Polyface Week 1: I Learn Stuff

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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

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