Polyface Week 4: A Month Already?

We’ve been here a whole month now, and I can’t believe how quickly the time is going! Week 4 was fantastic. After the terrible weather of Week 3, the hot sun felt amazing, as did the feeling of sweaty work. I’m not joking – it really did feel amazing.

Some highlights:

Processing Stewing Hens

On Friday, we processed our first batch of stewing hens! These are old laying chickens that are no longer producing as many eggs, and we were warned that they would be much more difficult to butcher than broilers. And boy, was that accurate! I started the day by legging (removing the chicken feet) and taking off the heads, and that was extremely difficult…although I enjoyed it for some reason. I also ran quality control for part of the day, where there were many more feathers to remove than usual, and they came out with far more difficulty than feathers do with the broilers. The stewing hens are much greasier too, with large globs of orange fat that the broilers just don’t have. This is a good thing for cooking – chicken broth made from stewing hen is delicious. In fact, I have some in the crockpot right now, and I’m excited for tonight’s supper (fresh turnips from one of the rental farms, turnip greens, chicken salad, and a side of broth because it tastes so good that I can literally just drink it).

First Lunatic Tour

Joel hosts several “Lunatic Tours” throughout the summer, and the first one occurred this Saturday. This happened to be my weekend to work, so I spent the first part of the morning helping set up for the tour. We drew parking lot lines (I learned that the average parking spot is 10 feet wide – no idea if that will ever be relevant or not, but hey, fun facts) and cleaning up some of the buildings. Throughout the day, I witnessed a vast quantity of people coming to the farm, all of whom were excited about real food, sustainable farming, and the earth. It was inspiring to see how many people were ready and willing to come out to the farm, including people from out of state – one family came all the way from Illinois!

Unique to the current times, it was also nice to see a large gathering of people again. With all of the hype over the coronavirus, I haven’t seen a real crowd in a long time. Although I don’t generally like crowds (I fit the stereotype of the farmer who wants to be out in the field and pretend that other people don’t exist), it was refreshing to see one after all of the fear that has permeated the news in recent months.

The only downside to working the weekend was that I couldn’t actually go on the tour – all of the stewards who were off work followed along behind the hay wagons to view Joel’s first public address of the summer. Then again, there are several other lunatic tours that I can go on, so it’s not really much of a loss.

Chickens, and Sheep, and Bears, Oh My

Polyface is having a bear problem, and that’s been a huge topic of conversation and extra work this week. Basically, there’s been a bear hanging around and getting into chicken feed. This is exciting because several of us have seen the bear, and even gotten it on video. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people, but it’s really cool to see the tracks and scat around the broiler shelters.

Of course, we don’t want a bear to be hanging around – there’s the whole ‘threat to the livestock’ thing. But I have gotten a lot of value out of watching the Salatins’ response to the bear, and the ways in which they are working on preventing bear problems.

So far, the bear hasn’t gotten into any livestock, and the goal is to discourage him from doing so. Right now, we are setting electric fence around the chicken feed and placed a sheep dog near the chicken shelters as a deterrent. Any steward or staff member who wants to is also being encouraged to take a truck or an ATV out to the fields in the evening and create general ruckus if the bear comes by, in order to scare it off. Ideally, if he doesn’t get food and keeps getting scared by people, he’ll find a different place to roam around. I very much want to participate in that this coming week, although these past few days I’ve been much to busy and tired to stay up late bear-watching.

Quick side-note mostly for my mom who will probably now worry about me getting eaten by a bear: the bears here are pretty small – about the size of a pig – and they run away from people. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of human safety, especially since we are trying to scare the bear, not feed it sausage.

Old Fashioned Hog Killin’

This week, we butchered a hog. Normally, pigs are shipped to a local abattoir due to government regulations prohibiting on-farm pig processing, but the Salatins occasionally butcher a hog for their personal consumption. Due to the increased demand that has accompanied the coronavirus scare, are bit low on supplies in general, and they needed more meat to feed us during the week. Our chef, Sylvia, requested pork…so Daniel decided to butcher a big hog, and let us be part of it.

It was really, really, really cool.

First, one of the staff members went and got the hog. He chose a large one, bringing it up to the processing shed. Daniel gathered all of us together, and shot it in the head, killing it instantly, then immediately slit it’s throat to let it bleed out quickly. Then he showed us how to gut it, carefully removing the organ meat that we could keep, then discarding the other innards. Next, we hoisted it up on a rope, skinning it as we went. Finally, he broke it up into big pieces and we put it in the walk-in refrigerator to cure. Similar to deer, the meat will be better after it sits for a few days.

Fun anecdote: we got to blow up the lungs like a balloon. Basically, you can blow into them and they will inflate and change color. Several of us took turns, and it was really neat. There’s pictures and videos on one of the stewards phones, and I’ll try to post those when I get them. I’d never seen anything quite like it before.

On a practical note, butchering the hog was interesting and useful – hopefully, I’ll be able to butcher pigs for my personal consumption sometime in the future. It was also fun to see where the different cuts of meat are, and simply to see it done.

On a philosophical note, there was something special about witnessing this butchering. I’ve been a part of butchering hundreds (thousands?) of chickens by now (although I haven’t personally engaged in the killing yet), but pigs are very different animals. They are far more intelligent and have far more personality than the poultry, at least, in my opinion. And although I haven’t spent a ton of time with them yet, I’ve definitely worked with the pigs in the last month – I’ve fed them food scraps, helped move them from paddock to paddock, and watched them grow. You’ve never seen a happier pig – they seem to smile as the root in the pastures and wallow in mud puddles.

I was right there when Daniel shot this particular pig, and I saw the life leave his eyes, and his body drop. It was even more dramatic than hunting a deer, since I’ve never seen a deer get shot so close to where I was standing. I watched the pig’s blood drain out, felt the still-warm body, and saw the living animal become several large cuts of meat in the refrigerator in the course of a few hours.

I felt a pang of sadness in the moment of the pig’s death, that was overwhelmed by gratitude for the huge animal. His meat would nourish us and provide several necessary meals over the next couple of weeks. The sacrifice of this creature provides us with life, as we care for many other pigs, who will in turn give many people life. In nature, life requires death, and it’s not something to take lightly – nor is it something to sweep under the rug.

