It’s Week…I dunno.
I didn’t make a blog post last week. Sorry. I was working the weekend, had some pretty crucial phone calls to make (more info later!) and never got a quiet couple of hours to write.
Highlights from Last Week:
1) Chipping – I FINALLY got to chip again (it’s been awhile). I love chipping, and I had a great team for it – mostly big guys so there was a lot of ‘pick up the giant tree and stuff it in the chipper’.
2) Prepping the brooder – the last batch of broiler chicks went into the brooder, which is crazy to think about. They are soy-free, so we also had to switch out the feed. The new feed is green (peas?) and smells weird. Not bad, just different than the regular feed.
3) Processing turkeys – I processed and boxed turkeys in an absolute daze last week, since it was Meeting Day (more later), but it was cool, I guess.
4) Hot dog stand! Read more about that this week under ‘Saturday’.
5) Bowling – part of why I didn’t publish a blog post last week was that everyone in the hunt camp (so stewards, apprentices, Grace, and Parker’s wife) went bowling on Saturday night, along with Tim and Heidi (contract farmers). We filled up three lanes at the bowling alley, and had an absolute blast. The bowling alley was pretty high tech, so there were also arcade games and a jukebox that we were taking full advantage of. In fact, at the end of the night (around midnight…), the entire group of us were line dancing-ish to a Shania Twain song in the lobby on our way out of the door.
So fun. But also, I was exhausted when I had to get up for chores on Sunday, and spent my pre-church time napping, not writing. Ditto for my post-church time.
Okay, now let’s talk about this week instead!
Honestly? It was a rough week for a lot of people, because a bunch of people were sick or injured. The fact that the team is still in good spirits and is getting along speaks to the caliber of all of my teammates. Here goes…
Monday: The Fit Farmer & Waterline Work!
Monday was my favorite day this week, and it was very unusual.
When I came down to chores at 6:15 (as the days start to get shorter, our start time is getting later), I was greeted by Joel standing with a visiting family in front of the shop.
“Jessica!” he greeted me. “Are you on broilers this week?”
“Great! Would you mind taking these folks up with you?”
As it turned out, the visiting family was none other than that of Mike, the “Fit Farmer” from Youtube. He and his family have a popular Youtube channel and were visiting and filming at Polyface for the next couple of days.
So they piled into the back of the tan truck and I took them up to broiler chores. I advised that they film the little birds (about 4 weeks old), since they’re a lot cuter than the big birds (about 7 weeks), and left them to interview Steward Daniel and Brandon, while I moved a row of the big birds. Occasionally I saw a drone overhead – and indeed, there’s a shot of me carrying water buckets in the Fit Farmer’s latest Youtube video – and drove them back down to the farm when we were all done. Their entire family was super nice, and I knew I’d enjoy talking to them more over the next couple of days.
After our morning meeting, Oleg and I went with Eric to bury waterline on the far side of the farm. Eric is trying to rotate everybody through waterline work and I’d been eagerly anticipating my turn for a few weeks.
Currently, most of this particular piece of the farm is irrigated by above ground line. Eric is trying to replace all of it with underground line, which is less susceptible to freezing, cow-inflicted damage, and errant bullet holes (apparently people shooting at opossums sometimes hit waterline. Oops).
A solid chunk of the morning involved prepping for the line installation. Eric explained the process and we all walked the area the waterline would be installed. Then we dragged the above ground line out of the way, moved some fence, cut the grass, and removed debris from the area. Then Eric pre-dug a trench with a subsoiler attached to the back of the tractor, while Oleg and I rode along and occasionally moved more things out of the way.
Once everything was set up, Eric pulled the tractor up and we hitched up the special water line attachment to the back. Basically, it’s a hand-welded chute attached to the subsoiler. A person walks behind the tractor feeding the water line into the chute, and the tractor basically trenches, places, and covers the line. It’s super cool to watch. Eric said that the idea came off the Internet, but whether or not it was Polyface’s idea, it’s an awesome, homemade innovation.
