Week 8: God’s Gift to Man

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Week…8? Oh boy, I don’t want to think about how quickly this summer is going.

Monday: A Tour & Beating the Heck out of Multiflora Rose

Monday was a little bit unusual in that we took an off farm field trip to a local dairy farm for a tour. The farm is run by a former Polyface apprentice and his wife, a former intern. It is also the farm that we are all buying our milk from while we are here for the summer.

Part of the educational component of the summer stewardship program is several field trip tours to other farming enterprises, and this was the first one, conveniently scheduled during a rain-induced break in hay season.

The tour was really cool, and included a discussion of the actual milking process, marketing (which is interesting and important, but also something I’m not going to like because I don’t even know what all the social media words mean), and a discussion of how grazing dairy cows differs from beef cows. Since dairy cows (all Jersey in this case) have higher caloric requirements, it can be difficult to push the cows enough to meet ecological grazing requirements, while getting them enough calories. This particular farm devised a method of storing fermenting hay in an old grain silo. The fermenting hay is higher in sugar than fresh grass, and the cows get some every day after milking. Then they are turned loose on the pasture. So far, this seems to be working – and they are also breeding for grass-based success, of course.

In the afternoon, I was sent with Eric and a big team of stewards (Gabi, Brandon, Isaiah, Eli) to a rental farm to work on what my dad would call “bullwork” – uprooting a whole bunch of multiflora rose.

For those that don’t know, multiflora rose is a horrible, invasive, woody, bushy plant that is covered in thorns and gets massive. It was introduced by the US government in all of its brilliance (read the sarcasm here) and given away to farmers for free to create hedgerows. Now it is terrible and everyone hates it, because it takes over and ruins pastures…and is difficult and painful to get out (did I mention the thorns?). Since Polyface is committed to not using herbicides, keeping up with the multiflora rose requires beating the heck out of the plant and digging up the root ball using mattocks.

We did this for several hours, getting back basically just in time for dinner. It was hot – mid 90s. The work is tiring. My arms were scratched to pieces. And yes, I had fun.

There is something satisfying about destroying evil plants. You have to plan out your attack to minimize the damage that the thorns do to you, and it feels great when you finally pull out the root ball and overturn the whole mess.

Not only that, but this particular rental farm was perfect for appreciating how beautiful Virginia is. The field we were working in is on a rocky ridge, with a picturesque view of the mountains. In fact, we all paused in our work for a few moments to watch a rainstorm sweeping across the mountain range – we could see the rain falling over the mountains long before it hit us.

And no, I didn’t mind the rain this time – I actually enjoyed it. I was already soaked from sweat, ad the cool water felt wonderful. Besides, it didn’t last too long.

Tuesday: Wrangling Calves

Tuesday was the best day this week because it involved cows.

I love the cows.

First thing after breakfast, I was sent to wrangle calves with Gabe, along with Brandon and Eli. Gabe warned us that it would be a difficult day, and that we might be having a late lunch, and he wasn’t kidding. But it was awesome.

Basically, there was a pinkeye issue at one of the rental farms. They investigated the situation, and Gabe explained that it’s not an insect or parasite problem; they think it just came from irritation the tall grass. Apparently pink eye is really common among calves, and although Polyface is selectively breeding against it, it still happens once in awhile. The goal was to treat the affected calves to prevent blindness or permanent eye problems with a topical spray (similar to human pinkeye treatment) and an eyepatch to prevent further irritation. This was going to involve herding the entire group of cattle into the corral, then separating the calves from the cows, then treating and releasing the affected calves, and finally moving the herd back to the appropriate pasture. Gabe warned us that this herd had a few rather wild cows and that the calves were not going to be cooperative. He wasn’t wrong.

We ran a nonelectrified fence to form a lane from the pasture into the corral. Since the route was down a fairly steep hill, the cows weren’t particularly keen on coming, and it took all three stewards with a bluff (nonelectrified rope strung between us) to get them moving. Then there was running to make sure they didn’t break out of the lane, especially since the calves had eye issues, couldn’t really see the lane very well, and were small enough to duck under it.

Maybe I like cows because it often involves running and/or lots of walking?

