fact, it’s so close to the city that it has municipal water, which is very unfortunate when you mistakenly fill up your water bottle there and then taste the chlorine and other non-well-water ick. Daniel had also promised several people a trip to the gun store at some point, and since the weather was iffy (it was supposed to rain), we didn’t have any big projects on-farm, and we’d be close anyway…it seemed like the perfect time.

Daniel left us around 1:30 with the statement that he’d be at the gun store at 3, and our only obligation for the afternoon was to be at Cedar Green by 5. All the stewards stood around for a bit hashing out details such as who would drive the chicken crates to the rental farm, and who would drive the people to the gun store, and then broke for lunch.

I ended up driving all of the girls, and as usual, we had a great time cruising down the winding country roads with the radio on and the windows down. I might wear ear plugs when I shoot the boys’ guns and operate machinery, but I might be breaking my ears with the radio whenever we all drive into town together. Meeehhhh.

Nobody bought anything at the gun store, but several of us were definitely thinking about it, and it was fun to hang out with everyone and look around. We also still had time to kill when we were ready to leave, so the girls – plus Lydia and Grace (who are also girls but are not stewards) – decided to go out for ice cream as well. I mean, we were in town, of course we had to get ice cream. Ice cream is great and Staunton has an AMAZING ice cream shop.

While we were eating ice cream and laughing at who-knows-what, Daniel called us and asked if we could go back to the farm instead of going to Cedar Green – he realized he needed to assign people to do chores. We happily agreed (I’d personally prefer to knock out chores than catch a bunch of chickens), and spent the last hour or so of the work day efficiently doing all the routine afternoon stuff – Sarah and I ended up collecting the eggs and checking on the pullets, which are out in shelters on the far side of the farm.

It was a weird day, and an easy day, but it was fun.

Oh yeah, and after dinner I stayed up a little bit late to help Isaiah catch roosters – we were taking roosters out of two sets of pullets to process the next day. Isaiah and Oleg were assigned to take care of it, since they were taking care of those sets of chickens this week on the chore rotation list and there were only ~20 roosters in each set, but I figured I might as well help out, especially since the day had been so easy. It didn’t take us very long, but I learned a bit more about identifying roosters (particularly at night, in the dark), so that was cool.

Tuesday: Processing Giant Chickens

Tuesday was processing day this week, and we had a LOT of chickens – plus the roosters. I ended up doing the lunging, which is not my favorite station, mixed with a little QC and a little gutting.

The cool part about processing: a lot of the training stuff is over now, so they are starting to pare down the number of people involved in processing day. Based on the chore rotation sheet, some people leave to go do pig or cow stuff, and most of the leadership was busy doing other things, which cut down our processing team significantly. It was gratifying to be able to maintain a good pace and finish in a timely way with a small team. The goal is to keep decreasing the number of people doing processing as we increase our efficiency.

After lunch it was time to package all of the birds, and suddenly processing day seemed a lot more daunting – these chickens were gigantic. One was over 7 1/2 pounds! Generally speaking, when chickens are over 5 pounds, they get cut up for parts and pieces, which takes significantly longer than just packaging whole birds (and is the reason that cut up chickens are a full extra $1 per pound). Many of the stewards started working on that, leaving a small team (including me) to do the whole bird stuff. We worked rapidly, and managed to finish around 4:30.

Eric told us that when we were done we could jump in on cut ups or vac packing or do chores, whatever we wanted, and I leapt at the chance to leave the processing shed and work on chores. Besides, I needed to do broiler shelter repair on my row of broiler shelters (it was a broiler chore week for me), and it’s always easier to do the repair yourself than to try and explain what’s broken to someone else.

Brandon – who was also on broilers this week – joined me, and we ended up doing almost all of the afternoon chores, not just broilers, since packaging and cut ups were taking so long. The only chore we didn’t do was the brooder, which is a quick and easy chore anyway, and knocking out (almost) the whole set of chores with just the two of us was great! It gave a prety good time table of how long chores take when you don’t have a million people pitching in. Granted, there are a lot less eggs to gather at the moment so chores are somewhat short in general, but still.

Wednesday: Third Winter

On Wednesday, Third Winter began with cool temperatures and an on-and-off drizzle that made everything wet and little bit unpleasant.

The leadership tries to knock out indoor projects as much as possible when the weather is bad, which is nice, and I spent a good chunk of the morning working with a team in the walk in freezers. They had gotten pretty messy, and it was making it more difficult for Leanna to pack online and buying club orders, so Eric was working on some organizational stuff. Eric is very good at organizing and cleaning things up, and he directed a team of us on where the bazillion boxes went. At the end of the project, the freezers looked way better, and we could actually walk in them and find stuff. Also, although the freezers are, well, cold, they are less wet than being out in the rain, so that was good.

Afterwards, Isaiah and I went to shovel out the turkey brooder. The turkeys had just gone out on the pasture, and we needed to prep the brooder for new turkey chicks that will be arriving next week. The turkeys have a peat moss bedding that is kind of a pain to shovel, and we filled several front end loader buckets with old, wet, dirt. That sounds bad, but I actually really like pretty much everything connected to the brooders, and Isaiah and I had a good time doing the work.

Note: when you work with other people and also like what you are doing, work is usually pretty fun.

I’m not great with the vehicle stuff, since I’m coming in with no experience except for my car (which I have always avoided having to actually back up), so I asked to work on my tractor stuff with Isaiah when we were on our last load. He has some previous farm/tractor experience and helped walk me through backing up the thing to hitch up to a manure spreader that we needed to move out of our way, and parking the thing. More tractor stuff is really important for me to build my confidence with the machinery, and I felt better about backing it up after struggling to back up the tractor while it was hitched to the spreader!

That afternoon I worked on a bunch of little things – flame throwing weeds, fixing turkey feeders, repairing a hay wagon, etc. They were all small projects, but we stayed relatively busy until it was chore time. It wasn’t super exciting, but it was nice to knock out some little things that needed to get done.

Thursday: Rivers of Chickens

When I woke up on Thursday, it was raining again, and I noted idly that the ground seemed really wet – we must have gotten a lot of rain the night before. Not thinking much about it, I went out (grudgingly) to pull my row of broiler shelters. It’s never fun to do broilers in the rain, and it’s particularly not fun when you’re slipping and sliding in wet grass trying to pull shelters.

When I got there, I slipped the dolly in under the first shelter, walked around to pace off how far I needed to move it, and started pulling. It’s becoming routine at this point, but for some reason the shelter was REALLY hard to pull. Frowning, I pulled harder. Was I just tired? It should be a little heavier because the rain kept the water buckets full and pooled on the metal roof, but it shouldn’t be this difficult. It felt like the shelter was caught on something.

Walking around to the front of the shelter, I realized that a mass of wet, bedraggled chickens were refusing to walk forward, and I had been pulling against them. In fact, I had managed to drag the shelter over a couple of them and they hadn’t even squawked – that was weird. Normally when a chicken is in the way it makes an upset noise so you can stop and NOT run it over. Thankfully, they didn’t look hurt, but they were just crouched in the mud, unmoving. I banged a stick on the back of the shelter to get them to move (normally a noise at the back sends the whole group running to the front), but they still were in pure refusal mode. They were not happy chickens.

I looked over at Steward Daniel, who was pulling the next row, and saw that he was also banging a stick on the back of his lead shelter and looking confused. Apparently, his chickens wouldn’t move either. I decided to walk up and down the rows to see if all the shelters were having the same problem…only to find that some of the shelters were literally in rivers of water that had somehow formed after the nights’ rain.

It was time to find a leader.

I went down the hill to the main farm, and grabbed the first leader I could find – Joel himself. He came right away to assess the situation, and explained that the important thing was to get the chickens out of the water. Chickens don’t like to be wet, and could get pneumonia and die. Normally, the policy is to pile some hay in front of the chicken shelters and move the shelters over the hay. Then the chickens can climb up on the hay and dry out, away from the wet, mucky ground. Joel brought up several bales of hay and started setting them in front of shelters. In places with particularly wet ground, he put the hay pile a good ways away – chicken shelters should never be over standing water.

But this didn’t solve the problem of the-chickens-will-not-walk. No matter how much we banged on the shelters or prodded them with sticks, they refused to move.

Thankfully for me and Steward Daniel, a whole slew of people began to hear about our chicken problems, and came to help. It ended up being most effective to literally pick up the chicken shelters and carry them to their new spot, leaving the chickens where they were. Then we could go and pick up all of the chickens, and place them back in the shelter. Since they wouldn’t even get on the hay on their own, we actually ended up moving the shelters twice: first, we put the shelters so that the open door was over the hay, then we put the chickens on the hay, and finally we picked the shelter up again and moved it forward so that the hay would be under the covered, rain-free part of the shelter.

I want to add that these shelters are heavy, it was still drizzling a little bit, it was also insanely humid, and the chickens flapped valiantly when we picked them up, splattery poop and mud all over my face.

It was not my favorite morning on the farm.

But when we got to the final shelter – the one in the literal river – and found 17 dead chickens, drowned in the sudden rainstorm, I was incredibly grateful that we came out when we did and more didn’t die. It was a moment that really showed me the value of my job as caretaker of these creatures, despite the occasional misery.

