Polyface Check-out Part 3: The Second Work Day

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This is the 3rd post in a 4-part series. Read the first, second, and fourth parts by clicking the links).

Weirdly, it was actually easier for me to get out of bed on the second day. I slept really well the night before, and awoke feeling refreshed…even though I hadn’t actually gotten as many hours of sleep as usual. My muscles weren’t particularly sore either – I could tell that I had worked my whole body hard the day before, but it wasn’t the same as a big workout, which targets specific muscle groups to exhaustion. The only muscles that were specifically, painfully sore were my hand muscles, of all things. I guess I don’t normally grip a lot of stuff. I made a mental note to add “gripping stuff” to my workouts.

It had rained overnight, and the morning sky was still gray. I hoped it wouldn’t rain during the work day, as I dodged puddles on my way over to the main farm. Gray or not, the morning was just as beautiful as it had been yesterday, and I felt invigorated by the brisk air.

Once again, everyone met by the outdoor woodburner and the Polyface staff went over the plan for the day. Since today was Saturday and the Salatins don’t work on Sunday, there were no new faces…and a smaller group of checkouts than yesterday. Everyone who was still here was on their second work day, or was just helping with chores before leaving.

I was asked to take care of the brooder house again, but this time they wanted to know if I could do it on my own, and explain it to one of the other checkouts’ who hadn’t seen it yet. I paused for a moment to make sure I remembered everything the apprentice told me yesterday, then nodded an affirmative. As I fed the chickens, and showed the other checkout where the feed was stored, I decided that I really liked this chore. Not only were the chicks adorable, but the structure was warm and comfortable, with a pleasant smell. And no, I don’t mean ‘poo smell,’ I actually mean ‘pleasant’. It smelled like woodchips mixed with chicken feed, which I found rather nice.

Morning Work

We didn’t really have instructions for when we were done with chores, so we headed over to where we saw a group of checkouts standing around an old turkey brooder with two apprentices. Unlike the chicken brooder (which is a big building), the turkey brooder was only about the size of a wagon or small tractor. It was no longer being used, and the task was to dismantle it and sort through the parts. Just like yesterday, anything reusable needed to be salvaged. In this case, it looked like most of the wood would just end up in the burn pile – the brooder was getting dismantled because it was in pretty bad shape. In fact, the wooden stairs leading up to the brooder (you could climb the stairs and then climb inside of the wagon-like structure) were broken, and if you tried to climb them, you’d get tipped onto the ground. This happened three times before an apprentice decided that enough was enough – we were hauling the stairs to the burn pile before anybody else fell off of them!

I was glad that I got to see how the brooder was constructed (there’s no better way to understand a building than to take it apart), but we had a slight barrier of having too many people for the number of tools we had available to us. And since I wasn’t currently doing anything specific, I started loading up scrap wood as soon as the apprentice pulled a truck around. Hopping into the truck bed to better maneuver the various boards, stair pieces, and other large chunks of wood, I was suddenly reminded of a baby goat playground. Without thinking, I blurted “it’s like a goat playground!”, scampered up one of the boards, and did a (terrible) impression of a goat, complete with a bleat.

Then I remembered that I didn’t actually know any of these people. Whoops. Well, they could either laugh – and we could theoretically be friends if I came back for the stewardship – or they could think I was a complete nutcase, and I would have the stigma of Girl Who Bleats.

They laughed, and we finished hauling the wood to the burn pile.

As a note, I include this detail as a testament to how comfortable the entire Polyface team made me feel during my time at the checkout. I don’t normally start bleating around strangers – I save that sort of thing for people I actually know. The fact that I literally forgot to act like a normal person says something about the welcoming quality of everyone at the farm and tells me that they all were doing an awesome job of making everyone feel at home. It also meant that I was doing a good job of not treating this like a job interview, although goat impersonations weren’t what I had in mind when I made that rule for myself.

It didn’t take long for there to be another incident of me being an idiot. As we started dismantling the turkey brooder, somebody realized that the carbonaceous bedding was infested with mice.