Joel often talks about honoring the “pigness of the pig,” and the Polyface way is focused on providing a good, natural, enjoyable life for all of the livestock, and a humane, stress-free death. The hog killing could not have done a better job of illustrating that concept. Witnessing death like this isn’t for everyone, but in my opinion, it’s a very special thing to be a part of. And I’m incredibly grateful to the pigs, and to the people who care for them.

First Solo-ish Off-Farm Mission

This week marked my first leader-less off-farm assignment, and that was super cool. Another steward and I were sent, on our own, to run errands at two of the rental farms. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t anything complicated. At one rental farm, we were setting up some feed bins for broiler chickens, picking up some empty feed containers. At another farm, we were gathering eggs, feeding chickens, and adding hay to next boxes. None of this is hard.

And yet…if you would have told me do those things four weeks ago, I would’ve had several questions and probably would have done something wrong. There’s a certain way to optimally gather eggs and feed chickens the correct amount of feed. There’s a way to use ratchet straps to keep feed bins on trucks, a way to use four wheel drive, and a way to drive on farms with minimal disturbance of the grass (i.e. don’t just drive haphazardly through pastures). There was electric fence to turn off and reset and animals to handle. It’s all quite easy, but I simply wouldn’t have had the knowledge to do it four weeks ago. Yes, I probably could’ve gathered eggs relatively effectively, but all the finer details would’ve been lost on me.

And it’s really, really, really cool to realize that I’ve learned stuff. I mean, I know I’ve learned stuff, but this time I really felt that I’ve learned stuff. And I was proud that Eric could trust us to take care of the tasks without any leadership oversight or follow-up. He just told us what needed to be done, asked if we felt comfortable doing it, and…we did it. Then we had dinner. It might sound silly, but it felt really good.

Also, it was fun because we got to listen to the radio on the way there (I’ve been pretty much radio-free for the last four weeks), and the other steward and I have a similar taste in music. It may or may not have been pretty loud. I plead the fifth.

Wrap-Up

There were plenty of other projects this week – fixing broiler shelters, building sheep shade structures, and more – but I’m going to end this post here. I have less time to write this weekend, since I’ve been working and have evening chores soon, and y’all don’t need a list of every project – there are way too many to list anyway. But suffice it to say that I’m still grateful to be here, I’m learning a TON, and I’m excited to see what the next four months will bring.

Polyface Week 2: I Start Doing Stuff

[Editor’s Note: This is being posted a week late because Internet is hard]

Alright. Week 2. Once again, it’s like it’s been a million years, and also like it’s been no time at all. I did SO MANY THINGS. Some highlights:

Rabbit Chores

The Polyface staff set up a weekly chore rotation for us to make sure everyone has a chance to do (and practice) All the Things. By sheer chance, I got to start my rotation on the Raken, which I talked about last week – and I was super excited. Most of the time we will all be moving broiler shelters which, if I’m being honest, is not my favorite thing, mostly because it’s physically tiring and it’s early in the morning, so bleh. As I get better at it, I’ll probably like it better. Maybe.

But bunnies early in the morning? Yes please. Despite the fact that chores start at 6:15, I looked forward to seeing the rabbits, checking to see if anyone new kindled, and cutting them some comfrey. I was able to do some breeding this week, which is super fun – if you’ve never seen rabbits breed, you should Youtube it. It takes the buck about five seconds to do his thing, and then he literally falls off, unable to move for a few seconds. Meanwhile, the doe just looks disgruntled. It’s hilarious, although I do feel a little bad for the doe.

Moving Cows

Part of my chore rotation this week involved riding with Gabe (a staff member) to move cows in the afternoons.

I love cows.

No, seriously. I love cows.

Some general information: Polyface rents pasture at several farms in the area. They use the pasture for cows and for hay (since those things take lots of space). The cows get moved to fresh pasture every day, and the idea is to put them in a small enough paddock that they will evenly graze it, but a big enough paddock that their manure won’t oversaturate the soil. The result is extremely high fertility (from the frequent grazing and the injection of manure), and super happy, healthy cows. Moving them every day also helps minimize parasites and disease, since they are constantly moving away from their manure. Gabe is in charge of moving the cows at some of the rental farms in the afternoons.

The coolest part of this is the part where the cows get called – Gabe (or me, on Friday) yells “COWIE” and the cows come across the field, ready to go. Then you open the gate, and they go through to the fresh pasture. There were a couple of moves where they got confused and required some herding, but it was pretty darn easy, honestly. And it was super fun to watch them come and excitedly go to the fresh pasture. According to Gabe, this is also a good time to check over the herd’s health, since each cow is passing by. He showed me some of the finishing fat they are looking for on the cows before they send them to the slaughterhouse.

A significant part of moving the cows involves erecting and taking down fences. Pretty much everything at Polyface is portable, and so each day involves setting up fence and waterer for the next day (so that everything is ready to go and any problems can be addressed), and taking down old fence from the previous day, as needed. They measure the pastures and figure out how big to make the paddocks based on the number of cows and the condition of the grass – good grass provides more feed, so the paddocks can be smaller. Since grass conditions changes based on lots of factors, like weather, the paddock sizes change constantly.

The measurements for the paddocks come from ‘pacing off’ or walking the perimeter and figuring out the area of the pastures. Polyface also uses pacing off to plan the path of portable broiler shelters and other stuff, and everybody knows approximately how long their stride is. It was pretty cool to measure stuff by walking, and anybody who knows me knows that spending an afternoon walking around the beautiful Virginia countryside is … well … pretty unbeatable.

I Thought Michigan Dirt Was Clay. I Was Wrong

Michigan just has slightly clay-ish dirt. But Virginia? Virginia has clay.

Let me preface this by saying that the dirt in the garden areas at Polyface is not clay. It’s beautiful, loamy soil from the intricate composting systems that they’ve had in place for a number of years. In fact, it’s so beautiful that I got super excited about it on Saturday when I was planting seeds and Daniel laughed at me.