We finally went dejectedly to breakfast, two and a half hours after we had gotten out there, the chickens safe and dry-ish. It was quite a day, and it was only 8:30am.

After the disaster of chicken rivers was over, we had an extensive knot lesson for our weekly shop talk, which was super educational. Then, I spent a good portion of the day working on gardening with Tim, one of the contract farmers, and his wife, Heidi. He was planting several rows of corn, mixed with squash, in one of the hoop houses, so a team of us brought and spread woodchips, made rows, and planted seeds.

As a side note, when I went back to broilers for afternoon chores, they looked much better and there were no further dead ones. I’m grateful that the weather-induced damage wasn’t any worse!

Friday: Gardening & Random Stuff

Friday was a day that was filled with some miscellaneous projects, including doing some cleaning, organizing the egg room, and sorting through random scrap wood. It was a slightly more chill day.

The biggest thing of note for me, was spending quite a bit of time working on the garden outside of the Polyface store, which was pretty fun. It was light work, physically, and the team enjoyed talking and laughing as we pulled weeds, straightened trees, and spread mulch. I also got to spend some additional time on the tractor, using the bucket to scoop up fresh chips.

Importantly, I backed the tractor up into its parking spot all by myself. This is a big deal. It may not be a big deal for everyone, like most of the boys who already knew how to drive stuff when they got here, but it is a big deal for me because I’m not even good at backing up my car.

I’m also starting to like the tractor instead of being marginally afraid of it. Progress.

Week 6: Dehydration, More Chickens & Hay

I think Week 6 has been the best week yet, in terms of work here at the farm. It was awesome. I’m not even entirely sure how to break it down into highlights for y’all, although I’m going to try. I think that instead of doing general highlights, I’m going to break this week down by days.

First, a housekeeping note:

Until now, I’ve only used names of staff, to try and keep this from being too confusing. But that’s getting harder as time goes on and I’m working a lot with fellow stewards, so I’m going to start name dropping. Hopefully it’s not too bad, but just in case, here’s a list of folks (first names only unless they are staff because privacy and junk):

Staff I Interact with a Lot:

Daniel Salatin (Rangeboss, primary teacher) & Sheri, Joel Salatin (duh) & Teresa, Eric (farm manager, other primary teacher) & Leanna (inventory), Jonathan (mechanics, vehicles), Buzz (mechanics, building stuff), Gabe (cow & pig stuff), Wendy (store), Grace (buying club driver).

Apprentices:

Parker, Lydia

Girl Stewards:

Lauren, Sarah, Gabi, me

Boy Stewards:

Daniel (referred to here as Steward Daniel for the sake of clarity), Brandon, Isaiah, Jon, Eli, Oleg, Charlie

You don’t really need to know anything about them, but if you’re confused about the names, well, there you go. Name list.

Okay, on with the stuff that happened this week.

Monday: I Get Horribly Dehydrated

Continue reading “Week 6: Dehydration, More Chickens & Hay”

Polyface Week 5: Hay & Chickens

[Editor’s Note: posted a week late because I was planning on posting this Monday, and instead got super dehydrated and went to bed. Then I got busy. Sorry.]

Week five here at Polyface was characterized by three things: processing chickens, making hay, and the first really hot week of the summer.

June marks the beginning of “hay season” where Polyface – and all the other farms – are trying to harvest hay to get through the winter. The harvest happens in June after the aggressive spring growth of the grass, and according to Daniel, they usually have harvested most of the hay that they need by July, weather depending. In order to make hay, there needs to be a series of hot, dry days since once the hay is mowed, it needs to not get wet until it has had time to fully dry out and be packed into bales. If baled and stored properly, hay lasts indefinitely – Joel claims that it will last a hundred years, easily. Continue reading “Polyface Week 5: Hay & Chickens”

Polyface Week 4: A Month Already?

We’ve been here a whole month now, and I can’t believe how quickly the time is going! Week 4 was fantastic. After the terrible weather of Week 3, the hot sun felt amazing, as did the feeling of sweaty work. I’m not joking – it really did feel amazing.

Some highlights:

Processing Stewing Hens

On Friday, we processed our first batch of stewing hens! These are old laying chickens that are no longer producing as many eggs, and we were warned that they would be much more difficult to butcher than broilers. And boy, was that accurate! I started the day by legging (removing the chicken feet) and taking off the heads, and that was extremely difficult…although I enjoyed it for some reason. I also ran quality control for part of the day, where there were many more feathers to remove than usual, and they came out with far more difficulty than feathers do with the broilers. The stewing hens are much greasier too, with large globs of orange fat that the broilers just don’t have. This is a good thing for cooking – chicken broth made from stewing hen is delicious. In fact, I have some in the crockpot right now, and I’m excited for tonight’s supper (fresh turnips from one of the rental farms, turnip greens, chicken salad, and a side of broth because it tastes so good that I can literally just drink it).

First Lunatic Tour

Joel hosts several “Lunatic Tours” throughout the summer, and the first one occurred this Saturday. This happened to be my weekend to work, so I spent the first part of the morning helping set up for the tour. We drew parking lot lines (I learned that the average parking spot is 10 feet wide – no idea if that will ever be relevant or not, but hey, fun facts) and cleaning up some of the buildings. Throughout the day, I witnessed a vast quantity of people coming to the farm, all of whom were excited about real food, sustainable farming, and the earth. It was inspiring to see how many people were ready and willing to come out to the farm, including people from out of state – one family came all the way from Illinois!

Unique to the current times, it was also nice to see a large gathering of people again. With all of the hype over the coronavirus, I haven’t seen a real crowd in a long time. Although I don’t generally like crowds (I fit the stereotype of the farmer who wants to be out in the field and pretend that other people don’t exist), it was refreshing to see one after all of the fear that has permeated the news in recent months.

The only downside to working the weekend was that I couldn’t actually go on the tour – all of the stewards who were off work followed along behind the hay wagons to view Joel’s first public address of the summer. Then again, there are several other lunatic tours that I can go on, so it’s not really much of a loss.

Chickens, and Sheep, and Bears, Oh My

Polyface is having a bear problem, and that’s been a huge topic of conversation and extra work this week. Basically, there’s been a bear hanging around and getting into chicken feed. This is exciting because several of us have seen the bear, and even gotten it on video. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people, but it’s really cool to see the tracks and scat around the broiler shelters.

Of course, we don’t want a bear to be hanging around – there’s the whole ‘threat to the livestock’ thing. But I have gotten a lot of value out of watching the Salatins’ response to the bear, and the ways in which they are working on preventing bear problems.

So far, the bear hasn’t gotten into any livestock, and the goal is to discourage him from doing so. Right now, we are setting electric fence around the chicken feed and placed a sheep dog near the chicken shelters as a deterrent. Any steward or staff member who wants to is also being encouraged to take a truck or an ATV out to the fields in the evening and create general ruckus if the bear comes by, in order to scare it off. Ideally, if he doesn’t get food and keeps getting scared by people, he’ll find a different place to roam around. I very much want to participate in that this coming week, although these past few days I’ve been much to busy and tired to stay up late bear-watching.

Quick side-note mostly for my mom who will probably now worry about me getting eaten by a bear: the bears here are pretty small – about the size of a pig – and they run away from people. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of human safety, especially since we are trying to scare the bear, not feed it sausage.

Old Fashioned Hog Killin’

This week, we butchered a hog. Normally, pigs are shipped to a local abattoir due to government regulations prohibiting on-farm pig processing, but the Salatins occasionally butcher a hog for their personal consumption. Due to the increased demand that has accompanied the coronavirus scare, are bit low on supplies in general, and they needed more meat to feed us during the week. Our chef, Sylvia, requested pork…so Daniel decided to butcher a big hog, and let us be part of it.

It was really, really, really cool.

First, one of the staff members went and got the hog. He chose a large one, bringing it up to the processing shed. Daniel gathered all of us together, and shot it in the head, killing it instantly, then immediately slit it’s throat to let it bleed out quickly. Then he showed us how to gut it, carefully removing the organ meat that we could keep, then discarding the other innards. Next, we hoisted it up on a rope, skinning it as we went. Finally, he broke it up into big pieces and we put it in the walk-in refrigerator to cure. Similar to deer, the meat will be better after it sits for a few days.

Fun anecdote: we got to blow up the lungs like a balloon. Basically, you can blow into them and they will inflate and change color. Several of us took turns, and it was really neat. There’s pictures and videos on one of the stewards phones, and I’ll try to post those when I get them. I’d never seen anything quite like it before.

On a practical note, butchering the hog was interesting and useful – hopefully, I’ll be able to butcher pigs for my personal consumption sometime in the future. It was also fun to see where the different cuts of meat are, and simply to see it done.

On a philosophical note, there was something special about witnessing this butchering. I’ve been a part of butchering hundreds (thousands?) of chickens by now (although I haven’t personally engaged in the killing yet), but pigs are very different animals. They are far more intelligent and have far more personality than the poultry, at least, in my opinion. And although I haven’t spent a ton of time with them yet, I’ve definitely worked with the pigs in the last month – I’ve fed them food scraps, helped move them from paddock to paddock, and watched them grow. You’ve never seen a happier pig – they seem to smile as the root in the pastures and wallow in mud puddles.

