Polyface Week 0: Anticipation

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


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.

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