Daniel laughs at me a lot, possibly because I get super excited about things like “THE DIRT IS PRETTY!” In fairness, I also laugh at me a lot, and all the stewards laugh at Daniel a lot because he does bizarre things, like doing cartwheels after dinner or doing victory laps after getting donuts. Actually, thinking about it, everybody laughs at everybody a lot. My weirdness is in good company here.

Anyway. I digress. The dirt in the gardens is pretty, but if you dig a hole in a random field, you are digging through solid clay. And I don’t mean clay as in ‘hard, compacted dirt’, I mean clay as in ‘you could probably stick the mud on a potter’s wheel and make a pot.’

I learned this when Gabe was checking water lines and digging holes in a cow pasture. He warned me it was clay, and I shrugged and picked up a shovel. I thought I was used to clay. Then the shovel bounced off the dirt. So I jumped on it. And it penetrated maybe two inches.

In fact, filling in the holes involved picking up large, football-sized balls of dirt and chucking them back in the hole.

This clay (in addition to the rolling hills) might be why the landscape is dotted with cows, and not cornfields. It grows great grass, but tillage would be a nightmare.

I do want to add that the fields with the rotating cows have great grass. In some places, it is as high as my hips – wading through the grass in these areas makes me feel like I stepped into Little House on the Prairie. Joel says that the grass used to be even higher before the Europeans came, and I can only kind of imagine what this landscape looked like when the colonists first set foot on Virginian soil.

Processing Day(s)

There were two processing days this week – Wednesday and Friday. On processing day, everybody pitches in to help get the chicken processing facility ready after chores, then we all take a station in an assembly line-ish system. I missed the processing day last week (and by ‘missed’ I mean that I was helping with pigs instead), so I was pretty excited to see the process.

Polyface butchers chickens in an open air facility behind the store, in accordance with local laws that allow a certain number of chickens to be processed on site. Everything is cleaned thoroughly, and the processing happens quickly and efficiently in an environment of laughter and camaraderie. Joel tells stories and shares the news as he guts, and everyone is racing against themselves to keep the line moving quickly. Since we only do this for a couple of hours, and we get a different station each day, there’s no boredom or carpal tunnel-ish soreness from doing the same thing over and over again.

It also is genuinely cool to see 400+ living chickens turn into neat, vacuum-packed packages in the course of a few hours. I think all chickens should be processed in little on-farm facilities like this, and it should be a field trip destination for all the local schools. What an amazing biology lesson that would be!

I was randomly assigned to Quality Control on the first processing day. Near the end of the line, I checked the chickens for missed feathers or other undesired parts, and tucked the legs into a flap of skin to keep them neat and compact, before passing them to someone else who gets them into a chill tank where they sit and get super cold while we all take a lunch break. It was a simple job, and pretty mindless – but not boring because of the aforementioned laughing and talking that happens during processing.

On Friday, I got to try my hand at gutting. This is the part where you receive a de-feathered and de-legged chicken, and you’re supposed to get all the guts out. I was super excited about it, and thought I’d be good at it – after all, I’ve dissected all sorts of creatures in labs and I cook with whole chickens at the time. How different could it be?

Answer: Very. I struggled hard. See, when you get the chicken, you make some specific cuts (cool, I can do that), and then you reach your hands up inside the chicken and pull everything out. Because it’s inside the chicken, you can’t see what you’re doing, and that was really throwing me for a loop.

To the credit of my teachers, both Joel and Daniel were extremely patient as they showed me hand positions and tried to explain what I should be feeling for. And I got better. Not great, but better. By the end of the processing day, I could manage the general procedure, although it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t efficient – those are things to work on next time. I’m still struggling with the part where my hand is up the chicken – when Joel does it, he deftly pulls out all the guts in one hand, passes them to the other hand while removing the liver and heart, and chucks them in the compost bucket. The guts never even hit the table. Joel guts a chicken like that Bob Ross guy paints a picture. It’s incredible.

In contrast, I make a giant mess and sometimes break gallbladders (which ruins the liver). But it’s getting better (almost all the gallbladder breaks happened in the first few chickens) and to be honest, I really enjoyed the challenge. I’m looking forward to doing it again and, hopefully, improving more.

The Miracle of Life

The biggest highlight, by far, was something that I got to witness, but really had nothing to do with.

Shortly before dinner on Monday, Daniel came into the egg room, where we were washing eggs, and mentioned that he was a little concerned about a cow that was in labor. She was pacing the paddock and seemed to be in distress. He opted to give her another hour or so while we had dinner, but then decided that he would need to intervene. He told us that we could watch, which – of course – everyone wanted to do.

The Salatins prefer their cows to calve on pasture, naturally, and they usually do so successfully. However, they also take special care to monitor the pregnant cows – especially first time mothers – in case they need to intervene. I don’t exactly know what was wrong in this case, but it looked like the labor was stalled – the calf’s hooves were poking out of the cow but no further progress was being made.

The first step was to separate the struggling Mama from the rest of the herd and bring her into the barn. Daniel strung a bluff (non-electrified rope that the cow will presumably think is electrified) to make an alley from the paddock to the barn. Then he had us stand quietly off to the side while he expertly herded the Mama away from the other cows. We followed slowly to the barn, where he maneuvered the cow into a headgate and told us to stand in a neighboring stall and watch.

Next, he tied chains around the protruding calf’s hooves. The chains were attached to a makeshift chair-like contraption that Daniel basically sat in. This allowed him to use his body weight and legs to pull the calf out and downward, while keeping his hands free to guide the calf out of the Mom. Once everything was set up, he only had a few minutes to make things happen – about half the calf slid out in one steady pull. Then he quickly twisted, and pulled the calf the rest of the way out, rapidly moving to clear the calf’s nose of slime to allow it to breathe. In the space of a few seconds, he also had to get the calf in front of the Mom, manually exchanging some of the birthing slime between cow and calf, to get the Mama cow to recognize and accept her baby.

She was exhausted, but he coaxed her up and into a stall so that the calf could nurse. As we slowly walked away to give them some space, I could see her start to nuzzle her baby, and perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing a bit, but I could have sworn that I saw a tired but proud look in her eyes.