I was right there when Daniel shot this particular pig, and I saw the life leave his eyes, and his body drop. It was even more dramatic than hunting a deer, since I’ve never seen a deer get shot so close to where I was standing. I watched the pig’s blood drain out, felt the still-warm body, and saw the living animal become several large cuts of meat in the refrigerator in the course of a few hours.

I felt a pang of sadness in the moment of the pig’s death, that was overwhelmed by gratitude for the huge animal. His meat would nourish us and provide several necessary meals over the next couple of weeks. The sacrifice of this creature provides us with life, as we care for many other pigs, who will in turn give many people life. In nature, life requires death, and it’s not something to take lightly – nor is it something to sweep under the rug.

Joel often talks about honoring the “pigness of the pig,” and the Polyface way is focused on providing a good, natural, enjoyable life for all of the livestock, and a humane, stress-free death. The hog killing could not have done a better job of illustrating that concept. Witnessing death like this isn’t for everyone, but in my opinion, it’s a very special thing to be a part of. And I’m incredibly grateful to the pigs, and to the people who care for them.

First Solo-ish Off-Farm Mission

This week marked my first leader-less off-farm assignment, and that was super cool. Another steward and I were sent, on our own, to run errands at two of the rental farms. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t anything complicated. At one rental farm, we were setting up some feed bins for broiler chickens, picking up some empty feed containers. At another farm, we were gathering eggs, feeding chickens, and adding hay to next boxes. None of this is hard.

And yet…if you would have told me do those things four weeks ago, I would’ve had several questions and probably would have done something wrong. There’s a certain way to optimally gather eggs and feed chickens the correct amount of feed. There’s a way to use ratchet straps to keep feed bins on trucks, a way to use four wheel drive, and a way to drive on farms with minimal disturbance of the grass (i.e. don’t just drive haphazardly through pastures). There was electric fence to turn off and reset and animals to handle. It’s all quite easy, but I simply wouldn’t have had the knowledge to do it four weeks ago. Yes, I probably could’ve gathered eggs relatively effectively, but all the finer details would’ve been lost on me.

And it’s really, really, really cool to realize that I’ve learned stuff. I mean, I know I’ve learned stuff, but this time I really felt that I’ve learned stuff. And I was proud that Eric could trust us to take care of the tasks without any leadership oversight or follow-up. He just told us what needed to be done, asked if we felt comfortable doing it, and…we did it. Then we had dinner. It might sound silly, but it felt really good.

Also, it was fun because we got to listen to the radio on the way there (I’ve been pretty much radio-free for the last four weeks), and the other steward and I have a similar taste in music. It may or may not have been pretty loud. I plead the fifth.

Wrap-Up

There were plenty of other projects this week – fixing broiler shelters, building sheep shade structures, and more – but I’m going to end this post here. I have less time to write this weekend, since I’ve been working and have evening chores soon, and y’all don’t need a list of every project – there are way too many to list anyway. But suffice it to say that I’m still grateful to be here, I’m learning a TON, and I’m excited to see what the next four months will bring.

Polyface Week 3: It Rains Forever

Week 3 is in the history books, and if we’re being honest: it was a rough one.

The single greatest thing that made it difficult was the weather. After finally warming up and being sunny last week, the Shenandoah Valley suddenly got 40 degree days, complete with a steady rain that pretty much lasted from noon on Monday through noon on Friday. When it wasn’t actively raining, it was misting from the dark, low hanging clouds.

The other thing that made it challenging was that I felt like garbage – nothing serious, but pretty high fatigue and two days of nausea from the Monthly Lady Curse that likes to make life hard. On one hand, I guess it’s nice that all the Yuck happened at once – get it all over with, right? On the other hand, feeling like you might puke while you’re soaking wet and cold, and also utterly exhausted, really, really, really sucks.

And yet, despite all of that, I’m gonna go ahead and say that it was a good week. It was a rough week. It was a hard week. But being here is amazing and it was completely worth it. Here’s a few examples of why:

Sorting Cows with Daniel

This was the biggest highlight of the week, probably in part because it took place on Monday which was partially free of rain. But mostly it was the biggest highlight because I LOVE COWS.

They are my favorite. I will likely mention this every week. But I like cows.

Anyway.

Daniel Salatin took three stewards, including myself, to a rental farm to sort the cows. Sorting cows with Daniel is on our checklist of things we are guaranteed to experience during the summer, although an in depth cow education won’t happen during the summer program. Daniel explained that he was looking for various breeding characteristics in heifers to keep and size/finishing for steers he wanted to send to slaughter soon. Those cows got separated out from the herd and taken to different locations, while the rest of the herd got moved to a different rental farm.

The cows were unusually feisty, so it took some doing to get them into the corral. At this point, Daniel explained that he was separating “the many from the few”, bringing large groups of cows deeper into the corral, and sending most of them through a gate into the final paddock before they were to get loaded onto a trailer. Once all the cows he didn’t want were sorted, he had only a few remaining, and herded them into a different paddock.

At first, we basically watched Daniel do his thing with the help of Parker, one of the apprentices. But then Parker started driving trailers full of cattle to their destination, and we all got to take a turn in the ring with Daniel. Those who weren’t taking their turn could sit on the fence and watch. When it was my turn, Daniel had me man the gate from the paddock where he was doing the sorting into the paddock where the cows were held until they could be loaded onto a trailer. He showed me what an open gate vs a closed gate looks like to a cow, and I was supposed to count the cows that were going into the loading paddock, and make sure that the correct cows went through the gate.

Let’s be real: I was just following Daniel’s directions. But it was SO MUCH FUN. I loved being in the paddock with the cows, and paying attention to make sure I was focusing on the cow that Daniel was pointing at. Also, it was super cool to watch him manipulate the herd – he moved back and forth in the middle of a ring of cattle, in what looked like a strange dance, and then – magically – the cows that were supposed to come to me, did so.

After we all got a turn letting cows through the gate and helped herd the cows into a trailer, we had some downtime between trailer loads, so Daniel took some time to explain some of the methodology behind sorting cows. We went over flight zones, corral setup, and how to approach a cow to make it turn in certain directions. He even let me practice on a couple of the cows in the loading pen while we were waiting. Even when it started to lightly rain, I didn’t mind because I was having so much fun.

By the end of the day, one of the other stewards and I were being set to round up groups of cows and bring them up to the trailer, and it was kind of a power trip to control the large cows. Our skill was almost zero, but it was higher than it had been when we started and it was incredibly cool to separate groups of cows and bring them up to load them. Daniel was a great teacher, and everything was more or less making sense. He also gave us a book title to start looking through to expand our knowledge about flight zones and cow body language, which I was super excited about.

The Cows Escape

At the end of the day on Monday, when we were sorting cows, Daniel decided to leave with the other two stewards to take a particular group of cows to a particular rental farm. He needed to go himself to set some stuff up, and left me with the apprentice, Parker, to load up the last group of cows into a different trailer going to a different farm. I waited with Parker and his wife, who was along for the day, in the truck as the rain poured down and we waited for the last trailer to arrive.

About fifteen minutes later, the trailer showed up and we brought up the cows. This last load happened to be the steers that were just about ready for processing, and they were gigantic. The driver backed the trailer up to the corral, and Parker and I pushed up the cows. Everything went smoothly, and we got them all into the narrow chute that funneled them into the open trailer. Parker stayed with them doing the more skillful job of convincing them to step up into the trailer, and I started to climb the fence to collect our equipment and get ready to leave.

The next thing I knew, the trailer was slipping down a slope, and cows were escaping the chute and running off. With all the rain and mud, the weight of the cows combined with the downhill slope was too much, and the truck slid forward about six feet, leaving a sizable gap for the cows to take advantage of. Parker yelled at me to get a bluff, so I ran to the truck bed to grab the only bluff we had left – which happened to be slightly broken and not very long. I ran back, to see the cows disappear into a random barn, likely to get out of the rain that was still falling heavily from the sky.

Fortunately for us, they stayed in the barn – perhaps it was good that it was raining after all. We initially tried to bring them out and get them back into the corral using the bluff, but the turn was too sharp and they were having none of it. The driver suggested loading directly from the barn, and backed up to the siding barn door. Parker sent me and his wife – who ran out to help when she saw the cows were loose – around to block the other exit, and they reluctantly but easily went into the trailer.

It could’ve been way worse – the fact that they ran into the barn was wonderful. But it was an adrenaline shock for sure, and it felt super good to have been part of the emergency and to have successfully gotten them into the trailer without Daniel. This was mostly a win for Parker, since he was in charge in Daniel’s absence, and to his credit stayed very calm and worked through the problem. But it still felt awesome for me to have been part of it.

Tanning Hides

A cool anecdote for the week was that Daniel had several cow hides sent back to us from the processor. Polyface hasn’t done this before, but decided to try his hand at selling the tanned cow hides (normally a waste product at the processing plant). I got to be a part of trimming and salting them, which was a really cool thing to see. Even though that was a day that I didn’t feel so good, it was a neat and unexpected adventure, and I can’t wait to see how they turn out.

Broiler Management Week One

Part of the rotating chore schedule involves managing a row of broiler shelters approximately every other week, and this was my first week of doing this and honestly, it sucked.

