Polyface Check-out Part 1: The Drive

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(read THIS first)

I woke up at 5:15am on Thursday, October 24th, and completed a basic, maintenance workout. Then I made eggs and had a leisurely cup of coffee, complete with petting cats and reading the news.

So it was like most Thursdays. Except that this time, instead of leaving for work, I’d be leaving for Swoope, Virginia for the Polyface Check-out.

I said a quick prayer that my car wouldn’t break (it’d been having some intermittent ‘check engine light’ problems lately), packed my suitcase with work clothes, a set of nice clothes (you never know when you’ll need nice clothes), and food for the road. Then I took a deep breath, started my GPS app, and started driving.

I drove for a really long time.

Have I mentioned that I hate driving?

No? Well, I hate driving. I hate sitting still and I hate being bored. Then again, my current random job was working in an office, and involved both of those things. So I supposed this was okay. At least in my car I got to sing along (badly) to the radio and talk out loud to myself without being stared at like a crazy person. Or fired.

Besides, driving wasn’t entirely useless. There’s always something to learn in any given day; I firmly believe that if a day goes by and you didn’t find anything new to learn, you weren’t paying attention.

Stuff I Learned While Driving:

1) Most other states (at least in the eastern Midwest) have toll roads. These toll roads can be cheap, like in Ohio, or they can be stupid expensive, like in Pennsylvania. And there doesn’t appear to be a good way around them…at least not in Pennsylvania.

2) Pennsylvania also has stupid expensive gas. So does Maryland.

3) I really don’t want to live in Pennsylvania because WHY IS DRIVING THERE SO EXPENSIVE, although I have to admit that their scenery is beautiful.

4) My phone battery will, in fact, die if I try to drive for 9 hours while using it as a GPS. In other news, I own a car phone charger now.

5) Talk radio is the MVP of road trips because all music stations play basically the same songs, no matter how far you drive.

6) All people look at me like weirdo when I stop for lunch on the road, not just Michigan people. For context, I like to find a McDonalds, use their bathroom, then spread out little glass containers of homemade food on the hood of my car. Then I stand there – preferably in the sunshine – and eat, usually while reading a book. People apparently find this weird. Personally, I find it weird that people would use a McDonalds for something besides a bathroom, but to each their own, I guess.

Arrival 

After some construction, and a crazy car accident on the Virginia highway that delayed me by about an hour, I finally arrived at Polyface. It was dark, and I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going. The roads around Swoope, Virginia all have numbers, which – to my Michigan brain – is bizarre and confusing. It was like “turn on road 513, then 635, then 734, then 739). Meanwhile, all the roads are curving and mountainous and super narrow. And it was pitch black, since this is the middle of nowhere.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that when the GPS said to turn right for the twenty billionth time, I didn’t register that this was the DRIVEWAY to Polyface and not an actual road. And, since a caravan of cars was trying to exit at the same time that I was trying to turn in, I had to back up to let them out. Awwwkkwwarrrdd.

A guy I recognized as Daniel Salatin – Joel Salatin’s son – rolled the window of his truck down and asked if I was one of the checkouts. I replied that yes, I was, and he directed me to head to the farmhouse at the end of the driveway for further directions. They were going out to catch chickens, he explained, but I didn’t need to worry about that – he’d see me starting with chores tomorrow.

Catch chickens?? I thought. I briefly wished that I’d gotten here a little sooner because I had no idea why they’d be catching chickens or what it involved, but it sounded like something I wanted to do. Hopefully they do it again tomorrow night. Hesitantly, I drove down to the end of the drive, parked, went up to the big farmhouse, and knocked on the door.

“Come in!” a voice called. Come in? Um…Okay… I tentatively opened the door, and was met with Joel Salatin himself, coming to shake my hand. My brain took in the farmhouse fireplace and Joel’s desk, which was surrounded by floor to ceiling bookshelves. If I didn’t have any manners, I would’ve ran over to them and started drooling like a dog seeing a room full of steak. But since I’m not a dog, and my mom taught me not to drool on other peoples’ books, I just smiled and shook Joel’s hand.

“I’m Joel. And you are…?” he asked.

“I’m Jess.” The name sounded weird to my own ears. “I’m here for the check-out.”

Sidebar:

For my entire life, my family and friends have largely called me Jess…when they’re not calling me far weirder nicknames (Mess, Fudge, Mousa, Stumpy, and more that I won’t repeat on the Internet). However, I’ve always introduced myself as Jessica, and I’ve been Jessica in all of my various and sundry workplaces. The name, in a way, has been the boundary between work and life. However, I’m not interested in a farming job; I’m interested in a farming lifestyle. In thinking about the upcoming checkout, one of the things I’d decided was to introduce myself as Jess. It’d be a symbolic reminder that this was not a job interview. This may sound stupid, but psychology says that the names we call things have significant effects on the brain. And I was not going to try and get the “job” because this wasn’t a job; it was a life. More on that later. 

