Week 6: Dehydration, More Chickens & Hay

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I think Week 6 has been the best week yet, in terms of work here at the farm. It was awesome. I’m not even entirely sure how to break it down into highlights for y’all, although I’m going to try. I think that instead of doing general highlights, I’m going to break this week down by days.

First, a housekeeping note:

Until now, I’ve only used names of staff, to try and keep this from being too confusing. But that’s getting harder as time goes on and I’m working a lot with fellow stewards, so I’m going to start name dropping. Hopefully it’s not too bad, but just in case, here’s a list of folks (first names only unless they are staff because privacy and junk):

Staff I Interact with a Lot:

Daniel Salatin (Rangeboss, primary teacher) & Sheri, Joel Salatin (duh) & Teresa, Eric (farm manager, other primary teacher) & Leanna (inventory), Jonathan (mechanics, vehicles), Buzz (mechanics, building stuff), Gabe (cow & pig stuff), Wendy (store), Grace (buying club driver).

Apprentices:

Parker, Lydia

Girl Stewards:

Lauren, Sarah, Gabi, me

Boy Stewards:

Daniel (referred to here as Steward Daniel for the sake of clarity), Brandon, Isaiah, Jon, Eli, Oleg, Charlie

You don’t really need to know anything about them, but if you’re confused about the names, well, there you go. Name list.

Okay, on with the stuff that happened this week.

Monday: I Get Horribly Dehydrated

Okay, getting dehydrated isn’t a highlight, but it happened, so yeah.

On Monday, we were processing chickens yet again as part of the big butcher-all-the-chickens push that I talked about last week. To get me introduced to the front of the assembly line after lots of times on QC, Daniel had me help with loading chickens into the kill cones and running the scalder. This put me closer to the kill station without actually necessitating that I kill any chickens yet. I got lots of chicken poop on me and got pecked a lot, and more importantly, I was so busy trying to keep the line moving that I drank zero drinks of water the entire morning. The team seemed to be struggling to find a good rhythm on the line, at least in my area, and I left for lunch feeling tired and frustrated. It probably didn’t help that I was up too late on Sunday night shooting guns and hanging out at the boys’ (oops). So it seemed logical to drink extra coffee at lunch. I didn’t think about water.

After lunch, the girls and Parker started working on cut-ups – parting the chicken out into breasts, legs/thighs, wings, etc. This was something that I desperately needed practice at, since my first attempt at cut-ups last week went terribly. As the afternoon went on, I was gradually getting better, though I’m not satisfied with myself yet. I’m still missing some of the breast meat, and struggling on the first wing cut. Since I was focusing so hard, and standing in the shade with my hands on freezing cold chickens, I didn’t think about drinking any water.

It was only at afternoon chore time when I went with Daniel and team of stewards to deal with a group of pullets that had escaped the electric net (they aren’t trained yet), that I realized that I was not feeling okay. I felt like my head was stuffed with cotton balls and walking was hard. The sun suddenly felt incredibly hot, and although it was hot – probably in the low 90s – it wasn’t as hot as it felt. As I mentally tried to muddle through the basic directions Daniel was giving us, I realized that I hadn’t had any water all day and am probably dehydrated. I’m also at the point where I don’t actually feel thirsty, my body isn’t responding correctly to my mental commands and my brain is slow. This is probably bad.

I tried to drink some water and ignore it, but I felt pretty gosh darn bad, so when the team divided up for more chores, I asked Daniel if I could collect eggs. I felt really guilty that I needed to ask for the easier job (I don’t typically do that), and embarrassed that I had to explain that I was probably pretty dehydrated and needed water. But I figured it was probably better to admit that than it would have been to potentially mess up, say, stacking a hay wagon. Or worse, pass out in the sun.

On the plus side for me, I did run up a giant hill while dehydrated without dying. I guess I’ve gotten used to their being hills everywhere, and after seeing Eric spontaneously run places, it’s rubbed off on me.