As a sidenote, Oleg had been fairly incapacitated all morning due to an injured arm. He’d hurt it at breakfast (yes, at breakfast, not at work – we are all giving him a hard time about that particular irony), and was doing things one-handed. By the time we were ready to break for lunch, it was a bit swollen and he couldn’t do much with it, so Eric told him to go to the main house and call a doctor.
That meant that I was on my own with Eric the rest of the afternoon to put in the waterline. And it was REALLY cool. We had to stop numerous times to fix connections, we installed a couple of access points (called blounds), and we had a major glitch where the waterline got caught on a fence post and ripped itself out of a blound. Then we had to fix it by digging a lot by hand. But we got it done, and it was super interesting learning experience.
During dinner, Joel asked the Fit Farmer and his wife to say a few words – the usual “price” that visitors “pay” for their supper. They told their story of starting a backyard garden, and then moving to yurt and market gardening. It was fascinating, and we all had numerous questions about their experience. After dinner, Mike asked to interview us about our experience at Polyface this summer, which was pretty neat. A group of stood around watching each other do the interviews until almost dark!
My interview is in this video here. Check out the whole channel – it’s pretty cool!
Tuesday: Early Processing
We had a 6am start-time processing day this week because we needed to split the day with Shane, a contract farmer who was processing ducks later in the morning. The early start time didn’t affect me a whole lot since I was on broiler chores – I’d be doing chores like normal, and just joining the processing line afterwards, instead of going to breakfast.
Chores were rough. There are four rows of broilers, and usually one person is assigned to each row. But this particular morning there were only three of us – Brandon, Steward Daniel, and I – since Charlie had been sent to drive a bunch of chickens to the USDA processing plant. On top of that, Brandon was sick, and although he was stubbornly pushing himself through broiler chores…he wasn’t at his usual speed or strength. On top of THAT, a predator had ripped apart the netting on one of the shelters so a bunch of birds were out, and a shelter in Charlie’s row was badly broken so that Steward Daniel and I had to pick it up and carry it instead of dragging it like normal. Plus it was pretty wet and muddy since the new weather pattern is apparently “rain all the time.”
But we got it done and I hopped in on QC.
After breakfast (brunch?) some of us came down to package birds…but Brandon was out sick, and so was Gabi. Short staffed is never great. I didn’t feel sick, but I was more tired than usual. Maybe my body was fighting whatever it is that is going around (because something’s going around – most of the people have been sick at least one day in the last two weeks) or maybe i was just tired because I was stressed out. But I just felt…slower than normal. Which isn’t a great feeling when you’re on the end of the assembly line, boxing bagged birds and hauling them to the box truck. In fact, feeling sluggish is probably related to why I ran over my foot with a wagon that was piled high with over 150 pounds of chicken.
It didn’t really hurt though, so meh.
After processing I went to chip wood with Parker, Lydia, Eli, and Charlie, hoping that the physical job would wake me up a little bit. It didn’t, but it didn’t make me more tired either, and I always like chipping wood. Seeing a chipper eat a tree and spit out woodchips is probably the most cathartic thing in existence.
Still, I went to bed early that night, and was glad of it.
Wednesday: Turkeys & A Lost Calf
Wednesday was another processing day, this time for turkeys. I was itching to get a try at eviscerating turkeys, so I came down from breakfast a little on the early side (gutting is often a fought over station)
Gutting turkeys was GREAT. I don’t love gutting chickens. I mean, tt’s okay, and I can do it now, but I don’t usually do it because other people like it a lot more than I do.
But I will totally fight to gut turkeys.
I’m not entirely sure why I like it so much more. The process is exactly the same, except that we save the gizzard in addition to the heart and liver. And obviously, the birds are way bigger I guess this makes it easier to stick my hand up the turkey and yank out the guts. Having it bigger just makes it more fun for some reason.
On the downside, these particular turkeys hadn’t been without feed for a full 24 hours (we think), and were extremely…poopy. If I had poop squirt all over my arm once, it had to have happened at least 20 times.
Meh. It’s part of the job.
