Polyface Check-out Part 2: The First Work Day

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(This is the 2nd post in a 4-part series. Read the first, third, and fourth parts by clicking the links).

My alarm went off at 6:30 the next morning, and I grunted slightly. This was later than I normally slept, but I’d been up late talking to the other checkouts and hadn’t slept all that well – I never do, in a new place. 

Forcing myself to get out of my warm blankets, I climbed down from the bunk, and mustered all of my willpower to leave the warm bedroom. Although a space heater had kept us warm throughout the night – too warm, really – the late October air had permeated the kitchen and bathroom, making me cringe as my bare feet padded across the icy wood floor.

But before long, I was fully dressed in a T-shirt, hoodie, and non-holey-but-old jeans, with a steaming cup of water (I hadn’t thought to bring any tea or coffee) in my hand. My many-pocketed jacket was stocked with a pocket knife and miscellaneous supplies, and my phone was lying uselessly on the windowsill in the bedroom. I was ready to go DO something today, and I was excited about it – and, admittedly, a little nervous. I really didn’t know what to expect.

Along with the other checkouts, I made my way down to the farmhouse at the designated time. A slight mist hung in the air, and the birds were already awake and singing as light slowly came out of the eastern sky.  I smiled, automatically relaxed by being out in nature. As directed, we followed the smoke to a large outdoor wood burner behind the main farmhouse, where I saw several people already standing. It appeared that everyone had made a circle around the largest white dog I had ever seen, who was lying happily in the wet grass.

Once everyone had arrived – checkouts, apprentices, staff, and Daniel Salatin (who runs day-to-day operations at Polyface) – introductions were made. I tried really hard to get everyone’s name straight, and then paid attention as the staff discussed the various projects they intended to accomplish that day. Obviously, I had nothing to add to the discussion, but I wanted to notice everything I possibly could about how they ran this farm. The overall schedule was to do morning chores, tackle several infrastructure projects, and gather wood for the woodburner, then do afternoon chores and have dinner. After dinner, we’d go “catch chickens.” I had heard about that from the other checkouts last night, and I was excited to see it firsthand. 

Morning Work

For morning chores, I was partnered with an apprentice. Basically, we fed animals – chickens and rabbits. I really enjoyed seeing the brooder house, since it was filled with chicks of varying ages and sizes…and they were all utterly adorable. Plus, it was warm. “Feeding chickens” sounds simple – and it is – but seeing how the Polyface team spaces their feeders, stores the feed, designs their nesting boxes, and secures the rabbit feeders to the cages was all valuable. I’d read books contrasting different methods, but actually seeing it in person makes a huge difference. I’d strongly encourage you to visit lots of different farms; there’s always something valuable to observe, whether you’re interested in homesteading or simply a consumer of food.

After the morning chores, we launched right into regular work. Several other check-outs and I were set to organizing a wood pile filled with old posts of varying sizes, and some scrap wood that got sent to the burn pile. Polyface saves all usable materials – fence posts, building materials, scrap metal, and more. For the most part, all of these materials are fairly well organized, but I’m guessing that keeping it that way is the result of constant effort. I was happy that we were able to help out with getting things in order before winter. I also learned that locust wood makes excellent posts; a single post can last many years without rotting.

Next, there were some miscellaneous tasks – loading empty chicken crates into a trailer, dismantling broken down hoop-house doors and feed bin lids, etc.

After this, we were directed to the woodpile, where all of the checkouts ended up as they finished their individual tasks. The woodpile was massive, but the Polyface team told us that it needed to be far bigger before winter hit. The outdoor wood burner would heat three houses and two hot water tanks – no small feat. We were asked to stack wood, creating a stable outer wall of neatly stacked logs to prevent the whole thing from collapsing, and to make room for more logs to be dumped into the center of the pile. I was strongly reminded of my old Tetris game, as I clambered up and down the stacks of wood, rearranging and fitting logs into place. Once we were done, it would be time for brunch.

 Brunch with the Salatins (Daniel & Sheri)

At this point, it was late morning and I was pretty hungry. I was in the group of checkouts who would spend today’s meals with Daniel and Sheri, and tomorrow with Joel and Teresa, so I headed with my group up to Daniel and Sheri’s house.

The house was gorgeous. It was on top of a hill, with wooden paneling featured inside, just like in the girl’s cabin. I found out that all the planks were from the farm (like I’d guessed), and that Daniel and Sheri built the house themselves. The kitchen was beautiful, and decorated in a farmhouse style with a woodstove in the corner and a wall of cast iron cookware behind it.

Sheri introduced herself and her three children, and told us we’d be having breakfast tacos this morning. Being rather obsessed with Mexican food, this made me extremely happy. Everything tasted amazing, especially the homemade salsa (I LOVE salsa), and Sheri brewed coffee for anybody who wanted it.