Anyway.

Once the cattle were in the corral, we started moving out the adult cows and any calves that were obviously healthy. Here, Eli’s former cattle experience came in handy as he manned a gate and Gabe determined which cows to allow through. Brandon and I just helped guide them through the appropriate gate, and occasionally rounded up specific cows for Gabe. I am fairly excited that I sort of, kind of, usually can bring around specific cows. I have to think about it, but Daniel gave us all a book about herding to study, and I can theoretically use the flight zones of the cow and certain movements to make them move in the right direction…usually. It will require endless practice to do it well, but even just knowing the concept is incredibly cool.

Once the calves were separated out, we moved them through various paddocks in smaller, more manageable groups. Then, one by one, we put the calves into a squeeze chute (very narrow, small paddock) and pinned them down to treat their eyes.

They did not like this part.

At first, Gabe and Eli handled the actual wrangling since, well, Eli has former cow experience and Gabe’s literal job is cows. Brandon and I assisted with the eye patches, spray, and getting the calves in and out of various paddocks per Gabe’s directions. We were all moving constantly. Having four people was perfect – nobody was bored or waiting around, ever, but the work was manageable and not stressful, except when the calves were furiously kicking and trying to not let us near their eyes. It would be great if we could have explained that the eye patches are to help them, but y’know, they’re cows. They don’t get it.

After a little bit, Gabe switched around things a little bit so that Brandon and I could both get in on some calf wrangling. He saved the little calves for me, since I am way smaller than Eli or Brandon, and showed me exactly where to pin the calves to avoid getting kicked. It was super cool.

A funny anecdote on the eyepatches: they are glued onto the calves faces with an extremely sticky adhesive. For the majority of the calves, I was holding the eye patch while Brandon applied a layer of adhesive, then passing it through the fence to Gabe or Eli – whoever had a free hand to stick it on the calves eyes. Well, at one point, Brandon was squeezing the tube of adhesive and the bottom broke, making a giant glob of glue start falling out.

“DON’T LOSE THE GLUE!” Gabe exclaimed as he dug his knee into the hip of a struggling calf. “We need it!”

Brandon proceeded to catch the glue in his hand, looking around in vain for a better solution. We ended up putting it on an empty box, but now his hand was covered in sticky, horrible glue. At this point, he started spreading the glue with his fingers (because what choice did he have?) getting it everywhere. Including all over my hands, although I ended up with way less on me than him or Eli (who also broke a tube, although I didn’t actually see that happen, so it was less funny).

Then, to add injury to insult, a bee flew by him, got stuck to his hand somehow, and stung him. It was hilarious. It was probably not so hilarious for Brandon, but it was pretty funny for me, Eli, and Gabe.

Wednesday: Processing Day
We processed chickens on Wednesday, per usual, and I did QC, also kind of per usual. Then we packaged chickens for what felt like a year.

I have decided that I don’t like packaging the chickens. Processing them is okay, but after lunch, I get really bored with putting endless chickens into endless bags, and sorting stuff, and labeling stuff. I’m not a big fan of the organizational jobs, which makes sense, since I don’t really like cleaning and organizing at home either. Cleaning is a necessary evil (unless I’m angry about something, at which point it makes me feel better), much like, well, packaging chicken. I like the stories about the early days of Polyface, when customers came on processing day to pick up the fresh birds and bring them home in a cooler full of ice.

On the bright side, I got to take a fifteen minute break to help Joel move cows. I like cows.

I guess it’s worth having to package endless chicken to also get to play with cows.

I will also add that getting to look at mountains while processing chickens makes the whole thing substantially more tolerable, as does the knowledge that processing day is a gigantic money maker that enables the other, more fun stuff. I appreciate that Daniel shares some of the details about “here’s how much money we are making from all these birds” – it mitigates the pain of endless packaging.

Thursday: Trees & Hay!

On Thursday, we got to go back to hay! I have decided that I like hay.

But first, a lesson on forestry – for our usual Thursday “shop talk”, Joel gave a lesson on turning trees into fence posts, and it was awesome. Basically, we followed him out to a fenceline where he chainsawed some trees, and showed us how he divides them up into 8 foot posts for permanent fences and 5 foot posts for electric fences. The rest of the tree goes into a wood chipper.

