Week 13: PIDS Again, A Visitor, & A Lot of Cows

Week 13! This week was a weird one, so I’m going to blog in a different format than usual…and it’ll be a little shorter.

Not only was this week the second PIDS weekend – the one I got to attend – but it was also my rotation on Gabe Week, where I accompany our sub-contractor, Gabe, on off-farm cow moves. Although cows are my favorite animal here, and I absolutely love doing the moves, there’s less to say on a blog to the outside world because I don’t need to describe the individual cow move for each day of the week. Like, “Monday: I moved cows. Tuesday: I moved cows”. Y’all would get bored.

So instead we are going to do some overview highlights, and call it a day!

Processing Days!

Tuesday and Wednesday were both processing days. Since I don’t accompany Gabe until the afternoon, I spent both mornings on the processing line doing a mix of QC and gutting.

There’s not a lot to say about this except that processing days have really grown on me. Initially, I was pretty ambivalent about them. Later, I didn’t care for them. Now, I kinda like them. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to process every day, but as my skill has grown and I’ve gotten more comfortable, I’m come to appreciate it. It’s fun to talk to everyone on the line, and I get a certain amount of satisfaction from a job well done.

This week’s processing highlight? Parker’s wife, Lauren, came to try her hand at processing for the first time, and I gave her a tutorial on QC. I haven’t taught things in a long time, and I forgot how much I enjoy it!

Rob Greenfield

An interesting highlight this week was getting to meet Rob Greenfield, an environmentalist, extreme minimalist, social media influencer guy (check out his website here). He was visiting the farm for a couple of days, and I ended up having a long conversation with him after dinner that was absolutely fascinating.

For those that don’t know, Rob Greenfield is known for doing fairly extreme things to make a point. For example, he is well known for his Trash Suit, where he saved his trash for thirty days and wore it in a custom made suit while he walked around New York City to illustrate how much trash the average American produces in a month. He only owns the possessions he can carry on his back, commits to donating 100% of any money he earns from speaking engagements, and he doesn’t have a driver’s license or a bank account. Most recently, he finished a 1 year stint of growing or foraging 100% of his food (including the salt, which he harvested from the ocean).

I’ve read some of his online work in the past, and meeting him was really cool. He has a unique perspective, and although I wouldn’t want to do some of the things he does, I really appreciate his purpose and the work he is doing in the world.


I love the cows.

Did you not hear me the first 20 times? I love the cows.

A brief overview of what Gabe Week looks like:

First, I would meet up with Gabe by the shop around noon. I was responsible for managing my time to be ready to go, so I actually carried my phone this week to make sure I was heading to lunch at an appropriate time to get back by noon. I also took short lunches, since I wasn’t really hungry that early anyway. Gabe would list off the stuff we needed, and I would go collect items such as mineral bags, egg baskets, stakes, batteries, or whatever else we needed to bring for the day.

Next, we would typically drive to Hay-You, the furthest rental farm. We would take care of the cow move there, then drive back to Cedar Green, a different rental farm. There aren’t cows at Cedar Green currently, but we would take care of a group of turkeys and gather eggs from an Eggmobile. Finally, we would head to Cambell’s, a third rental farm, and move that cow herd.

So what does moving cows entail? Well, in the simplest terms, you call the cows, they come, and you let them through a gate or fence into a new paddock.

But obviously it’s not quite that simple. There’s a decent amount of variation depending on the specific details, but in general we would start by moving the water tank (if necessary), the mineral box, and the battery/spark. Then we would move the cows, and take down the electric fence from the previous paddock, then use it to set up the next day’s paddock. The idea is that each move/paddock is fully set up the day before the move. In addition to the nuts and bolts of performing the move and setting up paddocks, we would also check fence, check water line, and assess the grass quality and cow-days for the next few moves.

Figuring cow-days was a really exciting part of this week, actually.

