Polyface Farm Summer Internship: Week Eight

Reader Contribution by Kristen Kilfoyle
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Week Eight. My goodness, we’re about half way through the internship. This week was a lot of wind down/clean up from Field Day, profound permaculture lessons and setting up all kinds of birds in all kinds of spots. 

Monday, July 21st

As you can imagine, after having about 1,800 visitors to the farm on Saturday and being somewhat catatonic on Sunday, there was a lot to clean up on Monday. My morning chore for this week was to feed and water my broiler buddies, so after that was done, we all set to dismantling everything Field Day. Down came the cinder block BBQ pit, vendor tables, the 700+ bales of hay we set out as seating (Those went up actually, to the hay loft.), rental tents and other assorted items. After the barn was cleared up, we set up gates, waterers, bedding and feeders for the new piglets due in later in the week.

After lunch, I went with Gabe, another intern, to one of the Polyface managed properties to set up one of the Eggmobiles that had been shut down in the spring. Whoever shut it down prior had done a good job, as no major repairs were necessary and they even left some hay behind for us to put in the nest boxes. The only things we needed to bring back were bottoms for some of the nest boxes, where the old ones had rotted out, along with some feeders, but we didn’t need to do that until the end of the week when the new birds came.

We did stop working a bit early on Monday to be able to go to Charlottesville for a talk by Darren Doherty of Regrarians about their vision for regenerative agriculture. I had mentioned Darren and his wife Lisa Heenan in last week’s blog post, but in case you missed it, Darren and Lisa have a company, HeenanDoherty, providing consulting services for whole landscape plans for properties. They are also working on a documentary, Polyfaces, which is expected to debut this fall. In any case, their talk was packed and very inspirational. Their passion for pragmatic solutions towards issues of sustainability, capturing water runoff, keyline water systems and climates, both economic as well as locational, were extremely helpful. I highly recommend checking out their website to see what they’re all about. They are doing a lot to advance our cause and the more people who know about them and their documentary Polyfaces, the better.

Tuesday, July 22nd

Tuesday was the first time I’d ever helped with the Buying Club load up at Polyface. After feeding and watering the broilers, Brandon, another intern, and I went to the sales building where the morning project people had pulled out crates of meats according to the order sheet given by our inventory manager. Buying Club load up is really fun. Jackie, one of Polyface’s office super stars, sits at her computer generating invoices and calls out to us what needs to be put in the coolers. As an example, “One Boston Butt! Two ground beef! Five whole broilers and one Freedom Ranger!” Brandon and I, under the supervision of both Jackie and our inventory manager, disperse and assemble the order. When there is one item, the weight is usually listed on the label and we read this to Jackie so the item can be properly invoiced. A category with more than one item are weighed and the total given to Jackie. We then let Jackie know which cooler the order went in and she lets us know which drop off location it is meant for. We then organize accordingly and put the coolers in the freezer so they are ready for delivery. At times, it was hard to remember everything on the order, so it was good to work with another person. I had a good time doing load up though. We have been spending so much time raising the animals and doing preparation work for their processing and sale, so it’s good to be coming full circle. I love to sell things, so I’m excited to learn this part of Polyface’s business. There were a lot of orders for this week, so putting these together took the entire morning.

After lunch, we went and gathered firewood (another arm of Polyface’s offerings) and moved cows to sort the heifers from the steers. I was given the opportunity to lead the herd down the hill to the sorting pens, so I opened the gate, steeled my resolve and attempted a cattle call. Apparently it was well received because the cows started running and I had to sprint to keep ahead of them. When we finished, a few of the other interns were wondering why we all had been thundering down the hill, but I didn’t really have an answer. All I know is, if the cows get ahead of you, there is no leadership and that’s a problem. I’d really prefer there not be cattle anarchy on my watch.

We also had a few night projects this week with regards to the birds. Monday’s project was to meet at the pullet shelters once it was dark, gather up the birds and put them in crates. They are getting older and are starting to lay eggs, so they are being promoted to living in an Eggmobile. We were splitting up the flock between two different properties, so following our covert pullet snatching operation, we split into two groups and set off to take a group of birds to their new spot. The reason we catch birds at night is because they are so fast, thus making it very difficult to catch on such a large scale during the day. They are much more docile at night and one can fairly easily catch one without too much noise and chaos. Once we got to the new Eggmobile, we unloaded the birds, put them in to sleep and shut them in for the night. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, July 23rd

Besides being my mother’s birthday (Happy birthday, Mom!), Wednesday was another processing day. During today’s processing, I did my usual swing position between lunging, quality control and gutting. After all the birds were done, Daniel taught me and a few other interns how to part out the birds, which I’m really excited to have learned. Not only is it a good skill to utilize for upselling product, but it’s a general life skill I felt I needed. I now know how to cut the wings and legs off a bird, plus remove the breast and tenderloins. At this point, this takes me a while, but Daniel did it in 44 seconds. I’m looking forward to getting more practice. Daniel mentioned that if more American families knew how to do this, the savings would be in the hundreds of dollars over the course of a year. Generally, buying a whole birds costs way less per pound than just buying breast meat, so this makes sense.

