[Editor’s Note: posted a week late because I was planning on posting this Monday, and instead got super dehydrated and went to bed. Then I got busy. Sorry.]
Week five here at Polyface was characterized by three things: processing chickens, making hay, and the first really hot week of the summer.
June marks the beginning of “hay season” where Polyface – and all the other farms – are trying to harvest hay to get through the winter. The harvest happens in June after the aggressive spring growth of the grass, and according to Daniel, they usually have harvested most of the hay that they need by July, weather depending. In order to make hay, there needs to be a series of hot, dry days since once the hay is mowed, it needs to not get wet until it has had time to fully dry out and be packed into bales. If baled and stored properly, hay lasts indefinitely – Joel claims that it will last a hundred years, easily.
Since making hay is time-limited, it’s a hectic season where everyone is working hard to get the hay in. The old adage “make hay while the sun shines” is pretty darn true, and it’s also known for being physically challenging. Stacking hay bales is hard work, no way around it, and it’s something I knew I would struggle with, physically, but also something I’ve been looking forward to.
On top of that, we are in a bit of a pinch to butcher chickens. We typically butcher once a week, on Wednesdays, with an occassional Friday thrown in. But this week we needed to butcher on three different days, because not only are the broilers on their usual cycle, but there are also chickens to butcher from rental farms and laying hens to butcher now that the pullets are getting big enough to lay eggs.
Chicken Sidebar for the Non-Farmer: Chicks hatch out of eggs that are laid by hens and fertilized by a rooster. On this farm, the chicks are raised in a brooder, which is temperature controlled, until they are old enough to go outside and not die. At this point, the chicks are sorta full grown, but they don’t lay eggs yet. Now they are known as pullets. After some number of weeks (sorry, I don’t know how many), they start laying eggs and are simply called chickens, or laying hens. After about three years, their egg production starts to tank, so many farms butcher them and sell them as stewing hens, replacing them with new egg layers. Stewing hens make AMAZING chicken stock, but are tougher than broilers (normal meat chickens, or roaster chickens). They are also a lot fattier and have much smaller breasts. The meat chickens (here at Polyface) are generally referred to as broilers, and they are killed around 8 weeks.
So basically we spent the week doing hay and butchering chickens. Oh, you want more details? Okay.
I have decided that I am very ambivalent about butchering chickens. I don’t dislike it. I don’t like it. It’s just kinda a thing that happens. But three times in one week is too many times. But also, it’s not too many times as long as we aren’t always butchering that often, because it’s fine and sometimes it’s fun.
Like I said. Ambivalent.
Anyway, I mostly did QC all week, which I think I’ve mentioned before – basically, you pull out extraneous feathers, scrape off extra skin bits, pull windpipes, and generally make sure the birds are presentable for customers. This week I also received an introduction to the final QC station, where I had to manage keeping the birds cycling into chill tanks and sorting them by quality and weight.
Maybe I should take some time to explain butchering a little better. Polyface has this down to a science, so I’ll just go through some of the basic stations/steps.
Catching the Chickens
When we are processing broilers, we catch them the morning of processing day. Basically, whoever is on the “miscellaneous projects” chore rotation and whoever is taking care of the broilers that are getting butchered, goes and loads the chickens from the field into chicken crates. They’re fairly easy to catch, since they move super slow and are in relatively small shelters that get moved daily. If catching laying hens (which are fast and more difficult) or catching chickens from rental farms, it is okay to catch them after dark the night before processing day. They’ll sleep through the night in the crates anyway, the same as they would in a roost.
Once the chickens are caught and the processing shed is clean and set up, we all go to breakfast and let the chickens relax for an hour.
Killing the Chickens
The next step is to take the chickens out of the crates and load them into the kill cones. These cones keeps the chickens stationary and upside down so that they can be killed without mistakes and can bleed out quickly. The entire goal is to minimize the stress on the animal as much as possible. Although I would hate being in a kill cone, this is actually less stressful for the chicken – it’s similar to the squeeze chute described by Temple Grandin, for those familiar with her work. As of this week, I haven’t actually been on this station yet, though I’m sure I will be next week (the Polyface leadership is trying to make sure we all have hit all of the stations as soon as possible). More details when that happens.