Oh yeah. Eric spontaneously runs places instead of walking. Now the stewards sometimes find ourselves doing it too. We call it part of the mission to become magical (we have decided that all of the staff here are magical, and that is why they can do all of the things and lift things that are insanely heavy, like fence posts and hay elevators).

So anyway, I collected and washed eggs, then tried to drink a lot of water at dinner even though I was at the point where I didn’t actually feel very thirsty. I wasn’t hungry either – another sign that I was super dehydrated.

Okay, so Monday wasn’t the greatest day in the world. But the rest of the week was pretty awesome.

Tuesday: I Drink 12 Bottles of Water & Drive a Truck

When I woke up on Tuesday, I felt thirsty. Like, ravenously, insanely thirsty. By the time breakfast was over, I had drank five entire bottles of water.

But I felt a little better.

After breakfast, I went with Daniel, Sarah, and Isaiah to Arabela – a nearby rental farm – to set up cow shades and stack large hay bales (which involves a tractor). Sarah and I spent a decent chunk of the morning doing the cow shades, before helping with the tail-end of the hay stacking. A bright point: Daniel drove one of the farm trucks to tow the tractor back to Polyface, so I got to drive Daniel’s truck. Have I mentioned that I want a truck? I also really like Daniel’s truck – it’s big and fun.

There were a variety of miscellaneous afternoon jobs, but overall, it was an easier day…which isn’t a bad thing, since I was still in rehydrate mode. I was counting, and I went through twelve entire bottles of water before dinner, and didn’t pee any more than normal. Clearly, I needed the water!

But by dinner I was super energetic again, and raring to go. This was good, since we had to go out after dark and catch laying hens that evening. Since it doesn’t really get dark until 9:30, and you definitely want to shower after catching chickens (because Poop), this means it was a pretty late night for everyone. It was a good time to be rehydrated!

Wednesday: I Kill Stuff

On Wednesday, it was time: I was on the kill station for chicken processing.

Now some background: I have been simultaneously looking forward to being on the kill station, and dreading it. I’ve been looking forward to it because I want the experience of doing it, and dreading it because I was afraid of hurting the chickens without killing them properly – especially when I figured out that the thing I struggle with most is cutting up dead stuff (i.e. cutups, eviscerating, etc).

And now that I knew I had to do it, I was in full dread mode. I didn’t mind the idea of killing the chickens, but I didn’t want to hurt the chickens.

But Daniel was great at teaching me how to kill chickens. He demonstrated for about twenty chickens, until I said I felt comfortable giving it a try, and patiently walked me through the specific cuts. Then, as I started cutting, he expertly walked me through exactly how to make the cut, reassuring me that the chicken was dead, and showing me how to tell that the chicken was dead. This is important because the chicken flaps around reflexively after it is dead, which freaked me out at first. But when there is no eye response, you know it is dead – and if you make the cut correctly, that happens almost instantaneously. Seeing how quickly they die actually made me feel way better about the whole thing, as did Daniel’s reassurances that I was more or less doing it right.

In fact, 580 chickens later, I found that I actually really liked this particular station on the assembly line. Part of it was my team – Sarah was my loader, and we had a great rhythm going, somewhat racing each other, but in a noncompetitive way. But part of it was the connection that I felt with the chicken at the moment that they died. I know that sounds weird, but I liked the confidence that I started to feel that they were dying humanely and quickly. I liked that if they were going to die to feed me, and other people, then I was responsible for their death. And I was greatful for the chickens. I’m not sure the feeling is something that I can make other people understand with words, but I will say that I think that anybody who eats meat should experience a butchering at some point in their lives. It subtely changes the way you view the food, and I think it’s a positive change.

By the way, yes, killing chickens is kind of messy. For one thing, chickens poop a lot. In fact, the second chicken I went to kill sent out a lovely stream of poop that went all over my head. Daniel looked at me, saw my face, and said “That’s why I like to wear a hat during processing.” I laughed. A good idea for next time.