Packaging turkeys in the afternoon was way more chill than usual because we had a bigger team and about half the birds were getting vacuum packed for a specific customer, whereas the other half was getting bagged and tagged as usual. I jumped between zip tying, labeling, and boxing birds, but didn’t need to move terribly fast or focus terribly hard. Plus, we finished relatively early.
When I was halfway through washing my umpteenth brown tub, Eric stopped me. He was dividing up afternoon chores and other projects to take us to dinner, and had a job for me. “Jess and Eli can go fill broiler feed barrels,” he said. “Jess, you can do most off the tractor work, and Eli can assist.”
“You want me to do the tractor work?” I asked. I had not filled feed barrels from the tractor before. Also, I suck at tractors. I can drive them forward and I can back them up, kinda. That’s about it.
“Sure, if you’re comfortable trying it,” Eric said.
I shrugged. “As long as Eli is there too,” I said, knowing that Eli is an equipment genius and could walk me through it.
And so that’s how I found myself, under Eli’s guidance, pulling a feed buggy and filling feed barrels.
Were there hiccups? Yep, absolutely. I almost hit a sign, but didn’t (because Eli yelled “WATCH OUT FOR THE SIGN”).
Also, we unexpectedly needed to move a feed barrel that still had feed in it. I let Eli do this part, since it was far outside of my skill level, but we ran into an additional glitch when the chain in the tractor toolbox didn’t fit around the barrel (normally, you chain the barrel to the tractor bucket, then lift it up and move it). Eli and I tried a couple of different things, to no avail. Then, I had an idea. “This might be a terrible idea,” I prefaced, “but there’s a piece of wire holding up the chute on the feed barrel. Could we repurpose that wire to make the chain longer?”
Eli pondered this for a minute. “Maybe.”
“It’s not a great idea, but it’s my only idea.”
“Let’s do it.”
And what do you know, it worked. Since coming to Polyface I’ve learned that wire is incredibly useful, and creativity is a strength.
The biggest, and final, glitch happened after we had finished filling the feed barrels and were doing regular afternoon broiler chores (feed and water). There were several clogged waterers, and when I was shaking the hose to unclog a particularly stubborn one, the little plastic piece that screws into the waterer went flying. Probably because I inadvertently hit it on the shelter. It did not seem to be fixable, and neither Eli nor I knew exactly how to replace the part or where they were kept. So we decided to split up – he would go feed pullets on the other side of the farm, and I would find a leader to ask how to fix the waterer thing and then fix it.
Conveniently, Daniel was in the shop when I got there, and he supplied me with a little plastic thingy and instructions to just jam the plastic thingy into the hose. If the hose was too stiff and inflexible, he said, I could just chew on the end and it was soften up.
Confident this would be a quick and easy fix, I flew up the hill to broilers on an ATV and hurried over to the shelter. Then I tried to jam the thingy into the hose.
Then I tried again. And again. And again. And I chewed all over the stupid thing, but the plastic piece would not go in.
I tried pushing with a chunk of wood. I tried chewing a LOT on the hose. Nothing worked.
Finally, sheepishly, I gave up and went to get Daniel. I figured that I had to be doing something wrong or missing some trick, because there was no way this should be this difficult.
As I came down the hill, I saw most people already starting in on dinner. I went up to Daniel and explained what had happened, and he just said he’d come up with me and look at it after dinner, but to go ahead and eat first.
And so, after dinner, we went up the hill. As it turns out, I was missing a slight trick, but for the most part, it really was that difficult – apparently, this happened to be a very, very old and stiff hose. But Daniel helped me fix it (and by helped, I mean he basically did it), I refilled the waterer, and we were all set.
…except that Daniel also asked if I wanted to help him look for a lost calf.
Duh. Yes. Especially since I’m semi-officially off of normal-work-day cow stuff for the next six weeks (more on that later).
So – after pausing to check out a deer herd – we went to the other side of the farm where the cows are. Daniel explained that there was an extra calf that had just been born, and the mom appeared to have lost it in one of the most recent cow moves. Normally, the calves follow along with mom, but occasionally a cow will hide her calf on the edge of the woods, then forget about it, move paddocks, and not be able to find it again. This particular cow was brand new to Polyface, so it seemed like a likely explanation.
