Polyface Week 3: It Rains Forever

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Week 3 is in the history books, and if we’re being honest: it was a rough one.

The single greatest thing that made it difficult was the weather. After finally warming up and being sunny last week, the Shenandoah Valley suddenly got 40 degree days, complete with a steady rain that pretty much lasted from noon on Monday through noon on Friday. When it wasn’t actively raining, it was misting from the dark, low hanging clouds.

The other thing that made it challenging was that I felt like garbage – nothing serious, but pretty high fatigue and two days of nausea from the Monthly Lady Curse that likes to make life hard. On one hand, I guess it’s nice that all the Yuck happened at once – get it all over with, right? On the other hand, feeling like you might puke while you’re soaking wet and cold, and also utterly exhausted, really, really, really sucks.

And yet, despite all of that, I’m gonna go ahead and say that it was a good week. It was a rough week. It was a hard week. But being here is amazing and it was completely worth it. Here’s a few examples of why:

Sorting Cows with Daniel

This was the biggest highlight of the week, probably in part because it took place on Monday which was partially free of rain. But mostly it was the biggest highlight because I LOVE COWS.

They are my favorite. I will likely mention this every week. But I like cows.


Daniel Salatin took three stewards, including myself, to a rental farm to sort the cows. Sorting cows with Daniel is on our checklist of things we are guaranteed to experience during the summer, although an in depth cow education won’t happen during the summer program. Daniel explained that he was looking for various breeding characteristics in heifers to keep and size/finishing for steers he wanted to send to slaughter soon. Those cows got separated out from the herd and taken to different locations, while the rest of the herd got moved to a different rental farm.

The cows were unusually feisty, so it took some doing to get them into the corral. At this point, Daniel explained that he was separating “the many from the few”, bringing large groups of cows deeper into the corral, and sending most of them through a gate into the final paddock before they were to get loaded onto a trailer. Once all the cows he didn’t want were sorted, he had only a few remaining, and herded them into a different paddock.

At first, we basically watched Daniel do his thing with the help of Parker, one of the apprentices. But then Parker started driving trailers full of cattle to their destination, and we all got to take a turn in the ring with Daniel. Those who weren’t taking their turn could sit on the fence and watch. When it was my turn, Daniel had me man the gate from the paddock where he was doing the sorting into the paddock where the cows were held until they could be loaded onto a trailer. He showed me what an open gate vs a closed gate looks like to a cow, and I was supposed to count the cows that were going into the loading paddock, and make sure that the correct cows went through the gate.

Let’s be real: I was just following Daniel’s directions. But it was SO MUCH FUN. I loved being in the paddock with the cows, and paying attention to make sure I was focusing on the cow that Daniel was pointing at. Also, it was super cool to watch him manipulate the herd – he moved back and forth in the middle of a ring of cattle, in what looked like a strange dance, and then – magically – the cows that were supposed to come to me, did so.

After we all got a turn letting cows through the gate and helped herd the cows into a trailer, we had some downtime between trailer loads, so Daniel took some time to explain some of the methodology behind sorting cows. We went over flight zones, corral setup, and how to approach a cow to make it turn in certain directions. He even let me practice on a couple of the cows in the loading pen while we were waiting. Even when it started to lightly rain, I didn’t mind because I was having so much fun.

By the end of the day, one of the other stewards and I were being set to round up groups of cows and bring them up to the trailer, and it was kind of a power trip to control the large cows. Our skill was almost zero, but it was higher than it had been when we started and it was incredibly cool to separate groups of cows and bring them up to load them. Daniel was a great teacher, and everything was more or less making sense. He also gave us a book title to start looking through to expand our knowledge about flight zones and cow body language, which I was super excited about.

The Cows Escape

At the end of the day on Monday, when we were sorting cows, Daniel decided to leave with the other two stewards to take a particular group of cows to a particular rental farm. He needed to go himself to set some stuff up, and left me with the apprentice, Parker, to load up the last group of cows into a different trailer going to a different farm. I waited with Parker and his wife, who was along for the day, in the truck as the rain poured down and we waited for the last trailer to arrive.

About fifteen minutes later, the trailer showed up and we brought up the cows. This last load happened to be the steers that were just about ready for processing, and they were gigantic. The driver backed the trailer up to the corral, and Parker and I pushed up the cows. Everything went smoothly, and we got them all into the narrow chute that funneled them into the open trailer. Parker stayed with them doing the more skillful job of convincing them to step up into the trailer, and I started to climb the fence to collect our equipment and get ready to leave.