The first big takeaway from this lesson was the simplicity of it. The tree does not have to be perfectly straight. It does not have to be pretty. It just has to work, and you can get a lot of fence posts out of a simple tree. In the two hour lesson, Joel cut over $250 worth of posts – that’s a big deal.

The other big takeway was the impotancce of long term thinking when it comes to forestry. This particularly fenceline hasn’t been cut in twenty years. It won’t be ready to cut again for another twenty years. And yet, via managment and allowing sections of woods to grow between pastures, the Salatins have managed to grow pretty much all their own fenceposts. You just have to manage things properly. Joel also explaned that it is often possible to get people to let you harvest their trees for free, or sometimes even get paid to do it, since farmers don’t like it when the woods starts encroaching on their fields. This is very valuable information for all of us!

There were a ton of miscellaneous projects to delve into after the forestry lesson, and for me that looked like weeding, unloading some pallets into a freezer, and converting eggs from flats to cartons to help out Leanna (who is in charge of inventory stuff, in case you forgot).

But after lunch it was time to start teams rotating through hay again. After a break due to some scattered rain earlier in the week, we were preparing to bale two large fields.

I did not go first. Instead, I worked with Eric on making a new feed system for a turkey shelter on a rental farm. This involved working with metal, which was really interesting because I haven’t really done anything with metal before. Eric had an old, rusty feed barrel that he wanted to covert to a portable feed barrel that could be pulled with a tractor along with the turkey shelter. He explained some mechanics stuff to us, and then showed us how to use hand tools to work with the metal. This was great, because power tools are expensive!

As hay started heating up, Eric ended up leaving me and Brandon to finish making the apparatus (well, not quite finish, but finish the part we were doing that day), with instructions to do broiler chores and then check in for our turn doing hay. It ended up being a bit of an adventure, since neither of us knew what we were doing, but it was great experience to actually work the metal ourselves – we also split the work evenly so we could both get a feel for the tools we were using.

As we were coming back from broiler chores, Eric pulled up beside us with an empty hay wagon – perfect timing. We hopped on and headed out to the hay field, along with Steward Daniel and Charlie.

When we go there, Brandon and Steward Daniel relieved two of the other stewards. I waited for the next wagon, then jumped in.

I proceeded to stack three hay wagons with Brandon and Daniel, working well past dinner time…but finishing the hay field. Eric was monitoring us – especially since Eli was driving the baler for the first time – and helped us overstack the last two wagons in order to cram all of the hay on. It was heavy, sweaty, and absolutely satisfying.

Also, food never tasted so good as it did that evening at 8pm when we finally got to the pavilion for supper.

A note on my allergies: They are fine. I sneezed maybe three times while stacking hay on Thursday, and my sinuses remained clear. The hay was a little itchy, but I washed off my arms and proceeded to enjoy a good meal with friends, and even stayed late to help with dishes before heading back up to the camp to shower. Raw milk & honey, combined with exposure, was highly effective at solving my problem. As you may remember from a few weeks ago, this is in stark contrast to my first time stacking hay in the field, when I ended up covered in hives, coughing, and unable to breathe through my nose for days.

Natural remedies can work, boys and girls. Also, my life is much more awesome now that I am not constantly sneezing.

Friday: More Chickens, More Hay

This was a double processing week, so we processed more chickens on Friday. This time I did the end QC job, which is my favorite, then commenced in the packaging chickens for years thing.

But this time, before we were quite finished, Eric pulled me aside to see if I wanted to go with Parker and Eli to do more hay things. He warned me that I might get to dinner late, and I would need to grab a snack from the store to take with me. Was this fine?

Obviously, the answer was “YES”.

The catch was that this was big square bale hay, not small square bale hay, which meant it was equipment stuff. I had received a crash course on driving a trailer that morning after catching chickens for processing with Eric and Oleg on a rental farm, and Eric asked if I was okay with driving a trailer full of hay.

Sure? I guess? If they trust me to drive a trailer, well, I’ll do my absolute best to drive a trailer.

