Week 11 is getting posted late, but in compensation…it’s long. It was a VERY exciting week (particularly the weekend!) and I went into a bit more detail than usual.
Monday: Mice, Chickens, & Trucks
Monday began with an odd assortment of tasks – after our usual weekly meeting (which went a little longer than normal because we were going over PIDS stuff), I went with Buzz to change the water filter in the hunt camp and work on dealing with a mouse problem in Lydia and Grace’s apartment. It was cool to see how the water system works: the hunt camp water comes from a cistern that stores water collected from the roof. The water is then passed by a UV light to kill any bacteria and filtered to get any weird dirt particles out. The well is a backup water source, but most of the water is rainwater, which is super cool. Buzz explained the filtration system, and went over other filtration options which was really interesting. I’m really intrigued by the idea of utilizing rainwater and I liked getting more information on how to do that safely.
Afterwards, I worked with Lydia and Oleg to prepare some chicken shelters for a new shipment of pullets that we were putting out on pasture, and then set to constructing turkey feeders. Polyface builds their own chicken/turkey feeders which is way cheaper than purchasing them…and easy to do. All it takes is wood, PVC pipe, and basic tools (like hammers and screws).
The big thing we needed to do this afternoon was catch a bunch of chickens at a rental farm. The plan was to prepare a shipment for the USDA plant, and then to keep the remainder to butcher on farm on Tuesday. We would also need to catch a few chickens from our on-farm broiler shelters to supplement the next day’s processing. Eli and I were sent to drop chicken crates at our shelters, then get the trucks ready to take to the rental farm…which was a great opportunity for me to practice driving stuff. Specifically, I got to practice backing up the farm truck to the trailer…and I’m proud to say that I did it perfectly. I also did it incredibly slowly, but that’s fine. Progress!
I also got to drive the trailer of empty crates, and then Eli made fun of me when I went over a pothole too fast and a couple of the crates fell off. In fairness, they weren’t strapped down. Also in fairness, I should have gone slower.
We all did chores a little bit early so that we could go catch chickens by 4:45…and here is where we all collectively messed up our management. The leadership was busy finishing some last minute big-bale hay stuff, so the stewards were on our own. Since chores were finished, we all rushed to drive over to the rental farm. We reasoned that it would be quicker and easier if we all went, and we could catch chickens at the rental farm, then drive back and catch chickens at Polyface. After all, we thought, we wouldn’t know how many chickens to catch at Polyface until after we caught chickens at the rental farm, so there was no point in leaving anybody behind.
We weren’t completely wrong. Catching chickens was quick and easy. However, we failed to account for the fact that drive time…wastes time. We didn’t get back to Polyface until 6pm (dinner time), and still had to go catch chickens. In fact, Daniel was already out in the field catching them; by the time we got up there, all that was left was to load up the full chicken crates. He pointed out that it would have made way more sense to leave a team behind, then call them when we were done catching at the rental farm to let them know how many to catch. This would have put us twenty minutes ahead of schedule, if not more, since we wouldn’t waste time having everybody in trucks driving back to Polyface.
This made sense when he said it, and I can’t speak for the other stewards, but I had a total ‘duh’ moment. Of course that made more sense.
Cell phones exist. I need to not forget that. In fact, after this day, I started keeping my phone in my cubby down on the farm instead of leaving it turned off at the hunt camp. After all, it’s fine that I don’t carry my phone around, but it’s a tool that I want to have accessible for days like this one. Lesson learned-ish.
Tuesday: Processing Day…Kinda?
After popular support for the 6am processing schedule from last week, the leadership decided to go ahead and let us follow that schedule again on Tuesday. Since all the birds were caught the night before, we were able to go ahead with the early schedule without much trouble.
The processing line went pretty well. I gutted for about half of the morning, since I definitely need more practice if I want to meet the time benchmark of 30 seconds per chicken, until I cut my hand and switched down to QC to avoid bleeding on things.
No, it wasn’t a big deal. It was one of those incredibly dumb, bad luck things. The processing table consists of individual stations which have perforated trays that are set shallowly into a stainless steel table. My knife was on the table next to the tray while I was cleaning out the tray in between chickens, and a vibration made the knife fall and barely knick my hand. As irrelevant and tiny as the cut was, it was enough to make me switch down to QC since no amount of blood can get onto people’s chickens; that would be bad. When you gut, you stick your entire hand up the chicken, so no bandaid is gonna stay on. QC is a little more flexible.
