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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Polyface Farm Summer Internship: Week Fourteen

By Kristen Kilfoyle

Tags: Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm, chicken processing, farm apprenticeships, Virginia, Kristen Kilfoyle,

Monday, September 1st: Labor Day

Monday’s work day was somewhat abbreviated due to Labor Day, which was a nice surprise. This week, my morning chore was to work with the turkeys and the hens at the Feathernet, which I enjoy doing. To refresh your memory, the turkeys get moved every two days and the Feathernet gets moved every three. On days where the birds do not get moved, we usually set up nets for the next day’s move along with feeding and giving the birds their grit.

After breakfast, we split up to do different projects and interns Greer, Will and I went with Daniel Salatin to one of the rental farms to modify their water system. Our objective was to dig a trench into one of the farm ponds, making it deep enough where we could pump out clean water (If the area is to shallow, you get dirt and muck in your water.) and close enough where the pump hose could reach it. Polyface has a digging attachment they can stick on one of the tractors, which was fun to watch. We ended up getting the afternoon off and while most people went to shoot skeet, I went to a coffee shop to upload my blog. :)

Tuesday, September 2nd

Tuesday morning, we fed the turkeys and moved the Feathernet. We were moving them across a farm road, which was a slightly longer distance than the birds are used to, so the move took a little bit longer than I’m sure they’re used to.

After a quick breakfast, intern Josh and I did buying club load up, which you may remember from other blog posts that I enjoy. Polyface had run a sale on turkeys and with it being back to school, a lot of people tend to start stocking up on food for the year. This weeks load up was pretty big and took us until lunch to assemble and put away in the freezers. We spent the rest of the day at one of Polyface’s rental farms sorting cows and moving them to different pasture. We needed to assemble ten cows to send to slaughter and check on the calves and their mothers, which we were able to do all at once. My job in the sort was to man the gate and Daniel would call out if he wanted a certain cow or not as he directed parts of the herd to this corral I was managing. You have to be alert when sorting cows because when one that you don’t want squeaks in through the gate, it is a pain for Daniel to have to go in and sort it out. The move and sort went really well and we had a lot of nice looking animals to choose from.

Wednesday, September 3rdCooler

After chores, we interns assembled for the long anticipated slaughterhouse (or abattoir if you prefer) tour. I had never been to a slaughterhouse, so I was a little nervous about what to expect. We interns had all been wanting to go, as we’ve assembled many a trailer of animals to send to this plant and we knew that once things started to slow down a bit at the farm, we would get the chance to go. I would like to report that I was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting to feel grossed out or at the very least overstimulated, but I felt neither. The facility was incredibly clean and organized with an emphasis on creating a low stress environment for the animals. On the day we went, the staff was processing some of the Polyface cows, which was very impactful for me. This was my first chance to see the whole cycle as it relates to the cattle. I had sorted these cows with Daniel and intern Brandon the day before and here they were for all of us to see. 

If you had asked me even a year ago if I ever thought going to a slaughterhouse wouldn’t be an entirely unpleasant experience for me, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. Until this summer, my impression of such enterprises had been influenced by the media and pro-vegetarian documentaries, where I thought of slaughterhouses as dirty, foul, dark places where animals suffer and are brutally killed, which is part of the reason why Polyface’s outdoor poultry processing operation was so intriguing to me initially, but this is not what this slaughterhouse was like. I know from first hand observation that that the owners and the staff of this abattoir want a low stress environment for the animals. If I may, I’d like to explain why I now think more favorably of other smaller slaughterhouses without having seen them. In my own extrapolation, having worked with livestock this summer, stressed out animals are harder to handle, work with and be around. It only makes sense to me that other slaughterhouses follow similar humane handling practices. Besides the emotional benefits for all involved, humane handling is more efficient, thus more profitable. I’m sure there are outliers, but for the most part, I’d like to give small to mid-size slaughterhouses the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they need an inspector present for USDA certification and you can be sure avoiding the wrath of the USDA is a priority for these businesses. It would be for me. But I digress.

That night, some of the interns and Eric, our apprentice manager, collected stewing hens for chicken processing tomorrow. Stewing hens make delicious broth and we had recently sold out of our stewer inventory. These hens are fast and are much easier to gather when they’re bedding down for the night. We were able to round them up fairly quickly and get them settled for the evening.

Thursday, September 4th 

Since our usual processing day, Wednesday, as occupied with mind expansion and new life experiences, we processed chickens on Thursday. After tending to the turkeys and Feathernet hens, intern Josh and I collected about 200 broilers with Jonathan, one of our apprentices.

I was on the legging station and I can assure you that working on stewing hens is much more intensive than working on a broiler. The broilers are between seven and nine weeks old by the time they are processed and the stewing hens are usually two to three years old. This gives the stewers time to grow very strong cartilage at their joints, making legging harder on you and your knife. I had gutted stewers before coming here when helping with processing on the farm that Dan (my Dan back in New Hampshire, not Daniel Salatin, just to be clear) had worked at previously, and it is a much different experience than gutting a broiler. Basically, it takes longer and is messier. But that is okay. They are different builds and different organs are more fully developed, so it takes a while to get used to the transition. I am, however, looking forward to some lovely chicken soup.

Friday, September 5thChicken

Friday was a bit of an odds and ends day as we were preparing for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s annual fundraiser, which was to take place this weekend. After taking care of the turkeys and laying hens, intern Tim and I set out three pens of broiler chicks (the last batch of this year!), helped repair some gates and fencing at one of the pig pastures and cleared brush for a fence line Joel was cutting back.

After lunch, we set out trash cans and the like for the fundraiser, built a log wall in one of the barns (Think lincoln logs but with actual trees) and did evening chores. That evening, as part of the fundraiser, we were able to go to a street fair and dinner put on by Farm to Consumer. There were some different vendors and organizations there supporting local food and Joel was given an award by the mayor of Staunton, VA (the town the fair was held) honoring him for his significant contributions to the local food movement. It was fun to see so many enthusiastic people and see Joel get his award. And there were brownies. Yay.

Saturday, September 6th

I was on the schedule to work this weekend, which ended up being fortuitous for me. I like when there are events at Polyface, so it was fun to be able to participate. After morning chores, we interns were invited to partake in Farm to Consumer’s welcome breakfast, which was generous of them. There was a farm tour, which I got to attend even though I was technically working (I can work and be inspired by Joel at the same time… multitasking!), followed by lunch and some speakers. I ended up joining the organization and suggest that those of you who haven’t yet do so. This organization has done a lot to educate farmers of their rights when it comes to food laws, illegal search and seizure and all kinds of other complicated legalese. It also gives consumers a way to help farmers and keep our local small farms out of legal trouble. They are also nice folks and were a pleasure to have around the farm.

Farm to Consumer Day

We are down to three weeks left… I’m getting excited to head home, see the people and pets that I miss, and apply what I’ve learned here to my own farm business, but it will be weird not seeing all my intern, staff and animal friends that I’ve become accustomed to. Good thing for the internet. For most people, they’re never more than a few keystrokes away.