Daniel told me that the calves are usually hidden just off the edge of the field, and that they leave small impression in the vegetation, similar to a fawn. It had also just rained overnight, so the calf may have pushed somewhere a little bit drier, potentially even traveling down a hill on the edge of the old paddock.
So we spread out and started walking through the woods. I was walking a little ways down the hill, ducking thorns from autumn olive trees and trying not to take too many spiders to the face. At one point, I slipped and fell on my butt in the mud.
Next, we tried wading through a thicket of weeds that was off the edge of a different recent paddock. Some of the plants were taller than I was , and I felt like Laura Ingalls in the Little House books going through the tall grasses of the Slough.
Finally, we walked a thin strip of woods between two paddocks. It didn’t seem likely that the calf was here, but we looked anyway.
It was getting pretty dusky and harder to see, but Daniel said that the only guarantee we would’t find the calf was if we stopped looking for it. This was a sentiment I agreed with strongly, so I was glad when we returned to the thicket of weeds area and started searching in a broader area. I got excited whenever I saw a deer trail or an impression of a fawn, but there are a lot of deer trails and there were no calves. Daniel and I got farther and farther apart as we waked back and forth, back and forth, in different directions.
Finally, a yell. “CALF, CALF, CALF!”
I brushed aside the tall weeds, and sure enough, a tiny, 2 day old calf was standing in the pasture, with Daniel slowly coming behind it
They were pretty far away from me; I rushed to get close to help head off the calf, high stepping and splashing through swamp (because right now, any lowland is a swamp. Have I mentioned the unseasonable amount of rain we’ve had the last couple of weeks?).
We followed the calf around the autumn olive grove and pushed it up to the waiting cow herd. Then Daniel watched and waited, facilitating the calf’s reunion with it’s mother. Cows aren’t the brightest of creatures, and the mom cow as completely clueless that her baby (the one she’d been bellowing after all day) was now hanging out on the other side of the cow herd. The calf also didn’t really know what to do, so it took few minutes to get the two of them back together. But then they did, and the calf – who had been without milk for at least a day and a half – immediately latched on and began suckling. It was utterly precious.
Thursday: Ow. Also, Welding & Dead Pigs
Remember how I ran over my foot with the turkey wagon thing on Tuesday? Well, on Wednesday I didn’t notice anything wrong, but on Thursday I woke up to what felt like a horrible bruise on the top of my foot. Walking hurt. So did flexing my foot.
It wasn’t too bad though, so I just ignored it and moved broiler shelters, albeit a little slower than usual.
And I ignored it while I got a (very interesting!) welding 2.0 lesson from Buzz. Sidenote: welding is super cool.
And I tried to ignore it when most of the stewards and apprentices started to butcher a pig for our personal consumption, but really couldn’t totally ignore it because I was limping pretty bad.
Butchering the pig was fun though. Daniel left Isaiah in charge, since he has a ton of butchering experience, and a big group of us got to be part of it. Parker shot the pig with a perfect head shot, so it died super quickly, and then Lydia, Lauren, Steward Daniel, and I helped skin it. A bunch of the boys hoisted it up on a rope, and Isaiah walked Lydia through the gutting process.
A pretty cool anecdote is that a visitor was present and watched the whole thing – with her three children! She did an awesome job of explaining the butchering process to her daughters, who looked to be about seven and five, and we let her take a brief turn cutting the fascia to remove the skin. She was really excited about it, and we took her picture and also let her compost some of the offal to the chickens. It was heartwarming to see a mom being real with her kids about the reality behind bacon, and doing so in a respectful, nature-honoring way. Laura Ingalls saw a hog butchering every year, and I see no reason why kids now should have it any different. Being part of the butchering process really changes your perspective about animals, meat, and food, and I think it’s really good for everyone to understand, preferably from a young age.
