Week 9: Independent Projects for Independence Day

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Week 9! Things here are settling into a routine, and I love it. This week there was a LOT of off-farm hay (big square bales) that kept Daniel and some of the other staff off farm, leaving us stewards frequently on our own for projects and chores. I really like chores, and I enjoyed the various projects that I was working on throughout the week.

Monday: Fixing Fence w/ Joel, Miscellaneous Projects

Monday was a mismatch of assorted projects, making the day go incredibly quickly.

The beautiful Virginia mountain morning began bright and early with a new set of chores: pullets & turkeys! Remember how I talked about having difficulty moving broiler shelters during broiler chores? Well, normally that involves moving 10 or 11 shelters over relatively flat ground. Pullet/turkey chores involves moving 14, some of which were going up a horribly steep hill, over horribly holey ground, with tall grass. Some of which were going down a different, steep hill.

Unsurprisingly, the ones going downhill were great and the ones going up hill were brutal.

However! The ones going downhill were the turkeys and the turkeys are hilarious. You can make gobble noises at them, and they respond. They also are super excited to move, and don’t cause nearly the issues that broilers do.

Example of me moving turkeys: “Gobble gobble gobble oh my gosh you guys are so cute! Here’s some new grass!”

Me moving broilers: “Move it you stupid chicken. No, seriously, MOVE. I don’t WANT to run you over. But you have to actually walk, ugh.”

Anyway, chores happened.

My first project of the week was going to a rental farm to fix fence with Joel, Parker, and Sarah. We were working on haying this particular farm, and there was a specific section of permanent fence that Joel wanted to convert to electric. Parker initially had to go do hay things, so Sarah and I cleared brush and broken boards away from the fence while Joel happily went to town with his chainsaw (Joel loves his chainsaw). Then, when Parker returned, I wrapped chains around the fence posts while he pulled them out with the tractor. Finally, we all worked on stringing fence. This was great because although I’ve done stuff with fence, this was the first time I got to repeatedly do the wiring, instead of getting one try while being taught in a big group. I need more practice still, but I feel like I remember how to do it much better than before.

I also think I’ve already mentioned this, but I really like fence work. It doesn’t matter if it’s post pounding, single string electric, temporary, or net, I just like messing with fences. There’s a logic to it that really appeals to me, and there is something satisfying about exerting management over the land through carefully thought out fencing – particularly non-permanent fence.

Everybody has their weird things that they like, I guess. Lauren loves gutting chickens, which I think is weird. Sarah loves sorting chicken parts, which is weirder. Eric (staff) loves mowing the lawn and says that when he was an apprentice he literally cut extra lawn in his free time for fun. Well, I like running fence. *shrug*

We had all packed a lunch since we weren’t sure how long the fence would take, and even though we were getting back earlier than planned, I opted to eat in the car in order to hop into the next project quickly. And that’s how I ended up helping Tim, one of the contract farmers, fix a feed buggy while several people were at lunch.

Mostly I was just playing gopher, helping get things for Tim since he knew what was happening and I did not, but he explained a good bit of the mechanics of the buggy which was cool. I also had to climb inside the buggy, where I felt like my boots were going to melt off of my feet because the metal was so hot. Note to self: Metal + sun = hot.

Afterwards, Oleg and I were sent to a different rental farm to drop off a feed barrel. The cool part was that this was the feed barrel that Brandon and I had made a pull chain for last week, and now it was going out to the field to carry turkey feed. With so many people on the farm, sometimes you only work on pieces of projects, so it’s always neat when you see your work end up in use.

Really Long Story About A Broken Waterer

Oleg and I had been told to drop off the feed barrel, then help Brandon who had been sent to start digging up a water line near the broilers in an attempt to fix a leak that somebody had noticed this morning. But when we got to broilers, Brandon was nowhere to be found and there didn’t appear to be any water anywhere. Shrugging, we went to the next project – weeding the garden for about an hour before chores. There was no one else on farm (hay is keeping the team stretched pretty thin), so we went ahead and started chores on our own, heading out to broilers to start.

I took care of the bottom two rows of broilers while Oleg started on the top. I noticed that the water tank was only half full and was running. Had Brandon recently fixed the leak in the water line and turned the tank on? If so, why hadn’t he been fixing it when we checked in with him earlier? There didn’t seem to be water flooding all over the road like before…I made a mental note to ask him as soon as we figured out where the heck he was.