Scalding the Chickens
Once the chickens are dead, they are run through a scalder, which is basically a vat of soapy water that is kept just over 140 degrees. The heat helps loosen the feathers, although it is important to maintain the specific temperature – too cold won’t do the job, and too hot will start to the cook the chicken which would be bad.
Plucking the Chickens
Polyface has a nice plucker, so you just throw the chickens into the machine, it spins around really fast, and most of the feathers come off. Plucking by hand is possible, but would be really slow and terrible. Any processing of scale needs a plucker.
This is usually one station on the assembly line. The person removes the chickens’ heads and feet. We don’t use the heads (although you theoretically could), but the feet are transferred to a bucket of ice water. They are eventually drained and sold in the store.
Now the chicken carcass looks like what you’d see in the grocery store on the outside, but all the inside bits still have to be taken out. This is definitely the most skilled station, and is also one that I expect to get more practice at soon. There is a specific way to cut open the bird and remove all the guts and stuff. Joel can gut a chicken in about thirty seconds. Our benchmark is a minute – by September, hopefully I’ll meet it!
The lungs don’t come out with the guts, so that’s a separate station. If there’s a smaller team (i.e. if some people are out doing hay), lunging can also be done by people gutting or doing QC. The person doing the lunging also cuts a small hole in the loose chicken skin under the breast, which gets used by QC.
As already mentioned, the people on quality control go over the bird and pull out pin feathers, excess skin pieces, and check for issues (sometimes a windpipe gets missed, for example). This is one of the slower jobs, so it has more people. When QC is done on a specific bird, the legs are tucked into the hole in the skin made by the lunger.
QC – Final Station
The end QC station (the thing I did this week), does regular QC, but also runs around transferring and fetching stuff. First of all, this person separates the birds in two different sinks that are full of cold water – one for birds that are 5 pounds or heavier, and one that for birds that are less than 5 pounds. The smaller birds will be sold as whole birds, where the bigger ones will be cut into parts and pieces (i.e. chicken breasts) and sold that way.
Once the birds have soaked for about fifteen minutes, they are transferred to stainless steel chill tanks that are full of ice. The final QC person makes this transfer and refills the original sink, plus makes sure the chill tanks stay icy and cold.
Additionally, birds that have defects such as a broken wing can either go into a cull tank (if they’re small) or go along with the big five pound bird for cut-ups. Cull birds usually get eaten by staff (because a broken wing doesn’t affect how the bird tastes!).
I really enjoyed this part of QC, because it’s really fast-paced and there’s a lot going on. There’s definitely time to do regular QC and be part of the assembly line (which always involves some level of socializing), but there’s also constant moving around. Eric, the farm manager, usually oversees this part of the line, and at first I wondered why he didn’t get bored on that station – quality control seems way less exciting than gutting or killing. But now that I’ve done it, I get it: it’s nice to be running around doing six different things!
After The Butchering
We usually spend the morning butchering, and process around 400-500 birds. Once we’re done, we clean up the processing shed and leave the chickens in the chill tanks (with plenty of ice!) so that they get super cold while we have lunch. Then we go about packaging everything. Feet, hearts, and livers get packaged by weight, and whole birds get bagged and labeled for sale. Big birds get cut up into pieces and vacuum packed, then sorted by weight.
It basically takes all afternoon, especially since some people are pulled off to do other things (cough hay cough). It takes less time if we aren’t doing very many cut-ups (that definitely takes the longest, and it’s the reason that buying chicken breasts is – and should be – way more expensive than buying a whole chicken).
Like butchering chickens, there’s a whole process to doing hay, and I got to taste most of it this week. I’ll be getting a lot more experience with it over the next few weeks, of course.
Okay, I don’t get experience with this, because it’s technical and equipment-y and it’s also really important. But they mow the hay. Yay! Now it is on the ground. For the uninitiated, at this point the hay is just really long grass.
This doesn’t always get done, but if the hay (grass) is particularly thick, somebody comes through with a machine and teds it, which basically involves flipping it all over so that the bottom (wet) stuff comes up to the top and has a chance to dry out. I haven’t done this yet, but I’m told it’s pretty easy.
This part involves driving a tractor that is hooked up to a rake apparatus. The rake, well, rakes the hay into windrows. I got to do this part! Okay, mostly I rode along while Daniel did it, but then he let me do part of the last field. It was fun! It feels cool to make the giant rakey thing go. I think we are all going to get a turn raking, but if there are extra raking opportunities I would definitely like to do it again.
