Thursday, March 15, 2007

Polyface Experience

My trip to the Salatin’s Farm Polyface Inc. was a few days ago, but before my memory begins to fail me I must write down my experiences.

Day #1 (Wednesday, March 7th 2007)

I woke up an hour late in Stillwater (4:30am instead of 3:30am) and missed my flight from OKC. Northwest Airlines (NWA) was really good to me and put me on the next flight to get me to Detroit, via Memphis TN, so I could catch my flight to Charlottesville, VA. Joel Salatin was scheduled to pick me up at around 3:30PM so I couldn’t be late.

Once I got to Detroit I lucked out again. There was a wheelchair basketball team that was getting on the same plane as I and headed to Charlottesville to a tournament. Because of the added weight from their extra wheelchairs, the airline had decided to only allow the team and the people with the team plus six other people to board the flight. I made sure to be at the gate when they called for six more and got on first.

I got to Charlottesville on time and called Joel. He, Aaron (new apprentice), and Amy (Sheri’s sister) were at the end of a delivery route for a couple of Polyface’s buying clubs and were headed toward the airport. As I hung up the phone I began to wonder what Joel would be driving. I had heard that he never spends to much on any vehicle and that he always buys used, but that was several years ago and times have seemed good for the Salatin family, so I didn't know what to expect. After about 20 minutes of wondering, Joel pulled up and I could have never guessed his vehicle of choice. “The Bus.”

"The Bus"

“The Bus” is what he called it and that’s exactly what it was. He had purchased a used short bus that had once been able to carried people in wheelchairs. I guess it’s just ironic that I shared a plane with handicapped people designed to carry non-handicapped people and a bus with non-handicapped people designed to carry handicapped people. Anyway, the bus seemed to be perfect for the task that Polyface asked of it.

On the way back to the farm Joel and I had a good conversation about Virginia, the landscape, the rain, the grass, the climate/weather, etc. I was curious how different his part of the world was compared to mine. It is very different. I was surprised at all the hills, though I should have expected them…we were in the Appalachians. That night I helped unload The Bus and ate dinner with Joel, Teresa (Joel’s Wife), Aaron, and Matt (Apprentice). Teresa sure can cook and we had a great dinner and conversation. That night, Sheri (Daniel’s wife) picked me up and I slept in their basement with Nathan (Apprentice). I was pretty tired since I hadn’t really slept the night before. Repose.

Day #2 (Thursday, March 8th 2007)

The crew awoke earlier than usual (5:20AM) in order to fill several orders that would be delivered in the next couple days. I didn’t really know what to do so I just sat back and watched the seasoned pros in action. Sheri would call out to Matt and Nathan what she needed and they would gather her needs, weigh them and put them in an ice chest labeled with one or two letters. Each ice chest was to only contain the product of an individual buyer and we filled several ice chests. After they filled the order, the sun had started to rise and a van pulled in with the vegetables. Polyface has linked up with a man that has a garden and supplies vegetables to the buying clubs. It seemed to be a great deal and the customer could shop for a larger variety of locally produced food.

After the vegetables were unloaded we began to do chores. Chores consisted of feeding all of the chickens and cattle that were on the home place. Daniel fed his rabbits that were in cages in the hoop houses. We also checked their water and the water of the pigs. Most of the pigs had a self-feeder, but one group of young pigs had already begun to “pigerate” a small section of one of the hay barns. We feed the cattle hay that had been cut off the home place last summer, and we feed the chickens a mixture of what appeared to consist mainly of crushed corn. Matt told me what all was in the mixture, but that has left my mind. All of the chickens on the farm were layers, but the broilers were scheduled to arrive within the next two weeks.

Chicken Hoop House (See the Rabbit cages along the left side of the Hoop)

Hay Barn

Pigs on their own compost pile

This is the Group already Pigerating

Here are some of the bigger Pigs (May be Hogs)

After breakfast, that’s right we ate breakfast after chores, which seemed to fit right in, we went to feed more hay on one of the rented pastures. I’m not used to going to work without food in my belly, but I wasn’t really hungry until after chores. I agreed with Matt that doing a little work in the morning seemed to make you hungrier and feel better throughout the day. Feeding hay over at the rented farm was a sight. We fed 120 small rectangle bales off one of the hay wagons that Joel writes about. The goal for this group of cattle was to grass them all winter, but grass in the field ran out, so they had to start feeding hay, which wasn’t in the plan.

I climbed to the top of this hay wagon and started breaking bales and tossing hay down to the cows. At one point I looked down at the backs of the cattle, and there in the middle of the bunch stood a giant cow. I found out later that this giant cow was actually a 15ish year old lead steer, not a cow, but he was still a monster. He stood nearly 6 foot tall at the hip and shoulder and dwarfed the other cattle around. The Salatins had kept him to help teach new cattle how to move from one pasture to the next during moving time. We had a lead steer at the Phelan Ranch for a few years named “Black Bart,” but he never grew to be as big as this steer. Bart was a Mexican steer that dad had bought with a bunch of other steer to team rope. We loaded up another wagon and headed back to the farm for lunch.

