We’ve been here a whole month now, and I can’t believe how quickly the time is going! Week 4 was fantastic. After the terrible weather of Week 3, the hot sun felt amazing, as did the feeling of sweaty work. I’m not joking – it really did feel amazing.
Processing Stewing Hens
On Friday, we processed our first batch of stewing hens! These are old laying chickens that are no longer producing as many eggs, and we were warned that they would be much more difficult to butcher than broilers. And boy, was that accurate! I started the day by legging (removing the chicken feet) and taking off the heads, and that was extremely difficult…although I enjoyed it for some reason. I also ran quality control for part of the day, where there were many more feathers to remove than usual, and they came out with far more difficulty than feathers do with the broilers. The stewing hens are much greasier too, with large globs of orange fat that the broilers just don’t have. This is a good thing for cooking – chicken broth made from stewing hen is delicious. In fact, I have some in the crockpot right now, and I’m excited for tonight’s supper (fresh turnips from one of the rental farms, turnip greens, chicken salad, and a side of broth because it tastes so good that I can literally just drink it).
First Lunatic Tour
Joel hosts several “Lunatic Tours” throughout the summer, and the first one occurred this Saturday. This happened to be my weekend to work, so I spent the first part of the morning helping set up for the tour. We drew parking lot lines (I learned that the average parking spot is 10 feet wide – no idea if that will ever be relevant or not, but hey, fun facts) and cleaning up some of the buildings. Throughout the day, I witnessed a vast quantity of people coming to the farm, all of whom were excited about real food, sustainable farming, and the earth. It was inspiring to see how many people were ready and willing to come out to the farm, including people from out of state – one family came all the way from Illinois!
Unique to the current times, it was also nice to see a large gathering of people again. With all of the hype over the coronavirus, I haven’t seen a real crowd in a long time. Although I don’t generally like crowds (I fit the stereotype of the farmer who wants to be out in the field and pretend that other people don’t exist), it was refreshing to see one after all of the fear that has permeated the news in recent months.
The only downside to working the weekend was that I couldn’t actually go on the tour – all of the stewards who were off work followed along behind the hay wagons to view Joel’s first public address of the summer. Then again, there are several other lunatic tours that I can go on, so it’s not really much of a loss.
Chickens, and Sheep, and Bears, Oh My
Polyface is having a bear problem, and that’s been a huge topic of conversation and extra work this week. Basically, there’s been a bear hanging around and getting into chicken feed. This is exciting because several of us have seen the bear, and even gotten it on video. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people, but it’s really cool to see the tracks and scat around the broiler shelters.
Of course, we don’t want a bear to be hanging around – there’s the whole ‘threat to the livestock’ thing. But I have gotten a lot of value out of watching the Salatins’ response to the bear, and the ways in which they are working on preventing bear problems.
So far, the bear hasn’t gotten into any livestock, and the goal is to discourage him from doing so. Right now, we are setting electric fence around the chicken feed and placed a sheep dog near the chicken shelters as a deterrent. Any steward or staff member who wants to is also being encouraged to take a truck or an ATV out to the fields in the evening and create general ruckus if the bear comes by, in order to scare it off. Ideally, if he doesn’t get food and keeps getting scared by people, he’ll find a different place to roam around. I very much want to participate in that this coming week, although these past few days I’ve been much to busy and tired to stay up late bear-watching.
Quick side-note mostly for my mom who will probably now worry about me getting eaten by a bear: the bears here are pretty small – about the size of a pig – and they run away from people. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of human safety, especially since we are trying to scare the bear, not feed it sausage.
Old Fashioned Hog Killin’
This week, we butchered a hog. Normally, pigs are shipped to a local abattoir due to government regulations prohibiting on-farm pig processing, but the Salatins occasionally butcher a hog for their personal consumption. Due to the increased demand that has accompanied the coronavirus scare, are bit low on supplies in general, and they needed more meat to feed us during the week. Our chef, Sylvia, requested pork…so Daniel decided to butcher a big hog, and let us be part of it.
It was really, really, really cool.
