Polyface Week 2: I Start Doing Stuff

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[Editor’s Note: This is being posted a week late because Internet is hard]

Alright. Week 2. Once again, it’s like it’s been a million years, and also like it’s been no time at all. I did SO MANY THINGS. Some highlights:

Rabbit Chores

The Polyface staff set up a weekly chore rotation for us to make sure everyone has a chance to do (and practice) All the Things. By sheer chance, I got to start my rotation on the Raken, which I talked about last week – and I was super excited. Most of the time we will all be moving broiler shelters which, if I’m being honest, is not my favorite thing, mostly because it’s physically tiring and it’s early in the morning, so bleh. As I get better at it, I’ll probably like it better. Maybe.

But bunnies early in the morning? Yes please. Despite the fact that chores start at 6:15, I looked forward to seeing the rabbits, checking to see if anyone new kindled, and cutting them some comfrey. I was able to do some breeding this week, which is super fun – if you’ve never seen rabbits breed, you should Youtube it. It takes the buck about five seconds to do his thing, and then he literally falls off, unable to move for a few seconds. Meanwhile, the doe just looks disgruntled. It’s hilarious, although I do feel a little bad for the doe.

Moving Cows

Part of my chore rotation this week involved riding with Gabe (a staff member) to move cows in the afternoons.

I love cows.

No, seriously. I love cows.

Some general information: Polyface rents pasture at several farms in the area. They use the pasture for cows and for hay (since those things take lots of space). The cows get moved to fresh pasture every day, and the idea is to put them in a small enough paddock that they will evenly graze it, but a big enough paddock that their manure won’t oversaturate the soil. The result is extremely high fertility (from the frequent grazing and the injection of manure), and super happy, healthy cows. Moving them every day also helps minimize parasites and disease, since they are constantly moving away from their manure. Gabe is in charge of moving the cows at some of the rental farms in the afternoons.

The coolest part of this is the part where the cows get called – Gabe (or me, on Friday) yells “COWIE” and the cows come across the field, ready to go. Then you open the gate, and they go through to the fresh pasture. There were a couple of moves where they got confused and required some herding, but it was pretty darn easy, honestly. And it was super fun to watch them come and excitedly go to the fresh pasture. According to Gabe, this is also a good time to check over the herd’s health, since each cow is passing by. He showed me some of the finishing fat they are looking for on the cows before they send them to the slaughterhouse.

A significant part of moving the cows involves erecting and taking down fences. Pretty much everything at Polyface is portable, and so each day involves setting up fence and waterer for the next day (so that everything is ready to go and any problems can be addressed), and taking down old fence from the previous day, as needed. They measure the pastures and figure out how big to make the paddocks based on the number of cows and the condition of the grass – good grass provides more feed, so the paddocks can be smaller. Since grass conditions changes based on lots of factors, like weather, the paddock sizes change constantly.

The measurements for the paddocks come from ‘pacing off’ or walking the perimeter and figuring out the area of the pastures. Polyface also uses pacing off to plan the path of portable broiler shelters and other stuff, and everybody knows approximately how long their stride is. It was pretty cool to measure stuff by walking, and anybody who knows me knows that spending an afternoon walking around the beautiful Virginia countryside is … well … pretty unbeatable.

I Thought Michigan Dirt Was Clay. I Was Wrong

Michigan just has slightly clay-ish dirt. But Virginia? Virginia has clay.

Let me preface this by saying that the dirt in the garden areas at Polyface is not clay. It’s beautiful, loamy soil from the intricate composting systems that they’ve had in place for a number of years. In fact, it’s so beautiful that I got super excited about it on Saturday when I was planting seeds and Daniel laughed at me.

Daniel laughs at me a lot, possibly because I get super excited about things like “THE DIRT IS PRETTY!” In fairness, I also laugh at me a lot, and all the stewards laugh at Daniel a lot because he does bizarre things, like doing cartwheels after dinner or doing victory laps after getting donuts. Actually, thinking about it, everybody laughs at everybody a lot. My weirdness is in good company here.

Anyway. I digress. The dirt in the gardens is pretty, but if you dig a hole in a random field, you are digging through solid clay. And I don’t mean clay as in ‘hard, compacted dirt’, I mean clay as in ‘you could probably stick the mud on a potter’s wheel and make a pot.’

I learned this when Gabe was checking water lines and digging holes in a cow pasture. He warned me it was clay, and I shrugged and picked up a shovel. I thought I was used to clay. Then the shovel bounced off the dirt. So I jumped on it. And it penetrated maybe two inches.

In fact, filling in the holes involved picking up large, football-sized balls of dirt and chucking them back in the hole.

