Monday was a fun day. Fellow intern Erik and I were assigned to move a herd of cows at one of Polyface's rental farms. Erik had been assigned to move this herd daily while the apprentice whose responsibility this usually was went home for a wedding. He ended up enjoying it and did a really good job, so the staff at Polyface allowed him to continue caring for this particular group for the rest of the time he was here.
When we arrived to move the cows, we noticed they were out of water. At first, we didn’t know quite what to make of it after doing the preliminary check of things, but since the cows were thirsty, we decided to move them to a corral they had been in the day before that had a partially filled water tank still in it. That ended up not being enough water, so we looked around and found some concrete troughs that this rental farm’s former cattle farming tenants had installed previously on different sections of the property. Thankfully most of these had some water sitting in them, so we moved the cows to each one. It took a few hours of shutting the bovines around to get everyone a drink, but this herd was very cooperative and the whole operation—for being born from a problem—went very smoothly.
During all the moving of the cows, Erik and I had determined that the water pump had broken. We called our Apprentice Manager, Eric with a ‘c,’ and he came by and fixed it. I am not particularly well versed in all things motor, but Eric said it was the relay in the pump that had stopped functioning. After the pump was fixed, Erik and I set up new fencing, took down and moved the old water troughs and changed the battery on the fencing. Since we ran so late with all the water problems, we were granted a dispensation to get a very late lunch at Five Guys (yay) and headed back for evening chores.
While it is generally best to avoid problems, Erik and I were talking on the ride back to the farm about how solving an issue like this is fun. To me, it seems that business, farming and life in general seems to involve putting out a lot of fires. Challenges arise and you fix them as best you can, as quickly as you can and for as cheaply as you can because something else is just around the corner and you better be ready. Instead of dreading it, I find if I just accept it and try to enjoy it when I can, life is much more pleasant.
My morning chore this week was to be on the projects team, and today’s project was to unstack and put away the chicken crates from Sunday’s interstate 1,000 bird delivery. I ended up doing the buying club load up after breakfast, which lasted the rest of the morning. I knew I was being a bit of a buying club hog and that I shouldn’t do it next week (I love doing it. It’s fun.) so it was a bit of a bummer to know this was my last one. I just love to see what people order. I’ve been trying to keep mental notes for my and Dan’s farm back at home (Sugar River Farm in Newport, N.H. Come visit when I get back!) so I’ll know what is marketable and see if there is any seasonality to what people order. It seems chicken wing sales increase around football season… big surprise there!
The rest of the day was spent harvesting and packaging butternut squash for winter storage and checking on the cattle herd from yesterday. I, as are the cattle I'm sure, am pleased to report their water was in good working order.
This morning, I went with Eric, our Apprentice Manager, and fellow intern Chris to gather turkeys for today’s processing. We used a cattle trailer and a custom ramp that Polyface built for the turkeys to walk up. Had this been the beginning of the season, gathering this many turkeys would have been a big production, but since we’ve all gotten the hang of things, we were able to get the birds on the road in about 45 minutes.
We spent the rest of the day processing about 200 broiler chickens and the 120 turkeys. Processing turkeys takes a really long time as compared to chickens, but I suppose they make up for it in the ease of which they are raised. They really are very easy to raise and are good natured animals, too. I can't wait to have my own. After processing, while everyone else was bagging and boxing, I ended up deboning some of the birds for ground turkey and doing pieces and parts for some of the chickens. I’m really excited to have learned how to do this, as I’ll be able to offer more custom processing options for future clients of my farm.
Thursday is Polyface’s restaurant delivery day, so project people get to the sales building around 5:30 a.m. and assemble the orders so Richard can leave with the truck at 7 a.m. We packed up a lot of fresh chickens, some retail items, boxes of eggs (both chicken and duck), beef and sides of pork.
After load up, we set to more processing. Since Thanksgiving is coming, we process the turkeys towards the end of September and they are frozen. Polyface, due to its outdoor processing facility and the seasonality of raising animals, does not offer fresh turkey in November. We processed about 140 turkeys and I deboned a bunch while the others bagged the birds and boxed them up for the freezer. The beauty, I found, in deboning birds for ground meat is it doesn't matter what the meat ends up looking like once it's off the bone. Nobody cares if it looks pretty because it's going to be ground up anyway. This means one can work on speed without worrying about a wayward cut making the end product look bad.
This morning, we set up a windbreak at the processing shed. The area we process birds in is open air, which is lovely in the summer, but with the temperatures dropping, can get a bit nippy. Eric had an idea to make a plastic windbreak that we would permanently install that could be rolled or unrolled as the weather dictated. It was a bit misty and cold that morning and there was a definite difference in temperature once the windbreak was unfurled. I was grateful to him for coming up with the idea. I’m sure fall processing will be much more comfortable for the apprentices and staff who will need to butcher birds after we interns have gone.
After setting up the windbreak, we moved some piglets from the baby piglet barn to the lovely pastures of one of Polyface’s rental farms. We also gathered some firewood and posts that Joel Salatin had felled at this property and left to cure outside. The rest of the day was spent working on the fence line at one of Polyface’s fields on the farm. The cattle had just grazed the field, so it was a good time to go in and cut back and chip the brush and saplings that were encroaching on the electric wire. This was the last time I would ever chip at Polyface. Halleluja. No offense chipper, but we need a break from each other. I know I’ll see you again soon, but hopefully not until spring.
Today was our last processing ever at Polyface. I was on the broiler moving team, so part of our job today was to gather the 400 birds needed. I ended up only processing briefly, and was called off the line to move some of the mountain pigs to one of the acorn glens, pull the spent plants from the garden and plant garlic. I love gardening, so this was a great way to spend the morning.
The afternoon was spent bagging birds and cleaning and packing for our imminent departure. We girls had spent some time cleaning over the weekend so we spent most of our time packing our cars before evening chores.
The last day was a bit of a blur. I had spent the last four months so immersed in the people, tasks and methods of Polyface Farm that it was surreal to think that my life would change drastically in one day. Don't get me wrong—I was excited to get home and see Dan, my family and my friends, but change is always a bit jarring. We moved broilers, dug some footings, gathered firewood and did a bunch of other small odds and ends.
That night was the Year End Dinner held at the Joshua Wilton House in Harrisonberg, Va. We were dismissed early to get ready, as this was a very fancy locale. No leathermans please. Or dirty fingernails. We had a lovely dinner (I had a ribeye. Yum.) with some delicious wine pairings, listened to some kind words from Joel and Daniel Salatin and then we said goodbye. I am terrible at goodbyes, so I had written people little notes over the past weekend which I handed out as we were leaving. Then I drove away the next morning while it was still dark.
I would like to thank the Salatins and everyone at Polyface Farm for allowing me the opportunity to work with them this summer and for all their efforts in training me to be a good farmer and healer of the land. I met many wonderful people from all over the country and learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of. I would like to thank MOTHER EARTH NEWS for allowing me to write for them thus far and for allowing me to continue blogging about starting my and Dan’s new farm business. Thanks to all of you for reading and for supporting me all summer and thanks in advance for your continued support.
My hope is that if you are on the fence about farming or wish to explore your dreams of self-sustainability, that you take a step—however small—and dip your toe in the water. Get a rabbit. Buy a tomato plant for your deck. Join a CSA. Go to an agriculture fair of farming conference. Prune the plants in your yard. Start a worm bin. Read about anything and everything you find interesting, regardless of how weird your family and friends might think it is. That’s exactly what I did. And I think you should too. Be brave and true to yourself and you will be amazed at how happy you can be.
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