Now please understand: I love mice. They’re cute, they’re soft, and I’ve been known to catch them outside, and then pet them before releasing them to go back to their little mousy homes. However, this was a farm. On a farm, mice are pests. Vermin. Bad. They destroy stuff. Farms have cats specifically to catch mice. On a farm, cute animals like opossums, mice, and coyotes get to die. In the woods, I would never kill any of those things, but on a farm I’m not going to hesitate. I could write a whole blog post on my views on animal ethics and maybe I will someday, but for now, I’ll just leave it at that, and remind you that if you kill spiders in your house then you have no right to get mad at farmers for killing opossums or mice on their farm.

So when somebody yelled “There’s a mouse! Kill it!” I did the obvious thing – I caught the mouse by the tail and held it up in the air. I took a moment to silently apologize to the mouse – and to make sure that I was actually supposed to kill it – then I quickly (and humanely) did the deed. During my momentary pause, the psychotic little thing reared up and bit my finger, making me feel a little less sorry about it.

Well, now my finger was bleeding. I worked in a science lab for a year in college, so this was far from my first mouse bite. For those of you who haven’t been bitten by a mouse before, it’s not really a big deal – their teeth can’t penetrate very deep, and it doesn’t really hurt any more than, say, accidentally sticking yourself with a needle. But since they usually to bite you on the tips of your fingers, where there are lots of blood vessels, mouse bite wounds tend to bleed a LOT. This isn’t normally a big deal, but when you’re trying to work with a pair of pliers to pull staples out of a board, a bleeding finger is kind of a problem, particularly when they’re not your pliers and you don’t really want to bleed on them.

And that’s how I had to go to the Salatins’ farmhouse for a Band-aid. Teresa kindly told me to wash the wound, and offered me a choice of Neosporin or honey to put on the bite to ward off potential infection (she reminded me that it was a wild mouse, so I needed to put something on it, despite my automatic objection). I was very excited about this option, because other people usually look at me like a nutcase when I tell them to put honey on their wounds but I SWEAR IT WORKS BETTER THAN ANTIBIOTIC CREAM, SERIOUSLY. Then she bandaged it for me, and I thanked her and apologized for getting blood on things.

On one hand, it was embarrassing because I hadn’t actually met Teresa yet, and I had to show up and be like “um, hi, nice to meet you, so, a mouse bit me because I caught it, and also, can I have a Band Aid please?”. On the other hand, she was super nice and it was kind of a hilarious because…well, because a mouse bit me and I needed a Band-Aid.

Needless to say, it had already been an eventful morning, and it wasn’t even over yet.

Shortly after I returned to work on the turkey brooder, some of the checkouts were transferred to other tasks – I was sent to an outbuilding to muck stalls.

Believe it or not, I was pretty happy about this. If I spent two days doing grunt work on a farm and didn’t scoop poop, I was going to be slightly disappointed. After all, when I told my friend I couldn’t go to his Halloween party because I’d be at Polyface, the reason I gave was “well, um, I’m going down to Virginia to scoop poop and hang out with chickens, sorry.” Without the poop, I’d be a liar, and nobody wants that.

To be honest though, it wasn’t really poop. It was compacted, nitrogen rich compost. It used to be poop, but I don’t know that it was fair to call it poop now – at least not pure poop. Since the Salatins are so diligent about using carbon in their livestock shelters, there’s not really much need of literally picking up poop. This was intentionally nitrogen rich though, and they were planning on returning it to their pastures. Our job was to scoop the manure into a wheelbarrow, then dump the wheelbarrow into a front end loader where someone else would take it wherever it needed to go.

Two other check-outs had already been doing this job for awhile, so I started scooping with gusto. There were several pitchforks and shovels, so I experimented with which ones I liked best. Most of the compost was pretty heavily compacted, and it was difficult to get it away from the edges. One corner in particular was not responding to our attempts to pitchfork it into the wheelbarrow. I thought for a second, and decided that maybe we were going at this the wrong way. Maybe we weren’t using the shovels correctly – none of us had much farm experience – or maybe it required more physical strength.

Then I had an idea – could I use a pickaxe instead? Another checkout I was working with yesterday had used one to dig a trench outside of the hoophouse. I looked around for somebody to ask, but none of the apprentices or staff were in the area. I debated for a few minutes, as I continued to shovel, then decided that everything I’d seen so far told me that the Salatins support creative problem solving. So I decided to go ahead and get a pickaxe.