Despite being covered in birthing slime and cow poop (cuz the cow pooped a LOT during the birth), Daniel took some time to explain the process to us before heading home. The method behind the chain contraption is to specifically pull the calf out and DOWN, which mimics how the calf would slide out of the birth canal if the mom as giving birth on her own. This is in direct contrast to the conventional method of pulling the calf straight out with a comealong or a skid steer, which can break Mom’s hip bones in the process. It also keeps his hands free, which is important to ease the calf out without damaging Mom. The twist also mimics the natural method – the cow would normally turn her body when the calf is about half out, and it’s super important to do quickly.

I’ve never seen anything give birth before; I’ve seen videos of it, but that’s not the same thing at all. I can’t begin to express how incredible this moment was. One minute, there was a struggling cow. The next, there was a whole second life, separate and complete – and utterly precious. Seeing the life emerge, with the aid and perseverance of the farmer, was beautiful (albeit in a slimey and poopy way), and one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The specialness of the moment was enhanced by Daniel’s demeanor and attitude during the whole thing. For context, Daniel is an extremely fun person to work for/with. He’s always laughing and joking, and is loud and abrupt. He likes guns and food and has fun with everything. But the minute the cow was in trouble, his manner changed – he was serious, firm, and extraordinarily gentle with the cow (despite having to literally pull out a calf out of her birth canal and getting covered in poo).

This is what it means to be a farmer, I thought. Sure, it’s fun to chip wood and dig holes and move cows, but the farmer orchestrates the life and death of so many creatures – and it’s a beautiful, important, role to play. I can’t think of anything greater.

It was in this moment that I knew, beyond any doubt, that I want to do this sort of thing forever. Probably not with cows (because that’s not practical for my financial situation – although maybe someday), but in general. One day, a farmer is helping to bring life into the world, and the next he is ending a life to get food to sustain another creature’s life – like a baby person. It’s like the Lion King: the antelope eats the grass, the lion eats the antelope, the lion dies and becomes the grass. The farmer gets to be a vibrant part of that choreography, and it’s a beautiful thing.

A Quick Word on People

I’ve focused pretty heavily on the things I’ve been doing, and all of that is great. I like the work, and I love learning new things and being outside. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment, at least briefly, on the incredible people that I am surrounded by.

I’ve already talked about how great the staff is at Polyface, and the patience and personality of the Salatin family. I could keep talking about that, but I also want to mention how great my fellow stewards are. The three girls that I am living with are all fantastic, and we have quickly become friends. There are times when we literally fall on the ground laughing, and we share stories about our day during every evening. We are all different, with different backgrounds and perspectives, and have had some really in depth philosophical conversations, as well as sharing crazy stories from our lives. The only bad part is that sometimes we keep talking and then realize that we were supposed to be asleep a half an hour ago. I’ve had lots of roommates, including living with people I didn’t know ahead of time, but I have never clicked so quickly with complete strangers before.

The boys are also great . I don’t know them as well yet (since they live all the way across the road), but we have spent a few evenings playing games and talking on their big front porch, and went shooting with them last weekend – have I mentioned how much fun guns are? We tease them for getting up at 4am to work out (although that seems to be mostly over now that we are in Week 2), and they sometimes lock us out of the laundry room (which is behind their house) by accident. Some of them are musically gifted and will sit around in a circle singing and playing the guitar, which is super enjoyable. Many of us were even able to go to church this morning, filling two rows and acting like a big family, along with Daniel and his actual family.

We even instituted a biweekly Sunday dinner where the girls cook food for everyone who lives in the Hunt Camp (stewards, apprentices, and Grace, the buying club driver). Sometimes other people bring stuff to pass, but the boys who don’t want to cook do dishes. As I write this, my enchiladas are ready to go, a pot of pozole is simmering on the stove, and other girls are busy chopping vegetables for salad.

I’m having a good time. Learning a lot, working hard, relishing the experience, and bonding with great people. I’m still not sure exactly how I got here – a lot happened, some of which was real bad – but I’m glad I’m here, this summer, doing something that I think really matters. I think this is where I’m supposed to be right now, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

Polyface Week 1: I Learn Stuff

Wow. Where does the time go? It’s already been an entire week as Polyface Farm, and here I am, drinking coffee (yay) and writing another post. In some ways, it feels like I’ve been here a month, and in other ways, it feels like I just barely arrived.

One thing that has not changed at all so far: I love this place. It’s beautiful, the people are fantastic, the teachers are phenomenal, and I’m learning a ton. I’m also feeling my complete ignorance as I ask, repeatedly “HOW DO I DO THE THING?” And, to their credit, the staff smile, show me, and then let me do it (often slowly and cumbersomely). It’s awesome.

I’ve done so many new things this week that I can’t even begin to describe them all, but I’m going to run through a few highlights.

The view behind my cabin

Highlights of the Week

Rabbits Are Awesome and I Want Some

My favorite morning chore is helping with the rabbits (which also involves handling the chicken and turkey brooders). The rabbits get food, water, and comfrey which grows wild all over the farm. They are housed in a structure called the Raken. It’s about the size of a garage, and is the #1 thing I’m interested in learning about, since I can go home and build one for relatively little money on very little land. Like most rabbitries, the Raken keeps the adult breeding rabbits separated (since rabbits are very territorial in the wild). The cages are lined up at a slight angle so that you can fill one water bucket and gravity will carry the water through the entire row of cages. When I saw this, I was struck by the utter genius of it. Here at Polyface, they are very good about small engineering innovations to make day to day things easier.

The genius of the Raken is that it also houses laying chickens. These chickens run around the structure pecking through the rabbit poop (that falls from the wire cages). Since the floor is covered in plenty of carbon (in the form of woodchips), this creates a wonderful, hands-free compost situation for both the chicken and rabbit poop. Plus, you get eggs out of it.

The young rabbits are also put on pasture after they are weaned, until slaughter, but I haven’t seen that yet since it’s still pretty cold. I’m excited to see rabbit breeding amp up, and to get my chance to practice slaughtering and butchering rabbits. My excitement has been obvious, since Daniel has been teasing me about it for the last couple of days – especially when I missed a slaughter demonstration while I was out working on repairing broiler shelters!