This clay (in addition to the rolling hills) might be why the landscape is dotted with cows, and not cornfields. It grows great grass, but tillage would be a nightmare.

I do want to add that the fields with the rotating cows have great grass. In some places, it is as high as my hips – wading through the grass in these areas makes me feel like I stepped into Little House on the Prairie. Joel says that the grass used to be even higher before the Europeans came, and I can only kind of imagine what this landscape looked like when the colonists first set foot on Virginian soil.

Processing Day(s)

There were two processing days this week – Wednesday and Friday. On processing day, everybody pitches in to help get the chicken processing facility ready after chores, then we all take a station in an assembly line-ish system. I missed the processing day last week (and by ‘missed’ I mean that I was helping with pigs instead), so I was pretty excited to see the process.

Polyface butchers chickens in an open air facility behind the store, in accordance with local laws that allow a certain number of chickens to be processed on site. Everything is cleaned thoroughly, and the processing happens quickly and efficiently in an environment of laughter and camaraderie. Joel tells stories and shares the news as he guts, and everyone is racing against themselves to keep the line moving quickly. Since we only do this for a couple of hours, and we get a different station each day, there’s no boredom or carpal tunnel-ish soreness from doing the same thing over and over again.

It also is genuinely cool to see 400+ living chickens turn into neat, vacuum-packed packages in the course of a few hours. I think all chickens should be processed in little on-farm facilities like this, and it should be a field trip destination for all the local schools. What an amazing biology lesson that would be!

I was randomly assigned to Quality Control on the first processing day. Near the end of the line, I checked the chickens for missed feathers or other undesired parts, and tucked the legs into a flap of skin to keep them neat and compact, before passing them to someone else who gets them into a chill tank where they sit and get super cold while we all take a lunch break. It was a simple job, and pretty mindless – but not boring because of the aforementioned laughing and talking that happens during processing.

On Friday, I got to try my hand at gutting. This is the part where you receive a de-feathered and de-legged chicken, and you’re supposed to get all the guts out. I was super excited about it, and thought I’d be good at it – after all, I’ve dissected all sorts of creatures in labs and I cook with whole chickens at the time. How different could it be?

Answer: Very. I struggled hard. See, when you get the chicken, you make some specific cuts (cool, I can do that), and then you reach your hands up inside the chicken and pull everything out. Because it’s inside the chicken, you can’t see what you’re doing, and that was really throwing me for a loop.

To the credit of my teachers, both Joel and Daniel were extremely patient as they showed me hand positions and tried to explain what I should be feeling for. And I got better. Not great, but better. By the end of the processing day, I could manage the general procedure, although it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t efficient – those are things to work on next time. I’m still struggling with the part where my hand is up the chicken – when Joel does it, he deftly pulls out all the guts in one hand, passes them to the other hand while removing the liver and heart, and chucks them in the compost bucket. The guts never even hit the table. Joel guts a chicken like that Bob Ross guy paints a picture. It’s incredible.

In contrast, I make a giant mess and sometimes break gallbladders (which ruins the liver). But it’s getting better (almost all the gallbladder breaks happened in the first few chickens) and to be honest, I really enjoyed the challenge. I’m looking forward to doing it again and, hopefully, improving more.

The Miracle of Life

The biggest highlight, by far, was something that I got to witness, but really had nothing to do with.

Shortly before dinner on Monday, Daniel came into the egg room, where we were washing eggs, and mentioned that he was a little concerned about a cow that was in labor. She was pacing the paddock and seemed to be in distress. He opted to give her another hour or so while we had dinner, but then decided that he would need to intervene. He told us that we could watch, which – of course – everyone wanted to do.

The Salatins prefer their cows to calve on pasture, naturally, and they usually do so successfully. However, they also take special care to monitor the pregnant cows – especially first time mothers – in case they need to intervene. I don’t exactly know what was wrong in this case, but it looked like the labor was stalled – the calf’s hooves were poking out of the cow but no further progress was being made.

The first step was to separate the struggling Mama from the rest of the herd and bring her into the barn. Daniel strung a bluff (non-electrified rope that the cow will presumably think is electrified) to make an alley from the paddock to the barn. Then he had us stand quietly off to the side while he expertly herded the Mama away from the other cows. We followed slowly to the barn, where he maneuvered the cow into a headgate and told us to stand in a neighboring stall and watch.

Next, he tied chains around the protruding calf’s hooves. The chains were attached to a makeshift chair-like contraption that Daniel basically sat in. This allowed him to use his body weight and legs to pull the calf out and downward, while keeping his hands free to guide the calf out of the Mom. Once everything was set up, he only had a few minutes to make things happen – about half the calf slid out in one steady pull. Then he quickly twisted, and pulled the calf the rest of the way out, rapidly moving to clear the calf’s nose of slime to allow it to breathe. In the space of a few seconds, he also had to get the calf in front of the Mom, manually exchanging some of the birthing slime between cow and calf, to get the Mama cow to recognize and accept her baby.