Thursday, July 24th

Thursday morning was dedicated to setting up the baby broilers in the Ridge Field behind Daniel’s house. There were already some shelters there that we had dropped off a few weeks ago, but we also needed to use the flatbed trailer to transport the other twelve that had been used by the pullets as of Monday. Moving the shelters, while it was a good amount of lifting, was a lot of fun. Seeing projects get done is very satisfying to me. In any case, we moved about 24 shelters to the Ridge Field while another team of interns did repairs, set up waterers and feed and gathered chicks and put them out in their new abodes. The birds always look so excited running around in grass for the first time (The brooder, the bird nursery, has a sawdust floor) and it’s funny to watch them look at bugs and try to peck at them.

In the afternoon, we went to one of the properties Polyface manages to move cows along with the Polyfaces film crew. They are so much fun to be around and the footage they got was really beautiful. There was a thunderstorm minutes away as we were trying to get the cows to their new spot, so this made for some scenic backdrops against the thundering of hooves. Said thunderstorm arrived right after the filming was done and we ended up waiting out most of the rain in the truck.

That night, our job was to train the Eggmobile. I had never heard of such a thing, but now it makes perfect sense. Since the birds at the Eggmobile are free ranging hens, they need to learn to sleep inside the Eggmobile at night. This is to ensure they don’t get picked off by predators while they’re sleeping and so they can be shut in at night to be moved in the morning on moving days. A lot of them like to go under the structure and roost in the axle or on the wheels and some like to sleep on the ground near the Eggmobile. As interns, we split up with some of us going under the Eggmobile to shoo out birds who try to get under, some rounding up rogue birds and some making sure there isn’t a bottleneck of hens going up the ramp to get inside. This was the first night these girls were ever trying to get inside, so there were some funny attempts by the hens to fly up to the door and not quite making it. It took a while to get everyone inside because a lot of the hens were confused, but it wasn’t their fault. They’re just learning.

Friday, July 25th

Friday was a special treat. After chores, we learned that we were going to get to spend the day with Joel’s brother, Art, and his wife Donna as they processed honey from their hives. I had mentioned last week that Art is a talented apiarist, and we have all been hoping to get to watch him work with the bees, so as you can imagine, the news of working with Art and Donna was very well received by the interns. Art explained to us how he opens the hives, determines how much honey each hive needs to get through the winter and how to store the honey filled frames as to not encourage hive robbing. (I learned that bees can smell honey and if they get the word out that honey is available, there can be pandemonium. Bee pandemonium is not cool.) We spent the morning watching and helping Art while he gathered frames, then went to his processing area, learned how to use a hot knife to remove the comb from the frames and put them in an extractor. I’m not familiar with the range of extractor options, but Art’s extractor is stainless steel, has slots that hold the frames and spins them using centrifugal force to release the honey. The honey then gets strained into a food grade bucket with a spigot, which we use to put the honey in jars. Luckily, finger licking was encouraged and Art and Donna were kind enough to give us some honey to take home.

That night was Round 2 of Eggmobile training. This went much better as some of the birds had caught on. I ended up under the Eggmobile shooing out the hens and I was getting a boot out of how offended the hens act when you tell them to get out. They ruffle their feathers indignantly, squawk at you while giving you a look of utter disapproval then run away in a huff. I love them.

Saturday, July 26th

On Saturday, Allan Savory of the Savory Institute visited Polyface. This was a big honor and very exciting for the interns, as Allan is one of the brightest minds with regards to holistic management in the world. As part of the filming of Polyfaces, we were able to have a small cookout and sit down with Allan. Out of respect for Polyfaces, I won’t delve too deeply here into what Allan discussed should they be using it for their film, but prior to his speaking, Joel pointed out that having Allan to the farm was a very special opportunity for the interns present and he was right. While waiting to sit down and eat, I scanned the small crowd, saw Joel Salatin, Allan Savory and Darren Doherty, among others, and it hit me how lucky I am to be a Polyface intern. I was about to eat burgers in Joel’s backyard with some of the best ecological minds in the country. My cup runneth over.