For the uninitiated: a “cow-day” is how many cows a specific amount of grass will support for one day. The formula is: cow days = (cows x days) / acres, measured in cow-days per acre. So in some places the grass might support 70 cows for a day per acre, and in other it might support 50. The cow-days tells you how large to make the temporary paddock, and helps you make the grazing plan.

I kept pestering Gabe to tell me how many cow-days different field were, and trying to guess myself and develop what Joel call’s the “grazier’s eye”. I was wrong a lot, but I was a lot less wrong at the end of the week than at the beginning, and I’m super excited to keep developing this skill.

The other really exciting part of the week was the increased independence that Gabe gave me. The last time I did a week of off-farm moves was in Week 1, when I was basically saying “what’s a cow?” (Okay, not literally, but I knew utterly nothing). But this week, Gabe often just told me to take down and put up fences, get water tanks, and do other things more on my own, which I really appreciated. It also pushed me to figure things out instead of asking questions, which (in my opinion) is one of the best ways to learn.

Not A Highlight: Busting a Fence Post

Not so much a highlight was when I busted a fence post at Cedar Green. Gabe was having me drive the tractor with the feed buggy (which I haven’t done before), and I was maneuvering it through a tight space between the Eggmobile and a fence. And…the tire of the feed buggy caught a fence post and ripped it out.


It was entirely my fault – I was busy watching the front of the tractor, and things were going super well. I had just gotten past the tight space and eased up on how careful I was being…but I wasn’t watching the back tires of the feed buggy, and didn’t account for the fact that the feed buggy was still in the tight place.

But Gabe was great about it. His laughed at me a little bit, and just said “Watch where you’re going next time. We’ll fix it tomorrow.”

And so the next day I loaded a fence post into the truck and Gabe helped me put it in.

And next time I will be carefully watching the back tires of the feed buggy.

On the upside: I got a good bit of tractor backing and trailer backing experience that day, and things overall went well although I generally had to try a couple of times to back up the feed buggy into the hoophouse and pull into more difficult areas. It was great practice, which I definitely needed.


Once again, PIDS was AWESOME, although in a completely different way than the first time, since I was attending instead of working.

First of all, it felt really weird to not be working. I kept trying to think of what I needed to do, and the only answer was “listen to Joel” and occasionally “carry the water jug.” It was odd.

But the seminar was really educational. Some of the segments were a review of things I knew already, such as the segment on raising broiler chickens. They provided a nice review, and also served a positive affirmation of the fact that yes, we have all learned a bunch of stuff. Other segments were on things that we’ve only received rudimentary exposure to, such as marketing and forestry. All of the attending stewards were busily scribbling notes during these segments! Still other segments, such as the one on salad bar beef, gave a great overview of things that we have had exposure to, but haven’t received a full, integrated lesson on how all of the pieces fit together to make a full picture.

Part of PIDS also simply involves talking to the other attendees, and we answered a TON of questions from people during travel times, such as in the car on the way to rental farms and on the wagon between stops. It was pretty cool how much they expected us to know, and it was also cool how much we actually did know and could answer. Of course, sometimes we had to say simply “I don’t know; that would be a good question for Joel,” but a lot of the time we could provide explanations or additional details. It was really neat!

Of course, I couldn’t handle not working the entire time…on Saturday after everyone was dismissed, I immediately started doing dishes.

Things I’ve Learned About Myself This Summer: I feel the constant need to be busy doing something. It’s a good/bad thing.

Church & Fellowship

Today (Sunday), I went to church, as usual. I typically go to Daniel & Sheri’s church, and I usually attend with Grace, and sometimes Lydia. The sermon was particularly good today, and I went out to lunch with Grace and Lydia afterwards. The fellowship I was able to have with them was well worth the loss of my Sunday afternoon nap, and I’m once again reminded of how nice it is to fellowship with other people…and how blessed I’ve been to be a part of such a great community these last few months.

It’s not just the animals that makes Polyface great. It’s also the people.