The next thing I knew, the trailer was slipping down a slope, and cows were escaping the chute and running off. With all the rain and mud, the weight of the cows combined with the downhill slope was too much, and the truck slid forward about six feet, leaving a sizable gap for the cows to take advantage of. Parker yelled at me to get a bluff, so I ran to the truck bed to grab the only bluff we had left – which happened to be slightly broken and not very long. I ran back, to see the cows disappear into a random barn, likely to get out of the rain that was still falling heavily from the sky.

Fortunately for us, they stayed in the barn – perhaps it was good that it was raining after all. We initially tried to bring them out and get them back into the corral using the bluff, but the turn was too sharp and they were having none of it. The driver suggested loading directly from the barn, and backed up to the siding barn door. Parker sent me and his wife – who ran out to help when she saw the cows were loose – around to block the other exit, and they reluctantly but easily went into the trailer.

It could’ve been way worse – the fact that they ran into the barn was wonderful. But it was an adrenaline shock for sure, and it felt super good to have been part of the emergency and to have successfully gotten them into the trailer without Daniel. This was mostly a win for Parker, since he was in charge in Daniel’s absence, and to his credit stayed very calm and worked through the problem. But it still felt awesome for me to have been part of it.

Tanning Hides

A cool anecdote for the week was that Daniel had several cow hides sent back to us from the processor. Polyface hasn’t done this before, but decided to try his hand at selling the tanned cow hides (normally a waste product at the processing plant). I got to be a part of trimming and salting them, which was a really cool thing to see. Even though that was a day that I didn’t feel so good, it was a neat and unexpected adventure, and I can’t wait to see how they turn out.

Broiler Management Week One

Part of the rotating chore schedule involves managing a row of broiler shelters approximately every other week, and this was my first week of doing this and honestly, it sucked.

The broiler management is actually kind of cool. The shelters get pulled every morning so that the broilers have fresh grass every day. They also get fed and watered in the morning and the evening. Since the broilers are Cornish Cross chickens, they eat a ton of feed and grow very quickly, which is good for marketing. Polyface tried other breeds of chickens, but their customers preferred the Cornish Cross, which is the large-breasted types that are generally raised and sold in grocery stores, so that is what they raise. They have broilers down to a science, with the shelters cleverly constructed to maximize space and minimize weight, so that one person can move them using nothing but a dolly.

The downside is that moving the broiler shelters is the most physical chore, and it’s hard. They’re heavy. For the staff who are used to moving them, it’s no big deal. But for me, it’s more challenging, especially when I felt pukey and terrible. On top of that, the shelters are in a beautiful field with long grass…that made my pants soaked within five minutes of being out there.

Thankfully, I had a short row of shelters with chickens that were getting slaughtered, so I didn’t have a full row like I will in subsequent weeks. I also received some one on one instruction and got significantly better and removing the dolly and pulling them more properly (which makes it easier and less hard on the back). I also spent some time working on my spacing of the shelters. It takes practice to figure out exactly how far to pull them, and there was definite improvement by the end of the week (thought I still need to check the spacing pretty often). It was a good experience. But in the rain and feeling pukey? It sucked. Hopefully when I do it again in two weeks, I’ll feel better and stronger, and do it faster and better.

Sheep + Falling in Cow Poop

A bonus activity this week was helping Daniel and one of his sons trim hooves, castrate, and ear tag sheep. The sheep are Andrew’s special project, so we don’t normally do anything with them, but Daniel made sure everybody got a chance to briefly experience the sheep. I happened to be in the group that helped round them up into the barn for the procedures.

He explained that the sheep’s hooves continue to grow, kind of like a rodent’s teeth or dog’s nails, and need to be trimmed. In the summer, the hooves wear off themselves, particularly in rocky or sandy conditions. But in the winter, when they are largely in hay, there’s not enough abrasion and they get overgrown and need to be trimmed by hand. Additionally, the male lambs need to be castrated and the female lambs that are being kept for breeding stock need to be ear tagged and recorded.

So basically, we all got the chance to watch a castration, hold lambs, and wrangle a sheep onto it’s back so Daniel could trim its’ hooves.