The broiler management is actually kind of cool. The shelters get pulled every morning so that the broilers have fresh grass every day. They also get fed and watered in the morning and the evening. Since the broilers are Cornish Cross chickens, they eat a ton of feed and grow very quickly, which is good for marketing. Polyface tried other breeds of chickens, but their customers preferred the Cornish Cross, which is the large-breasted types that are generally raised and sold in grocery stores, so that is what they raise. They have broilers down to a science, with the shelters cleverly constructed to maximize space and minimize weight, so that one person can move them using nothing but a dolly.

The downside is that moving the broiler shelters is the most physical chore, and it’s hard. They’re heavy. For the staff who are used to moving them, it’s no big deal. But for me, it’s more challenging, especially when I felt pukey and terrible. On top of that, the shelters are in a beautiful field with long grass…that made my pants soaked within five minutes of being out there.

Thankfully, I had a short row of shelters with chickens that were getting slaughtered, so I didn’t have a full row like I will in subsequent weeks. I also received some one on one instruction and got significantly better and removing the dolly and pulling them more properly (which makes it easier and less hard on the back). I also spent some time working on my spacing of the shelters. It takes practice to figure out exactly how far to pull them, and there was definite improvement by the end of the week (thought I still need to check the spacing pretty often). It was a good experience. But in the rain and feeling pukey? It sucked. Hopefully when I do it again in two weeks, I’ll feel better and stronger, and do it faster and better.

Sheep + Falling in Cow Poop

A bonus activity this week was helping Daniel and one of his sons trim hooves, castrate, and ear tag sheep. The sheep are Andrew’s special project, so we don’t normally do anything with them, but Daniel made sure everybody got a chance to briefly experience the sheep. I happened to be in the group that helped round them up into the barn for the procedures.

He explained that the sheep’s hooves continue to grow, kind of like a rodent’s teeth or dog’s nails, and need to be trimmed. In the summer, the hooves wear off themselves, particularly in rocky or sandy conditions. But in the winter, when they are largely in hay, there’s not enough abrasion and they get overgrown and need to be trimmed by hand. Additionally, the male lambs need to be castrated and the female lambs that are being kept for breeding stock need to be ear tagged and recorded.

So basically, we all got the chance to watch a castration, hold lambs, and wrangle a sheep onto it’s back so Daniel could trim its’ hooves.

Wrangling the sheep was also way harder than I thought it would be. Daniel showed us how to grip her head and flip her onto her back, at which point she was pretty submissive. But it was way hard. I don’t know if my ewe was just extra feisty, I was just feeling the effects of Head Stuff With Cotton/Fatigue, or I was plain doing it wrong, but I chased my sheep around for awhile, and ended up falling back directly into a giant pile of cow poop and afterbirth (this stall had seen a calf delivery recently). My hat flew off and into a separate cow pie and my butt turned a greenish brown (the pants seem to have permanent green stains although I’m currently rewashing them – we’ll see if it comes out. On the bright side it looks like grass stains?).

On the other hand, once I fell on my butt, my sheep also fell on her butt so I could hold it still for Daniel to do the hoof trimming.

Unrelated to falling in cow poop, I really liked the sheep. It’s too bad that they aren’t a bigger part of what we do here, because I really enjoy their personalities and I love their grazing – they can be run in fairly small areas, and act as lawnmowers and trimmers, eating any grass even around structures, equipment, and fence lines. Daniel frequently has his son put them in specific areas to cut the grass, and I would love to employ that someday. I’d much rather feed a sheep than run a lawnmower.

Finding a New Appreciation for the Sun

On Friday, I was feeling a little bit better (I no longer felt like puking), and I thought I was doing an okay job of keeping a positive attitude despite the rain. I can’t say I was in a good mood, but I also didn’t think I was in a bad mood. I was preparing broiler shelters to receive a new batch of chicks, and was hauling water buckets when Eric – the farm manager – stopped us.

“Look,” he said, pointing at the sky. I looked up, and at first didn’t have any idea what he was pointing at. Then I saw the small patch of robin’s egg blue showing through the vast expanse of gray that had covered the valley for the past week. Within a few minutes a ray of sunshine lit up the field and everyone cheered out loud, our spirits refreshed and bodies invigorated.

I’m not exaggerating. The difference that the sun made was drastic and nearly instantaneous. I thought I was doing alright, but when the sun came out, I realized that I really hadn’t been doing alright. That sun made everything infinitely better. I felt way better than I’d felt in days, and I could literally feel my body drinking in the rays of light as we rode the ATV trailer down the hill toward lunch.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always hated rain and I’ve always loved sunshine. I’ve certainly experienced my share of rainy weeks, and felt glad when the sun came out. But being outdoors all week in the rain, and then experiencing the moment that the weather shifts and having it hugely affect me – both physically and mentally…well, that was new.

I’ll never take the sun for granted again.

Friday Night, “Movie” Night

With the advent of actual sunshine, my energy level spiked Friday afternoon to the point that I didn’t actually want to stop for dinner. I also might have done a few jumping jacks out of sheer excitement after lunch while I was waiting for a project.

No, I’m not kidding. Yes, I’m weird. No, I don’t care. The boys here have been known to do pushups randomly while waiting for stuff, so I think I’m allowed to do jumping jacks if I feel like it.

Anyway. I had a lot of energy all of a sudden. And so it was the perfect night to attend a show entitled “Jonathan Fixes a Clutch.”

Okay, so what really happened is that I asked Jonathan, the staff member in charge of All Things Mechanical, if he was working on anything specific over the weekend. The girls and I had been talking about a list of things we wanted to work on learning, and vehicle related stuff was pretty high on the list. He said that he wasn’t, but would be spending the evening helping Parker, one of the apprentices, install a new clutch on his truck and we were welcome to watch if we wanted to.

So after dinner, a few of us headed over to the shop, laid down on the cement, and learned about trucks.

Jonathan did a great job of giving a brief overview of how a vehicle works. I understand way more about engines than I ever did before, and also know how four wheel drive works and why my car gets stuck in the mud (hint: because the wheel that has the least resistance is the one that turns, so if one wheel is in mud, it spins and you get stuck).

Of course, it wasn’t an official lesson, and a lot of our time was just spent laying on the concrete and watching the process. The clutch installation was pretty cool, and then Jonathan and Parker had to get the transmission back in, which took awhile. Everyone was joking around, various people came and went, Jonathan’s son was playing in the mud for awhile, and it was just generally pleasant. Like I said at the time, all we needed was popcorn.

The girls left at ten, since we are all pretty exhausted from our week and planned on getting up early to help with chores Saturday morning. But talking about it afterwards, we all agreed that we had thoroughly and genuinely enjoyed ourselves.

So as for some Philosophy of the Week: have we, as a culture, lost our ability to be entertained by work? By the mundane? Have we lost the ability to entertain ourselves?

Since coming to Polyface, I haven’t watched a movie, listened to the radio, or surfed the Internet. But I have spent a lot of time socializing with other people, making and eating food, and doing work – both required and not required. And I have not been bored even once. In fact, watching Jonathan and Parker fix the truck really and truly felt like entertainment. There was learning, there was talking and laughing, and there was productive things happening, and it was great. Wasn’t this what people used to do, “back in the day”? Why don’t we, culturally, find these things entertaining anymore? Have we lost something, with our abundance of leisure time and vast array of leisure activities?

Don’t get me wrong – there is absolutely nothing wrong with movies. A few of the stewards are going over to Daniel’s house tonight to watch a movie, as a matter of fact. But there’s a sense of fellowship in the work process that is wonderful, and I’m really enjoying my foray into an old fashioned place where entertainment was created, not provided, and Sundays were days of visiting and rest, whereas the rest of the week was used for enjoyable, meaningful, work – pretty much from dawn to dusk.

Social Highlights: Climbing the Mountain, Rope Swing, & Burgers

But as a steward, I have three out of four Saturdays off, as well as Sundays. And so…

On Saturday the sun was shining, it was 80 degrees, and I was back to feeling 100%. I wanted nothing more than to spend the entire day outside and I had a ton of energy, but I also wanted to give myself a break from regular labor, since the week had been rough and I will be working next weekend. So my roommate Sarah and I decided to climb the mountain.

I’ve been itching to climb the mountain since I arrived at Polyface, but with the rain, cold, and general busyness, I hadn’t had a good opportunity. All I knew was that Polyface had a 3.5 mile road that went to the top, and some former apprentices had built a cabin up there at some point. None of this year’s stewards had climbed to the top yet, and I was excited to be the first.

The hike started off on a gentle slope, and we foraged for wild plants, stopped to look at cool trees, and generally had a relaxing stroll. We passed vast quantities of blooming blackberry bushes and huge blueberry patches, both of which I am extremely excited to revisit later in the summer. Pigs get run on the lower part of the mountain, and we spent some time comparing the beautiful park-like setting that follows the pigs’ and the wild, overgrown post-European forest, marveling at the natural secession of the ecosystem.