And so off we went to Greenville, a rental farm dedicated to hay production. Daniel had spent several days at Greenville, working on mowing, raking, and baling hay, and now he was stacking it. This was tractor work, and he needed me and Eli to drive trailer loads of hay from the field to the piles where he was stacking it. Parker would be using a different tractor to load the trailers in the field.

This ended up being a lesson on interpreting sign language, as Daniel indicated where exactly I should drive. Daniel is impressively amazing at nonverbal communication, and he directed my extremely poor driving skills to go to the right spots and then back up the trailer (AGH HELP BACKING UP A TRAILER). Once he unloaded my first trailer load, I headed across the field to Parker, where I got to learn a different set of sign language to go where he wanted me to go.

I got the hang of it, mostly. There were definitely moments when Daniel was not there and I parked wrong and he had to direct me how to fix it, but I got more comfortable with the trailer as the evening went on, including turning it around tight corners. I only messed up turning it one time, and I managed to stop before I hit anything. Daniel laughed and moved the hay bale for me so I wouldn’t have to back it up to fix it…I’m LEARNING. Equipment is HARD.

It was kind of boring, of course, because it was just driving. But I played the radio, and I enjoyed watching the number of giant bales in the field gradually shrink. We ended up working until dark, getting back to the farm around 9:30…but it was worth it. The girls had saved me dinner, but I only had a few bites before deciding that what I really wanted to do was go to sleep, not eat.

We make hay while the sun shines, and I’m not sorry. Hay is important, and I like it. I like physically stacking it better than driving trucks, but I just like hay in general.

Saturday: A Tour & A Ladies Night

I was off this weekend, but I helped out with Saturday chores, per usual, then decided to go on a Lunatic Tour that Joel was doing on farm this weekend. I went with Gabi, and it was fun to watch Joel in action – he thrives on public speaking, and it was really cool to walk through the farm with the group of tourists and hear his official presentation about some of the farm highlights.

After the tour, I worked in the store for about an hour, since there is always a mad rush of business after a tour and all the people officially working were off doing more hay at Greenville, so Wendy could use the help. I talked to several people, and even met a couple from my hometown of Livonia, which was a bizarre coincidence! They live only a mile from where my house used to be, and were showing me pictures of their front yard garden, which was super cool and reminded me of my old front yard garden. I’m glad to see more self sustainment happening in the city, even in pins-and-paper cities like Livonia!

I ran some errands in the afternoon, then came back to the farm to help out with evening chores. We were trying to finish chores quickly, since we had some plans that evening – a Girls Night at Wendy’s house! All the girl stewards were going, along with Lydia and Grace, Sheri, and Christina (Gabe’s wife).

And it was super fun. We ordered pizza from a local bakery (that uses Polyface chicken and other local products) and it was incredible pizza. We all hung out, looked at Wendy’s vast library and beautiful garden, and told stories and jokes. It was so nice to relax and laugh with all the women in a non-work context, and we stayed up way too late…but once in awhile, that’s worth it.

Of course “way too late” here is 11pm, which I’m sure will make my friends laugh. But when you get up at 5:15, well…

Sunday: Church & Chilling

Sunday, as usual, is the day of rest. I didn’t even help with chores this morning, although I woke up at chore time and spent some quality time with my writing and a pot of coffee.

I’ve been attending Daniel’s church, and enjoyed a great worship service, before stopping by Walmart to purchase some ammo. The pastor is preaching a series on what the Bible has to say about fools, focusing heavily on Proverbs, along with several passages in the New Testament, and it is excellent so far. Now I’m finishing up these posts, and have a few more hours of relaxing, potentially followed by movie night at Daniel’s house…or perhaps an early bedtime. We’ll see.

I’m loving life here in Virginia. The mountains are still incredible, I adore the people, and work is fulfilling and meaningful. Next weekend will be the fourth of July and I have some plans, so I may not make it into town to post – but rest assured that I’m probably having a good, albeit difficult, week doing something that, so far, I absolutely love.

I want to end this week with a Bible verse that I think really epitomizes how I feel about this summer:

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live, also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man. –Ecclesiastes 3:9-13

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