For another thing, when you cut the throat, there’s sort of a lot of blood. My arms were crusty, my face and hair were splattered, and I now have permanent bloodstains on my pants, despite the protective apron. It looks like something out of a horror movie, and it’s amazing how quickly you just get over it and it stops mattering. It’s also amazing how great showering felt during the lunch hour.

Oh, and I drank plenty of water during processing. I may have actually learned my lesson.

The afternoon on Wednesday was uneventful – mostly we just packaged chicken. We had butchered 580 birds, most of which were stewing hens, which is the largest number we have butchered to date (I think), so it took most of the afternoon. But this was the end of our big butchering push, so now it will be back to once a week. It feels good to be done with butchering for a minute, and it feels extra good to be done with stewing hens which are way harder to deal with than broilers. Soon the pullets will be laying and we will be drowning in eggs, and I’m excited.

Thursday: I Feel Competent, Yay

Thursday was my second favorite day of the week, mostly because a team of us got to be really and truly on our own, and I felt competent. When you’re in a position where you are learning a lot every day, it feels great to be able to apply what you’ve learned on your own.

Due to a variety of weird circumstances, there was a shortage of leadership: Parker, Lydia, and Eric were all off farm for the day, and Daniel was busy mowing hay, so us stewards were basically on our own. We started off with our weekly mechanics lesson with Buzz and Jonathan, and then a team of us went to take care of the brooder.

Essentially, we had to catch the chicks in the brooder and take them out to the broiler shelters. Some were going to broiler shelters on a rental farm, and some were staying at Polyface. Then we had to prep the brooder for new chicks that would be arriving around 4pm. By sheer happenstance, I was assigned to the brooder this week as my primary morning chore, so I ended up taking a lead on the project, and to my surprise, I felt confident in what I was doing…and it felt awesome.

Once we caught all of the chicks, three people took a truckful off to a rental farm, leaving a team of three – Lauren, Isaiah, and I – to put chicks out in broiler shelters and prepare the brooder. Isaiah had never done this before and Lauren had only done part of it, so I ended up kind of managing the project. I’ve worked with Lydia (who manages the brooder) a lot, partially because it’s often combined with the Raken on the weekends when I typically volunteer to pet bunnies, but this was the first time I realized that doing that actually resulted in me knowing stuff.

First, we carted crates full of chicks off to the broiler shelters. I drove the ATV to get more experience pulling a trailer, and the three of us worked together seamlessly to get the chicks set up.We had to move a few of the shelters to make sure there wasn’t any puddles of water inside of them, and fed and watered the chicks. We also had to double check and make sure the shelters were all in good repair, since the chicks are still pretty small and can easily get out of tiny holes in the chicken wire or gaps in the shelter boards.

Next, we drove back and started turning the brooder. Using a small pitchfork like thing, you turn over all of the bedding, fluffing it up well. This is dusty work, and remind me of hoeing a garden. Once everything is fluffed and mixed, it’s time to spread a fresh layer of sawdust. By this time, the boys who went to the rental farm were back, and helped shovel out sawdust into the brooder. Isaiah, Lauren, and I spread it out, then set up the brooder for the new chicks. This was the moment that I realized I knew something – I didn’t really have to think about what to do, I just had an image in my head of what the brooder was supposed to look like and where the feeders and such were supposed to go.

We laid everything out, put the tools away, and finally took a lunch around 2pm – Isaiah and I had both agreed that we didn’t want to take a break until we were completely done with the brooder project. Nobody dismissed us; we just took lunch, then came back and started doing filler stuff (like washing coolers) until we saw Daniel. He let us know that the chicks should arrive in about a half an hour and showed us how to turn on the heaters (which I hadn’t seen done before). Then, the exciting part: he looked around, and told us that we did it right. It was so gratifying!

Oh to be sure, there were tweaks and he gave some background info on why there was a couple ways to do a few of the things. But we didn’t mess anything up. It was so great.

Daniel left again, and it fell to me, Lauren, and Charlie to receive the chick delivery. I accepted the paperwork from the delivery people, and made a call on which section of the brooder to put the fifty extra chicks that showed up. We got everything settled and done in time to help with evening chores. And I went to dinner feeling high on life, and had a great time chatting with everyone and hanging out that evening.

