Week 7: Fun, Guns, and Saving Chickens from Drowning

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[Edit: Posted late. Sorry]

As predicted, Week 7 was less fun than Week 6 because of the STUPID, STUPID RAIN.

That being said….Week 7 ranks super high. I feel like the longer I am here, the more I am enjoying the work. I’m not enjoying it in quite the same way anymore (I’m no longer thinking OH MY GOSH I GET TO HANG OUT WITH CHICKENS), but I’m deeply and genuinely enjoying pretty much every work day. I do have my favorites of course, and I don’t like every task (cough carrying water buckets cough) but I feel happy and satisfied at the end of basically every day.

10/10, glad I’m here. Anyway.

I liked the day-by-day format I did last week, so I’m gonna do that again, even though I think it probably makes things longer. My blog, I’ll do what I want. Ha!

Monday: Gun Stores & Ice Cream

During normal weeks, we get a long breakfast on Monday (like 2ish hours) so that the leadership can have a weekly meeting, then we meet up in the egg room to have an everybody meeting where we go over the plans and projects for the week. It’s always a nice break that usually involves being productive and cleaning the house or meal prepping. This week though, I’m pretty sure I just drank a lot of coffee and rolled around on the floor laughing with my roommates. Whoops.

Anyway, I got assigned to work with Buzz for the day. Buzz is the staff member who fixes all the broken stuff. We are rotating through so that everybody gets a chance to work with him, and it was a pretty cool – and different – side of farming. We started with assessing a few projects that he has on the it’s-broke-fix-it list, and ended up working on installing screens in the floor of the corn box to help mitigate some of the dust.

For the uninitiated: a corn box is a sand box (or a ball pit) for children that is filled with corn instead of sand or balls. There’s a giant one outside of the Polyface store, along with some other kid stuff. The complaint was that, to use Buzz’s words, the kids come out looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost, so he wanted to figure out a way to put vents in the floor to strain out some of the dust.

The cool thing about this project, is that Buzz didn’t really know exactly how he was going to do this, so it ended up being a session of problem solving mixed with trial and error. It was pretty cool because Buzz explained and taught me things about tools I didn’t know how to use, but also wanted my contributions to the brainstorming and creative problem solving.

I’m not sure if anybody realizes this or not, but I really like creative problem solving. I remember scoffing at my physics teacher in high school when he assigned us crazy projects like ‘build a giant tower out of pasta that holds a bunch of weight’ and explained that he didn’t care if we remembered any of his physics equations, but he wanted to teach us how to solve problems. I thought this was the stupidest thing I had ever heard, and hated the homework load of the frequent and seemingly arbitrary projects…but now, ten years later, I really appreciate his point…and I really like creative problem solving.

Anyway. I enjoyed working with Buzz in the morning, but was in for quite a surprise when Buzz started to send me to lunch and Daniel intervened with an announcement that we were all going to the gun store in the afternoon. Or at least, we had the option to, so we were all taking a late lunch at the same time.

The nice thing about entrepreneurial enterprises is that the people in charge can randomly decide to take the afternoon and go to a gun store.

So basically, the big (farm related) afternoon project was going to be catching chickens at Cedar Green, a rental farm that is almost all the way to downtown Staunton. In fact, it’s so close to the city that it has municipal water, which is very unfortunate when you mistakenly fill up your water bottle there and then taste the chlorine and other non-well-water ick. Daniel had also promised several people a trip to the gun store at some point, and since the weather was iffy (it was supposed to rain), we didn’t have any big projects on-farm, and we’d be close anyway…it seemed like the perfect time.

Daniel left us around 1:30 with the statement that he’d be at the gun store at 3, and our only obligation for the afternoon was to be at Cedar Green by 5. All the stewards stood around for a bit hashing out details such as who would drive the chicken crates to the rental farm, and who would drive the people to the gun store, and then broke for lunch.

I ended up driving all of the girls, and as usual, we had a great time cruising down the winding country roads with the radio on and the windows down. I might wear ear plugs when I shoot the boys’ guns and operate machinery, but I might be breaking my ears with the radio whenever we all drive into town together. Meeehhhh.

Nobody bought anything at the gun store, but several of us were definitely thinking about it, and it was fun to hang out with everyone and look around. We also still had time to kill when we were ready to leave, so the girls – plus Lydia and Grace (who are also girls but are not stewards) – decided to go out for ice cream as well. I mean, we were in town, of course we had to get ice cream. Ice cream is great and Staunton has an AMAZING ice cream shop.