Week 12: Bears, Equipment, and Sore Muscles

Week 12: The week between PIDS, and the week that flew by even faster than usual. Let’s see, what did I even do…

Monday: Moving Shelters, Dirt Work, & An Afternoon in the Garden

This week’s first big project was to move two rows of broiler shelters from one field to another. The broilers have been running in a big field behind the hoophouses since the beginning of summer, and we are finally running out of space – they only had about a week or two left before they would run into stuff. And, in order to keep the amount of nitrogen under control, the broiler shelters shouldn’t run over the same piece of ground in the same summer. Some of shelters were empty of chickens after last week’s butchering, and the remainder of two rows would be empty later in the week, so it was time to move them to a different field, known as the “Ridge Field,” behind Daniel & Sheri’s house. Continue reading “Week 12: Bears, Equipment, and Sore Muscles”

Week 11: PIDS!!!!

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. Continue reading “Week 11: PIDS!!!!”

Week 10: Poop & Other Fun Stuff

[Editor’s Note: Posted a week late. Also, this week’s post isn’t done yet. I’M BUSY SORRY BE BACK SOON. Keep checking back!]

Well, it’s Week 10 and today marks the halfway point of my summer stewardship.

This is mostly sad, although also pretty cool to have come so far. The summer has been amazing and it feels like almost no time has passed. At the same time, it feels like I’ve lived multiple years in the past few weeks because of how much I’ve learned and done.

I’ll simply say that coming here was the best decision I have ever made. No doubt.

But anyway, I did stuff this week! I worked the weekend and I have several errands to run and stuff so this will be a slightly shorter post with highlights only.

Monday: Water Lecture!

Monday was extremely hot, and the leadership decided to work with the weather by scheduling one of our lectures for the early afternoon. Continue reading “Week 10: Poop & Other Fun Stuff”

Week 9: Independent Projects for Independence Day

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

Monday: Fixing Fence w/ Joel, Miscellaneous Projects

Monday was a mismatch of assorted projects, making the day go incredibly quickly. Continue reading “Week 9: Independent Projects for Independence Day”

Week 8: God’s Gift to Man

Week…8? Oh boy, I don’t want to think about how quickly this summer is going.

Monday: A Tour & Beating the Heck out of Multiflora Rose

Monday was a little bit unusual in that we took an off farm field trip to a local dairy farm for a tour. The farm is run by a former Polyface apprentice and his wife, a former intern. It is also the farm that we are all buying our milk from while we are here for the summer.

Part of the educational component of the summer stewardship program is several field trip tours to other farming enterprises, and this was the first one, conveniently scheduled during a rain-induced break in hay season.

The tour was really cool, and included a discussion of the actual milking process, marketing (which is interesting and important, but also something I’m not going to like because I don’t even know what all the social media words mean), and a discussion of how grazing dairy cows differs from beef cows. Since dairy cows (all Jersey in this case) have higher caloric requirements, it can be difficult to push the cows enough to meet ecological grazing requirements, while getting them enough calories. This particular farm devised a method of storing fermenting hay in an old grain silo. The fermenting hay is higher in sugar than fresh grass, and the cows get some every day after milking. Then they are turned loose on the pasture. So far, this seems to be working – and they are also breeding for grass-based success, of course.

In the afternoon, I was sent with Eric and a big team of stewards (Gabi, Brandon, Isaiah, Eli) to a rental farm to work on what my dad would call “bullwork” – uprooting a whole bunch of multiflora rose.

For those that don’t know, multiflora rose is a horrible, invasive, woody, bushy plant that is covered in thorns and gets massive. It was introduced by the US government in all of its brilliance (read the sarcasm here) and given away to farmers for free to create hedgerows. Now it is terrible and everyone hates it, because it takes over and ruins pastures…and is difficult and painful to get out (did I mention the thorns?). Since Polyface is committed to not using herbicides, keeping up with the multiflora rose requires beating the heck out of the plant and digging up the root ball using mattocks.