I have to admit, going into my first meal at Polyface, I was a little nervous. So far, I’d been doing work that didn’t require a lot of thinking. It had actually been sort of like the mission trips I’ve been on with my church – people who knew what they were doing gave me jobs and the tools to complete the jobs, I did them with a team of other young people, and then we went on to the next task. I’ve been on quite a few mission trips, so this sort of thing was comfortable for me. But although I’d been getting directions from various members of the staff, I hadn’t interacted very much with any of the Salatins yet. Would this be like a formal interview? Would it be awkward? Would my knowledge of Polyface practices be tested? I hoped not, since I had intentionally not prepared for anything like that.

No, no, and no.

It was…hospitable. Social. Comfortable. Daniel and Sheri put everyone at ease almost immediately, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them over the wonderful meal. They did ask us about why we were interested in farming, but not in an intimidating or formal way. I got the impression that they were genuinely trying to get to know us, not going through some checklist to see how we measured up. Daniel mentioned that we’d be going over some paperwork and logistical information after we ate, but there didn’t seem to be any hurry to do that. The meal was relaxed and enjoyable – a perfect break in the work day. I drank two cups of coffee, ate food, and talked to really great people – it doesn’t get much better than that! 

After everyone was finished eating, Daniel invited us all into the living room to go over logistics. We each received an information packet about the stewardship program, and were told to ask as many questions as we wanted. I was extremely impressed by the information provided – the expectations and rigors of the program were made extremely clear with a level of transparency that is rare in most work agreements that I’ve seen.

Oh, and you know how in school, the teacher will ask if anybody has questions, and nobody does? Or maybe one person has one question? Well here, everybody had lots of questions. I think having people choose to be here – and make sacrifices to be here – made a big difference in terms of everyone’s level of engagement.

We talked for a long time, and probably could’ve kept going, but it was time to get back to work. Daniel encouraged us to keep asking questions during any down moments during the workday, or later at supper.

Since I want to know literally everything that there is to know in the world, this encouragement made me very happy.

Afternoon Work

Most of my afternoon was spent hauling wood in some capacity. Daniel took an apprentice and three check-outs (including me) up a mountain where Joel was cutting old, diseased and dying trees. There was more firewood to gather, and huge piles of branches and brush that needed to be fed to the woodchipper.  Meanwhile, Joel was continuing to cut trees for us to deal with.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), there was a miscommunication and we had to wait about a half an hour for the necessary equipment to arrive. The downside, obviously, was that we had to wait around for a half an hour. The upside, was that we got to ask Daniel more questions. Actually, we had a fairly detailed discussion about forestry. A significant portion of Polyface is woods, and they harvest a LOT of wood – for firewood and for lumber. But they thoughtfully and carefully manage their forests, so that the trees remain healthy and the wood production continues. It all comes back to the concept of stewardship, which is a concept that I tend to get geekily excited about. I found all of this super interesting…and also enjoyed the more casual discussion about hunting that surfaced from the forestry topic. Eventually however, the equipment arrived and we got to work on the wood.

And thus began my love affair with the woodchipper. It was loud (we had to wear earplugs), it was messy (I got covered in wood particles), and it was slightly dangerous (if you didn’t watch out, the chipper would whip branches around and hit you in the face. Yes, I got a (small) cut on my face. Yes, it was my fault. And yes, I learned to watch out for the branches after that). But it was awesome, and weirdly cathartic to watch everything get chopped up. Time flew, and before I knew it, more checkouts had appeared (once they finished whatever tasks they had been working on, everybody ended up on wood duty), and we were heading back down the mountain with a full cart of logs.

My next task involved preparing one of the hoophouses for winter. Polyface uses hoophouses as winter housing for their laying chickens. A thick carbon bedding – made from woodchips from the forested areas of the farm – mixes with the chicken poop to create a nice, magical compost. The correct carbon/nitrogen ratio prevents odor, and maintains hygienic conditions. The hoophouses also keep the chickens warm, and provides them with natural light. I was told that this was the hoophouse we’d be putting chickens in tonight, after we caught them. Under direction from a Polyface staff member, a few of us worked on getting the hoophouse ready for the chickens. We spread woodchips, fixed the doors, and moved nesting boxes (which are surprisingly heavy). We also collected feed trays from the tool shed and set up the waterer.

Once we were done, we headed into the egg washing room to help with eggs. Polyface produces many eggs, and I got to witness a large scale egg washing process for the first time. We sorted eggs, putting dirty ones aside to be washed and putting clean ones directly into containers. I was impressed by how many of the eggs were perfectly clean. Although I think I theoretically knew that, since I get unwashed eggs from my neighbors all the time, I didn’t really realize the percentage that are clean until I saw the vast quantities of Polyface eggs.