While we were eating ice cream and laughing at who-knows-what, Daniel called us and asked if we could go back to the farm instead of going to Cedar Green – he realized he needed to assign people to do chores. We happily agreed (I’d personally prefer to knock out chores than catch a bunch of chickens), and spent the last hour or so of the work day efficiently doing all the routine afternoon stuff – Sarah and I ended up collecting the eggs and checking on the pullets, which are out in shelters on the far side of the farm.

It was a weird day, and an easy day, but it was fun.

Oh yeah, and after dinner I stayed up a little bit late to help Isaiah catch roosters – we were taking roosters out of two sets of pullets to process the next day. Isaiah and Oleg were assigned to take care of it, since they were taking care of those sets of chickens this week on the chore rotation list and there were only ~20 roosters in each set, but I figured I might as well help out, especially since the day had been so easy. It didn’t take us very long, but I learned a bit more about identifying roosters (particularly at night, in the dark), so that was cool.

Tuesday: Processing Giant Chickens

Tuesday was processing day this week, and we had a LOT of chickens – plus the roosters. I ended up doing the lunging, which is not my favorite station, mixed with a little QC and a little gutting.

The cool part about processing: a lot of the training stuff is over now, so they are starting to pare down the number of people involved in processing day. Based on the chore rotation sheet, some people leave to go do pig or cow stuff, and most of the leadership was busy doing other things, which cut down our processing team significantly. It was gratifying to be able to maintain a good pace and finish in a timely way with a small team. The goal is to keep decreasing the number of people doing processing as we increase our efficiency.

After lunch it was time to package all of the birds, and suddenly processing day seemed a lot more daunting – these chickens were gigantic. One was over 7 1/2 pounds! Generally speaking, when chickens are over 5 pounds, they get cut up for parts and pieces, which takes significantly longer than just packaging whole birds (and is the reason that cut up chickens are a full extra $1 per pound). Many of the stewards started working on that, leaving a small team (including me) to do the whole bird stuff. We worked rapidly, and managed to finish around 4:30.

Eric told us that when we were done we could jump in on cut ups or vac packing or do chores, whatever we wanted, and I leapt at the chance to leave the processing shed and work on chores. Besides, I needed to do broiler shelter repair on my row of broiler shelters (it was a broiler chore week for me), and it’s always easier to do the repair yourself than to try and explain what’s broken to someone else.

Brandon – who was also on broilers this week – joined me, and we ended up doing almost all of the afternoon chores, not just broilers, since packaging and cut ups were taking so long. The only chore we didn’t do was the brooder, which is a quick and easy chore anyway, and knocking out (almost) the whole set of chores with just the two of us was great! It gave a prety good time table of how long chores take when you don’t have a million people pitching in. Granted, there are a lot less eggs to gather at the moment so chores are somewhat short in general, but still.

Wednesday: Third Winter

On Wednesday, Third Winter began with cool temperatures and an on-and-off drizzle that made everything wet and little bit unpleasant.

The leadership tries to knock out indoor projects as much as possible when the weather is bad, which is nice, and I spent a good chunk of the morning working with a team in the walk in freezers. They had gotten pretty messy, and it was making it more difficult for Leanna to pack online and buying club orders, so Eric was working on some organizational stuff. Eric is very good at organizing and cleaning things up, and he directed a team of us on where the bazillion boxes went. At the end of the project, the freezers looked way better, and we could actually walk in them and find stuff. Also, although the freezers are, well, cold, they are less wet than being out in the rain, so that was good.

Afterwards, Isaiah and I went to shovel out the turkey brooder. The turkeys had just gone out on the pasture, and we needed to prep the brooder for new turkey chicks that will be arriving next week. The turkeys have a peat moss bedding that is kind of a pain to shovel, and we filled several front end loader buckets with old, wet, dirt. That sounds bad, but I actually really like pretty much everything connected to the brooders, and Isaiah and I had a good time doing the work.

Note: when you work with other people and also like what you are doing, work is usually pretty fun.

I’m not great with the vehicle stuff, since I’m coming in with no experience except for my car (which I have always avoided having to actually back up), so I asked to work on my tractor stuff with Isaiah when we were on our last load. He has some previous farm/tractor experience and helped walk me through backing up the thing to hitch up to a manure spreader that we needed to move out of our way, and parking the thing. More tractor stuff is really important for me to build my confidence with the machinery, and I felt better about backing it up after struggling to back up the tractor while it was hitched to the spreader!

That afternoon I worked on a bunch of little things – flame throwing weeds, fixing turkey feeders, repairing a hay wagon, etc. They were all small projects, but we stayed relatively busy until it was chore time. It wasn’t super exciting, but it was nice to knock out some little things that needed to get done.