After a late lunch, a team of us ground and packaged turkey. Any turkey from the last three butcher days that wasn’t Thanksgiving table worthy (i.e. a broken wing or a blemish on the breast) had been cut up and saved for ground. We worked quickly, but my foot was absolutely killing me by this point, and I was grateful to just be holding the bags – I was able to pull over a crate and sit down. I also sat through egg washing, and washed a bazillion baskets of eggs since I actively did not volunteer to go and collect any of them. I vowed to make some chicken broth, and I forcibly rolled my ankle over and over again, trying to stretch out the joint.
On the upside, it didn’t feel like a muscle issue. Maybe a tendon issue, but it didn’t feel like a strain or a sprain…it felt like an internal bruise. This sucks, because I know how to tape injuries and all sorts of exercises and stretches for strains. But a trauma thing? Yeah, I can’t fix that. You just kind of have to wait it out.
After dinner, I elevated my foot and read for about an hour…then headed out with the rest of the team to catch chickens. We were moving a group of pullets that had been in moveable chicken shelters (basically broiler shelters) to a hoophouse, where they will start laying eggs sometime in the fall. Since they were in shelters, catching them involved crawling underneath the shelter, through the chicken poop, and dragging them out. We also needed to separate the hens from the roosters, since the roosters would be butchered on Friday.
Sound familiar? It’s exactly what I did at checkouts, way back in October.
Gabi, Lauren, and I actually all did this together at checkouts, and we were talking about how crazy it was to have come full circle. When we did it the first time, we were beyond excited to get to ‘catch chickens’ and we really had no conception of what the shelters were like, how they worked, or how they were constructed. We didn’t really understand that we were catching pullets, specifically, and we had no big picture look at why we were catching them that particular night and moving them to the hoophouse.
Now, things were different. We were not really excited (because it was 9 at night and we wanted to go to bed), we knew exactly why we were catching them, and we are intimately familiar with a broiler shelter. We’ve come a long way since October, and it’s kind of awesome.
Despite the fact that crawling in the shelters is cramped and poopy, I volunteered for the job immediately since I have a good headlamp with a red light option (which freaks the chickens out less) and my foot was killing me so that I didn’t want to walk around while carrying full chicken crates. I worked with Daniel, and he corrected my rooster identification – I can identify a rooster just fine under normal circumstances, but it’s unexpectedly harder when you’re crawling on your knees and elbows under a shelter, and chickens are flying around maniacally and pecking at your face. I got better at it though, as we went on, and caught birds in two shelters. Then we unloaded the crates into the hoophouse and went home to bed.
Friday: I Break My Foot So It Feels Better.
When I got up on Friday, I literally couldn’t bend my foot. This made moving broiler shelters incredibly slow, and I kept apologizing to my broiler teammates.
But then, amazingly, as I walked over the hill on the way back to the ATV, I heard a loud “crack”, my foot bent, and the pain decreased significantly.
My guess: The bruise caused swelling, which locked up the foot, and continue to walk on it eventually broke whatever was locked up loose, which made for less pain. The bruise, meanwhile, was gradually healing, because that’s what bruises do.
By the time were done butchering roosters, it actually felt way better, which was odd since butchering involves standing on concrete. But whatever. I’ll take it. It still hurt, but less so. I figured I should still take it easy on it, and to my luck, it ended up being a pretty chill day.
We packaged the roosters quickly (there were only 250 of them), then hung out for a little while, waiting for Daniel and other teams of stewards to be ready to go: we had a corral planning lesson over at a rental farm this afternoon.
We’ll be spending considerable effort over the next couple of weeks building this corral, and Daniel wanted to explain the layout to everyone. This was a pretty good educational opportunity, and it’ll be neat to see the construction, start to finish.
While we were there, we were going to set a couple of key posts and take down a woven wire fence. But with the entire team present, this really took minimal effort and time. I basically pulled staples for about 30 minutes, carried a couple of posts, and then we were done and it was chore time.
After gathering eggs at the Eggmobile and washing eggs for awhile, I headed off to dinner with the rest of the team, getting there early for once. Even dishes didn’t seem to take that long, and I headed up to the hunt camp to rest my foot and go to bed early.