We did this for several hours, getting back basically just in time for dinner. It was hot – mid 90s. The work is tiring. My arms were scratched to pieces. And yes, I had fun.

There is something satisfying about destroying evil plants. You have to plan out your attack to minimize the damage that the thorns do to you, and it feels great when you finally pull out the root ball and overturn the whole mess.

Not only that, but this particular rental farm was perfect for appreciating how beautiful Virginia is. The field we were working in is on a rocky ridge, with a picturesque view of the mountains. In fact, we all paused in our work for a few moments to watch a rainstorm sweeping across the mountain range – we could see the rain falling over the mountains long before it hit us.

And no, I didn’t mind the rain this time – I actually enjoyed it. I was already soaked from sweat, ad the cool water felt wonderful. Besides, it didn’t last too long.

Tuesday: Wrangling Calves

Tuesday was the best day this week because it involved cows.

I love the cows.

First thing after breakfast, I was sent to wrangle calves with Gabe, along with Brandon and Eli. Gabe warned us that it would be a difficult day, and that we might be having a late lunch, and he wasn’t kidding. But it was awesome.

Basically, there was a pinkeye issue at one of the rental farms. They investigated the situation, and Gabe explained that it’s not an insect or parasite problem; they think it just came from irritation the tall grass. Apparently pink eye is really common among calves, and although Polyface is selectively breeding against it, it still happens once in awhile. The goal was to treat the affected calves to prevent blindness or permanent eye problems with a topical spray (similar to human pinkeye treatment) and an eyepatch to prevent further irritation. This was going to involve herding the entire group of cattle into the corral, then separating the calves from the cows, then treating and releasing the affected calves, and finally moving the herd back to the appropriate pasture. Gabe warned us that this herd had a few rather wild cows and that the calves were not going to be cooperative. He wasn’t wrong.

We ran a nonelectrified fence to form a lane from the pasture into the corral. Since the route was down a fairly steep hill, the cows weren’t particularly keen on coming, and it took all three stewards with a bluff (nonelectrified rope strung between us) to get them moving. Then there was running to make sure they didn’t break out of the lane, especially since the calves had eye issues, couldn’t really see the lane very well, and were small enough to duck under it.

Maybe I like cows because it often involves running and/or lots of walking?


Once the cattle were in the corral, we started moving out the adult cows and any calves that were obviously healthy. Here, Eli’s former cattle experience came in handy as he manned a gate and Gabe determined which cows to allow through. Brandon and I just helped guide them through the appropriate gate, and occasionally rounded up specific cows for Gabe. I am fairly excited that I sort of, kind of, usually can bring around specific cows. I have to think about it, but Daniel gave us all a book about herding to study, and I can theoretically use the flight zones of the cow and certain movements to make them move in the right direction…usually. It will require endless practice to do it well, but even just knowing the concept is incredibly cool.

Once the calves were separated out, we moved them through various paddocks in smaller, more manageable groups. Then, one by one, we put the calves into a squeeze chute (very narrow, small paddock) and pinned them down to treat their eyes.

They did not like this part.

At first, Gabe and Eli handled the actual wrangling since, well, Eli has former cow experience and Gabe’s literal job is cows. Brandon and I assisted with the eye patches, spray, and getting the calves in and out of various paddocks per Gabe’s directions. We were all moving constantly. Having four people was perfect – nobody was bored or waiting around, ever, but the work was manageable and not stressful, except when the calves were furiously kicking and trying to not let us near their eyes. It would be great if we could have explained that the eye patches are to help them, but y’know, they’re cows. They don’t get it.

After a little bit, Gabe switched around things a little bit so that Brandon and I could both get in on some calf wrangling. He saved the little calves for me, since I am way smaller than Eli or Brandon, and showed me exactly where to pin the calves to avoid getting kicked. It was super cool.

A funny anecdote on the eyepatches: they are glued onto the calves faces with an extremely sticky adhesive. For the majority of the calves, I was holding the eye patch while Brandon applied a layer of adhesive, then passing it through the fence to Gabe or Eli – whoever had a free hand to stick it on the calves eyes. Well, at one point, Brandon was squeezing the tube of adhesive and the bottom broke, making a giant glob of glue start falling out.