After lunch they decided that it would be a good day to spread new bedding down in the hay barns at the home place. Nathan and Aaron went to fill a manure spreader with sawdust that someone had dropped off for the farm out by the entryway while Matt and I pushed the cattle out of the barn and took the front panels down to let the spreader back into the barn. This was a cool sight to see. Nathan backed the spreader into the barn and started spreading the sawdust in a pretty thick layer on what looked to be able 4 feet of compost layers. We finished the job with scoop shovels and turned the cattle back into the barn. I took several pictures and even a video of the spreader at work. Having the spreader certainly saved us a lot of hard labor and time, while adding to an awesome compost pile that would later be aerated by pigs in search of fermented corn that had been laid down between some of the layers of sawdust, wood chips, leaves, hay, etc.

It was about evening chore time after that and we fed all the chickens and cattle once again. While we were doing chores, Heidi, Joel’s niece, came down to the farm and collected the eggs from the chicken hoop-houses. Every afternoon she was responsible for collecting the eggs and the guys were responsible for cleaning, sorting, and stacking them in the walk-in refrigerator. On average she collected about 80-90 dozen, and it took about an hour to clean and sort them.

Egg cleaning and sorting was a lot different that I thought it would be. I guess I never really thought about what would need to be done to the eggs, but in reality not much was done. Eggs got separated into two sized, Large (over 2 oz.) and Small (under 2 oz.). If they had a little dirt on them, we wiped them off with a rags damp with warm water. If they were really dirty, they soaked in hot soapy water for a couple minutes and then were wiped down. Washing 90 dozen eggs was a pretty monotonous job, but as I started counting the money they were worth, the job didn’t seem so bad.

That night I ate dinner with Sheri, Daniel, Amy, Travis, and Andrew (Daniel’s sons). I showered and went to bed really early (like 7:30PM). I was worn out and needed the sleep. Slept like a sleepy baby. Repose.

Day #3 (Friday, March 9th 2007)

Friday started and ended just like Thursday, without the early wakeup and order fill. We did all the chores and fed hay at the rental farm. That morning a tour group came to Polyface and Joel spoke to them for a couple minutes, and then left for a conference in Georgia where he had been hired to speak. Matt led the tour and did a good job of telling them about the farm and answering they’re many, many questions. The group was a conservation group from Virginia and most of them looked like they worked for the government in some form or fashion.

One of the ladies mentioned that the day before they came to Polyface they had been to another place that produced turkeys. From what she said, they produced several thousand turkeys and it all took place inside. Once they arrived they were asked to put on white protective suits and masks to guard themselves from the turkeys and the turkeys from any diseases they might be carrying. She was telling us this while the group of about 30 was standing in a chicken broader that was full of about 1000 chicks. She asked why Polyface didn’t require them to wear the same types of suits and if Polyface was worried about transferring germs to the chicks or vice versa. Matt respond with one phrase, “Our animals have an immune system.” Polyface lives by the idea that you should be able to walk among the animals without fear of disease transmission. This idea seemed to have what I call the “Eureka Effect” on some the group members.

That afternoon Aaron, Matt, and I cleaned out the portable henhouses or “Eggmobiles” and put fresh hay in each individual laying box. The Eggmobiles were pretty clean already and it didn’t take long to replace the hay. We even finished building the feed box on the outside of one of the Eggmobiles. I love to build things, so I had a good time helping Nathan with that project. Repose.

Day #4 (Saturday, March 10 2007)

We awoke at the regular 5:45AM and did the chores like usual. After breakfast we had to load up a trailer of hay to take to the rental farm to feed hay. The hay that we were feeding them was almost out and since it was Saturday, Daniel wanted to leave a hay wagon full at the rental farm so on Sunday, feeding would be easy.

After that Daniel, Nathan, and I did a little milling on some purchased, treated lumber for use on the mobile broiler pens and a new log that needed to be cut into boards. I was really excited to get to see their small, portable milling saw in action. First we ripped several 1X6’s into 3 pieces, and then the rest of the 1X6’s in to two pieces. We also ripped some 2X4’s in half making some 2X2’s. Milling the log was a little more exciting. Nathan used the front-end loader with forklift fingers to load the log on the mill and Daniel did the milling. He began by cutting two pieces off one side that were about an inch wide. Then he would rotate the log a quarter of a turn and do the same on all four sides. This gave him 4 non-lumber pieces (firewood), 4 potential 1X6’s, and a giant 8X8 post. He cut the 8X8 in half and then flipped it on its side and cut out 8 2X4’s. What amazed me most is that he never reached for a ruler or measuring tape. He used his eye (and years of experience) and it looked like a computer professionally milled each board.

After lunch I said my goodbyes and Teresa took me to the Charlottesville airport. I had a nice trip home and slept in late the next day. I guess my body had had enough for a few days. What a nice trip and what a group of nice people. I hope to go back one day and apprentice. In the 4 days that I was there I learned a lot, and I can’t imagine what all I would learn if I spent a year on the Polyface Farm.