She was exhausted, but he coaxed her up and into a stall so that the calf could nurse. As we slowly walked away to give them some space, I could see her start to nuzzle her baby, and perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing a bit, but I could have sworn that I saw a tired but proud look in her eyes.

Despite being covered in birthing slime and cow poop (cuz the cow pooped a LOT during the birth), Daniel took some time to explain the process to us before heading home. The method behind the chain contraption is to specifically pull the calf out and DOWN, which mimics how the calf would slide out of the birth canal if the mom as giving birth on her own. This is in direct contrast to the conventional method of pulling the calf straight out with a comealong or a skid steer, which can break Mom’s hip bones in the process. It also keeps his hands free, which is important to ease the calf out without damaging Mom. The twist also mimics the natural method – the cow would normally turn her body when the calf is about half out, and it’s super important to do quickly.

I’ve never seen anything give birth before; I’ve seen videos of it, but that’s not the same thing at all. I can’t begin to express how incredible this moment was. One minute, there was a struggling cow. The next, there was a whole second life, separate and complete – and utterly precious. Seeing the life emerge, with the aid and perseverance of the farmer, was beautiful (albeit in a slimey and poopy way), and one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The specialness of the moment was enhanced by Daniel’s demeanor and attitude during the whole thing. For context, Daniel is an extremely fun person to work for/with. He’s always laughing and joking, and is loud and abrupt. He likes guns and food and has fun with everything. But the minute the cow was in trouble, his manner changed – he was serious, firm, and extraordinarily gentle with the cow (despite having to literally pull out a calf out of her birth canal and getting covered in poo).

This is what it means to be a farmer, I thought. Sure, it’s fun to chip wood and dig holes and move cows, but the farmer orchestrates the life and death of so many creatures – and it’s a beautiful, important, role to play. I can’t think of anything greater.

It was in this moment that I knew, beyond any doubt, that I want to do this sort of thing forever. Probably not with cows (because that’s not practical for my financial situation – although maybe someday), but in general. One day, a farmer is helping to bring life into the world, and the next he is ending a life to get food to sustain another creature’s life – like a baby person. It’s like the Lion King: the antelope eats the grass, the lion eats the antelope, the lion dies and becomes the grass. The farmer gets to be a vibrant part of that choreography, and it’s a beautiful thing.

A Quick Word on People

I’ve focused pretty heavily on the things I’ve been doing, and all of that is great. I like the work, and I love learning new things and being outside. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment, at least briefly, on the incredible people that I am surrounded by.

I’ve already talked about how great the staff is at Polyface, and the patience and personality of the Salatin family. I could keep talking about that, but I also want to mention how great my fellow stewards are. The three girls that I am living with are all fantastic, and we have quickly become friends. There are times when we literally fall on the ground laughing, and we share stories about our day during every evening. We are all different, with different backgrounds and perspectives, and have had some really in depth philosophical conversations, as well as sharing crazy stories from our lives. The only bad part is that sometimes we keep talking and then realize that we were supposed to be asleep a half an hour ago. I’ve had lots of roommates, including living with people I didn’t know ahead of time, but I have never clicked so quickly with complete strangers before.

The boys are also great . I don’t know them as well yet (since they live all the way across the road), but we have spent a few evenings playing games and talking on their big front porch, and went shooting with them last weekend – have I mentioned how much fun guns are? We tease them for getting up at 4am to work out (although that seems to be mostly over now that we are in Week 2), and they sometimes lock us out of the laundry room (which is behind their house) by accident. Some of them are musically gifted and will sit around in a circle singing and playing the guitar, which is super enjoyable. Many of us were even able to go to church this morning, filling two rows and acting like a big family, along with Daniel and his actual family.

We even instituted a biweekly Sunday dinner where the girls cook food for everyone who lives in the Hunt Camp (stewards, apprentices, and Grace, the buying club driver). Sometimes other people bring stuff to pass, but the boys who don’t want to cook do dishes. As I write this, my enchiladas are ready to go, a pot of pozole is simmering on the stove, and other girls are busy chopping vegetables for salad.

I’m having a good time. Learning a lot, working hard, relishing the experience, and bonding with great people. I’m still not sure exactly how I got here – a lot happened, some of which was real bad – but I’m glad I’m here, this summer, doing something that I think really matters. I think this is where I’m supposed to be right now, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

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