Conveniently, we were just wrapping up broilers when Brandon showed up – he’d had the same thought we did: with so many people gone off-farm, he’d come out for chores, thinking he was the only person around. He pretty immediately asked us about the water tank – was it full? I explained what I had observed and asked if he’d fixed the leaky line. He told me that when he came out, he’d figured out that the tank was spraying water, not the water line itself. He had gotten Tim’s help to try and fix it, but they weren’t sure if what they did was effective or not, so he’d wanted to check in on it. It was clearly better (water wasn’t spraying everywhere) but he said that it should have been full, since it had been a couple of hours since he’d fixed it.

The three of us decided to split up: Oleg would drive to the other side of the farm to collect eggs and check on the pullets, while Brandon and I collected eggs on the near side of the farm and trouble shooted the waterer. Then we’d reconvene for egg washing and (hopefully) some help from leadership if we couldn’t solve the water issue.

Sure enough, when Brandon and I investigated the water tank more thoroughly, there was a split in one of the seams. It was difficult to see, and it wasn’t a giant leak, but it was enough to be a pretty big problem in terms of keeping the tank full. This was…probably not fixable, at least not by us. We were pretty sure we would need to replace the entire tank, although we wanted to check with the staff first. Discussing for a few minutes, we decided the best course of action would be to turn off the water line and finish chores, then come back and replace the water tank after dinner. That would give the leaders time to get back to the farm and tell us if there was any other solution.

At dinner, Joel approved our plan, so once we’d finished eating, we went in search of chicken waterers. We knew there was a pile of waterers in the shed with all of the tractors, so we started pulling out cow waterer after cow waterer. When we finally found a chicken waterer and loaded it up onto a trailer, we realized (belatedly) that there was paint on it that marked it as broken – it too had a busted seam.

So we tried a different area, found some more cow waterers, and finally found a non-broken chicken waterer. We quickly loaded it up, and drove it out to the field. Oleg came with us with the feed buggy, since the broiler feed also needed to be replenished before the next morning’s chores.

It only took a few minutes to hook up the new system. We painstakingly checked it for leaks, and took the broken waterer back down to the shop where we marked it and set it on top of the other broken one. Finally, around 8:30, we drove up to the hunt camp to turn in for the night.

Now, I’m relaying this story about the waterer in somewhat excessive detail, leaving out all the fun details (like the joking around that inevitably happen when working with Brandon, the nearby cows, the interesting political discussion with Oleg, and the delicious dinner food) for a reason: this event really highlights one of the coolest and most annoying things about farming.

You are responsible for the animals under your care.

So if a waterer breaks, you have to fix it. It doesn’t matter what time it is, or if the leaders won’t be back until dark, or if it’s time for dinner, those animals need their basic needs met. Now, in this case, the chickens had plenty of water in their water buckets, we just needed to take care of the issue in time for morning. If we hadn’t been able to, we could have theoretically hauled water from elsewhere on the farm – it would’ve sucked, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the world.

But the point is, these sorts of things happen and they take priority over everything

And I love that about it. I love the feeling of responsibility, which might be why I like taking care of the farm while people are out doing hay so much. And I genuinely don’t mind when it makes my day really, really, really long. This is good, because long hours and summer farming kind of go together.

On the other hand, being able to troubleshoot the problem with Brandon and Oleg was really valuable. I can see how farming by yourself would be pretty gosh darn stressful. There’d be a lot of pressure of needing to get things fixed and taken care of, and only having yourself to do it. Having a big team here at Polyface is incredibly useful, and not only because I am a student who doesn’t know things – it’s just useful to have a number of people who can help each other. Outside of the unique Polyface structure, I imagine that having a community of neighbors would be absolutely critical to a farm enterprise, and I’m going to keep that in mind going forward.

Anyway, I suppose I should get on with telling y’all what I did this week.

Tuesday: Pigs For Days

This week I was on pig rotation, which I was excited about. That meant that I was assigned to help Gabe with any pig moves or pig-related work, which usually takes place in the morning. Today, Gabe needed to go to a rental farm to pick up a group of pigs and bring them back to Polyface. They would spend a few days in the barn before heading out to the abattoir.

Since it can be a rough job to get pigs onto a cattle trailer, Eric sent Sarah and Brandon with us as well. Brandon and I hooked up two cattle trailers (I know how to hook up trailers now, for the most part. Weird, right? Me doing a vehicle thing?), and gathered a few other supplies. I wanted to practice driving the trailer, so Brandon and Sarah took one truck with the short trailer, and Gabe rode along with me with the giant trailer. I did pretty well on the main road, but turning into the tight driveway at the rental farm, I got stuck and Gabe had to back the trailer up to get it out of the turn that I had taken too tight.