The first part of the hike followed a beautiful mountain stream that we drank out of – and I have never tasted water quite that good before. The mountains give it something extra that Michigan streams just don’t have (and yes, I know that drinking out of streams is potentially dangerous, but I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid and figure it’ll be fine – my gut is used to it, hopefully). At a beautiful, crystal clear mountain lake (which would make a great swimming hole), the path turns away from the stream and starts to ascend much more steeply. We followed the path up, and up, and up, passing several spectacular views and a gorgeous ecosystem that changed as we got higher and higher. It was like going backward in time – the bottom of the mountain was far closer to summer, whereas the leaves on the trees toward the top weren’t fully open yet, and the air was a bit cooler.

When we finally reached the cabin, we were both surprised at the extensive campsite that we found. Not only is there a cabin, but there is a huge fire pit with chairs carved out of trees, a place for skinning wild game, a large counter and equipment for hearth cooking, and an adult-size playground. There’s a seesaw made out of a giant tree that I’m not ashamed to say we played on for awhile, and the highlight: a giant rope swing with a platform for jumping off.

We played for a long time, like children, and it was amazing. Finally, around noon, we forced ourselves to leave, since we were starving and had a long walk back. But that didn’t stop us from taking off our shoes and going barefoot through the moss, digging our toes into the warm mud and dipping them into the icy cold mountain water that trickled over rocks and down the path.

It was the perfect activity to recharge after a tough week. We were physically active, but in a different way than we are normally, and we got to act like five year olds. It doesn’t get much more fun than that. And yes – I took a nap in the sun after lunch which also helped me recharge.

We didn’t even have to worry about making dinner, since the boys decided to invite us over for burgers to celebrate Memorial Day, which was unexpected but super nice. We did receive a panicked message about “THE POTATOES ARE BOILING AND THE BURGERS ARE CHARRING, WE CAN’T COOK” but they wouldn’t actually let us help, and the burgers and potatoes turned out very good (guys: if you’re mashing potatoes, they are supposed to boil).

I’m still loving it here, and I’m excited for a better week where I’ll not feel terrible and also not be wet and cold (hopefully).

Polyface Week 2: I Start Doing Stuff

[Editor’s Note: This is being posted a week late because Internet is hard]

Alright. Week 2. Once again, it’s like it’s been a million years, and also like it’s been no time at all. I did SO MANY THINGS. Some highlights:

Rabbit Chores

The Polyface staff set up a weekly chore rotation for us to make sure everyone has a chance to do (and practice) All the Things. By sheer chance, I got to start my rotation on the Raken, which I talked about last week – and I was super excited. Most of the time we will all be moving broiler shelters which, if I’m being honest, is not my favorite thing, mostly because it’s physically tiring and it’s early in the morning, so bleh. As I get better at it, I’ll probably like it better. Maybe.

But bunnies early in the morning? Yes please. Despite the fact that chores start at 6:15, I looked forward to seeing the rabbits, checking to see if anyone new kindled, and cutting them some comfrey. I was able to do some breeding this week, which is super fun – if you’ve never seen rabbits breed, you should Youtube it. It takes the buck about five seconds to do his thing, and then he literally falls off, unable to move for a few seconds. Meanwhile, the doe just looks disgruntled. It’s hilarious, although I do feel a little bad for the doe.

Moving Cows

Part of my chore rotation this week involved riding with Gabe (a staff member) to move cows in the afternoons.

I love cows.

No, seriously. I love cows.

Some general information: Polyface rents pasture at several farms in the area. They use the pasture for cows and for hay (since those things take lots of space). The cows get moved to fresh pasture every day, and the idea is to put them in a small enough paddock that they will evenly graze it, but a big enough paddock that their manure won’t oversaturate the soil. The result is extremely high fertility (from the frequent grazing and the injection of manure), and super happy, healthy cows. Moving them every day also helps minimize parasites and disease, since they are constantly moving away from their manure. Gabe is in charge of moving the cows at some of the rental farms in the afternoons.

The coolest part of this is the part where the cows get called – Gabe (or me, on Friday) yells “COWIE” and the cows come across the field, ready to go. Then you open the gate, and they go through to the fresh pasture. There were a couple of moves where they got confused and required some herding, but it was pretty darn easy, honestly. And it was super fun to watch them come and excitedly go to the fresh pasture. According to Gabe, this is also a good time to check over the herd’s health, since each cow is passing by. He showed me some of the finishing fat they are looking for on the cows before they send them to the slaughterhouse.

A significant part of moving the cows involves erecting and taking down fences. Pretty much everything at Polyface is portable, and so each day involves setting up fence and waterer for the next day (so that everything is ready to go and any problems can be addressed), and taking down old fence from the previous day, as needed. They measure the pastures and figure out how big to make the paddocks based on the number of cows and the condition of the grass – good grass provides more feed, so the paddocks can be smaller. Since grass conditions changes based on lots of factors, like weather, the paddock sizes change constantly.

The measurements for the paddocks come from ‘pacing off’ or walking the perimeter and figuring out the area of the pastures. Polyface also uses pacing off to plan the path of portable broiler shelters and other stuff, and everybody knows approximately how long their stride is. It was pretty cool to measure stuff by walking, and anybody who knows me knows that spending an afternoon walking around the beautiful Virginia countryside is … well … pretty unbeatable.

I Thought Michigan Dirt Was Clay. I Was Wrong

Michigan just has slightly clay-ish dirt. But Virginia? Virginia has clay.

Let me preface this by saying that the dirt in the garden areas at Polyface is not clay. It’s beautiful, loamy soil from the intricate composting systems that they’ve had in place for a number of years. In fact, it’s so beautiful that I got super excited about it on Saturday when I was planting seeds and Daniel laughed at me.

Daniel laughs at me a lot, possibly because I get super excited about things like “THE DIRT IS PRETTY!” In fairness, I also laugh at me a lot, and all the stewards laugh at Daniel a lot because he does bizarre things, like doing cartwheels after dinner or doing victory laps after getting donuts. Actually, thinking about it, everybody laughs at everybody a lot. My weirdness is in good company here.

Anyway. I digress. The dirt in the gardens is pretty, but if you dig a hole in a random field, you are digging through solid clay. And I don’t mean clay as in ‘hard, compacted dirt’, I mean clay as in ‘you could probably stick the mud on a potter’s wheel and make a pot.’

I learned this when Gabe was checking water lines and digging holes in a cow pasture. He warned me it was clay, and I shrugged and picked up a shovel. I thought I was used to clay. Then the shovel bounced off the dirt. So I jumped on it. And it penetrated maybe two inches.

In fact, filling in the holes involved picking up large, football-sized balls of dirt and chucking them back in the hole.

This clay (in addition to the rolling hills) might be why the landscape is dotted with cows, and not cornfields. It grows great grass, but tillage would be a nightmare.

I do want to add that the fields with the rotating cows have great grass. In some places, it is as high as my hips – wading through the grass in these areas makes me feel like I stepped into Little House on the Prairie. Joel says that the grass used to be even higher before the Europeans came, and I can only kind of imagine what this landscape looked like when the colonists first set foot on Virginian soil.

Processing Day(s)

There were two processing days this week – Wednesday and Friday. On processing day, everybody pitches in to help get the chicken processing facility ready after chores, then we all take a station in an assembly line-ish system. I missed the processing day last week (and by ‘missed’ I mean that I was helping with pigs instead), so I was pretty excited to see the process.

Polyface butchers chickens in an open air facility behind the store, in accordance with local laws that allow a certain number of chickens to be processed on site. Everything is cleaned thoroughly, and the processing happens quickly and efficiently in an environment of laughter and camaraderie. Joel tells stories and shares the news as he guts, and everyone is racing against themselves to keep the line moving quickly. Since we only do this for a couple of hours, and we get a different station each day, there’s no boredom or carpal tunnel-ish soreness from doing the same thing over and over again.

It also is genuinely cool to see 400+ living chickens turn into neat, vacuum-packed packages in the course of a few hours. I think all chickens should be processed in little on-farm facilities like this, and it should be a field trip destination for all the local schools. What an amazing biology lesson that would be!

I was randomly assigned to Quality Control on the first processing day. Near the end of the line, I checked the chickens for missed feathers or other undesired parts, and tucked the legs into a flap of skin to keep them neat and compact, before passing them to someone else who gets them into a chill tank where they sit and get super cold while we all take a lunch break. It was a simple job, and pretty mindless – but not boring because of the aforementioned laughing and talking that happens during processing.

On Friday, I got to try my hand at gutting. This is the part where you receive a de-feathered and de-legged chicken, and you’re supposed to get all the guts out. I was super excited about it, and thought I’d be good at it – after all, I’ve dissected all sorts of creatures in labs and I cook with whole chickens at the time. How different could it be?

Answer: Very. I struggled hard. See, when you get the chicken, you make some specific cuts (cool, I can do that), and then you reach your hands up inside the chicken and pull everything out. Because it’s inside the chicken, you can’t see what you’re doing, and that was really throwing me for a loop.

To the credit of my teachers, both Joel and Daniel were extremely patient as they showed me hand positions and tried to explain what I should be feeling for. And I got better. Not great, but better. By the end of the processing day, I could manage the general procedure, although it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t efficient – those are things to work on next time. I’m still struggling with the part where my hand is up the chicken – when Joel does it, he deftly pulls out all the guts in one hand, passes them to the other hand while removing the liver and heart, and chucks them in the compost bucket. The guts never even hit the table. Joel guts a chicken like that Bob Ross guy paints a picture. It’s incredible.