To somebody reading this, the excitement probably sounds over the top and ridiculous. So we did a project…who cares? But when you’ve been investing 12+ hours per day learning, and then you get to apply those things on your own and you do it right…well, it’s exciting. It’s like a little kid learning how to ride a bike, except I’m a big kid learning how to prep a brooder. Besides, with how wonderful the Salatins and staff have been, a not-so-small part of me wants to please them and make them proud. Is it weird? Probably. But so what? It feels great.

Friday: I Unload Seven Hay Wagons

While I had been flying high on brooder stuff Thursday, some of the stewards had been baling hay…so Friday saw five entire hay wagons, one of which was an extra long wagon, ready to unload. So after breakfast, I found myself on Hay Unloading Duty.

In deference to my psychotic allergic reactions to hay, I asked to be one of the people putting hay onto the hay elevator instead of one of the people stacking hay in the loft, since it’s less dusty (although climbing into the loft is fun), and I got my wish. Upside: no allergy issues. Downside: Lifting literally every single bale of hay.

Oh yeah, sidenote: My allergies this week were way better than last week. I think the exposure, along with the honey, is helping. They’re still there and are terrible, but they were less bad.

Anyway, I ended up working with Brandon on the first four wagons, which went great. He lifted the bales onto the elevator (which is definitely the job that requires more upper body strength, since you have to lift with precision to set the bale correctly so it doesn’t fall off the elevator on the way up), and I passed him the bales from the back of the wagon. Before long we got a good system going, and were going pretty fast. There was a lot of people up in the hay loft, so they could pretty much handle bales as quickly as we could get them on the elevator.

At the end of the wagon, he’d hop down to grab the bales that were on the ground, either having fallen off the elevator or the ones we’d taken off in order to set up the hay elevator, and pass them back up to me, while I put them on the elevator. Then he’d turn the elevator off, and with the help of some of the people in the loft, we’d lift the elevator off the wagon. Then Eric or Daniel (they switched out at some point) would pull in a new hay wagon, while everyone grabbed water, and we’d all restart.

On the fifth wagon, the teams switched up a little bit since Brandon had to leave to do cow stuff with Gabe, and I ended up putting the hay on the elevator for about half the wagon. This was definitely harder, especially since I was lifting primarily with my non-dominant hand and had already lifted/thrown countless bales of hay, so I didn’t argue when Oleg came in and asked if we needed help…and I went back to simply passing bales.

It was hot, sweaty, and exhausting. And it was great. It was the perfect example of a job that really pushes you physically, without pushing so much that you die a little bit.

But it still left me pretty gosh darn tired, so I was glad to have a slightly easier afternoon job: prepping a large order to ship to New York with Eric and Leanna. This involved weighing and packing a bunch of meat, largely in the pleasantly cool walk in refrigerator. Such things can’t last forever though, and I got word around five o’clock that there were two more hay wagons to unload from the baling that happened that day. They needed to be unloaded in order to be empty and ready to carry people on the tour that was taking place on the farm on Saturday.

I won’t lie to you: I did not want to unload any more hay, especially this late in the day. I was tired. I had blisters.

But there were two more wagons, so I ran out of the egg room to do hay.

This time, Lauren and I tag-teamed the getting hay onto the hay elevator. There were only a couple of people in the loft, so the pace was slower than it had been in the morning, but I couldn’t really complain – the hay seemed much heavier than it did in the morning as well! In fairness, it was heavier – some of these bales were somewhat wet, adding a lot of weight. But also, we were tired.

But we pushed through, and finished the wagons, and it felt amazing. There’s something about being physically tired that I just really like. It’s a good thing I like it, since it tends to happen a lot when you are working on a farm.

Saturday: Cows + Tractors = Best Day Ever

I had signed up to work the weekend and, by chance, this was a Girl’s Weekend: Lauren, Gabi, and I were the three stewards who were working, and Lydia was the only apprentice around. Also by chance, Daniel and Eric were unable to be at chores Saturday morning, since they were up until 2am the night before, shipping a giant order to New York.