Yes, I’ll also put my knife further from the edge, going forward.
Anyway, processing went well and I came back from brunch at 11:30, ready and willing to package chicken all afternoon.
But surprise! I didn’t have to. Buzz pulled me to work with him for most of the afternoon, so I helped out with some odd jobs, such as installing a new vent hood and air conditioner in the kitchen and picking up a vehicle from town. Working with Buzz is, as always, really fun. As with most mechanical-ish projects, there are always hiccups and nothing ever goes quite according to plan. Buzz always lets us come up with our own solutions, and then explains his own reasoning.
When I got back with the vehicle, it was chore time and I cheerfully fell into the familar rhythm of chores. For some bizarre reason, I love doing afternoon chores. I particularly like it when I end up managing, in my brain, who is doing what tasks and what order they should get done in. Often, leadership does this, but sometimes we do it on our own when leadership isn’t around, and I love it. Plus, the routine of chores sits really well with me. Every day is totally different in terms of what projects we are doing and what random things come up, which is great and keeps life interesting. But ending the day with routine chores provides a familiar structure and allows us to check on all the animals and make sure they are set for the night and … I don’t know. I can’t really explain it. I just like it. A lot. I actually really don’t like it when I end up working on a project until dinner and other people do chores. I LIKE doing chores. I like projects too, but I want to do projects AND chores.
Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t care.
While we are on being weird, I will mention that I helped with dishes every night this week except for Wednesday, and this has been a running theme. I like doing dishes. It’s like a party in the kitchen every night, with the radio on (or the soundtrack from the movie Spirit, which is the only CD present in the kitchen) and several people helping. Two people are randomly assigned to do dishes every night, but there are a few of us who have fairly consistently been volunteering, and it’s becoming something I sort of look forward to, most nights, which is super strange. It’s just another good example of the idea of working with friends not being “work,” at least not in the way we negatively view “work” in culture today. Think of the barn raising and corn husking party of days gone by, for example. Now apply that concept to almost every day at Polyface.
Polyface is awesome.
Wednesday: Processing Day!
This was a double processing week, and because of PIDS, we were stuck doing both processing days two days in a row. Today, we followed the normal schedule instead of the early schedule because we needed to catch birds in the morning. Since my chore rotation is “projects” this was my job, and I worked with Eric and Sarah (the other project person) to get the birds caught and the crates loaded.
By happenstance, there were several things going on today that kept people away from processing, so we were operating with less people than normal. And to be honest? It made processing day AWESOME. And this is coming from somebody who is normally not that into processing day.
During the actual processing part, I was switching rapidly back and forth between gutting, lunging, and QC. Basically, whatever part of the line needed the most help, I was doing. This kept me completely engaged, and I was pleased to see that I was getting both faster and better at gutting (though there’s still work to do on the speed part, for sure).
It also helps that as I get more comfortable with evisceration, I’m better able to laugh and joke with the other people on the processing line while I gut. Today, I was standing right near Eli, Isaiah, and Brandon, and although we were all focused on moving quickly and efficiently, we were also able to talk and generally enjoy the camraderie of processing. I think that in the future if I am butchering my own chickens, I want to throw processing parties…and/or have a radio.
Packaging chicken in the afternoon was similar in that we were short staffed, so I was bouncing around a lot. I ended up unofficially partnering with Brandon for most of the afternoon (it’s always easier to work with a partner on packaging day), and we kept moving from bagging chicken to labeling chicken to boxing chicken, and back again, to compensate for the fact that there were less people assembly lining than usual.
Doing fifty different things and keeping track of which area needed our help made packaging …. well… actually really fun.
I’m sure this will surprise everyone who knows me (sarcasm), but I can’t sit still to save my life, and constantly moving around is my happy place.
Despite being short staffed, we managed to move through the packaging line really quickly, and were actually done by chore time. Brandon and I rolled right into chores when we were done with the assembly line, knocking out broilers, the turkey brooder, and the raken before finishing with an egg washing party with Lauren.
To be completely honest, I think this was my favorite processing day so far on the farm. And I don’t just mean that it was better than the other ones but still ‘meh’. I mean, it was a great day. Being short staffed actually made it really fun (albeit SUPER busy), and I was also really glad to get to do chores – one of the things I don’t like about packaging chicken is that it sometimes takes almost all the way until dinner and, as I mentioned before, I like bookending my day with chores.