In contrast, I make a giant mess and sometimes break gallbladders (which ruins the liver). But it’s getting better (almost all the gallbladder breaks happened in the first few chickens) and to be honest, I really enjoyed the challenge. I’m looking forward to doing it again and, hopefully, improving more.

The Miracle of Life

The biggest highlight, by far, was something that I got to witness, but really had nothing to do with.

Shortly before dinner on Monday, Daniel came into the egg room, where we were washing eggs, and mentioned that he was a little concerned about a cow that was in labor. She was pacing the paddock and seemed to be in distress. He opted to give her another hour or so while we had dinner, but then decided that he would need to intervene. He told us that we could watch, which – of course – everyone wanted to do.

The Salatins prefer their cows to calve on pasture, naturally, and they usually do so successfully. However, they also take special care to monitor the pregnant cows – especially first time mothers – in case they need to intervene. I don’t exactly know what was wrong in this case, but it looked like the labor was stalled – the calf’s hooves were poking out of the cow but no further progress was being made.

The first step was to separate the struggling Mama from the rest of the herd and bring her into the barn. Daniel strung a bluff (non-electrified rope that the cow will presumably think is electrified) to make an alley from the paddock to the barn. Then he had us stand quietly off to the side while he expertly herded the Mama away from the other cows. We followed slowly to the barn, where he maneuvered the cow into a headgate and told us to stand in a neighboring stall and watch.

Next, he tied chains around the protruding calf’s hooves. The chains were attached to a makeshift chair-like contraption that Daniel basically sat in. This allowed him to use his body weight and legs to pull the calf out and downward, while keeping his hands free to guide the calf out of the Mom. Once everything was set up, he only had a few minutes to make things happen – about half the calf slid out in one steady pull. Then he quickly twisted, and pulled the calf the rest of the way out, rapidly moving to clear the calf’s nose of slime to allow it to breathe. In the space of a few seconds, he also had to get the calf in front of the Mom, manually exchanging some of the birthing slime between cow and calf, to get the Mama cow to recognize and accept her baby.

She was exhausted, but he coaxed her up and into a stall so that the calf could nurse. As we slowly walked away to give them some space, I could see her start to nuzzle her baby, and perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing a bit, but I could have sworn that I saw a tired but proud look in her eyes.

Despite being covered in birthing slime and cow poop (cuz the cow pooped a LOT during the birth), Daniel took some time to explain the process to us before heading home. The method behind the chain contraption is to specifically pull the calf out and DOWN, which mimics how the calf would slide out of the birth canal if the mom as giving birth on her own. This is in direct contrast to the conventional method of pulling the calf straight out with a comealong or a skid steer, which can break Mom’s hip bones in the process. It also keeps his hands free, which is important to ease the calf out without damaging Mom. The twist also mimics the natural method – the cow would normally turn her body when the calf is about half out, and it’s super important to do quickly.

I’ve never seen anything give birth before; I’ve seen videos of it, but that’s not the same thing at all. I can’t begin to express how incredible this moment was. One minute, there was a struggling cow. The next, there was a whole second life, separate and complete – and utterly precious. Seeing the life emerge, with the aid and perseverance of the farmer, was beautiful (albeit in a slimey and poopy way), and one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The specialness of the moment was enhanced by Daniel’s demeanor and attitude during the whole thing. For context, Daniel is an extremely fun person to work for/with. He’s always laughing and joking, and is loud and abrupt. He likes guns and food and has fun with everything. But the minute the cow was in trouble, his manner changed – he was serious, firm, and extraordinarily gentle with the cow (despite having to literally pull out a calf out of her birth canal and getting covered in poo).

This is what it means to be a farmer, I thought. Sure, it’s fun to chip wood and dig holes and move cows, but the farmer orchestrates the life and death of so many creatures – and it’s a beautiful, important, role to play. I can’t think of anything greater.

It was in this moment that I knew, beyond any doubt, that I want to do this sort of thing forever. Probably not with cows (because that’s not practical for my financial situation – although maybe someday), but in general. One day, a farmer is helping to bring life into the world, and the next he is ending a life to get food to sustain another creature’s life – like a baby person. It’s like the Lion King: the antelope eats the grass, the lion eats the antelope, the lion dies and becomes the grass. The farmer gets to be a vibrant part of that choreography, and it’s a beautiful thing.

A Quick Word on People

I’ve focused pretty heavily on the things I’ve been doing, and all of that is great. I like the work, and I love learning new things and being outside. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment, at least briefly, on the incredible people that I am surrounded by.

I’ve already talked about how great the staff is at Polyface, and the patience and personality of the Salatin family. I could keep talking about that, but I also want to mention how great my fellow stewards are. The three girls that I am living with are all fantastic, and we have quickly become friends. There are times when we literally fall on the ground laughing, and we share stories about our day during every evening. We are all different, with different backgrounds and perspectives, and have had some really in depth philosophical conversations, as well as sharing crazy stories from our lives. The only bad part is that sometimes we keep talking and then realize that we were supposed to be asleep a half an hour ago. I’ve had lots of roommates, including living with people I didn’t know ahead of time, but I have never clicked so quickly with complete strangers before.

The boys are also great . I don’t know them as well yet (since they live all the way across the road), but we have spent a few evenings playing games and talking on their big front porch, and went shooting with them last weekend – have I mentioned how much fun guns are? We tease them for getting up at 4am to work out (although that seems to be mostly over now that we are in Week 2), and they sometimes lock us out of the laundry room (which is behind their house) by accident. Some of them are musically gifted and will sit around in a circle singing and playing the guitar, which is super enjoyable. Many of us were even able to go to church this morning, filling two rows and acting like a big family, along with Daniel and his actual family.

We even instituted a biweekly Sunday dinner where the girls cook food for everyone who lives in the Hunt Camp (stewards, apprentices, and Grace, the buying club driver). Sometimes other people bring stuff to pass, but the boys who don’t want to cook do dishes. As I write this, my enchiladas are ready to go, a pot of pozole is simmering on the stove, and other girls are busy chopping vegetables for salad.

I’m having a good time. Learning a lot, working hard, relishing the experience, and bonding with great people. I’m still not sure exactly how I got here – a lot happened, some of which was real bad – but I’m glad I’m here, this summer, doing something that I think really matters. I think this is where I’m supposed to be right now, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

Polyface Week 1: I Learn Stuff

Wow. Where does the time go? It’s already been an entire week as Polyface Farm, and here I am, drinking coffee (yay) and writing another post. In some ways, it feels like I’ve been here a month, and in other ways, it feels like I just barely arrived.

One thing that has not changed at all so far: I love this place. It’s beautiful, the people are fantastic, the teachers are phenomenal, and I’m learning a ton. I’m also feeling my complete ignorance as I ask, repeatedly “HOW DO I DO THE THING?” And, to their credit, the staff smile, show me, and then let me do it (often slowly and cumbersomely). It’s awesome.

I’ve done so many new things this week that I can’t even begin to describe them all, but I’m going to run through a few highlights.

The view behind my cabin

Highlights of the Week

Rabbits Are Awesome and I Want Some

My favorite morning chore is helping with the rabbits (which also involves handling the chicken and turkey brooders). The rabbits get food, water, and comfrey which grows wild all over the farm. They are housed in a structure called the Raken. It’s about the size of a garage, and is the #1 thing I’m interested in learning about, since I can go home and build one for relatively little money on very little land. Like most rabbitries, the Raken keeps the adult breeding rabbits separated (since rabbits are very territorial in the wild). The cages are lined up at a slight angle so that you can fill one water bucket and gravity will carry the water through the entire row of cages. When I saw this, I was struck by the utter genius of it. Here at Polyface, they are very good about small engineering innovations to make day to day things easier.

The genius of the Raken is that it also houses laying chickens. These chickens run around the structure pecking through the rabbit poop (that falls from the wire cages). Since the floor is covered in plenty of carbon (in the form of woodchips), this creates a wonderful, hands-free compost situation for both the chicken and rabbit poop. Plus, you get eggs out of it.

The young rabbits are also put on pasture after they are weaned, until slaughter, but I haven’t seen that yet since it’s still pretty cold. I’m excited to see rabbit breeding amp up, and to get my chance to practice slaughtering and butchering rabbits. My excitement has been obvious, since Daniel has been teasing me about it for the last couple of days – especially when I missed a slaughter demonstration while I was out working on repairing broiler shelters!

This weekend, I plan to take some measurements of the Raken as well as a bunch of pictures for my future use.

Chickens are Stupid But Turkeys are Stupider

Don’t get me wrong, I want chickens and maybe even turkeys. But they are some duuummbb animals.

One of the first things I learned is that turkey mortality is a problem since the baby turkeys are total dinguses – apparently they were eating sawdust instead of food, and dying (because y’know, sawdust isn’t food). As a result, the staff took out the sawdust bedding and put them on painter’s paper until they got a little bit older. Then it fell to me, another steward, and an apprentice (who was in charge of our team) to spread sawdust-ish bedding through the brooder.