He shook my hand. “Welcome to Polyface!”

“It’s an honor to meet you,” I said, smiling. Oh my gosh, so this is what normal people feel like when they get backstage passes to meet a band or whatever.

“Are you hungry?” Teresa, Joel’s wife, called from the kitchen. “I’m just cleaning up, but I’d be happy to fix you a plate.”

Taken aback by the unexpected hospitality, I said, “Oh, no thank you, I ate dinner already. I appreciate the offer though.”

Joel reiterated that everyone was out ‘catching chickens’ and assured me that I’d probably get to help with that tomorrow night. He gave me directions back to the ‘hunt camp’, where I was told that I’d find a little cottage where the female stewards slept – that would be my housing for the next two days. Chores were at 7am (because that’s when the sun comes up in late October), and brunch would be around 10 or 1030. They were expecting another girl to arrive tonight, but I’d be on my own either until she did, or until everyone got back from chicken catching.

I thanked him and headed out to the cabin. My heart pounded with excitement as I drove through the dark trees and up the gravel drive. I couldn’t believe I was actually here, and even though I sort of wished I was catching chickens, I was also glad to have a few minutes to myself to get my bearings and spend some time mentally preparing for the next couple of days.

I parked my car in the parking area in front of a large building – presumably the hunt camp – noting that there was a smaller cabin across the gravel drive and down in a gully – presumably the girls’ cabin. As I pulled my suitcase out of the trunk, I was immediately greeted by an adorable tabby cat with a scar above his left eye. Since nobody was around yet, I saw no reason not to take a few minutes (okay, like ten minutes) to give him plenty of ear scratches and head rubs, telling him how good he was. He loved it, twining himself between my legs and purring. This was the best welcome ever…but I did need to get my things inside, and I also needed to use the bathroom.

The Cabin

I carried my suitcase into the small cabin, which I assumed was the girls’. When I opened the door, I was greeted by a beautiful wood interior – the walls and floor were all made of carefully cut and finished boards. I wondered if all of the wood came from the farm – I knew Polyface harvested a lot of trees. The cabin had a full kitchen, and I nodded approval at the way the small space centered around food preparation. There was a couch up against a wall, but the majority of the room was designated as a kitchen, with plenty of counter space and nice dining room table with four chairs. 

If I was building a small cottage, this is exactly how I would design it – most of my “inside” time has always been spent in the kitchen, even if I’m reading or writing. To me, living rooms are sort of pointless unless they are attached to kitchens. I found the bathroom just off the kitchen/living area, and was pleased to see that it was small but clean and very functional. Another room housed two sets of bunk beds with two closets and several chests of drawers. A bookshelf stood in the middle of the longest wall, and I saw several of Joel’s books, as well as a few titles I recognized from my farm and homesteading research. And, of course, there was plenty of space on the shelf for stewards to put their own books or other belongings. There were numerous windows, and the gorgeous wood paneling extended through the entire place. 

To be honest, this was significantly nicer than I had expected. After experiencing my share of college dorm rooms, college town rental homes, and hearing stories of army barracks, I was anticipating a rundown little cabin with a utility kitchen and very little natural light. But this wasn’t like any of those things. It was actually nice.

Don’t get me wrong – the cabin was small. But it was nice enough to be a vacation home or professional cottage rental. And the kitchen had a real stove with an oven, unlike those stupid and barely functional built in stovetops that are in most vacation cottages. There were even wire shelves above the couch that held a toaster oven and paper towel – and had space leftover. I was sure they’d be full when the stewards were all present, but I appreciated the attempt to utilize the space for storage.

 I found a mug in one of the cupboards, poured some water, and stuck it in the microwave for a couple of minutes. I hadn’t thought to bring any tea with me, but hot beverages are my thinking juice, whether they’re caffeinated, herbal, or just plain hot water.

My Approach

I had spent some time considering how I would approach this check-out process before coming down to Virginia, and I decided to take a few minutes to mentally recap everything. It wasn’t necessary to go over it again, but since I didn’t have anything else to do, I saw no reason not to. Basically, I’d pre-emptively decided a few things.

1) This was NOT an Interview.

I was not going to TRY to get this stewardship. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I was going to work hard and treat everyone with respect, but that has more to do with being a decent human being than it does with trying to get a stewardship. See, I didn’t necessarily even want to get it. I mean, obviously I thought I wanted it since I’d, y’know, applied for it, but I didn’t know if I wanted it. That was the point of coming down to the check-out. I wanted to be as genuine as possible during my time here, to really see if the program was a good fit for me.