So…I still suck at vehicle stuff. I’m working on it?

To our surprise, loading the pigs onto the trailer actually went incredibly well. Once we got the corral set up, they basically just walked right on.

We got them unloaded at Polyface with plenty of time to spare, so Gabe decided to set us to work preparing a new pig pen for a new group of young pigs that would be arriving on Thursday. Some other people had done a lot of work prepping it, but it still needed a few boars, some hog panels, a gate, and some miscellaneous stuff. Gabe took some time to show us what exactly he wanted done and how he wanted it done, then he gave Brandon and I a list of things to do this afternoon if no leaders returned from hay (Sarah was on cow rotation this week, meaning it was her turn to help Gabe move cows all afternoon). On top of the pen prep, there were old hog panels to pull off of a different part of the barn, and a variety of scraps to clean up.

We were almost done with Gabe’s list by the time chores came around, but we decided to postpone some of scrap disposal since we were pretty sure we were the only stewards on farm (again. Did I mention hay is a thing?) and chores take priority. We quickly knocked out broilers and – somewhat to our relief – Eric brought a team back just in time to help out with the other chores, leaving us just enough time to finish Gabe’s stuff after egg washing and before dinner.

It was a solid, busy day. I might have gone to bed at 9:30.

Wednesday: Processing Day w/ Bonus Pigs

Wednesday was our usual processing day, except that I got to leave for a couple hours to help Gabe with pigs! It wasn’t a big deal – we just were moving a group of pigs from one paddock to another – but I really enjoyed it. I haven’t done much with the pigs since coming here, but they’re really fun. They’re super smart animals, and it’s fun to watch them happily wallow in mud and come charging through the gate. Of course, they’re also a pain in the neck, since pigs are super stubborn and don’t necessarily want to do what you want them to do. But in this case, the move went well, and provided a nice break in the middle of processing.

When I got back, I jumped into gutting (which I am getting better at, albeit not fast enough), then came down to work on cut-ups. I’m getting better at cut-ups, although I still probably need more practice. I’m telling you, I struggle with cutting up dead stuff. I don’t know why. It’s unreasonably difficult, and it’s frustrating. But as I get better at it, I do end up liking it better. I’d still rather be digging holes in a field, but it’s not too bad when I’m not constantly mad at myself for messing up the cuts.

There were a TON of cut-ups today because the chickens we butchered were absolute monsters in size. It basically took us the entire afternoon to get through, sending a couple of us – myself included – hustling through chores around 5:30. I went to collect eggs for hatching, as well as working on broiler chores, this time with Steward Daniel. Collecting eggs for hatching happens at the Eggmobile, which is the only place where Polyface is currently keeping roosters. Normally we just collect the eggs for eating, but periodically we collect a bunch to hatch. This involves pulling out the particularly clean, good sized eggs and putting them (carefully) into flats. I’m curious to learn more about breeding, since I know Polyface is very particular about selecting for traits that make animals perform well on pasture.

Thursday: More Miscellaneous Projects

We had our weekly shop talk on Thursday, where we get a mechanics lesson from Buzz and Jonathan. This one involved learning more knots, and getting a lesson in tractor safety, fluid checking, and greasing. I’m getting increasingly comfortable with driving the tractor (although I’m still often unsure what gear to put it in), so this was good scaffolding to understanding more of the mechanics behind how the tractors actually work.

When the shop talk was over, we divided ourselves up into two teams: one group went to put chicks out and prepare the brooder for the next batch, and one went to unload hay (small square bales) in the far barn.

A note on hay: On farm at Polyface, much of the hay is baled into small square bales. These have to be physically stacked on the wagon, then unloaded and stacked in a barn. The hay stays fresher and nicer in small square bales, and they can be manually moved around and fed to the cows and stuff during the winter. The bales weigh around 50-75 pounds (I think?) depending on if they hay got wet. On rental farms, the hay is basically all baled into large square bales, which are the equivalent of 15 (?) small square bales. These are stacked with a tractor and either put under roof or covered with a tarp. Since there is so much skilled machinery work involved with the large square bale hay, the leadership have largely been off farm for the last couple of weeks. They take teams of stewards, particularly the ones with prior machinery experience, to drive trailers of hay around the fields (like I did last week) and to help with things like raking and tarping hay. This largely leaves only a few of us at the farm on our own to handle the routine stuff, like chores and chicks, which I love because it gives us a chance to problem solve and apply what we’ve learned so far.