This was supposed to only take a few minutes and just be an addendum to morning chores – the bedding was already piled up inside the brooder; we just had to remove the boards that kept it from spilling into the area with the turkeys and spread it around. No big deal right?

Well, the problem is that the turkeys didn’t want to get out of the way of the bedding. Whereas chickens will run away from you, creating a nice path to walk and allowing you to move things around without crushing them, turkeys just stand there. So to avoid literally burying turkeys in bedding, we had to move super slowly, occasionally moving turkeys out of our way as we went.

Like I said. They dumb.

I <3 Cows

My favorite day this week was the week that I went with Daniel and Eli (another steward) to sort cows. This wasn’t even a Polyface thing – we were doing a favor for a neighbor farmer who has a pasture that is landlocked by Polyface land. The goal was to sort out the cows that were going to the landlocked pasture, and transport them. But it was an introduction to sorting cows and I loved it.

I didn’t know anything (obviously), and it was a good learning experience on how to wrangle a stubborn calf through a headgate. I can’t say I was good at it, but I was definitely better at it by the time we were done than I was when we started. Daniel also explained some of the methodology behind setting up a corral to move and sort cows more efficiently, which was super interesting.

The Forests of America Need More Pigs

Quite a few of my days this week were (partially) spent with pigs. On the practical side, I learned the basics of moving waterers, feed, and setting up (and checking) electric fencing. On the fun side, I got to herd pigs. And on the philosophical, geeky side, I got to see what pigs do to a forest when they are properly managed.

Fun part first: herding pigs is fun. Eric, the farm manager, explained that in order to get pigs to move, you have to convince them to want to move. It has to be their idea – you can’t really make them do anything. One strategy is to entice them with feed (consistent with the stereotype, pigs are very food-driven). You can also herd them by spreading out behind them and “pushing” them toward where you want to go. The livestock at Polyface aren’t pets, so they largely will walk (or run) away from people. With a big group of stewards, herding them is easy, but with only a couple of people, it’s a bit harder (and more fun). At one point I was definitely running through the woods trying to head off a rogue pig…

Practical part: I’m not going to give step by step instructions on how to move pigs (that goes in my notebook for future reference, not on my blog), but moving the waterer was an interesting experience. Gabe, a staff member and former apprentice, was training me and another steward on pig movement and explained how the waterer worked and the best way to move it. The next day, he asked if we could move it and when we said we thought we could, he left to go find the water hookup for the next pasture.

The first step (besides turning the water off) is to pull the plug at the bottom of the waterer and let it drain. The waterers are made of plastic so they can be lifted and carried when they are empty, but they’re super big so you can’t move them when they are full. When Gabe showed us what to do, he rolled up his sleeve, plunged his arm into the waterer, and swiftly pulled the plug.

But when I tried it, my arm didn’t quite reach so far. I’m a wee bit shorter than Gabe, and by that, I mean that I’m short. Period. I had to reach as far into the waterer as I could, climbing on top of it so that my feet were up in the air and my entire arm and shoulder were completely submerged, as I stretched as far as I possibly could. And then it took a bit of rooting around in there to find it. Oh, I should also mention that the weather here has been unseasonably cold and the water was icy.

It would have made quite a picture.

Philosophical part: PIGS ARE AMAZING. We were able to see paddocks that haven’t had pigs yet, and they are overgrown with thorny invasives like multiflora rose. The forest here is a fairly young forest – one of the staff members told me that during the Civil War, the land was cleared to grow wheat and stuff – and it’s super brushy. The native ecosystem, however, is more of an oak savanna, with trees spaciously interspersed over fields of grass.

And that is exactly what happens when pigs go through an area.

Don’t get me wrong – at first, they tear it up. Pigs are destructive, and root up everything. This is what destroys the brushy invasives. The paddocks with the pigs in them are fairly muddy (although they still contain plenty of vegetation – nothing like the mud pits normally seen at petting zoos or most conventional farms). But after the pigs move, the dormant seeds spring to life, and there are vast tracts of woods that are a picture perfect oak savanna, with young, straight trees, grass, and wildflowers.

My roommate, who worked as a firefighter in California, stated “The forest service needs to employ pigs to stop fires” and she is absolutely right. The health of the forest with the pigs is so much greater than the neglected forests that are so common in the United States. It helps, of course, that the Salatins diligently harvest diseased and dying trees (chipping wood, by the way, is still pretty high up there on my Favorite Job list).

Takeway: careful management fosters healthy, biodiverse, native ecosystems and pigs are a useful part of that in the woods.

Failure of the Week:

The week had gone super well – no injuries (other than a couple of blisters) and plenty of energy. I had even stayed relatively dry through two days of rain, with my new Muck boots and a rain jacket. And so here I was, on Friday afternoon, setting out to do afternoon chores – one of the last things I’d be doing before the weekend. Another steward and I headed over to feed and water the broilers (meat chickens).

I had 20 shelters of birds to do (he did the other 20), and – despite the cold rain – cheerfully went through and dispensed feed. Everything looked good except for one waterer, which appeared to be broken. Lucky for me, we’d already had a tutorial on how to fix the waterers, and to my excitement I had no problem fixing the issue on my own, without any help.

But then I went to put the bucket of water (which feeds down into the waterer) back on top of the shelter. And it literally fell apart in my hands, the water washing over me in a giant wave that went over the top of my rain coat and soaked me through to the skin. On top of that, a piece of plastic from the bucket sliced into my finger, spewing blood out onto the ground and creating a nice Week 1 injury. And of course – since it’s me – I didn’t actually notice the cut until I had rigged up the water system and put everything back where it was supposed to go, getting blood all over (that I then had to try and clean up) and probably getting chicken poop into the wound. Oops.

It’s fine. I did surgery on it at home later and smothered it with some nice antibacterial, fresh Virginia honey that was produce a couple hundred yards from my cabin.

Before you wince and feel bad for me, recognize that this is actually pretty funny – I mean, a giant wave of water, plus bleeding, in 40 degree weather….of course that happened to me. I laughed, anyway.

“Ah-ha!” Moment of the Week

Every moment is a learning moment this early in the stewardship program, but the one that sticks out the most to me learning how a clutch works, in the context of learning how to operate tractor. This may seem like a small thing – and it is – but Jonathan took the time to explain why you push in the clutch, and how the engine works. The explanation made driving a manual suddenly make way more sense, and it was quintessential “it clicked” moment. It’ll take practice, and there is a LOT of learning left before any of us (except those with prior experience) can drive a tractor, but it was a great start and I’m grateful for the education. I think once I get used to it, I’ll actually really like driving a manual.

Philosophy of the Week

Interestingly, the ‘philosophical’ or spiritual thing that sticks out to me this week was going to church on Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong – the churches are all closed due to coronavirus. But some of the staff families were getting together in the Polyface office to livestream a church service, and I went with them. Even though the technology was glitchy and it wasn’t quite the same as going to church, it was a gathering of people seeking to worship together and I didn’t quite realize how much I missed that.

 

This Sunday, a group of us all tried out a downtown Church in Staunton. It was pretty cool to line up three pickup trucks and all tune into a worship service together. But even cooler was the fact that the pastor announced they will be opening their doors next week – I’m glad to be in a place where I’ll be able to start really going to church again!

Putting aside arguments about what the response to coronavirus should be, I think it’s pretty undebatable that people are really missing out on a visceral part of the human experience by not gathering together. I’m blessed to be inĀ  a place where the coronavirus isn’t really much of a factor – numerous families live and work here, not to mention the 2 apprentices and 11 stewards. Being able to fellowship with other people is something that I hope I continue to appreciate, and one that I think people should find a way to continue, regardless of whatever restrictions are in place in their area (obviously, be safe about it).

 

Some other pictures from the week:

Going out after dark to catch chickens on Wednesday – we were moving them out of a hoophouse to the Raken

Polyface Week 0: Anticipation

Editors note: this was written nearly a week ago, but I’m posting it now due to internet access issues. Oops.

5/3/2020

Well guys. It’s been a minute and the world has changed a bit since my last post. Now we have coronavirus quarantines, economic catastrophe, and empty grocery stores.

But some things don’t really change – chicken still lay eggs, cows still give milk (or in the case of this farm, cows make meat), and planting season doesn’t wait on viruses.

So here I am at Polyface Farm, starting my summer stewardship. I didn’t do the blog posts on local farms that I planned, and I didn’t buy as much in terms of supplies (like non-holey jeans) as I wanted to since my state is being particularly psycho about what’s considered “essential.” I also didn’t want to write about the coronavirus because…well…enough people are doing that and I didn’t feel like it. I could’ve. I kind of did in a giant essay (with data! and graphs!) about why the reaction to coronavirus is terrible. But posting that here? Nah. I want to focus on agriculture instead.

Let’s just say this: Agriculture is essential. People gotta eat. Otherwise, they will all die. Since agriculture is essential, things at Polyface are moving forward. There’s definitely been some changes due to the coronavirus – such as participating in a local food drive-thru in lieu of a farmer’s market – but the general farming process is the same – feeding, watering, and moving animals happens either way.