…buuuuuttttt….little Lauryn (Daniel’s daughter) stopped Jon and I (who were doing dishes) and said we should come to a game night at her house. I hedged, thinking of the laundry I needed to do and the sleep I should get. But then Steward Lauren repeated the same sentiment when I got home, and I caved.
Which is how I ended playing Codenames with the Salatins, Lauren, Parker and his Lauren, Eli, Jon, and Charlie. It was boys vs girls, and for the most part, girls kicked butt. It was super fun.
Saturday: Hot Dog Stand!
I almost got up to help with chores on Saturday, when I woke up and was reminded that I was still a little bit injured and very tired, I decided to go back to bed for an hour instead. Then I spent a leisurely morning sipping on chicken broth (gotta heal that foot thing!), drinking copious amounts of coffee (gotta heal…um…my liver? Coffee is good for your liver, right?), and reading an awesome book – it’s a fictional Western novel based on the true story of John Wesley Hardin, a famous Texas outlaw. I got it out of the free book bin at Polyface (people send us an assortment of books. It’s a long story). Free + books = Jess Heaven.
Around 10am though, I dressed in my best jeans and a Polyface T-shirt and headed down to the store to set up a hot dog stand!
Since I didn’t make a blog post last week, y’all missed the whole hot dog stand thing. But to make a somewhat long story short, a couple of us got really excited about the idea of selling Polyface hot dogs after Saturday tours and we piloted it last weekend. Polyface had done this before, so Eric supplied us with a fancy hot dog cooker thing and helped us set up and figure out how many hot dogs we needed, etc, etc. This weekend, Eric and Grace (who had been involved last time) were both gone, leaving me sort of in charge of it, with the (utterly invaluable) help of Lydia and the working weekend team (Eli, Jon, and Charlie).
I ran the cash box and took orders, while Lydia dished out the hot dogs. Andrew (Daniel’s son) and Charlie ran to refill drinks, chips, and get change when I needed it, while Eli and Jonathan helped in the main store (tour days always involve a giant rush in the store, so Wendy always needs help).
I love doing the hot dog stand. It it super fun, because it’s a great way to interact with the customers without having the awkwardness of small talk. They come out of the tour super excited and happy, which is great to see, and sometimes they talk to you about it, which is awesome. Other times they just buy a hot dog, and there’s no pressure to make conversation.
This particular tour group was incredibly excited, and they bought a lot of hot dogs – we actually completely sold out of what we had prepared, selling way more than we did last weekend.
Oh, and post-chicken broth and morning rest, my foot felt about 90% okay. I’m pretty pleased that it’s getting way better and I never even needed to tell staff about it or request a break, although part of that is sheer good fortune that we weren’t doing super physical stuff the last couple of days. But still! Yay!
We wrapped up around 2pm, and I relaxed for a little while, finishing my book (whoops, that was fast), and chilling for a couple of hours. Then the girls and I went to dinner at Buzz and Kristen’s house, which was super fun (and delicious). I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the staff and their families outside of work, and am glad to continue to get to know them as time goes on.
Which brings me to….
I didn’t make a blog post last week because I was busy working, and also staying up late bowling on Saturday night. But part of the reason was that during the week I was pretty stressed out…because we all spent most of week waiting for our second round of meetings with the Salatins.
Fun Fact: I don’t wait well.
In our first round of meetings, I put in an application to stay on as an apprentice…and in the second round, on Friday, I found out that I was accepted to do just that!
This means that after the stewardship is over on Oct 1, I’ll be going home…but I’ll be coming back to Polyface two weeks later for a full year apprentice program.
There will be four of us next year: Lauren, Eli, Jon, and myself. It should be a great team, and I’m really excited to stay and learn more stuff. In particular, there will be a larger emphasis on cows and grazing, as well as winter management of the different enterprises – that’s why I’m off cow stuff for the next six weeks, because the Salatins try to get as much cow experience as possible for the stewards who won’t be staying on over the winter.
There’s some logistical stuff to work out, but I’m beyond excited and grateful to continue this farming journey. I never would have expected to be in this place, doing these things…but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.