Thursday: PIDS Prep
The focus on Thursday was 100% on preparing for PIDs, and I was partnered with Steward Daniel for most of the day on preparing the pavillion (eating/kitchen area) and other miscellaneous things. We found, hauled, and washed countless tables and chairs, set up shade cloths, cleaned sinks and buckets, picked up debris from the roof, and did other make-stuff-ready-for-the-event tasks.
To be honest? It was pretty darn fun. Daniel Salatin’s son, Andrew, and a friend of his joined us for most of the morning, and we were all laughing, joking, and quoting Lord of the Rings as we washed all of the chairs. We all recently watched the trilogy at Daniel’s Sunday movie nights, and were arguing over the usual Lord of the Ring debates like ‘should Frodo have died’ and ‘is Eowyn is better than Arwen’. At one point we stopped to throw wet dish rags at each other (but only for a couple of minutes, I promise).
Eric provided direction for generally where stuff went and what to do, but (steward) Daniel and I were also on our own most of the day to carry about the various tasks, and – as always – I love it when we get to more or less manage our own schedule and order of tasks. We also had one of the work trucks at our disposal, and I was proudly able to perfectly back it up to various places a couple of different times. Yay for getting better at driving stuff!!!
(it helps that trucks have AWESOME mirrors. I still can’t back up my car to save my life).
We rolled right into chores when we were done with set up, and by the time the day was done, between the whole team, the place looked awesome and was ready for PIDS. After dishes, I basically went straight to bed: I knew I would need sleep for the rollercoaster ride that the next two days would be, especially since Eric had asked us to come out for chores at 5:30 instead of 6, to make sure that we were all done and cleaned up by the 7am breakfast.
Friday: PIDS Part 1
I should take a second to explain what PIDS is, I guess.
PIDS, or Polyface Intensive Discovery Seminar, is a two day event that the Salatins run to educate people about farming. Basically, thirty people are on the farm for two days of intensive education with Joel and the rest of the Salatins. They receive a crash course on every aspect of the farm, including livestock, forestry, business, marketing, and more. They are fed six meals on site, and the seminar is, as advertised, intense. There are no breaks, except for meals, and it runs from breakfast at 7am to the end of the marketing session at 9pm on Friday, then 7am Saturday until after dinner.
All sorts of people come out for PIDS, from people who are trying to start farms to people who have farms to people who are just interested in learning about farming. It’s super diverse, and they come from all over the place, with about as many different goals as there are people.
This summer, there are two PIDS events – one this weekend, and one two weeks from now. All of the stewards get to attend one of the PIDS, and work behind the scenes at the other one. Working PIDS weekend involves a wide array of tasks, including setting up demonstrations for the seminar itself, preparing food, cleaning up, and keeping up with the day to day stuff, like chores and cow moves, while the staff are busy teaching. All of the staff, working or not, attend meals with all of the guests, which gives everyone a chance to mingle and talk to each other.
I was on the team that would be working the first PIDS weekend, along with Eli, Jonathan, Brandon, Charlie, and Gabi. And I was both excited and nervous because the first demonstration was processing chickens, which meant that I would be processing chickens in front of thirty people.
And I was terrified that I was going to bust a gallbladder or simply slip on the wet concrete and fall on my butt.
I ended up working the QC/chill tank station, which was perfect since that’s my favorite and most competent station, but I was still super nervous. All of the attendees crowded around and watched us butcher about fifty birds, and I tried hard to focus on what I was doing and not miss any pin feathers or drop any chickens.
I’m used to talking in front of people. I’ve given countless speeches, including some pretty fancy ones, in college and I’ve taught school. I’m not nervous about public speaking anymore; I actually kind of like it. But doing stuff in front of people? I’ve never done that.
About halfway through processing though, I realized I was being stupid. I’ve QC’d thousands of chickens by this point in the summer. I know how to do it. And so I quit being nervous and started enjoying the fact that I was part of a demonstration that people were really, genuinely, excited to see.
After the demonstration, it fell to the working team to package the fifty birds and clean up the processing shed, as well as set up some additional demos for later in the day. However, we also needed to do routine stuff, like move pigs up the mountain. On top of that, one working steward (Gabi) was the kitchen assistant and completely absorbed in food prep and one (Charlie) was on a delivery run. That only left four of us, plus Lydia and limited leadership availability; the farm felt weirdly empty!
After we got things cleaned up, we split up to tackle some small items of business while the chickens chilled. Jonathan went with Gabe to move pigs, Eli made a dump run, and Lydia took care of some office stuff. That left me and Brandon to make a small repair on the Eggmobile and fill the feeders.