“DON’T LOSE THE GLUE!” Gabe exclaimed as he dug his knee into the hip of a struggling calf. “We need it!”

Brandon proceeded to catch the glue in his hand, looking around in vain for a better solution. We ended up putting it on an empty box, but now his hand was covered in sticky, horrible glue. At this point, he started spreading the glue with his fingers (because what choice did he have?) getting it everywhere. Including all over my hands, although I ended up with way less on me than him or Eli (who also broke a tube, although I didn’t actually see that happen, so it was less funny).

Then, to add injury to insult, a bee flew by him, got stuck to his hand somehow, and stung him. It was hilarious. It was probably not so hilarious for Brandon, but it was pretty funny for me, Eli, and Gabe.

Wednesday: Processing Day
We processed chickens on Wednesday, per usual, and I did QC, also kind of per usual. Then we packaged chickens for what felt like a year.

I have decided that I don’t like packaging the chickens. Processing them is okay, but after lunch, I get really bored with putting endless chickens into endless bags, and sorting stuff, and labeling stuff. I’m not a big fan of the organizational jobs, which makes sense, since I don’t really like cleaning and organizing at home either. Cleaning is a necessary evil (unless I’m angry about something, at which point it makes me feel better), much like, well, packaging chicken. I like the stories about the early days of Polyface, when customers came on processing day to pick up the fresh birds and bring them home in a cooler full of ice.

On the bright side, I got to take a fifteen minute break to help Joel move cows. I like cows.

I guess it’s worth having to package endless chicken to also get to play with cows.

I will also add that getting to look at mountains while processing chickens makes the whole thing substantially more tolerable, as does the knowledge that processing day is a gigantic money maker that enables the other, more fun stuff. I appreciate that Daniel shares some of the details about “here’s how much money we are making from all these birds” – it mitigates the pain of endless packaging.

Thursday: Trees & Hay!

On Thursday, we got to go back to hay! I have decided that I like hay.

But first, a lesson on forestry – for our usual Thursday “shop talk”, Joel gave a lesson on turning trees into fence posts, and it was awesome. Basically, we followed him out to a fenceline where he chainsawed some trees, and showed us how he divides them up into 8 foot posts for permanent fences and 5 foot posts for electric fences. The rest of the tree goes into a wood chipper.

The first big takeaway from this lesson was the simplicity of it. The tree does not have to be perfectly straight. It does not have to be pretty. It just has to work, and you can get a lot of fence posts out of a simple tree. In the two hour lesson, Joel cut over $250 worth of posts – that’s a big deal.

The other big takeway was the impotancce of long term thinking when it comes to forestry. This particularly fenceline hasn’t been cut in twenty years. It won’t be ready to cut again for another twenty years. And yet, via managment and allowing sections of woods to grow between pastures, the Salatins have managed to grow pretty much all their own fenceposts. You just have to manage things properly. Joel also explaned that it is often possible to get people to let you harvest their trees for free, or sometimes even get paid to do it, since farmers don’t like it when the woods starts encroaching on their fields. This is very valuable information for all of us!

There were a ton of miscellaneous projects to delve into after the forestry lesson, and for me that looked like weeding, unloading some pallets into a freezer, and converting eggs from flats to cartons to help out Leanna (who is in charge of inventory stuff, in case you forgot).

But after lunch it was time to start teams rotating through hay again. After a break due to some scattered rain earlier in the week, we were preparing to bale two large fields.

I did not go first. Instead, I worked with Eric on making a new feed system for a turkey shelter on a rental farm. This involved working with metal, which was really interesting because I haven’t really done anything with metal before. Eric had an old, rusty feed barrel that he wanted to covert to a portable feed barrel that could be pulled with a tractor along with the turkey shelter. He explained some mechanics stuff to us, and then showed us how to use hand tools to work with the metal. This was great, because power tools are expensive!

