Polyface Farm Summer Internship: Week One

Reader Contribution by Kristen Kilfoyle
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“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates

When I first sat down to actually write this post, I was trying to think of a way to describe my first week as a Polyface summer intern and this quote came to mind. This past week has been very impactful to me: humbling, gratifying, tiring, eye opening and exciting.

What has really struck me, though, is that there is so much to know when it comes to farming, and I really and truly had no idea how much there is to learn. Farming is not simply sprinkling cracked corn to your chickens and watering lettuce while listening to the birds chirp. Challenges are constantly coming up, issues occur and solutions need to be thought up and executed quickly. And I love it.

In my weekly blog posts, I’ll go through day by day and let you know what we did. We do a lot in a day (I keep a daily log or else I’ll forget), so I’ll explain which farm tasks we do, but may not get into specific methodology of what was done until later on when I either have a more detailed lesson on it from farm leadership or when I have pictures to help me explain.

Sunday, June 1st

The Polyface Summer Internship always starts on June 1st. This year, June 1st happened to fall on a Sunday, which is a day of rest at Polyface and is chores only. We interns had arrived a few days earlier to settle in and unpack (I arrived Friday 5/30 at about 5:30pm, having left Massachusetts at 6:30am.) and were asked to meet Daniel Salatin and the farm apprentices at 5:45am on Sunday to shadow them while they did chores. I was able to go with one of the apprentices, and another intern to the turkey shelters. He explained to us how he moved the shelters (all poultry shelters are moved daily), how much feed to give the birds and showed us how to water them (more on that later). We also fed the some of the pullets (young hens not yet of egg laying age), checked on one of the groups of pigs and let one of the herds of cows into a new paddock. I had never seen such happy cows before and it was fun to watch them run to the new grasses. We were then free until 4pm, the next time chores were done, and a welcome dinner after.

I am one of four female interns and we currently live in The Roost, a converted mobile classroom you may have read about in some of Joel Salatin’s books, most recently Fields of Farmers, a book he wrote about he and his family’s experiences having farm interns and the importance of fostering our next generation of farmers. (I picked up a copy before I came to Polyface… I was being impatient and wanted some hints on what this summer would be like.). The Roost has a kitchen/eating area, a bathroom and large bedroom with bunks and storage areas for our clothes and essentials. We are given a lot of freedom with regards to how we set up our living quarters, but are expected to keep everything clean. We are also allowed access to the Polyface larder, which is a big treat. Thus far, we’ve had lots of fresh eggs, meat, vegetables and sometimes other little surprises (my favorite item from the surprise bin thus far has been rolls from a bakery in town).

For evening chores, I shadowed while the rabbit shelters were moved and the broilers (meat chickens) and pullets’ food and water were checked and refilled as necessary. We then went to Daniel and Sheri Salatin’s house for our introductory dinner, where we went over Polyface’s standard operating procedure and their expectations of us. I left feeling very welcomed and excited about the coming week.

Monday, June 2nd

Monday morning was our group lesson on how to move the broiler shelters. When I say broiler shelters, I mean the mobile chicken coops Polyface is famous for, as there are also pullets in some of the broiler shelters. Those of you who are familiar with Joel’s book Pastured Poultry Profits will already know how moving shelters is done, but I will explain it for those of you who don’t. The broiler shelters are portable chicken coops that can be moved easily by one person. (I say this now because I have gotten the hang of it. It wasn’t easy the first few times I tried it.) The shelters are moved daily to give the birds fresh grasses to enjoy and distribute their manure to encourage soil health. At Polyface, not only are they are trying to teach us how to take care of livestock, but they also want us to know how to do so efficiently and ergonomically. (We only have one back people! Gotta take care of it!) As Daniel explained, the first step to moving the shelter is to remove the feeder from inside where the birds are. We then walk it up about three paces and set it down in the grass, which helps give a benchmark as to how far to pull the shelter. Polyface has this handy dolly (as seen in the photo) we use to roll the shelter. It took me a few tries to get the hang of getting the dolly in the proper position, but once it is in, you go to the front of the broiler shelter where there is a handle. You lift the handle, lean back and pull the shelter back keeping your back straight. I like to move the shelters back in short movements for two reasons; one is to make sure the birds inside have enough time to keep up with the shelter and the second is because I am not as strong as I thought I was. (More on that in just a bit.) After the shelters are moved, the birds are fed and their water filled.  We practiced this as a group and were then given time to go to breakfast. When we came back, we were then given a tour of the farm by our apprentice manager, and we got to see all the different fields and farm ponds to help us get our bearings. The rest of the morning was spent doing some of the many miscellaneous small farm jobs that pop up; putting away a delivery of 1 x 6 planks, hitching up trailers to trucks, etc.

Monday afternoon one of my roommates and I helped with baling hay. This is the part where I go deeper into that I am not as strong as I thought I was. The hay bales of my youth were light, dry and distributed one flake at a time, so when I was told we were baling hay, I thought I would be a pro. A wagon and a half into it, my roommate and I were practically dying. The bales were especially heavy, about 70 lbs each, and they just kept coming out of the baler. We ended up team lifting them while the apprentice that thankfully was there with us was throwing them around like they were loaves of bread. At some point, our arms seemed to stop working and we had to ask to be subbed out. I climbed up to the top of the stack to position the bales the apprentice was so easily passing up and as I was up there trying to catch my breath while attempting to be helpful, Daniel reminded me of a comment I had made to him earlier that day about how they seemed to be nicely easing us into the hard labor aspect of farming. He certainly has good timing. I will never again complain about the price of hay.