 Like I mentioned before, this wasn’t a job. I had no desire to compete with the other checkouts. I also didn’t want to try to portray any sort of image, because if I did get the stewardship, there was no way I’d be able to live up to a fake image during a 24-7 five month program. And I sure as heck didn’t want to try – that would be miserable. I wanted the Polyface team to be able to see exactly who I was and what I would (and wouldn’t) bring to the table, and decide from there if I would be a good addition to their farm. Similarly, I wanted to test myself against their system and decide if their farm would be a good fit for my aspirations and personality. In theory, that’s how job interviews are supposed to work, but let’s be honest: it’s not. So this wasn’t a job interview.

2) No Research.

I intentionally decided not to research the Salatin’s stewardship and apprenticeship programs, beyond the logistical details. Joel Salatin has written an entire book on how these programs work, and I briefly considered reading it to see if I could figure out what sorts of characteristics they were looking for. But I decided not to – at least not until after the checkout. I was free to research his farming practices, since that would help me understand what I was seeing on-farm, but I wouldn’t touch the apprenticeship book until after the check-out. Again, this goes back to wanting to genuinely determine if the program was a good fit for me, without being tempted to artificially mold myself into what the program was looking for. 

This all may sound a bit silly and unnecessary, but I absolutely didn’t want to inadvertently create unrealistic expectations, either for myself or for Polyface. I was going in blind, and if this was meant to be, it would be. If not, then it obviously wouldn’t.

3) Divorce Handling.

I assumed that everybody would be asking me why I had applied to Polyface – after all, that was a fairly obvious place to start a conversation. I determined very early that I wasn’t going to hide what had happened with my ex-husband, but I wasn’t going to advertise it either. Since the situation was so extreme (read about it here), it was hard to explain without complaining or receiving sympathy from other people. I didn’t want sympathy, and I didn’t want to be treated any differently because of what had happened. See, my ex-husband really had nothing to do with my desire to learn at Polyface – I’d wanted to apply for this stewardship the moment I saw that it existed, long before I was married. Really, his only impact was to delay me from applying. Yes, his abandonment was the catalyst that spurred me to fill out the application, but it wasn’t the reason I had done so. So I didn’t think I needed to bring him up, or discuss the details – especially since those details were already in the application I had sent to the Salatins. 

Instead, I would focus on what mattered: my childhood interest in farming, the jobs I’d held, and my current dreams and goals, bypassing the details that touched on my marriage or divorce. Of course, I wouldn’t lie about it either – if someone questioned me further or asked for more details about why I hadn’t applied for this stewardship sooner, I would provide the information as clearly and concisely as possible. I just wasn’t going to offer those details unless they were asked for or were relevant to what I was talking about. In fact, this was how I was going to handle it in other places in my life too – “some stuff happened” would be a good descriptor, and if anyone asked what ‘stuff’ was, that’s when I’d explain. I wasn’t sure if this was the best way to handle it, but it seemed like the only way to maintain honesty and transparency without coming across as a victim or whining about my life.

4) Close Observation & Delay of Judgment.

I was going to observe everything I possibly could about Polyface Farm. I had no way of knowing if I would ever have the chance to come back, so I wanted to take away as much information as I possibly could. Plus, the more information I had, the better equipped I would be to decide if the stewardship was a good fit. However, I was not going to make any judgments about the farm until after I got at least two states away after the check-out was over. I didn’t want to decide that OH MY GOSH I WANT THIS until I had time to distance myself and really reflect on everything I had experienced. Again, this all feeds into trying to make a good decision about whether I wanted the stewardship or not.

First Evening

Satisfied with my few minutes of reflection, I (naturally) went to peruse the bookshelf.

I immediately decided that if I became a Polyface steward, I would read all of these books. And then I would beg Joel for access to all of his books. And in between working from dawn to dusk, I would read all of the books. All of them.

But right now, I wasn’t a Polyface steward – I was a check-out. And I had time to kill. I was hesitant to actually read one of these books since a) they weren’t mine and b) I knew I wouldn’t have time to finish one before people returned from catching chickens. But then I saw that they had “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. I’d wanted to read that book for ages, but since I generally refuse to spend money on actually buying things and my library didn’t have it…I hadn’t. I brought the book into the kitchen and immersed myself in reading about the corn industry. It was fascinating, and the book read with the ease of a novel.

In fact, it was so fascinating that I was almost disappointed when the other girls got back from chicken catching, and the last checkout arrived. The disappointment didn’t last more than a minute though, because as soon as I started talking to everyone, I realized how interesting they all were.

“Catching chickens” was explained in detail, and I was super excited to get to do it the following night. Not only that, but all of the other girls’ had varied backgrounds and reasons for applying for this stewardship program. Hearing their stories was fantastic, and I was pleased to meet all of them. It felt great to connect to other people with similar interests and passion for environmental stewardship and agriculture.

Even though we went to bed a little late, it took me a few minutes to fall asleep – I was both excited and apprehensive to start work tomorrow.

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