Ah, now we get to the physically challenging part. Joel typically drives the hay baler, which is a machine that packs and ties the hay into bales. It spits the bale of hay out of the back of the baler.
That’s where the labor comes in: a team of people receive the bale and stack it on a hay wagon. There is a certain pattern in which to stack the hay to keep it compact and stable, so we all received a lesson on hay stacking using blocks, then got to actually do it…and we will be doing a LOT more of it in the next few weeks!
I want to point out that the hay is stacked five rows high on the wagon, which necessitates climbing up the hay and lifting hay really high. It’s hard, especially since it’s out in the hot sun. Did I mention that it was in the 90s this week, and it’s super humid in Virginia?
Once the hay is stacked on the hay wagons, it’s safe – the wagons can be pulled into a barn in case it rains (yay!). But there are a limited number of hay wagons, so it can’t stay on the hay wagons forever. This means that we get to unstack the hay wagons, and stack the hay in the barn instead.
In the beginning, this was done by throwing the hay bales off of the wagon (hard). Now that the hay has gotten stacked pretty high, we use a portable hay elevator. The people on the wagon lift the hay bales onto the elevator, which is basically a semi-vertical conveyor belt. The device moves the hay up to the hay loft, where other people grab it and stack it.
Like with the wagons, there is a certain pattern in which to stack the hay, so we learned that. Details like this are important – technique is everything here, and with good reason. The goal is to be efficient, ergonomic, and effective – all of which are very important. I’m glad I’m not muddling through this stuff on my own, since I never would have thought about stacking my hay a certain way, and then not only would it be more difficult, but the piles might fall down and stuff. Falling down hay is bad.
This week I had my second stint on broiler chores and I was pleased to see that moving the shelters has gotten a bit easier! It helps that I was using a shorter dolly (wheeled apparatus that you slide under the shelter before dragging it along the ground) than I was the first week. This is a big deal because I am short, so the tall dollys are a nightmare for me to maneuver. On Friday (my last day of broilers), I decided to push really hard and time myself, and was happy to be at a little less than 5 minutes per shelter – this includes moving, watering, and feeding the shelters, plus addressing any random issues (i.e. an escaped bird, clogged waterer, or whatever). This is significantly better than when I first started doing broiler shelters, so I was pretty happy with myself. Of course, I still have a ways to go – our benchmark by the end of September is 3 minutes per shelter.
So I figured out that I am allergic to hay when I went to stack hay in the barn the first day of hay, and keeled over in a giant fit of sneezing that allowed me to get approximately nothing done, and then promptly broke out in hives and couldn’t breathe through my nose the rest of the night.
So the next day when it was time for me to load hay during baling, I came prepared: I swallowed a large spoonful of local raw honey and donned a cloth facemask (yay coronavirus for making those a thing, and yay Wendy – who runs the store – for giving me one) and safety goggles. Given the heat, this was super unpleasant, but it worked – I only sneezed a couple of times during the three wagons that I worked on.
But the facemask and goggles only protected my eyes and respiratory system. My skin was still exposed, and as I was driving up the hill to get lunch, I felt like I was being stabbed all over by tiny needles that all itched worse than any mosquito bite. It was basically like somebody was administering an allergy test to my arms, my legs, and down my shirt (because hay somehow got all of those places.
I walked into the cabin, stripped out of my clothes, and spent most of my lunch break standing in a cool shower, willing the water to wash away the terrible itchiness. It helped, but still, yikes.
On the bright side, loading hay onto the hay elevator later that day was less itchy and sneezey because there wasn’t as much dust.
Here’s hoping a regimen of raw (local) milk, raw (local) honey, and repeated exposure makes the allergies better.
I should also probably add that doing hay is kinda fun, despite everything. It’s pretty gratifying to watch it stack up and be physically spent and covered in sweat. I could do without the hives, but otherwise, it’s a cool job.
Fixing Fence with Joel
Unrelated to hay or processing chickens, my favorite task this week was fixing fence with Joel. We went up to a neighboring property to clear thorn bushes and repair some worn down fences, and I had an absolute blast. It was sweaty, dirty work, and I loved every second of it. I even got to operate a fence post pounder with one of the guys, which was awesome.The pounder is a super heavy piece of metal that fits over the fence post. There is a handle on either side, and so two people can work together to pick it up and drop it on the fence post, pounding it into the ground. This is way better than actually digging a hole, and its incredibly satisfying to use.