It was a pretty easy repair to make, and only took us a few minutes. Then we slipped easily into the routine of filling feed buckets. I filled most of the buckets, while he dumped them into the feeders. No problem.
Except for one: by the time we were finished, our fancy PIDS T-shirts were completely soaked through with sweat because it was a bazillion degrees, despite only being 10am. I kid you not, our shirts were LITERALLY soaking wet, and all we had done was replace a board and fill some feeders. It was hilarious (we were laughing about it), but also ridiculous. The weather for this weekend was intensely hot and humid, with bright sunshine that made everyone basically bathe in their own sweat the instant they stepped outside.
In fact, Eric took one look at us when we got back, and told us to go change into different work shirts so that our PIDS shirts could dry out for dinner. We happily did so…but yes, our new, clean shirts got soaked through within about an hour too. It was pretty comical.
Anyway, once the Eggmobile repairs were finished, we went ahead and packaged the chicken. 25 birds were being saved for the next day’s supper, and the remaining 25 were being bagged and inventoried, along with the feet, hearts, and livers. With so few birds, the packaging went really quickly and was pretty fun. Before we knew it, we were cleaning up and reconvening for lunch, where we mingled, once again, with the various PIDS guests.
As soon as lunch was over, the PIDS people left for one of the rental farms, and we were met with a classic Shenandoah Valley thunderstorm.
The weather here is weird. It’ll be brilliantly sunny and hot and then, boom, suddenly there is a massive thunderstorm that comes rushing over the mountain. There’s a cool breeze for maybe thirty seconds, the temperature drops about fifteen degrees, and then there is an absolute deluge of rain and wind. Within twenty minutes, the sun is back out and it’s 95 degrees again. If we get caught in one of these storms during chores, oh well, we just get soaked.
But if we are, say, under a pavilion and only have a couple of small projects to work on because there is a seminar going on…well, we just wait it out.
The whole working team spent a good half hour chilling while the rainstorm flooded everything. Honestly? It was nice. There isn’t a lot of downtime during a normal work day, and it was enjoyable to just relax for a little bit. Of course, we also discussed some of the tasks for the rest of the day. When the rain stopped, the boys went to spread a load of sawdust in the raken (since it was due for some new carbon bedding and we wanted to get that done before the raken seminar that afternoon) and I headed to the processing shed to set up the cutup demo, then off to broilers to give some afternoon water – with the heat being what it is, we water the broilers in the morning, afternoon, and evening, instead of just twice a day like before.
I took my time on the processing shed, trying to make sure I thought of everything that Daniel could possibly need to demonstrate cutups (which is parting out and packaging whole chickens into pieces, like breasts), including setting up seating and making everything look nice. Once I was satisfied, I headed off to broilers.
Not gonna lie, I was a little less than thrilled that I was working by myself…and I was surprised at myself. I didn’t realize until now how accustomed I’ve gotten to having a big team – we almost always do things in pairs, if not in groups, and I really like that. I know that isn’t how farming normally is, or even how farming at Polyface probably is during most of the year, but I’ve really come to enjoy the team and human element. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem working alone, and I’ve enjoyed solo tasks for years (like teaching! And homesteading largely by myself in the summers!)…but having companionship on tasks throughout the day is actually pretty great.
So I was pretty pleased when Brandon came up the hill to broilers when I was about half way through watering – apparently the boys had finished with the sawdust and Eli and Jonathan were fixing a broken thingy on the dump truck. With no real task, Brandon had figured he’d just come help me with broilers, since watering 40 shelters is, well, a lot of water buckets.
(sidenote: pretty much everybody at Polyface is awesome like this – if they don’t have something to do, they go find and help somebody who is doing something. Work ethic? 10/10. The world, in general, could learn something from this model).
(other sidenote: On May 1st, I struggled to carry water for 10 shelters. This Saturday, I watered 20 without blinking an eye, and was prepared to water 40. I’m kinda proud of myself. Also, my button up dress shirt doesn’t fit comfortably over my shoulders anymore. Whoops).
With no one around to direct us into a big project (because of PIDS), we did several miscellaneous jobs after broilers – picking zucchini, helping Gabi take some food to and from the walk-in refrigerator, taking apart a broken cow water tank, etc. Then we knocked out literally half of the afternoon chores before reconvening with Eric and the rest of the team to further split up and organize tasks.