This weekend, I plan to take some measurements of the Raken as well as a bunch of pictures for my future use.

Chickens are Stupid But Turkeys are Stupider

Don’t get me wrong, I want chickens and maybe even turkeys. But they are some duuummbb animals.

One of the first things I learned is that turkey mortality is a problem since the baby turkeys are total dinguses – apparently they were eating sawdust instead of food, and dying (because y’know, sawdust isn’t food). As a result, the staff took out the sawdust bedding and put them on painter’s paper until they got a little bit older. Then it fell to me, another steward, and an apprentice (who was in charge of our team) to spread sawdust-ish bedding through the brooder.

This was supposed to only take a few minutes and just be an addendum to morning chores – the bedding was already piled up inside the brooder; we just had to remove the boards that kept it from spilling into the area with the turkeys and spread it around. No big deal right?

Well, the problem is that the turkeys didn’t want to get out of the way of the bedding. Whereas chickens will run away from you, creating a nice path to walk and allowing you to move things around without crushing them, turkeys just stand there. So to avoid literally burying turkeys in bedding, we had to move super slowly, occasionally moving turkeys out of our way as we went.

Like I said. They dumb.

I <3 Cows

My favorite day this week was the week that I went with Daniel and Eli (another steward) to sort cows. This wasn’t even a Polyface thing – we were doing a favor for a neighbor farmer who has a pasture that is landlocked by Polyface land. The goal was to sort out the cows that were going to the landlocked pasture, and transport them. But it was an introduction to sorting cows and I loved it.

I didn’t know anything (obviously), and it was a good learning experience on how to wrangle a stubborn calf through a headgate. I can’t say I was good at it, but I was definitely better at it by the time we were done than I was when we started. Daniel also explained some of the methodology behind setting up a corral to move and sort cows more efficiently, which was super interesting.

The Forests of America Need More Pigs

Quite a few of my days this week were (partially) spent with pigs. On the practical side, I learned the basics of moving waterers, feed, and setting up (and checking) electric fencing. On the fun side, I got to herd pigs. And on the philosophical, geeky side, I got to see what pigs do to a forest when they are properly managed.

Fun part first: herding pigs is fun. Eric, the farm manager, explained that in order to get pigs to move, you have to convince them to want to move. It has to be their idea – you can’t really make them do anything. One strategy is to entice them with feed (consistent with the stereotype, pigs are very food-driven). You can also herd them by spreading out behind them and “pushing” them toward where you want to go. The livestock at Polyface aren’t pets, so they largely will walk (or run) away from people. With a big group of stewards, herding them is easy, but with only a couple of people, it’s a bit harder (and more fun). At one point I was definitely running through the woods trying to head off a rogue pig…

Practical part: I’m not going to give step by step instructions on how to move pigs (that goes in my notebook for future reference, not on my blog), but moving the waterer was an interesting experience. Gabe, a staff member and former apprentice, was training me and another steward on pig movement and explained how the waterer worked and the best way to move it. The next day, he asked if we could move it and when we said we thought we could, he left to go find the water hookup for the next pasture.

The first step (besides turning the water off) is to pull the plug at the bottom of the waterer and let it drain. The waterers are made of plastic so they can be lifted and carried when they are empty, but they’re super big so you can’t move them when they are full. When Gabe showed us what to do, he rolled up his sleeve, plunged his arm into the waterer, and swiftly pulled the plug.

But when I tried it, my arm didn’t quite reach so far. I’m a wee bit shorter than Gabe, and by that, I mean that I’m short. Period. I had to reach as far into the waterer as I could, climbing on top of it so that my feet were up in the air and my entire arm and shoulder were completely submerged, as I stretched as far as I possibly could. And then it took a bit of rooting around in there to find it. Oh, I should also mention that the weather here has been unseasonably cold and the water was icy.

It would have made quite a picture.

Philosophical part: PIGS ARE AMAZING. We were able to see paddocks that haven’t had pigs yet, and they are overgrown with thorny invasives like multiflora rose. The forest here is a fairly young forest – one of the staff members told me that during the Civil War, the land was cleared to grow wheat and stuff – and it’s super brushy. The native ecosystem, however, is more of an oak savanna, with trees spaciously interspersed over fields of grass.

And that is exactly what happens when pigs go through an area.

Don’t get me wrong – at first, they tear it up. Pigs are destructive, and root up everything. This is what destroys the brushy invasives. The paddocks with the pigs in them are fairly muddy (although they still contain plenty of vegetation – nothing like the mud pits normally seen at petting zoos or most conventional farms). But after the pigs move, the dormant seeds spring to life, and there are vast tracts of woods that are a picture perfect oak savanna, with young, straight trees, grass, and wildflowers.

My roommate, who worked as a firefighter in California, stated “The forest service needs to employ pigs to stop fires” and she is absolutely right. The health of the forest with the pigs is so much greater than the neglected forests that are so common in the United States. It helps, of course, that the Salatins diligently harvest diseased and dying trees (chipping wood, by the way, is still pretty high up there on my Favorite Job list).

Takeway: careful management fosters healthy, biodiverse, native ecosystems and pigs are a useful part of that in the woods.

Failure of the Week:

The week had gone super well – no injuries (other than a couple of blisters) and plenty of energy. I had even stayed relatively dry through two days of rain, with my new Muck boots and a rain jacket. And so here I was, on Friday afternoon, setting out to do afternoon chores – one of the last things I’d be doing before the weekend. Another steward and I headed over to feed and water the broilers (meat chickens).

I had 20 shelters of birds to do (he did the other 20), and – despite the cold rain – cheerfully went through and dispensed feed. Everything looked good except for one waterer, which appeared to be broken. Lucky for me, we’d already had a tutorial on how to fix the waterers, and to my excitement I had no problem fixing the issue on my own, without any help.