I walked over to the tool shed and asked if I could use a pickaxe. Upon getting an affirmative from a staff member who was doing…something…in the workshop, I grabbed one off the wall and went back to the barn. Sure enough, it worked great! It broke up the compacted dirt nicely, making it much easier to shovel. And swinging the pickaxe was fun. I was careful not to hit the concrete underneath the dirt – the last thing I wanted was to cause any damage or dulling of their tool. But the compost layer was thick, so this wasn’t difficult. Plus, I’ve used a pickaxe a lot more times than I’ve used a pitchfork, so I was pretty comfortable with it.

It didn’t take long before the front end loader was full…and we needed to find somebody to drive it. But when we looked around the main part of the farm, we realized that we didn’t see anyone. We weren’t sure what time it was – since none of us had our phones – and started to figure out that people had gone to brunch. We were all in the same group, which was supposed to go to Joel & Teresa’s house, so we decided to just walk over there. If it was too early, they’d tell us, and hopefully also be able to direct us to someone who could drive the front end loader.

Brunch with Joel & Teresa

Since there were less checkouts on farm today in general, the dining group was also much smaller – there were only four of us! Teresa cooked a classic eggs and sausage breakfast, complete with homemade bread and a bowl of fruit. Once again, the food was wonderful. Joel also treated us to some amazing apple juice from a local farm and offered us a glass of raw milk from a dairy down the road. And there was coffee, which made me very happy. Then we all sat down and went through the process of getting to know each other. Since the group was smaller, each person was able to give a more in depth explanation of their background, which was kind of nice. As the conversation continued, we started to talk about different ideas and innovations, turning the meal into one of those classic brainstorming sessions where everyone feels like they can solve the world’s problems.

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy conversations like that? I have a penchant for theoretically designing political policies or running imaginary businesses. I realize those things are all make believe, but they do generate constructive thinking, practical ideas, and opposing viewpoints…and I like all of those things. It was especially cool to get to have one of these conversations with Joel Salatin who is well known for his opinions, not to mention his wealth of real-life experience.

Afternoon Work

After brunch, I headed back to the barn to finish moving the compost. At this point, someone had been found to drive the front end loader, so we were able to get back to shoveling. With the renewed vigor that comes from a good meal, we quickly got down to business.

We were almost done when Daniel came in to see our progress and delegate more tasks. He also showed us how to better extricate the manure from the edges. While figuring out where to send us next, he asked me if I had been off-farm yet. I hadn’t, unless you count the chicken-catching (I didn’t know where that was, since it was dark), so he asked if I wanted to go with some of the other checkouts to an off-farm site where a hoophouse had gotten destroyed by a storm. Of course I did, and I went to take one last load of compost in the wheelbarrow before following him. Somehow, the wheelbarrow had gotten turned around, so that I had to pull it backwards down a step to get it out of the barn, instead of pushing it forwards like I’d been doing. I pulled a little too hard, and the momentum knocked me on my butt. I promptly bust out laughing. I hadn’t even so much as tripped over a rock since coming to Polyface, but of course now that one of the people in charge was here, I fell down like an idiot. Smooth. 

We walked down to a pickup truck where a few other checkouts were waiting for this off-farm excursion. Daniel collected some tools, then drove all of us down the road to a piece of land that Polyface rents. It wasn’t far, but we all took advantage of the car ride to ask more questions about how the farm operates.

When we got to the land we’d be working on, Daniel told us that Polyface typically uses it to grow grass for the cows. He also pointed out an old building made of stone and told us a little bit about the history of the area, which I found interesting – I like history almost as much as I like science. He then explained that we would be dealing with the remains of a hoophouse that Polyface used for storage on this property. It was on a hill, and they hadn’t secured it properly to account for the increased wind, so it tumbled down in a big storm. Our job was to take it all apart so that it would be easy to load the piece into a truck and take it to the scrapyard (the house was made primarily of metal poles). The lesson: even people with lots of knowledge and experience make mistakes – and that’s okay. They would secure the hoophouse better next time.

I was struck by a few significant things when we got out of the truck. First, there was the spectacular scenery of the Shenandoah Valley. Although I had noticed the scenery before, I suddenly realized that if I did get the stewardship, I would be working in this environment all summer. Looking out over the landscape, I saw rolling hills covered in grass that was all shades of green and gold, mixed with browns and reds. Cows dotted the landscape, and only a few buildings were visible. The mountains rose around us, their rounded tops brushing the misty clouds that hung from the October sky that was painted pale gray and spattered with spots of robins egg blue. The fall colors were in full force – each mountain shone fiery red, mixed with oranges and yellows. It was absolutely beautiful.