My next thing was a solo mission out to the Eggmobile to collect eggs. The ‘big deal’ part of this was that the PIDS group just so happened to be at the Eggmobile right then. I was very self conscious as I drove my ATV up to the field, turned it around, and proceeded across the field to the Eggmobile. Don’t trip, don’t trip, don’t trip, I kept thinking to myself, and breathed a sigh of relief when I was safely inside the structure and out of sight.
I carefully gathered the eggs, moving much slower than usual in fear of dropping an egg and sending the chickens into an egg eating frenzy in front of all of the guests. Thankfully, other than a stuck egg basket and an angry rooster (neither of which were seen by the guests or resulted in broken eggs), everything went smoothly, and I made it back to the egg room without a hitch.
For a little while, I washed eggs with Brandon, Jonathan, and Daniel Salatin, before Daniel had to head over the cutup demonstration. Daniel doesn’t normally wash eggs with us (since he’s typically busy with big projects before dinner) and it was super fun to have him there. Egg washing is often a time for joking around, and Daniel is hilarious. We all worked quickly, with the goal of finishing in time to clean up a bit before dinner – keep in mind that our shirts were wet, our faces were streaked with sweat and dirt, and my hair was a disaster. Did I mention that it was hot this weekend?
Thankfully, we finished with about twenty minutes to spare, and were able to run up, sponge bath and chagne. Well, I sponge bathed. The boys literally showered because none of them have any hair to speak of. Lucky boys.
After another interesting talk-to-strangers meal where we all ate too much because Sylvia (our cook) went all out for PIDS weekend, the work crew spent a couple of hours on dish detail while the attendees had their marketing seminar. Despite using paper plates, there were a LOT of dishes. But with so many people, a blasting air conditioner, and a good team…it was fun. Daniel Salatin even joined us for a little while, laughing and joking and joining in the make-fun-of-each-other banter that has developed among much of the work team.
Saturday: PIDS Part 2
The second day of PIDS started just like the first – chores, then a delicious breakfast with all of the attendees. After the meal was cleaned up though, instead of doing the processing demo, we set up for the sawmill and woodchipping demo. This involved going with Daniel Salatin up into the forest, cutting down a bunch of junk trees, lifting them onto a hay wagon, tying them down, and hauling them back to the farm.
It was super fun. It was just me, Charlie, and Brandon (the other people were prepping a different demo), along with Daniel and his chainsaw, and I had a blast. It was dirty and physical, but lifting trees, even small trees, makes you feel powerful and awesome.
The demo prep took most of the morning, and then we had lunch and did some more cleanup. I helped out in the kitchen for a little while, then joined Daniel and Jonathan at the grill – Daniel is in charge of the grilled chicken on Saturday night, and showed us how he uses a literal mop to brush the chicken with marinade since there is so much of it. It was pretty chill, and we talked for awhile and ate leftover cake, before heading over to move the cows. We were moving them early because of the heat, and it took Jonathan and I both herding them from behind to get them to go to their next paddock. I couldn’t blame them: I didn’t really want to move in this heat either.
After some more miscellaneous work, which included cleaning up the processing shed, getting the chicken off the grill, and helping Wendy in the store, I headed out on my own with the intention of checking the cows water tank, picking up Eli from where he was helping with a turkey move demonstration, and gathering eggs.
What actually happened was that I arrived at the cow pasture to see a geyser of water shooting up into the air, so I rushed to turn it off (soaking myself in the process) and hightailed it back to the farm to call Daniel. It looked to me that the one valve thingy was busted, but I wasn’t sure how to fix it because I know very little about water lines and plumbing and stuff.
Daniel had me describe exactly what I had seen and told me how he thought I would need to fix it. Then he gave me the part I needed and sent me back over, with Jon and Brandon in tow. We dropped Brandon off to gather the eggs, then went over and – to my pleasant surprise – fixed the water line exactly like Daniel said we would, without a glitch. Murphy’s law doesn’t ALWAYS apply, apparently.
Just like Friday, the work crew washed eggs, showered/cleaned up, and came down for dinner with the PIDS guests. Everybody was tired but happy, and Joel let them share with the group about some of the impacts that the seminar had on them. It was pretty cool to hear the different stories and to see how much meaning the two day seminar had for some of these people.
That all being said, I was pretty done being social by the end of the weekend: when the dishes were cleaned and all the guests were gone, I took a nice drive to get the first alone time I’d had all week, blasting some country radio and thinking about nothing in particular. Sometimes you need that time, and I came home that night feeling great. It had been a pretty cool, albeit unusual, weekend.