But then I went to put the bucket of water (which feeds down into the waterer) back on top of the shelter. And it literally fell apart in my hands, the water washing over me in a giant wave that went over the top of my rain coat and soaked me through to the skin. On top of that, a piece of plastic from the bucket sliced into my finger, spewing blood out onto the ground and creating a nice Week 1 injury. And of course – since it’s me – I didn’t actually notice the cut until I had rigged up the water system and put everything back where it was supposed to go, getting blood all over (that I then had to try and clean up) and probably getting chicken poop into the wound. Oops.

It’s fine. I did surgery on it at home later and smothered it with some nice antibacterial, fresh Virginia honey that was produce a couple hundred yards from my cabin.

Before you wince and feel bad for me, recognize that this is actually pretty funny – I mean, a giant wave of water, plus bleeding, in 40 degree weather….of course that happened to me. I laughed, anyway.

“Ah-ha!” Moment of the Week

Every moment is a learning moment this early in the stewardship program, but the one that sticks out the most to me learning how a clutch works, in the context of learning how to operate tractor. This may seem like a small thing – and it is – but Jonathan took the time to explain why you push in the clutch, and how the engine works. The explanation made driving a manual suddenly make way more sense, and it was quintessential “it clicked” moment. It’ll take practice, and there is a LOT of learning left before any of us (except those with prior experience) can drive a tractor, but it was a great start and I’m grateful for the education. I think once I get used to it, I’ll actually really like driving a manual.

Philosophy of the Week

Interestingly, the ‘philosophical’ or spiritual thing that sticks out to me this week was going to church on Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong – the churches are all closed due to coronavirus. But some of the staff families were getting together in the Polyface office to livestream a church service, and I went with them. Even though the technology was glitchy and it wasn’t quite the same as going to church, it was a gathering of people seeking to worship together and I didn’t quite realize how much I missed that.

 

This Sunday, a group of us all tried out a downtown Church in Staunton. It was pretty cool to line up three pickup trucks and all tune into a worship service together. But even cooler was the fact that the pastor announced they will be opening their doors next week – I’m glad to be in a place where I’ll be able to start really going to church again!

Putting aside arguments about what the response to coronavirus should be, I think it’s pretty undebatable that people are really missing out on a visceral part of the human experience by not gathering together. I’m blessed to be in  a place where the coronavirus isn’t really much of a factor – numerous families live and work here, not to mention the 2 apprentices and 11 stewards. Being able to fellowship with other people is something that I hope I continue to appreciate, and one that I think people should find a way to continue, regardless of whatever restrictions are in place in their area (obviously, be safe about it).

 

Some other pictures from the week:

Going out after dark to catch chickens on Wednesday – we were moving them out of a hoophouse to the Raken

Polyface Week 0: Anticipation

Editors note: this was written nearly a week ago, but I’m posting it now due to internet access issues. Oops.

5/3/2020

Well guys. It’s been a minute and the world has changed a bit since my last post. Now we have coronavirus quarantines, economic catastrophe, and empty grocery stores.

But some things don’t really change – chicken still lay eggs, cows still give milk (or in the case of this farm, cows make meat), and planting season doesn’t wait on viruses.

So here I am at Polyface Farm, starting my summer stewardship. I didn’t do the blog posts on local farms that I planned, and I didn’t buy as much in terms of supplies (like non-holey jeans) as I wanted to since my state is being particularly psycho about what’s considered “essential.” I also didn’t want to write about the coronavirus because…well…enough people are doing that and I didn’t feel like it. I could’ve. I kind of did in a giant essay (with data! and graphs!) about why the reaction to coronavirus is terrible. But posting that here? Nah. I want to focus on agriculture instead.

Let’s just say this: Agriculture is essential. People gotta eat. Otherwise, they will all die. Since agriculture is essential, things at Polyface are moving forward. There’s definitely been some changes due to the coronavirus – such as participating in a local food drive-thru in lieu of a farmer’s market – but the general farming process is the same – feeding, watering, and moving animals happens either way.

With the requisite “here’s how I’m responding to coronavirus” statement out of the way, I can begin:

I’ve only been here for a couple of days, and the first, oh, maybe 24 hours, I didn’t even really register that things were starting. I was busy: with the coronavirus shutdowns, I had trouble doing all of the basic things that I needed to do in order to leave, and I had additional things to do once I arrived. It seemed that pretty much every plan – from cat-sitting for my animals, storage units, and buying essential supplies (like boots and jeans) were messed up and made more difficult due to my state’s asinine rules and the general uncertainty of the time.

But I got it done. Barely. There was an extremely stressful couple of days when I didn’t have cat sitting for one of my cats…despite thinking I had things set up months ago. But I got it done, and was soon on my way to Virginia. Only problem was that I only had one pair of hole-free pants.

This was partially my fault. I had planned to buy several more pairs at the thrift store, and when they closed those, I was loathe to buy brand new ones. I decided to wait and hope that things would reopen. Instead of reopening though, the governor shut down certain sections of stores, making things even harder. So I decided to use my meager sewing “skills” (I use the word ‘skill’ loosely – I am terrible at sewing) to patch my pants.

Could I have done it earlier? Yep. But I didn’t, because I kept thinking things would reopen, or perhaps some states between Michigan and Virginia would reopen. But no luck. Thankfully, I was arriving with plenty of time before we started working (a precaution in case my car took a poop on the highway – with 190,000 miles, no spare tire, and several “SOMETHING IS WRONG” sensors broken and/or going on randomly, I wanted the extra time – better early than late, right?).

So anyway, several days before I left were a whirlwind, and the first 24 hours I was there were also a whirlwind of unloading, unpacking, getting groceries, helping with chores (to get a start on learning the basics of what I’d be doing…and to test out timing of when to wake up, when to leave in the morning, etc), meeting new roommates, getting food set up for the work week, making sure my paperwork was definitely in order…and yes, fixing the rest of my jeans.

With all that, it didn’t sink in that I was starting until the end of the welcome dinner on Friday night, when I looked around at all the people talking and laughing, the sheep happily munching grass in a nearby pasture, the chickens clucking gently in the hoophouse, and the countless red winged blackbirds swooping around the pond. And, of course, don’t forget the gorgeous backdrop of the mountain range that is still making me pause each time I step outside of my cabin.

Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s downright breathtaking.