Anyway, there were several wagon loads of small square bales to unload, and that is the team that I ended up going with. There was only five of us – Isaiah, Oleg, Charlie, Steward Daniel, and I – but we made pretty quick work of the hay. I was stacking in the loft with Oleg and Steward Daniel, while Isaiah and Charlie unloaded the hay bales onto the elevator. The loft was getting extremely full, so for the last wagon, I was literally crawling around the rafters on my knees and elbows, pushing hay bales around. At one point I basically trapped myself in the hay loft, and had to slither through a tiny space like a snake to get out.

Needless to say, hay went everywhere. I’m glad my hay allergies are basically gone, since my entire body was pretty much covered in the stuff by the time we were done.

But also, we filled up the loft! It was great! I’m not being sarcastic – I really like doing hay. It’s physically rough, but it’s super satisfying.

When the hay team came back from lunch, the chick team had already split up to work on other projects. The first people I saw when I drove down to the farm were Brandon and Eli. Brandon was throwing bags of trash into a dump trailer, while Eli was…actually, I have no idea what he was doing. I think gathering stuff for some other project? The shop is the central place where everyone collects tools and people. He was busy, is the point.

Trash was a job that desperately needed to be done – the trash area was overflowing – but it was a gross job. The trash stinks and has flies because, well, it’s trash. Some of it was leaky. And had maggots.

But when Eli said there were people sorting chicken parts and pieces (from yesterdays cutups) or the trash, I chose the trash. This was partially because I knew several of the people on the hay team (who were on their way down from lunch) actively wanted to do parts and pieces and that is not my favorite job. But also, I figured, meh. The trash really needed to be taken to the dump; there was no way I was going to shirk that just because it was gross.

So Brandon and I heaved a bunch of gross bags of trash into a dump trailer. Jonathan helped with the last few containers of trash as well, and then we all headed to the processing shed to help with freezer work, along with parts & pieces.

I ended up spending a good chunk of the afternoon sorting the parts and pieces with Lauren and Gabi. Sorting parts and pieces isn’t my favorite job – it’s just standing there, putting pieces of chicken into bags – so I usually try to make it entertaining. With good conversation, an otherwise boring job turns into a fun job. And boy, did we come up with some conversation topics! It became an afternoon of storytelling and laughing, along with rapidly going through the chicken pieces.

By the time we were done, it was about time to start chores. Since we were short several people due to afternoon off-farm hay, I ended up tackling broilers on my own. There were only two rows to feed and water, and two rows to walk, so I figured it wouldn’t take too long.

I was wrong.

One of the broiler shelters had a massive hole in the chicken wire, so chickens were out. A LOT of chickens were out. On top of that, one of the rows was out of water (this is bad), so I spend extra time making sure the waterers filled properly and were in working order. By the time I had fed and watered all the broilers, caught the loose chickens, gone back to the shop to get chicken wire and tools to fix the shelter, fixed the shelter, and put everything away, I was late to dinner. But I was also pretty pleased with myself – it felt good to not need help! I just reported the lack of water to Eric, who said that we were going to start watering the chickens again after lunch (instead of just morning and evening) since the next few days were so hot.

Friday: Hay, Wood Chips, and Pump Lessons

Friday was HOT. Like, really hot. By the time I was done pulling the pullet and turkey shelters at 7am, I was already drenched in sweat.

So obviously, I volunteered to unload more hay after breakfast! After all, we might as well get it done before it got even more hot, right? This time we were unloading into a different part of the far barn where there wasn’t any hay yet, so instead of using a hay elevator, Parker and Brandon threw bales of hay off of the wagon, while Lauren, Sarah, and I started stacking the bottom few rows. I kind of enjoyed setting up the hay – the bottom rows required more mental attention, since you have to make sure the corners are stable and the stacking orientation is correct. Parker gave instructions on how he wanted the hay, and fitting the pieces together was kind of fun. We did two wagons before heading back to the barn.

A different team of people were chipping wood, with the intent of getting enough chips to fill the pig pen that Brandon and I had prepped on Tuesday. The young pigs were arriving today, so we had to get going on this – they shouldn’t sit in the trailer for too long. Our hay team went ahead and started spreading out the woodchips, after which we were joined by Eric and Daniel who helped us with feeder and water placement.