We were on our own, along with Sarah who volunteered to help with chores. And we killed it, getting everything done by 8am, which was pretty good since we were down Eric, Daniel, and Parker.

Okay, in fairness, Brandon also came down for part of chores, but I’m gonna say that the girls killed it. Ladies Weekend, whoo!

After breakfast, we set up for the tour. Tour days are a little weird, and involve talking to strangers a lot. It’s cool to hear the various reasons that draw people to Polyface, but also, I’m not a huge fan of talking to strangers.

Daniel is a magical wizard who notices everything, and I don’t know if he noticed that I didn’t want to talk to strangers or if it was happenstance, but shortly after the tour began he sent me to help Gabe move cows.

Have I mentioned how much I love cows?

No, seriously, I love cows so much.

I helped Gabe check some fence, then cart three trailers full of cows from a rental farm and bring them to Polyface. It was pretty chill, and I got to practice my newfound knowledge about cow flight zones and got a couple of knot tying lessons. And I got to do stuff with cows.

After the cows, Gabe needed to move a bull to a different rental property, so I went along to help with that. This was my first exposure to a bull, and it was cool to see how the bull’s attitude was different from the cows’. He’s way more confident and his flight zone is a lot smaller.

We got the bull into the property, and he started promptly cavorting with the other bull. Gabe said this is normal when they’ve been separated for a little while, and we waiting a few minutes for them to settle down. Unfrotunately for us, their cavorting took one of the bulls right through the electric crossfence, resulting in Gabe sprinting across a field, with me right behind him, to head the bull off and make sure he didn’t get through the regular fence.

So it was an adventure.

Thankfully, the bull did NOT get through the regular fence, and we (well, mostly Gabe, let’s be honest) got him settled into the paddock without further incident.

When we got back to the farm, it was basically chore time, and I ended up moving the pullets with Daniel. I had told him I wanted more tractor experience, and was expected something like “take tractor from Building A to Building B”. Instead, I got “pull giant net structure, and also drive fast down the actual road in the tractor.”

Daniel says that he’d rather thrust us into real experience than put us on a practice course because we learn better. He’s not wrong, and I only stalled out the tractor one time. Progress!

Honestly? It was fun, and I feel a lot better about driving the tractor now. It was nice to have some solid one-on-one instructional time, which is a major perk of working the weekends. I feel like I learn the most during that one-on-one time.

The other major perk of working weekends is eating at Joel and Teresa’s for dinner. Teresa is an amazing cook, and the dinner conversation is always lively and interesting.

I don’t normally give food descriptions, even though most of the food I eat here is incredible, but I’m going to make an exception in the case of Saturday night. Part of why it was so great was because I didn’t take a lunch break, so I was starving, but mostly it is because Teresa cooks incredible food.

First of all, there was delightful shredded pork. Polyface raised pork tastes fantastic, and this was no exception. Then there was watermelon, a delectable sweet potato dish and a bowl of salad greens with a warm, amazing dressing that I want to eat every day forever. And the crown jewel: two batches of homemade biscuits, hot out of the oven. I ate three of them and had to actively make myself not eat any more because…there was also PIE.

I love pie. It’s my favorite dessert. And this pie was lemon chess, which was one of the most delightful pies I have ever tasted. It was bright and lemony and amazing and, to top it all off, the pie crust was the flakiest, most wonderful pie crust ever. To my great excitement, Teresa told me that it was made with lard, proving my grandmother right: she always told me that lard makes the best pie crusts, but until now, I had never seen if that was true or not.

Overall, it was an amazing day, and an amazing week. I’m feeling increasingly comfortable here, and I’m still learning a lot and enjoying practicing what I have learned so far. We are supposed to get several days of rain next week (yuck) so I’m not sure how Week 7 will match up to Week 6, but ultimately…I’m still incredibly happy to be here, in this place, with these folks, at this time.

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