As hay started heating up, Eric ended up leaving me and Brandon to finish making the apparatus (well, not quite finish, but finish the part we were doing that day), with instructions to do broiler chores and then check in for our turn doing hay. It ended up being a bit of an adventure, since neither of us knew what we were doing, but it was great experience to actually work the metal ourselves – we also split the work evenly so we could both get a feel for the tools we were using.

As we were coming back from broiler chores, Eric pulled up beside us with an empty hay wagon – perfect timing. We hopped on and headed out to the hay field, along with Steward Daniel and Charlie.

When we go there, Brandon and Steward Daniel relieved two of the other stewards. I waited for the next wagon, then jumped in.

I proceeded to stack three hay wagons with Brandon and Daniel, working well past dinner time…but finishing the hay field. Eric was monitoring us – especially since Eli was driving the baler for the first time – and helped us overstack the last two wagons in order to cram all of the hay on. It was heavy, sweaty, and absolutely satisfying.

Also, food never tasted so good as it did that evening at 8pm when we finally got to the pavilion for supper.

A note on my allergies: They are fine. I sneezed maybe three times while stacking hay on Thursday, and my sinuses remained clear. The hay was a little itchy, but I washed off my arms and proceeded to enjoy a good meal with friends, and even stayed late to help with dishes before heading back up to the camp to shower. Raw milk & honey, combined with exposure, was highly effective at solving my problem. As you may remember from a few weeks ago, this is in stark contrast to my first time stacking hay in the field, when I ended up covered in hives, coughing, and unable to breathe through my nose for days.

Natural remedies can work, boys and girls. Also, my life is much more awesome now that I am not constantly sneezing.

Friday: More Chickens, More Hay

This was a double processing week, so we processed more chickens on Friday. This time I did the end QC job, which is my favorite, then commenced in the packaging chickens for years thing.

But this time, before we were quite finished, Eric pulled me aside to see if I wanted to go with Parker and Eli to do more hay things. He warned me that I might get to dinner late, and I would need to grab a snack from the store to take with me. Was this fine?

Obviously, the answer was “YES”.

The catch was that this was big square bale hay, not small square bale hay, which meant it was equipment stuff. I had received a crash course on driving a trailer that morning after catching chickens for processing with Eric and Oleg on a rental farm, and Eric asked if I was okay with driving a trailer full of hay.

Sure? I guess? If they trust me to drive a trailer, well, I’ll do my absolute best to drive a trailer.

And so off we went to Greenville, a rental farm dedicated to hay production. Daniel had spent several days at Greenville, working on mowing, raking, and baling hay, and now he was stacking it. This was tractor work, and he needed me and Eli to drive trailer loads of hay from the field to the piles where he was stacking it. Parker would be using a different tractor to load the trailers in the field.

This ended up being a lesson on interpreting sign language, as Daniel indicated where exactly I should drive. Daniel is impressively amazing at nonverbal communication, and he directed my extremely poor driving skills to go to the right spots and then back up the trailer (AGH HELP BACKING UP A TRAILER). Once he unloaded my first trailer load, I headed across the field to Parker, where I got to learn a different set of sign language to go where he wanted me to go.

I got the hang of it, mostly. There were definitely moments when Daniel was not there and I parked wrong and he had to direct me how to fix it, but I got more comfortable with the trailer as the evening went on, including turning it around tight corners. I only messed up turning it one time, and I managed to stop before I hit anything. Daniel laughed and moved the hay bale for me so I wouldn’t have to back it up to fix it…I’m LEARNING. Equipment is HARD.

It was kind of boring, of course, because it was just driving. But I played the radio, and I enjoyed watching the number of giant bales in the field gradually shrink. We ended up working until dark, getting back to the farm around 9:30…but it was worth it. The girls had saved me dinner, but I only had a few bites before deciding that what I really wanted to do was go to sleep, not eat.