Wrangling the sheep was also way harder than I thought it would be. Daniel showed us how to grip her head and flip her onto her back, at which point she was pretty submissive. But it was way hard. I don’t know if my ewe was just extra feisty, I was just feeling the effects of Head Stuff With Cotton/Fatigue, or I was plain doing it wrong, but I chased my sheep around for awhile, and ended up falling back directly into a giant pile of cow poop and afterbirth (this stall had seen a calf delivery recently). My hat flew off and into a separate cow pie and my butt turned a greenish brown (the pants seem to have permanent green stains although I’m currently rewashing them – we’ll see if it comes out. On the bright side it looks like grass stains?).

On the other hand, once I fell on my butt, my sheep also fell on her butt so I could hold it still for Daniel to do the hoof trimming.

Unrelated to falling in cow poop, I really liked the sheep. It’s too bad that they aren’t a bigger part of what we do here, because I really enjoy their personalities and I love their grazing – they can be run in fairly small areas, and act as lawnmowers and trimmers, eating any grass even around structures, equipment, and fence lines. Daniel frequently has his son put them in specific areas to cut the grass, and I would love to employ that someday. I’d much rather feed a sheep than run a lawnmower.

Finding a New Appreciation for the Sun

On Friday, I was feeling a little bit better (I no longer felt like puking), and I thought I was doing an okay job of keeping a positive attitude despite the rain. I can’t say I was in a good mood, but I also didn’t think I was in a bad mood. I was preparing broiler shelters to receive a new batch of chicks, and was hauling water buckets when Eric – the farm manager – stopped us.

“Look,” he said, pointing at the sky. I looked up, and at first didn’t have any idea what he was pointing at. Then I saw the small patch of robin’s egg blue showing through the vast expanse of gray that had covered the valley for the past week. Within a few minutes a ray of sunshine lit up the field and everyone cheered out loud, our spirits refreshed and bodies invigorated.

I’m not exaggerating. The difference that the sun made was drastic and nearly instantaneous. I thought I was doing alright, but when the sun came out, I realized that I really hadn’t been doing alright. That sun made everything infinitely better. I felt way better than I’d felt in days, and I could literally feel my body drinking in the rays of light as we rode the ATV trailer down the hill toward lunch.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always hated rain and I’ve always loved sunshine. I’ve certainly experienced my share of rainy weeks, and felt glad when the sun came out. But being outdoors all week in the rain, and then experiencing the moment that the weather shifts and having it hugely affect me – both physically and mentally…well, that was new.

I’ll never take the sun for granted again.

Friday Night, “Movie” Night

With the advent of actual sunshine, my energy level spiked Friday afternoon to the point that I didn’t actually want to stop for dinner. I also might have done a few jumping jacks out of sheer excitement after lunch while I was waiting for a project.

No, I’m not kidding. Yes, I’m weird. No, I don’t care. The boys here have been known to do pushups randomly while waiting for stuff, so I think I’m allowed to do jumping jacks if I feel like it.

Anyway. I had a lot of energy all of a sudden. And so it was the perfect night to attend a show entitled “Jonathan Fixes a Clutch.”

Okay, so what really happened is that I asked Jonathan, the staff member in charge of All Things Mechanical, if he was working on anything specific over the weekend. The girls and I had been talking about a list of things we wanted to work on learning, and vehicle related stuff was pretty high on the list. He said that he wasn’t, but would be spending the evening helping Parker, one of the apprentices, install a new clutch on his truck and we were welcome to watch if we wanted to.

So after dinner, a few of us headed over to the shop, laid down on the cement, and learned about trucks.

Jonathan did a great job of giving a brief overview of how a vehicle works. I understand way more about engines than I ever did before, and also know how four wheel drive works and why my car gets stuck in the mud (hint: because the wheel that has the least resistance is the one that turns, so if one wheel is in mud, it spins and you get stuck).

Of course, it wasn’t an official lesson, and a lot of our time was just spent laying on the concrete and watching the process. The clutch installation was pretty cool, and then Jonathan and Parker had to get the transmission back in, which took awhile. Everyone was joking around, various people came and went, Jonathan’s son was playing in the mud for awhile, and it was just generally pleasant. Like I said at the time, all we needed was popcorn.

The girls left at ten, since we are all pretty exhausted from our week and planned on getting up early to help with chores Saturday morning. But talking about it afterwards, we all agreed that we had thoroughly and genuinely enjoyed ourselves.