The Friday welcome dinner was essentially the kick off of the summer, though almost all of the stewards had started something on the farm already. For most of the girls, this meant helping with chores and meeting the staff at the farm store. The boys had jumped straight in to work, but then again, their fridge was devoid of almost everything except spaghetti and eggs, whereas we were bound and determined to get stock made, soup underway, bread rising, fresh produce stocked, and otherwise make our cooking during the work week negligible…but delicious and nutritious.

Also, when we saw their fridge, we decided that hosting a Sunday potluck dinner for the other stewards needed to happen. We’re not heartless. To their credit, they volunteered to do dishes and shop for supplies, which seems like a relatively even trade, especially considering that we have NOT gotten used to our stove & oven yet, and the roast chicken and biscuits we are making may or may not be mediocre at best.

Of course, we thought they’d sign up to make food. We made a sign up sheet with two spots for dishes, but the five boys signed up for one spot as : “The Boys.”

(if any of the boys happen to be reading this, thank you for letting me make fun of you. Please feel free to reciprocate. And we all really do appreciate the dishes).

What We’ve Done So Far

Saturday – our first real day on the farm – was largely an orientation. We were shown how to move broiler pens and given the rundown on basic farm chores. Everyone had the opportunity to give the pen movement a try, and we tried to absorb details such as feeder placement, pen spacing, and timing considerations for management of the pens.

After chores we were dismissed for breakfast, and the girls cooked up sausage and eggs – along with plenty of coffee – and discussed the coronavirus, politics, and other relevant topics. Stimultating and intricate discussions have already become the norm here, and I’m loving every second of it. The stewards come from all different backgrounds and all different states, creating a level of diversity that supercedes even what I saw in college. And yet, everyone is incredibly open minded and respectful of each other creating a perfect environment for intellectual discussion and debate.

Next was orientation of the shop with Buzz and Jonathan, two of the Polyface staff members, and the beginnings of the farm equipment. I fully anticipate this to be my weakest point, since I’ve never driven much of anything other than my trusty 2002 Buick Century. First up was driving ATVs, which made me very nervous. It had a throttle! And buttons!

But it was fine. The throttle was super touchy, but it was fine.

We also got to try out the zero turn mowers – and I thought driving that was super fun. We were shown where everything was in the shop and went on a little field trip down to a second shop building that is primarily for Buzz and Jonathan’s use.

Before we knew it, we were being dismissed for lunch. This time, I used the break to do a little cleaning, and taking a walk to do some more scouting for edible plants – so far, I’ve spotted abundant garlic mustard, clover, autumn olive, dandelion, cattail, plantain, and berry bushes, all right around the Hunt Camp (where the boys and girls’ cabins are located – Joel says we are ‘hunting’ the truth.).

The afternoon was more classroom style – we sat around picnic tables and went over procedures, philosophy, and logistical information for the farm. It was thorough, in depth, comrehensive, informal, and extremely communicative.

Quick Note: We were outside during the entire orientation. Conventional wisdom dictates that would be distracting, especially since we were surround by a variety of animals, lots of wind, and occassional tourists that are welcome on the farm at any time. And yet, I never once lost focus on what Daniel and Joel were saying, while simultaneously appreciating the mountain view and sound of birds.

Would kids focus better if we moved some classroom work outside? Particularly ADD kids who can’t sit still (hi, it’s me, somebody who can’t sit still)? I’ve wondered this for a long time, and personally I think the answer is yes. Just a little anecdote.

After evening chores – more food and water for the broilers and brooders, plus lots of egg gathering and washing – we all went back to our cabins for the evening. The team seems to be bonding pretty well; we all went down to the store to snag a few minutes of wifi and started what will inevitably be many trips back and forth between the boys and the girls cabins. But we all were asleep by 10pm, ready to wake up again this morning at 5:45am for morning chores. I commented to the girls that it’s great because back home everybody calls me old for going to bed early, and here I’m normal.

That goes for a lot of things, by the way. Here, it’s considered normal to save a bag of onion scraps in the freezer, leave pots of soup on the stove for days without refrigeration (it’s fine, really), and make homemade hair rinses and conditioners to attempt to combat the hard water. Being around like minded people is pretty great, and I’m already benefiting from the different perspectives and knowlege bases.

Today – Sunday – has been pretty relaxing. We all helped with chores, and many hands makes light work – plus I got to move an entire row of broilers myself! Daniel watched and advised on the first half, then left me alone to finish the row. We’ll be moving broilers every day. I’m really glad for the repetition, because before too long, the movements will be muscle memory, but right now it’s an exacting process.

But after chores we’ve been on our own. I went to a gathering on-farm to watch a live streamed church service – which was really nice since I haven’t gathered with people for church since before the coronavirus – and read for awhile. We’ve also been preparing for a group dinner of stewards that will take place after evening chores, and made plans to go shooting together soon…plus basically solved the country’s gun control problem over breakfast (summary: people need to understand guns better, on both sides).

Have I mentioned yet that I’m enjoying all of these people? Salatins, staff, apprentices, and fellow stewards alike?

Stuff That Stands Out So Far

The Teachers. In only one real day, I have already been impressed by the teaching of the Salatin family and all of the staff. Yes, they have done this many times, but there’s plenty of teachers who teach for a lot of years and still don’t do it very well. Each person clearly has their own style, but all are patient, encouraging, willing to answer (endless) questions, and give us plenty of opportunities to both observe and jump into trying the activity for ourselves. In addition to all of that, they have several systems in place to enhance accountability and make sure we are extremely clear on what we are expected to learn. The teacher in me recognizes and is impressed by what they are doing, and I’m really excited to learn from all of these people for the next five months.

The Focus on Form: When Daniel was showing us how to move a broiler pen, he focused heavily on form, making sure that we placed our hands and feet in the right locations to fully leverage the pens without straining muscles, and ensuring that we don’t strain our backs. This is really important, since nobody likes injury, and I was impressed that this was stressed so heavily. The don’t want us to just move the pens; they want us to move the pens the right way, so that it is as easy as possible. Of course the impatient part of me has never been good at slowing down and paying attention to form, but I recognize the wisdom of it. I’m really glad that this seems to be an integral part of instructions here.