We make hay while the sun shines, and I’m not sorry. Hay is important, and I like it. I like physically stacking it better than driving trucks, but I just like hay in general.

Saturday: A Tour & A Ladies Night

I was off this weekend, but I helped out with Saturday chores, per usual, then decided to go on a Lunatic Tour that Joel was doing on farm this weekend. I went with Gabi, and it was fun to watch Joel in action – he thrives on public speaking, and it was really cool to walk through the farm with the group of tourists and hear his official presentation about some of the farm highlights.

After the tour, I worked in the store for about an hour, since there is always a mad rush of business after a tour and all the people officially working were off doing more hay at Greenville, so Wendy could use the help. I talked to several people, and even met a couple from my hometown of Livonia, which was a bizarre coincidence! They live only a mile from where my house used to be, and were showing me pictures of their front yard garden, which was super cool and reminded me of my old front yard garden. I’m glad to see more self sustainment happening in the city, even in pins-and-paper cities like Livonia!

I ran some errands in the afternoon, then came back to the farm to help out with evening chores. We were trying to finish chores quickly, since we had some plans that evening – a Girls Night at Wendy’s house! All the girl stewards were going, along with Lydia and Grace, Sheri, and Christina (Gabe’s wife).

And it was super fun. We ordered pizza from a local bakery (that uses Polyface chicken and other local products) and it was incredible pizza. We all hung out, looked at Wendy’s vast library and beautiful garden, and told stories and jokes. It was so nice to relax and laugh with all the women in a non-work context, and we stayed up way too late…but once in awhile, that’s worth it.

Of course “way too late” here is 11pm, which I’m sure will make my friends laugh. But when you get up at 5:15, well…

Sunday: Church & Chilling

Sunday, as usual, is the day of rest. I didn’t even help with chores this morning, although I woke up at chore time and spent some quality time with my writing and a pot of coffee.

I’ve been attending Daniel’s church, and enjoyed a great worship service, before stopping by Walmart to purchase some ammo. The pastor is preaching a series on what the Bible has to say about fools, focusing heavily on Proverbs, along with several passages in the New Testament, and it is excellent so far. Now I’m finishing up these posts, and have a few more hours of relaxing, potentially followed by movie night at Daniel’s house…or perhaps an early bedtime. We’ll see.

I’m loving life here in Virginia. The mountains are still incredible, I adore the people, and work is fulfilling and meaningful. Next weekend will be the fourth of July and I have some plans, so I may not make it into town to post – but rest assured that I’m probably having a good, albeit difficult, week doing something that, so far, I absolutely love.

I want to end this week with a Bible verse that I think really epitomizes how I feel about this summer:

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live, also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man. –Ecclesiastes 3:9-13

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

[Edit: Posted late. Sorry]

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

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

10/10, glad I’m here. Anyway.

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

Monday: Gun Stores & Ice Cream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Processing Giant Chickens

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Third Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Rivers of Chickens

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

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

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

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

It was time to find a leader.

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

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

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

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

It was not my favorite morning on the farm.

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

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

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

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

Friday: Gardening & Random Stuff

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

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

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

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

Polyface Week 5: Hay & Chickens

[Editor’s Note: posted a week late because I was planning on posting this Monday, and instead got super dehydrated and went to bed. Then I got busy. Sorry.]

Week five here at Polyface was characterized by three things: processing chickens, making hay, and the first really hot week of the summer.

June marks the beginning of “hay season” where Polyface – and all the other farms – are trying to harvest hay to get through the winter. The harvest happens in June after the aggressive spring growth of the grass, and according to Daniel, they usually have harvested most of the hay that they need by July, weather depending. In order to make hay, there needs to be a series of hot, dry days since once the hay is mowed, it needs to not get wet until it has had time to fully dry out and be packed into bales. If baled and stored properly, hay lasts indefinitely – Joel claims that it will last a hundred years, easily. Continue reading “Polyface Week 5: Hay & Chickens”

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.


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.