Little pigs are adorable, and they seemed very happy with their new pen. I was fairly proud of all of the work we did on it.

In the afternoon, there was a big source of concern regarding the pigs on one of the rental farms – they were out of water, and the pump was broken. This was bad – did I mention that it was really hot?

By sheer luck, I got to go with Eric to assist him in fixing the pump, which was awesome. He explained how the pump works, and I got to assist in taking the whole thing apart to really see how it works. The problem appeared to be with a rubber washer that looked chewed up. The pump was leaking from that point, causing the pressure to be too low to reach and fill the pig waterers.

The problem was that the parts to the pump are custom made, so it wasn’t as if we could just go to Lowe’s and buy a new washer. But Eric thought about it for awhile, then tried a few other washers. He was actually able to trim down a garden hose washer to fit it into the pipe that did the trick. I was unreasonably excited about this jerry-rigged, inexpensive fix.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a perfect fix and it won’t last forever. But I like the emphasis that Polyface puts on low budget problem solving, and it’s encouraging to me to see how effective low cost solutions can be – as long as you are creative!

After we fixed it, we went over to the pig area to make sure the waterers were working now, and to assist Sarah and Jonathan who had been manually hauling water to the pigs to quench their thirst and alleviate the issue in the event that Eric hadn’t been able to fix the pump. They were much happier to have water, and we all returned to the farm extremely satisfied.

Saturday: Happy 4th & Hay

Saturday was the 4th of July, which is pretty high up on my holiday list. Freedom is one of the core tenants of things I believe in, scoring just under ‘God,’ ‘Loyalty,’ and ‘Not Being a Jerk to People’.

The day started beautifully. It wasn’t my weekend to work and the girls and apprentices had stayed up pretty late the night before (midnight in my case…) hanging out, so I didn’t set an alarm…but I woke up for chores anyway (yay, circadian rhythm!), and went down to help with rabbits (one of my favorite things). There are a ton of babies right now, and they are adorable.

When I finished, I came back to the cabin for a leisurely breakfast, then headed over the boys’ to get my laundry. Daniel gave everyone the morning off for the holiday, and a whole group of us ended up hanging out on the boys’ front porch for a decent chunk of the morning, just chatting and enjoying the beautiful day. We were talking a little bit about America and the 4th of July, and I commented that I thought we should go back to the “good ole days” when the Declaration of Independence was read at all of the 4th of July parades. To my surprise, I was met with agreement, and somebody pulled up the document on their phone. Eli read it aloud to all of us, and it was super cool to be hanging out with so many like minded people, appreciating the freedom that the colonists fought for so long ago.

Holiday or no holiday, we are in hay season, and the weather hasn’t been all that cooperative…so the afternoon was going to involve baling and stacking hay (small bales). I had toyed with the idea of helping out even though it wasn’t my weekend, but it was incredibly hot and seeral people told me I should relax.

But I suck at relaxing. I was trying to think of what to do, and was driving into town for the second time that day, when I suddenly realized, I didn’t want to do anything ‘fun’ or ‘relaxing’. I literally wanted to work on the farm.

This is weird. After two months, the newness of the farm has worn off. I was tired. I’d only gotten about five hours of sleep. And I normally am very careful about carving out non-working time.

But is it work if you love it? Even when it sucks and is hot and humid and tiring?

So I popped a U turn, threw on boots, and drove down to the farm. Daniel put me to work unloading hay wagons, and then I rolled into afternoon chores, working with Isaiah to move turkeys, collect eggs, and repair a broken shelter.

I could not have had a better afternoon, unless maybe I’d been hiking or shooting, neither of which I felt like doing by myself and neither of which other, more normal, people consider ‘relaxing’.

I think I’ll be working more weekends. I don’t care. I love the work here. It’s amazing.

After chores, the boys were hosting a 4th of July cookout, so I took a quick shower and went over for burgers and board games. We had a lot of fun, ending the evening with a small group of us piling into Oleg’s truck to go find fireworks. We ended up following Daniel Salatin in his truck on a race through the back country roads (which he knows super well and we don’t), looking for good vantage points. We managed to find a few, and I sat with Daniel’s 12 year old daughter, in a truck bed, half watching the fireworks and half watching her be excited about the fireworks.

It was a great 4th of July. God bless America, and thank God for this incredible summer, this place, and these people.

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