Tuesday, June 3rd

Tuesday morning I was able to help another of the apprentices with feeding the rabbits. My job was to go to a comfrey patch she pointed out, fill two five gallon buckets with plants and feed them to the rabbits. This was a very pleasant way to start the morning, as there were a lot of very cute baby bunnies hopping around. I do have to keep in mind they are for food and to not give them names. After breakfast, three other interns and myself went with Daniel to set up a shade cloth on the turkey roost and set up the electric netting that encompasses their shelter (aka a “feathernet”). Once we rolled it out, we noticed there were holes in some of the nets and Daniel was able to give us a lesson in netting repair, which is a skill I’m excited to have learned.

After lunch, I went with our apprentice manager, another one of the apprentices, and one of my roommates to set up pig fencing at one of the properties Polyface manages. We pounded in stakes, ran electric wire and the apprentice manager mowed where the fencing was to go, as this helps the pigs see where the fence is in the tall grass. Evening chores were feeding and watering the broilers and making sure none of the shelters were broken.

Tuesday night was the first night Joel Salatin was able to eat dinner with us, as he had just returned from the Mother Earth News Fair and it was nice to have him there. We eat as a group after work Monday through Friday, which is a great way to wrap up the day. We can relax, joke around and get the run down of what we’re doing the next day and the food is always delicious.

Wednesday, June 4th

Wednesday morning was our chicken processing lesson. This was another instance where I thought I would be better at the task than I actually was, as I had eviscerated birds prior to coming here. Polyface’s way was different than the way I had learned at the farm I assisted before, mainly because there are more stations at a Polyface processing. I was at the gutting station and was responsible for loosening the crop, which I had never done before and I was woefully slow at (although all things improve with practice, I just like being good at everything immediately, which is rarely the case), and removing the innards, except for the lungs. I was stationed across from Joel, who was teaching us, and was marveling at how quickly he can do this. He reminded us that he has had a lot of practice, but I kept finding myself stopping what I was doing to watch his technique. We also learned how to bag the birds in a way that is not only attractive, but helps the bird keep longer, and learned how Polyface organizes their freezers. I would have liked to take pictures of the interns learning to process, but as I got into it I was concentrating and forgot. I’ll take some in the next few weeks, as we process birds weekly. I am confident we’ll all get the hang of it with the amount of practice we’ll have.

After lunch, I was able to set up a cross fence for one of the herds of cattle with Joel, which is something I had done during my two day checkout back in December. The views from this particular corral were beautiful and it was interesting to listen as Joel pointed out the different parts of the property and his plans for them. After that, I helped two of the apprentices move pigs, which ended up taking much longer than we anticipated because of one especially stubborn sow, but was still really fun and I got covered in mud plucking some piglets out of a wallow. All in all, it was a great day.

Thursday, June 5th

Thursday morning, one of my roommates and I were given the opportunity to feed and water the rabbits on our own. I was in charge of feeding the rabbits their greens while my roommate gave them their pellets and filled their water. We also fed the hens in the hoop house where most of the rabbits live and moved the mobile rabbit shelters that are stationed throughout the property. After breakfast, two of the other interns and I split posts for a corral the staff is planning. I split one post, but it took a long time. (I’m not particularly known for my sledgehammering abilities…) I ended up taping in the wedges for the other two guys and using the hatchet to chop apart the pieces of the logs that weren’t coming apart and we were able to get a lot done.

Thursday afternoon, all of the interns shadowed Daniel and the apprentices while they planned how to build a new corral for some of their cattle. They were taking into account how cows prefer to move to the right (something I didn’t know), leaving enough room for a livestock trailer to back up and the topography of the land. It was pretty informative and I’m looking forward to seeing the corral come to fruition. The rest of the day was spent gathering and washing eggs, which I really enjoy doing. It is quiet and methodical work and once you get into the rhythm of it, it is very relaxing. I think it’s the perfect way to finish a day.

Friday, June 5th

Friday morning, I was given the task of moving broiler shelters. I was nervous about it given my awkwardness with learning it on Monday. Like I mentioned before, however, after practice, I got the hang of it and left feeling encouraged knowing I could move them on my own. My roommate and I then went with Daniel while he tested the tentative layout of the corral by bringing the goose-neck trailer to make sure there would be enough room to turn. It was good we went because some of the cows had gotten out and we were able to pretty easily herd them back to where they needed to go. We then stayed and helped set up a new cross fence (which involved my being allowed to drive the ATV) and let the cows into their new field. Let me tell you, watching cows trot happily into a field of tall grasses in the early morning mist is a beautiful thing. After breakfast, I spent the rest of the day around the sales building, helping unload the mineral, salt and kelp delivered for the cows and helping customers with their custom meat order pickups. I spent so much time in sales prior to coming here that it was fun to talk with the people who were picking up and see where they were from and what motivated them to eat the way they do. 

I had this weekend off, although interns generally work at least one weekend a month. As you can see, it was a busy week, and I learned and experienced a lot. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a summer intern here as everyone has been patient and so willing to help and teach. I will work hard to make their efforts worth their while. Be sure to check back next week and I’ll let you know what else has gone on and more of what I have learned. See you next week!