With the requisite “here’s how I’m responding to coronavirus” statement out of the way, I can begin:

I’ve only been here for a couple of days, and the first, oh, maybe 24 hours, I didn’t even really register that things were starting. I was busy: with the coronavirus shutdowns, I had trouble doing all of the basic things that I needed to do in order to leave, and I had additional things to do once I arrived. It seemed that pretty much every plan – from cat-sitting for my animals, storage units, and buying essential supplies (like boots and jeans) were messed up and made more difficult due to my state’s asinine rules and the general uncertainty of the time.

But I got it done. Barely. There was an extremely stressful couple of days when I didn’t have cat sitting for one of my cats…despite thinking I had things set up months ago. But I got it done, and was soon on my way to Virginia. Only problem was that I only had one pair of hole-free pants.

This was partially my fault. I had planned to buy several more pairs at the thrift store, and when they closed those, I was loathe to buy brand new ones. I decided to wait and hope that things would reopen. Instead of reopening though, the governor shut down certain sections of stores, making things even harder. So I decided to use my meager sewing “skills” (I use the word ‘skill’ loosely – I am terrible at sewing) to patch my pants.

Could I have done it earlier? Yep. But I didn’t, because I kept thinking things would reopen, or perhaps some states between Michigan and Virginia would reopen. But no luck. Thankfully, I was arriving with plenty of time before we started working (a precaution in case my car took a poop on the highway – with 190,000 miles, no spare tire, and several “SOMETHING IS WRONG” sensors broken and/or going on randomly, I wanted the extra time – better early than late, right?).

So anyway, several days before I left were a whirlwind, and the first 24 hours I was there were also a whirlwind of unloading, unpacking, getting groceries, helping with chores (to get a start on learning the basics of what I’d be doing…and to test out timing of when to wake up, when to leave in the morning, etc), meeting new roommates, getting food set up for the work week, making sure my paperwork was definitely in order…and yes, fixing the rest of my jeans.

With all that, it didn’t sink in that I was starting until the end of the welcome dinner on Friday night, when I looked around at all the people talking and laughing, the sheep happily munching grass in a nearby pasture, the chickens clucking gently in the hoophouse, and the countless red winged blackbirds swooping around the pond. And, of course, don’t forget the gorgeous backdrop of the mountain range that is still making me pause each time I step outside of my cabin.

Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s downright breathtaking.

The Friday welcome dinner was essentially the kick off of the summer, though almost all of the stewards had started something on the farm already. For most of the girls, this meant helping with chores and meeting the staff at the farm store. The boys had jumped straight in to work, but then again, their fridge was devoid of almost everything except spaghetti and eggs, whereas we were bound and determined to get stock made, soup underway, bread rising, fresh produce stocked, and otherwise make our cooking during the work week negligible…but delicious and nutritious.

Also, when we saw their fridge, we decided that hosting a Sunday potluck dinner for the other stewards needed to happen. We’re not heartless. To their credit, they volunteered to do dishes and shop for supplies, which seems like a relatively even trade, especially considering that we have NOT gotten used to our stove & oven yet, and the roast chicken and biscuits we are making may or may not be mediocre at best.

Of course, we thought they’d sign up to make food. We made a sign up sheet with two spots for dishes, but the five boys signed up for one spot as : “The Boys.”

(if any of the boys happen to be reading this, thank you for letting me make fun of you. Please feel free to reciprocate. And we all really do appreciate the dishes).

What We’ve Done So Far

Saturday – our first real day on the farm – was largely an orientation. We were shown how to move broiler pens and given the rundown on basic farm chores. Everyone had the opportunity to give the pen movement a try, and we tried to absorb details such as feeder placement, pen spacing, and timing considerations for management of the pens.

After chores we were dismissed for breakfast, and the girls cooked up sausage and eggs – along with plenty of coffee – and discussed the coronavirus, politics, and other relevant topics. Stimultating and intricate discussions have already become the norm here, and I’m loving every second of it. The stewards come from all different backgrounds and all different states, creating a level of diversity that supercedes even what I saw in college. And yet, everyone is incredibly open minded and respectful of each other creating a perfect environment for intellectual discussion and debate.

Next was orientation of the shop with Buzz and Jonathan, two of the Polyface staff members, and the beginnings of the farm equipment. I fully anticipate this to be my weakest point, since I’ve never driven much of anything other than my trusty 2002 Buick Century. First up was driving ATVs, which made me very nervous. It had a throttle! And buttons!

But it was fine. The throttle was super touchy, but it was fine.

We also got to try out the zero turn mowers – and I thought driving that was super fun. We were shown where everything was in the shop and went on a little field trip down to a second shop building that is primarily for Buzz and Jonathan’s use.

Before we knew it, we were being dismissed for lunch. This time, I used the break to do a little cleaning, and taking a walk to do some more scouting for edible plants – so far, I’ve spotted abundant garlic mustard, clover, autumn olive, dandelion, cattail, plantain, and berry bushes, all right around the Hunt Camp (where the boys and girls’ cabins are located – Joel says we are ‘hunting’ the truth.).

The afternoon was more classroom style – we sat around picnic tables and went over procedures, philosophy, and logistical information for the farm. It was thorough, in depth, comrehensive, informal, and extremely communicative.

Quick Note: We were outside during the entire orientation. Conventional wisdom dictates that would be distracting, especially since we were surround by a variety of animals, lots of wind, and occassional tourists that are welcome on the farm at any time. And yet, I never once lost focus on what Daniel and Joel were saying, while simultaneously appreciating the mountain view and sound of birds.

Would kids focus better if we moved some classroom work outside? Particularly ADD kids who can’t sit still (hi, it’s me, somebody who can’t sit still)? I’ve wondered this for a long time, and personally I think the answer is yes. Just a little anecdote.

After evening chores – more food and water for the broilers and brooders, plus lots of egg gathering and washing – we all went back to our cabins for the evening. The team seems to be bonding pretty well; we all went down to the store to snag a few minutes of wifi and started what will inevitably be many trips back and forth between the boys and the girls cabins. But we all were asleep by 10pm, ready to wake up again this morning at 5:45am for morning chores. I commented to the girls that it’s great because back home everybody calls me old for going to bed early, and here I’m normal.

That goes for a lot of things, by the way. Here, it’s considered normal to save a bag of onion scraps in the freezer, leave pots of soup on the stove for days without refrigeration (it’s fine, really), and make homemade hair rinses and conditioners to attempt to combat the hard water. Being around like minded people is pretty great, and I’m already benefiting from the different perspectives and knowlege bases.

Today – Sunday – has been pretty relaxing. We all helped with chores, and many hands makes light work – plus I got to move an entire row of broilers myself! Daniel watched and advised on the first half, then left me alone to finish the row. We’ll be moving broilers every day. I’m really glad for the repetition, because before too long, the movements will be muscle memory, but right now it’s an exacting process.

But after chores we’ve been on our own. I went to a gathering on-farm to watch a live streamed church service – which was really nice since I haven’t gathered with people for church since before the coronavirus – and read for awhile. We’ve also been preparing for a group dinner of stewards that will take place after evening chores, and made plans to go shooting together soon…plus basically solved the country’s gun control problem over breakfast (summary: people need to understand guns better, on both sides).

Have I mentioned yet that I’m enjoying all of these people? Salatins, staff, apprentices, and fellow stewards alike?

Stuff That Stands Out So Far

The Teachers. In only one real day, I have already been impressed by the teaching of the Salatin family and all of the staff. Yes, they have done this many times, but there’s plenty of teachers who teach for a lot of years and still don’t do it very well. Each person clearly has their own style, but all are patient, encouraging, willing to answer (endless) questions, and give us plenty of opportunities to both observe and jump into trying the activity for ourselves. In addition to all of that, they have several systems in place to enhance accountability and make sure we are extremely clear on what we are expected to learn. The teacher in me recognizes and is impressed by what they are doing, and I’m really excited to learn from all of these people for the next five months.

The Focus on Form: When Daniel was showing us how to move a broiler pen, he focused heavily on form, making sure that we placed our hands and feet in the right locations to fully leverage the pens without straining muscles, and ensuring that we don’t strain our backs. This is really important, since nobody likes injury, and I was impressed that this was stressed so heavily. The don’t want us to just move the pens; they want us to move the pens the right way, so that it is as easy as possible. Of course the impatient part of me has never been good at slowing down and paying attention to form, but I recognize the wisdom of it. I’m really glad that this seems to be an integral part of instructions here.

The Transparency: Communication is held in high regard here, as is personal responsibility. It was stressed very strongly that if we are sick or hurt, we should communicate that and let people know that we need to rest. If we have an issue with somebody, we need to address it. If we are unhappy with something, we need to bring it up. If we haven’t learned one of the benchmarks that we are supposed to have learned, we need to make sure we volunteer to do that thing and let staff know. This all sounds like common sense, and it is, but it’s also not always so “common,” particularly in work situations. I’ve worked for good people, bad people, and mediocre people, and so far, this seems like it is going to be very, very good.

Tomorrow we will start our first work week, and we’ve been warned multiple times that we’ll be hitting the ground running. I’m prepared for sore muscles, blisters (I already have one from moving pens this morning), general exhaustion, and probably running into all sorts of things that I’m not prepared for.

It’ll be fantastic. Especially since those things lead, respectively, to strength, callouses, resilience, and knowledge, all of which are super great.