First, one of the staff members went and got the hog. He chose a large one, bringing it up to the processing shed. Daniel gathered all of us together, and shot it in the head, killing it instantly, then immediately slit it’s throat to let it bleed out quickly. Then he showed us how to gut it, carefully removing the organ meat that we could keep, then discarding the other innards. Next, we hoisted it up on a rope, skinning it as we went. Finally, he broke it up into big pieces and we put it in the walk-in refrigerator to cure. Similar to deer, the meat will be better after it sits for a few days.
Fun anecdote: we got to blow up the lungs like a balloon. Basically, you can blow into them and they will inflate and change color. Several of us took turns, and it was really neat. There’s pictures and videos on one of the stewards phones, and I’ll try to post those when I get them. I’d never seen anything quite like it before.
On a practical note, butchering the hog was interesting and useful – hopefully, I’ll be able to butcher pigs for my personal consumption sometime in the future. It was also fun to see where the different cuts of meat are, and simply to see it done.
On a philosophical note, there was something special about witnessing this butchering. I’ve been a part of butchering hundreds (thousands?) of chickens by now (although I haven’t personally engaged in the killing yet), but pigs are very different animals. They are far more intelligent and have far more personality than the poultry, at least, in my opinion. And although I haven’t spent a ton of time with them yet, I’ve definitely worked with the pigs in the last month – I’ve fed them food scraps, helped move them from paddock to paddock, and watched them grow. You’ve never seen a happier pig – they seem to smile as the root in the pastures and wallow in mud puddles.
I was right there when Daniel shot this particular pig, and I saw the life leave his eyes, and his body drop. It was even more dramatic than hunting a deer, since I’ve never seen a deer get shot so close to where I was standing. I watched the pig’s blood drain out, felt the still-warm body, and saw the living animal become several large cuts of meat in the refrigerator in the course of a few hours.
I felt a pang of sadness in the moment of the pig’s death, that was overwhelmed by gratitude for the huge animal. His meat would nourish us and provide several necessary meals over the next couple of weeks. The sacrifice of this creature provides us with life, as we care for many other pigs, who will in turn give many people life. In nature, life requires death, and it’s not something to take lightly – nor is it something to sweep under the rug.
Joel often talks about honoring the “pigness of the pig,” and the Polyface way is focused on providing a good, natural, enjoyable life for all of the livestock, and a humane, stress-free death. The hog killing could not have done a better job of illustrating that concept. Witnessing death like this isn’t for everyone, but in my opinion, it’s a very special thing to be a part of. And I’m incredibly grateful to the pigs, and to the people who care for them.
First Solo-ish Off-Farm Mission
This week marked my first leader-less off-farm assignment, and that was super cool. Another steward and I were sent, on our own, to run errands at two of the rental farms. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t anything complicated. At one rental farm, we were setting up some feed bins for broiler chickens, picking up some empty feed containers. At another farm, we were gathering eggs, feeding chickens, and adding hay to next boxes. None of this is hard.
And yet…if you would have told me do those things four weeks ago, I would’ve had several questions and probably would have done something wrong. There’s a certain way to optimally gather eggs and feed chickens the correct amount of feed. There’s a way to use ratchet straps to keep feed bins on trucks, a way to use four wheel drive, and a way to drive on farms with minimal disturbance of the grass (i.e. don’t just drive haphazardly through pastures). There was electric fence to turn off and reset and animals to handle. It’s all quite easy, but I simply wouldn’t have had the knowledge to do it four weeks ago. Yes, I probably could’ve gathered eggs relatively effectively, but all the finer details would’ve been lost on me.
And it’s really, really, really cool to realize that I’ve learned stuff. I mean, I know I’ve learned stuff, but this time I really felt that I’ve learned stuff. And I was proud that Eric could trust us to take care of the tasks without any leadership oversight or follow-up. He just told us what needed to be done, asked if we felt comfortable doing it, and…we did it. Then we had dinner. It might sound silly, but it felt really good.
Also, it was fun because we got to listen to the radio on the way there (I’ve been pretty much radio-free for the last four weeks), and the other steward and I have a similar taste in music. It may or may not have been pretty loud. I plead the fifth.
There were plenty of other projects this week – fixing broiler shelters, building sheep shade structures, and more – but I’m going to end this post here. I have less time to write this weekend, since I’ve been working and have evening chores soon, and y’all don’t need a list of every project – there are way too many to list anyway. But suffice it to say that I’m still grateful to be here, I’m learning a TON, and I’m excited to see what the next four months will bring.