So as for some Philosophy of the Week: have we, as a culture, lost our ability to be entertained by work? By the mundane? Have we lost the ability to entertain ourselves?

Since coming to Polyface, I haven’t watched a movie, listened to the radio, or surfed the Internet. But I have spent a lot of time socializing with other people, making and eating food, and doing work – both required and not required. And I have not been bored even once. In fact, watching Jonathan and Parker fix the truck really and truly felt like entertainment. There was learning, there was talking and laughing, and there was productive things happening, and it was great. Wasn’t this what people used to do, “back in the day”? Why don’t we, culturally, find these things entertaining anymore? Have we lost something, with our abundance of leisure time and vast array of leisure activities?

Don’t get me wrong – there is absolutely nothing wrong with movies. A few of the stewards are going over to Daniel’s house tonight to watch a movie, as a matter of fact. But there’s a sense of fellowship in the work process that is wonderful, and I’m really enjoying my foray into an old fashioned place where entertainment was created, not provided, and Sundays were days of visiting and rest, whereas the rest of the week was used for enjoyable, meaningful, work – pretty much from dawn to dusk.

Social Highlights: Climbing the Mountain, Rope Swing, & Burgers

But as a steward, I have three out of four Saturdays off, as well as Sundays. And so…

On Saturday the sun was shining, it was 80 degrees, and I was back to feeling 100%. I wanted nothing more than to spend the entire day outside and I had a ton of energy, but I also wanted to give myself a break from regular labor, since the week had been rough and I will be working next weekend. So my roommate Sarah and I decided to climb the mountain.

I’ve been itching to climb the mountain since I arrived at Polyface, but with the rain, cold, and general busyness, I hadn’t had a good opportunity. All I knew was that Polyface had a 3.5 mile road that went to the top, and some former apprentices had built a cabin up there at some point. None of this year’s stewards had climbed to the top yet, and I was excited to be the first.

The hike started off on a gentle slope, and we foraged for wild plants, stopped to look at cool trees, and generally had a relaxing stroll. We passed vast quantities of blooming blackberry bushes and huge blueberry patches, both of which I am extremely excited to revisit later in the summer. Pigs get run on the lower part of the mountain, and we spent some time comparing the beautiful park-like setting that follows the pigs’ and the wild, overgrown post-European forest, marveling at the natural secession of the ecosystem.

The first part of the hike followed a beautiful mountain stream that we drank out of – and I have never tasted water quite that good before. The mountains give it something extra that Michigan streams just don’t have (and yes, I know that drinking out of streams is potentially dangerous, but I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid and figure it’ll be fine – my gut is used to it, hopefully). At a beautiful, crystal clear mountain lake (which would make a great swimming hole), the path turns away from the stream and starts to ascend much more steeply. We followed the path up, and up, and up, passing several spectacular views and a gorgeous ecosystem that changed as we got higher and higher. It was like going backward in time – the bottom of the mountain was far closer to summer, whereas the leaves on the trees toward the top weren’t fully open yet, and the air was a bit cooler.

When we finally reached the cabin, we were both surprised at the extensive campsite that we found. Not only is there a cabin, but there is a huge fire pit with chairs carved out of trees, a place for skinning wild game, a large counter and equipment for hearth cooking, and an adult-size playground. There’s a seesaw made out of a giant tree that I’m not ashamed to say we played on for awhile, and the highlight: a giant rope swing with a platform for jumping off.

We played for a long time, like children, and it was amazing. Finally, around noon, we forced ourselves to leave, since we were starving and had a long walk back. But that didn’t stop us from taking off our shoes and going barefoot through the moss, digging our toes into the warm mud and dipping them into the icy cold mountain water that trickled over rocks and down the path.

It was the perfect activity to recharge after a tough week. We were physically active, but in a different way than we are normally, and we got to act like five year olds. It doesn’t get much more fun than that. And yes – I took a nap in the sun after lunch which also helped me recharge.

We didn’t even have to worry about making dinner, since the boys decided to invite us over for burgers to celebrate Memorial Day, which was unexpected but super nice. We did receive a panicked message about “THE POTATOES ARE BOILING AND THE BURGERS ARE CHARRING, WE CAN’T COOK” but they wouldn’t actually let us help, and the burgers and potatoes turned out very good (guys: if you’re mashing potatoes, they are supposed to boil).

I’m still loving it here, and I’m excited for a better week where I’ll not feel terrible and also not be wet and cold (hopefully).

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