Thursday: Rivers of Chickens

When I woke up on Thursday, it was raining again, and I noted idly that the ground seemed really wet – we must have gotten a lot of rain the night before. Not thinking much about it, I went out (grudgingly) to pull my row of broiler shelters. It’s never fun to do broilers in the rain, and it’s particularly not fun when you’re slipping and sliding in wet grass trying to pull shelters.

When I got there, I slipped the dolly in under the first shelter, walked around to pace off how far I needed to move it, and started pulling. It’s becoming routine at this point, but for some reason the shelter was REALLY hard to pull. Frowning, I pulled harder. Was I just tired? It should be a little heavier because the rain kept the water buckets full and pooled on the metal roof, but it shouldn’t be this difficult. It felt like the shelter was caught on something.

Walking around to the front of the shelter, I realized that a mass of wet, bedraggled chickens were refusing to walk forward, and I had been pulling against them. In fact, I had managed to drag the shelter over a couple of them and they hadn’t even squawked – that was weird. Normally when a chicken is in the way it makes an upset noise so you can stop and NOT run it over. Thankfully, they didn’t look hurt, but they were just crouched in the mud, unmoving. I banged a stick on the back of the shelter to get them to move (normally a noise at the back sends the whole group running to the front), but they still were in pure refusal mode. They were not happy chickens.

I looked over at Steward Daniel, who was pulling the next row, and saw that he was also banging a stick on the back of his lead shelter and looking confused. Apparently, his chickens wouldn’t move either. I decided to walk up and down the rows to see if all the shelters were having the same problem…only to find that some of the shelters were literally in rivers of water that had somehow formed after the nights’ rain.

It was time to find a leader.

I went down the hill to the main farm, and grabbed the first leader I could find – Joel himself. He came right away to assess the situation, and explained that the important thing was to get the chickens out of the water. Chickens don’t like to be wet, and could get pneumonia and die. Normally, the policy is to pile some hay in front of the chicken shelters and move the shelters over the hay. Then the chickens can climb up on the hay and dry out, away from the wet, mucky ground. Joel brought up several bales of hay and started setting them in front of shelters. In places with particularly wet ground, he put the hay pile a good ways away – chicken shelters should never be over standing water.

But this didn’t solve the problem of the-chickens-will-not-walk. No matter how much we banged on the shelters or prodded them with sticks, they refused to move.

Thankfully for me and Steward Daniel, a whole slew of people began to hear about our chicken problems, and came to help. It ended up being most effective to literally pick up the chicken shelters and carry them to their new spot, leaving the chickens where they were. Then we could go and pick up all of the chickens, and place them back in the shelter. Since they wouldn’t even get on the hay on their own, we actually ended up moving the shelters twice: first, we put the shelters so that the open door was over the hay, then we put the chickens on the hay, and finally we picked the shelter up again and moved it forward so that the hay would be under the covered, rain-free part of the shelter.

I want to add that these shelters are heavy, it was still drizzling a little bit, it was also insanely humid, and the chickens flapped valiantly when we picked them up, splattery poop and mud all over my face.

It was not my favorite morning on the farm.

But when we got to the final shelter – the one in the literal river – and found 17 dead chickens, drowned in the sudden rainstorm, I was incredibly grateful that we came out when we did and more didn’t die. It was a moment that really showed me the value of my job as caretaker of these creatures, despite the occasional misery.

We finally went dejectedly to breakfast, two and a half hours after we had gotten out there, the chickens safe and dry-ish. It was quite a day, and it was only 8:30am.

After the disaster of chicken rivers was over, we had an extensive knot lesson for our weekly shop talk, which was super educational. Then, I spent a good portion of the day working on gardening with Tim, one of the contract farmers, and his wife, Heidi. He was planting several rows of corn, mixed with squash, in one of the hoop houses, so a team of us brought and spread woodchips, made rows, and planted seeds.

As a side note, when I went back to broilers for afternoon chores, they looked much better and there were no further dead ones. I’m grateful that the weather-induced damage wasn’t any worse!

Friday: Gardening & Random Stuff

Friday was a day that was filled with some miscellaneous projects, including doing some cleaning, organizing the egg room, and sorting through random scrap wood. It was a slightly more chill day.

The biggest thing of note for me, was spending quite a bit of time working on the garden outside of the Polyface store, which was pretty fun. It was light work, physically, and the team enjoyed talking and laughing as we pulled weeds, straightened trees, and spread mulch. I also got to spend some additional time on the tractor, using the bucket to scoop up fresh chips.

Importantly, I backed the tractor up into its parking spot all by myself. This is a big deal. It may not be a big deal for everyone, like most of the boys who already knew how to drive stuff when they got here, but it is a big deal for me because I’m not even good at backing up my car.

I’m also starting to like the tractor instead of being marginally afraid of it. Progress.

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