The Transparency: Communication is held in high regard here, as is personal responsibility. It was stressed very strongly that if we are sick or hurt, we should communicate that and let people know that we need to rest. If we have an issue with somebody, we need to address it. If we are unhappy with something, we need to bring it up. If we haven’t learned one of the benchmarks that we are supposed to have learned, we need to make sure we volunteer to do that thing and let staff know. This all sounds like common sense, and it is, but it’s also not always so “common,” particularly in work situations. I’ve worked for good people, bad people, and mediocre people, and so far, this seems like it is going to be very, very good.

Tomorrow we will start our first work week, and we’ve been warned multiple times that we’ll be hitting the ground running. I’m prepared for sore muscles, blisters (I already have one from moving pens this morning), general exhaustion, and probably running into all sorts of things that I’m not prepared for.

It’ll be fantastic. Especially since those things lead, respectively, to strength, callouses, resilience, and knowledge, all of which are super great.

Polyface Check-out Part 4: Heading Home

This is the 4th post in a 4-part series. Read the first, second, and third parts by clicking the links).

My morning wakeup on Sunday, October 27th, 2019 was unfortunate. All I really had to look forward to today was a super long drive, and an empty fridge. I planned on having eggs for dinner when I got home, and then going to bed…so that I could go back to my office job tomorrow. On top of that, I had originally planned on taking an hour to do a hike in the Shenandoah National Park before going home…but the sky was dumping buckets of rain on everything, so that wasn’t going to happen. 

But, it couldn’t be helped, and I was grateful for the last couple of days. Since the Salatins had said we could help with chores before we left if we wanted – and that would likely be the highlight of my day – I got out of bed right away. I immediately rolled up my sleeping bag and pulled on a dirty pair of jeans – after all, no point in soiling a fresh pair for only an hour or so of chores. Then I double and triple checked that everything was packed up for the drive home, except a fresh pair of clean clothes and shoes for me to change into.

Continue reading “Polyface Check-out Part 4: Heading Home”

Polyface Check-out Part 3: The Second Work Day

This is the 3rd post in a 4-part series. Read the first, second, and fourth parts by clicking the links).

Weirdly, it was actually easier for me to get out of bed on the second day. I slept really well the night before, and awoke feeling refreshed…even though I hadn’t actually gotten as many hours of sleep as usual. My muscles weren’t particularly sore either – I could tell that I had worked my whole body hard the day before, but it wasn’t the same as a big workout, which targets specific muscle groups to exhaustion. The only muscles that were specifically, painfully sore were my hand muscles, of all things. I guess I don’t normally grip a lot of stuff. I made a mental note to add “gripping stuff” to my workouts.

It had rained overnight, and the morning sky was still gray. I hoped it wouldn’t rain during the work day, as I dodged puddles on my way over to the main farm. Gray or not, the morning was just as beautiful as it had been yesterday, and I felt invigorated by the brisk air.

Once again, everyone met by the outdoor woodburner and the Polyface staff went over the plan for the day. Since today was Saturday and the Salatins don’t work on Sunday, there were no new faces…and a smaller group of checkouts than yesterday. Everyone who was still here was on their second work day, or was just helping with chores before leaving.

Continue reading “Polyface Check-out Part 3: The Second Work Day”

Polyface Check-out Part 2: The First Work Day

(This is the 2nd post in a 4-part series. Read the first, third, and fourth parts by clicking the links).

My alarm went off at 6:30 the next morning, and I grunted slightly. This was later than I normally slept, but I’d been up late talking to the other checkouts and hadn’t slept all that well – I never do, in a new place. 

Forcing myself to get out of my warm blankets, I climbed down from the bunk, and mustered all of my willpower to leave the warm bedroom. Although a space heater had kept us warm throughout the night – too warm, really – the late October air had permeated the kitchen and bathroom, making me cringe as my bare feet padded across the icy wood floor.

Continue reading “Polyface Check-out Part 2: The First Work Day”

Polyface Check-out Part 1: The Drive

(read THIS first)

I woke up at 5:15am on Thursday, October 24th, and completed a basic, maintenance workout. Then I made eggs and had a leisurely cup of coffee, complete with petting cats and reading the news.

So it was like most Thursdays. Except that this time, instead of leaving for work, I’d be leaving for Swoope, Virginia for the Polyface Check-out. Continue reading “Polyface Check-out Part 1: The Drive”

Announcement: Summer of 2020

So you may have read my most recent post called “Life Changes.” If you haven’t, you should go read it now because you sort of need that background knowledge to totally appreciate this post. 

This post is the Big Announcement about what’s happening in the summer of 2020.

*Drumroll please*

I’m going to spend five months in Virginia.

After that…who knows?

Continue reading “Announcement: Summer of 2020”

Life Changes

You may have noticed that this website has been a bit quiet lately. The thing is, there’s been some pretty big changes going on at the Homesteading House, and I’ve been hesitant to write about them publicly.

But I’ve done some thinking and I’ve decided the following:

  1. I like writing and I want to keep this blog going.
  2. So I’m GOING to keep this blog going – there will be recipes, gardening stuff, pictures of cats, and more.
  3. I owe my readers an explanation for what’s been going on in my life, but I also don’t want to bog down this blog or turn it into a personal journal of angst. After all, that’s not what it’s for.
  4. Changing site titles (Yep, “Hardheaded Homesteading Housewife” magically turned into “Hardheaded Homesteading House”) and cagily describing my “rural” surroundings without explaining why I’m not in the suburbs anymore isn’t really fair either.
  5. I have a reeaallly exciting project coming up, but you sort of need background information about my life to understand why I’m doing what I’m doing (stay tuned! Cool things are happening!)

I’m a big fan of transparency, y’all. Transparency is good!

So here’s the deal:

Several months ago, I came home from visiting my sister’s new baby. I was super excited because my sister had taught me how to make soap, and I was looking forward to surprising my husband with one of his favorite dinners – Guinness Beef Stew.

But wait. When I got home…my husband was gone.

Continue reading “Life Changes”