After the egg washing, chores were over and it was time to head back to Daniel and Sheri’s house for supper.

Supper at the Salatins (Daniel & Sheri)

Sheri had prepared a delightful French stew for our supper with homemade bread. I don’t know exactly what was in it, but there were definitely root vegetables and chunks of beef, and it was fantastic. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until we sat down to eat, at which point I proceeded to eat approximately double what I normally eat for supper. Hard work, combined with good food, will do that.

The supper was similar to brunch – social and immensely enjoyable. I’d been working with some of my fellow checkouts all day – and talking to them, because working in silence is boring – so I felt like I had gotten to know them. Other checkouts had been working on completely different tasks, so we were able to swap stories of what had happened throughout the day.

After supper, one of the other checkouts and I offered to clean up, and then we all proceeded to socialize for awhile. I heard stories from the Salatins and stories from my fellow check-outs. One of them operated a restaurant, another worked as a firefighter, and another was working on homesteading her parents’ land. The diversity was palpable, but each and every person in the room was hardworking and dedicated to sustainable agriculture. We all had a common tie, no matter where in the country we came from, and as it turned out, a lot of our other interests were similar as well. Several people were interested in cooking, and others had big vegetable gardens. Some were interested in knitting and quilting (skills I have 0 ability in, but I find interesting). 

Summary: It was super cool.

Catching Chickens

Around 7:30pm, Daniel announced that it was time to catch chickens. We all piled into the back of a couple of pickup trucks and headed out to a neighboring piece of land. Here, there were several enclosures full of chickens. Each enclosure consisted of an open area (with a fence around it) and a covered area, where the chickens were currently roosting. It was too dark for me to really see how these enclosures were constructed, but it’s my understanding that they regularly get moved around the pasture, allowing the chickens to peck bugs out of new sections of grass – the enclosures don’t have floors. Our directions were to divide ourselves into teams of three. One person would crawl under the covered area and literally catch the chickens. Then, they’d pass the chickens to the second person, who would count them and stick them in a crate. The third person would open and close the crate, and make sure that the correct amount of chickens went into each crate – and stayed there. Daniel warned us that the person crawling under the enclosed area would be crawling through chicken poop.

Well, obviously, I volunteered to crawl through chicken poop to catch chickens. I mean, duh.

It was simultaneously easier and harder than I expected. The technique was to grab them by the feet, turn them upside down, then pass them to other people. With this method, it was possible to hold multiple chickens at a time. Although I found it hard to hold more than three, some of the guys said they were consistently holding five or more in one hand, and the Polyface staff told stories about holding ten or more at a time. The chickens would squawk like maniacs, but ultimately didn’t really resist being caught. In fact, most of them just stood there and watched me until I grabbed them. A few of the smarter ones ambled away from me and made me crawl after them…but they weren’t very fast.

But even though literally catching the chickens was easy, crawling underneath the shelter was not. The roof wasn’t very high, and even though I’m short, it was hard to crawl without hitting my head. And there was chicken poop, although the enclosure honestly didn’t smell like poop. And for anybody who knows me in real life, you know that my nose is weirdly, bizarrely sensitive so if I’m saying something doesn’t smell…it really doesn’t smell. I had fun, laughing and joking with my teammates as we caught and counted chickens.

Once all the chickens had been caught and the crates were loaded into a truck, we headed back to the main farm and unloaded them into the hoophouse I’d been working on earlier in the afternoon. At this point, we were done for the night. 

We all stood around chatting for a few minutes – after all, several of the checkouts were leaving tonight or early in the morning. Although each checkout is required to come down to Polyface for two full work days, they can pick whatever two days they want…so the checkouts overlap with each other throughout a two week window. I said my goodbyes, and wondered if I’d see any of these people again. I had liked literally everyone I’d met, but not everyone was going to be offered a stewardship position – I didn’t even know if I would be or not. Still, I appreciated getting to meet them all and hear their stories; it was encouraging to see how many people are so invested in food production, and willing to spend time cultivating their skills.

I enjoyed the short walk back to the girl’s cabin, drinking in the moonlight and listening to the sounds of the October night. I marveled at how wonderful it was to finish work for the day and not have to get in my car and drive anywhere. I’ve had short and long commutes throughout my varied work history, but I haven’t been able to walk to work since about halfway through college. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed it.

There were three girls in the cabin that night, and we all took turns showering. I was impressed to find that the hot water was plentiful and the shower was very decent. I decided that this cabin would be more comfortable to live in than my college dorm. Then I had to remind myself that I was supposed to reserve judgement until after I left Virginia. But that was hard, because I really liked this farm.

After a little chit-chat, we all climbed into our respective bunks. I had time for only a short prayer of thanks for this experience before I was sound asleep.

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