Joel also gave us some additional instruction on how to wire gate handles and I feel like I’m starting to actually understand the fencing system. I walked a lot of fence with Gabe the first week, but now that it’s week five, I feel a lot more confident about the height of the wire, placement of the insulators, and other details. I’m not proficient yet, but I feel a lot better about it all than I did at first. Not only that, but I really like walking fence and fixing fence; I don’t know why.
On Saturday, I finally got to help with butchering rabbits!
And I confirmed what I’ve been suspecting for awhile: I suck at cutting up dead stuff.
But I’m learning! And that’s good. Next time will be easier.
I don’t have a lot to say about this except that I’m glad I had the experience, I am anxious to have it again, I want to raise bunnies, and it sucks that cute bunnies have to die. And Daniel is a patient teacher.
Non-Work Related Stuff
So I definitely spend the vast majority of my time working on the farm, or talking about farming, but there are other things too! Some highlights:
Saturday with the Girls
The other girls and I have gotten pretty close, and I am having a lot of fun hanging out with them. This Saturday, three of us made an excursion into town and had a great time! Errands first – we got groceries and went to Tractor Supply because many of us needed more work clothes than we thought we did. Specifically, I needed more pants, and pants that don’t have holes in them. I found a thick pair with great pockets that should work well for hay – hopefully the hay will be less likely to poke through these pants than my old, tattered jeans, resulting in less hives and misery.
But also, we went to Knuckles, this great gun store that Daniel told us about. One of the guys told us that if we bought our own ammo we could feel free to shoot his shotgun, so we did that…but then also drooled over all of the guns that were for sale. And then the biggest highlight – ice cream! There is an incredible ice cream shop in Staunton with the creamiest, most delicious ice cream ever. We planned on bringing it home for later so we didn’t have get spoons with it, but that lasted about two minutes into the drive. It’s so good that we really couldn’t wait until we got home to eat it, and I ended up driving down the road trying to slurp melting ice cream out of a container without making a mess. It kinda, sorta worked?
It was a pretty chill Saturday, with lots of sitting around and talking, but the company was great and the rest was welcome. Also, I’m not sure how it’s possible to do nothing but talk for FOUR LITERAL HOURS and roll around on the ground laughing with people that you have already been with basically all the time for five weeks, but it is.
Sunday night, the aforementioned guy brought out his shotgun, and I miiigghtt have blown through an entire box of ammo. Several of the guys have guns with them, and we spent some time gathering empty containers and making targets, then taking turns shooting things and hanging out.
I like shooting things. I want all the guns. Unfortunately, they are expensive, so that will probably not be happening any time soon.
Philosophy of the Week
On Wednesday, I was super tired and was waiting on a load of laundry so that I could go to bed. The laundry is in the boys cabin, and often when I’m doing laundry I’ll just hang out with them until it is done. But I was tired, and didn’t really feel like socializing, so I decided to just hang out by the pond that is between the boys and girls’ cabins.
And I had an awesome night.
I can’t get over how beautiful it is here. Pretty much every day, I find myself awestruck by the mountains that rise up all around the farm, and the gorgeous sunrises that I get to witness every day. But this was the first time I had really stopped to appreciate the scenery around the hunt camp itself, and I’m glad I did.
The camp positioned in such a way that you can’t really see much in the way of mountains – there’s trees surrounding three sides of the camp, and a gentle hill that is currently growing hay on the other side. In the center is a pond that is filled with cattails. As I stood out there, I watched the red winged blackbirds swooping over the water and chattering to each other before settling down for the night. I listened to the croaking of numerous frogs, and watched the ripples that they make as they leap into the water. Birds nest in the trees behind the boys cabin, and a wall of blackberry bushes in full bloom push up to the side of the cabin. As I stood out there, the day was slowly turning to night, and I saw a couple of bats come out and nip the pesky mosquitoes, swooping over the roof, and stars start to pop out of the deepening darkness.
It’s a simple thing, but taking a little time to just be grateful for where I am and what I am doing here is a big deal. There’s no better place to marvel at the wonder of creation or observe God’s grace working in the lives of so many people, who are all drawn to this farm for a season. My advice to you all? Take a few minutes, wherever you’re at, to just look around and be grateful for awhile. I know that I went to bed that night feeling refreshed.