The other thing I noticed was the smell. There was an underlying stench that smelled vaguely of ammonia and something else that I couldn’t identify. Looking around at the pristine landscape, I had no idea what the smell was coming from.

Daniel must’ve seen our faces, because he grinned and asked “Do you smell that?” We nodded, and he pointed down the hillside. “Do you see that big red barn?” he asked.

“Yeah,” one of the other checkouts confirmed. There was a red barn far away, down the hill and across a valley.

“Okay, now do you see that building past the big red barn?”

I squinted, trying to see. “Yes? Vaguely?”

“Well, that’s an industrial chicken house, and that’s what you’re smelling.”

I don’t know about the other checkouts, but I was utterly horrified. For my entire stay at Polyface, I hadn’t really smelled poop. I hadn’t even smelled poop when I was crawling in poop. The nitrogen-rich manure from the barn smelled a little like poop, but not significantly so. But here I was, smelling a chicken house that was super, super far away. I sort of wanted to see this chicken house to figure out why the odor was so gross, but I also didn’t because…well, because it was really gross. I was just thankful that we weren’t closer to the chicken house right now; as is, the odor was unpleasant, but bearable.

Anyway, after this lovely poo revelation, we got down to work. It took a long time to dismantle the structure. There were bolts to remove, plastic to cut off, and stuck poles to extricate from each other. To complicate matters, briers and brambles had overrun the collapsed hoophouse, so that there were thorns and pickers sticking us at every turn. Once we removed some of the debris, Daniel was able to weedwhack sections, but we still had what seemed like a never-ending number of briers to deal with.

And yet, this was one of my favorite projects from my checkout experience. For one thing, the weather was perfect – the sun came out from behind the clouds, the temperature was cool, and there was a nice breeze blowing over the Appalachian foothills. But in addition to that, the project was an excellent mixture of physical work and thinking. Taking everything apart was almost like a puzzle. Plus, I enjoyed talking and joking with my team as we worked.

When we got back to the main farm, we worked closely with the Polyface staff to finish up some miscellaneous chores before dinner. Notably, I got to visit a group of pigs and give them hay. And let me tell you, I have never seen happier, more ridiculously excited pigs. They were so excited about the hay that they attempted to climb over each other in an effort to be the first one to get it, making all sorts of fun squealing noises. It was hilarious.

Again, the day ended with all of the checkouts helping with the egg washing. There were too many hands for the work once the egg washing machine got going, so I took advantage of the chance to see the chicken butchering set up (which is located outside of the egg washing building). I also examined a large chore chart they have taped to the wall, listing various ‘backburner’ projects for stewards and apprentices to work on if they end up with extra time.

 After all, whether you’re talking about a farm, a homestead, or just a regular house…there’s always something useful to do.

Supper with Joel & Teresa

Like yesterday, I was ravenous by the time we got supper. After physically working all day, there are few things better than eating food, and Teresa did a wonderful job preparing it. Tonight’s supper was a Polyface-raised beef roast (I think it was sirloin tip?) with a beefy pan sauce, several types of vegetables including a squash dish that I ate a ton of, the last of the homegrown tomatoes, and stewed apples from a local orchard that tasted like fall heaven.

The group was the same as it had been for brunch with one addition – a new checkout had literally just arrived. Her work days would be Monday and Tuesday. After some more getting-to-know-each-other questions, directed primarily at the new checkout, supper became a time for storytelling. We heard about former apprentices, the history of the farm, different business ventures, and various challenges the farm has faced over the years. I love stories, and if you know anything about Joel Salatin, you know that he is a fantastic storyteller. I thoroughly enjoyed my last evening at Polyface, but all too soon it was time to head back to our cabin. I said my goodbyes and thank yous to Joel and Teresa – since I had no idea if I’d see them again – and left.

Most of the checkouts had gone home, but those of us who had long drives or early morning flights were told we were welcome to stay an additional night. After I showered and chit-chatted a little more with the two remaining girls, I climbed into the bunk bed and hunkered down into my sleeping bag. Would I sleep here again? I didn’t know, and I had promised myself not to think about it until I was driving home, so I drifted off to sleep.

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