Friday, December 19, 2008

Question #1 (Thank you Tracy!)

Man have I been busy!!!

Sorry I haven't written anything in over a month.  I went home for Thanksgiving and when I got back it was right at the start of the last Polyface buying club delivery of the year and it was a BIG one.  The last delivery went out today.  Let me tell you, HUGE weight has been lifted.  Anyway... enough about me, on to the first question!!

Question #1

A couple weeks ago Tracy asked:

Well, from reading your blog and viewing your photos (both here and your other blog) I'm almost a little disappointed in the Polyface model. I mean, it seems like it has grown to be so huge now (in numbers of animals) that it has become just another 'industrial' model. Perhaps a better model, for sure, but still an industrial model. I afraid it will lose the mission he originally had for it, and lose the whole "family farm" type of atmosphere. Do you feel that way at all -- being there in person and able to see it at work?

Great question... here's my answer:

The Polyface model is definitely not anything close to an industrial model... not even close.  I'm guessing that you saw the pictures of the chickens in the hoop houses and thought... thats not right!  If that was the case let me explain my pictures.  Those were taken in early March when I came for my checkout/interview for becoming an apprentice on Polyface.  The chickens were still in the hoop houses because it was still too cold for them outside.  Polyface only keeps their chickens inside during the winter months and I must say that the chickens would much rather be inside the hoop house where it's warm than outside in the rain, snow, cold, wind, etc.  Once it warms up the birds go outside on fresh grass and are moved to fresh grass every couple days.

As far as the number of animals go, Polyface is growing, but Joel knows better than to increase the stocking rate beyond that of what the farm can handle.  We will only keep increasing animal numbers as we keep increasing the amount of land Polyface uses through leases.  Which brings me to the part about the farm having a "Family Farm Atmosphere."

Fear not... this is most definitely a farm with much family atmosphere.  Joel and Daniel work in tandem to keep things running.  I think its safe to say that Daniel is the Operations Manager where as Joel is the CEO.  Both of their wife's, Teresa and Sheri, are very involved with marketing, accounting, etc.  Not to mention their help on the farm and in the kitchen feeding the MANY mouths that need food.  They are the ultimate farmer of strong men and we are VERY glad to have them around taking care of us.  Without them... crash and burn.  The longer I'm here, the more I feel like part of the family.

Polyface has also extended their training from apprentices and interns out to families.  On one of Polyface's rental farms, Joel has enacted a former apprentice to train a couple to eventually take over operations.  Polyface has essential started planting families in farms with a great model to follow.  I don't see how you could get anymore "Family" than that of any farm.

So, have no fear about Polyface turning into a big industrial mess... It won't happen.  He is a little bit from the Polyface website:

Today the farm arguably represents America’s premier non-industrial food production oasis.  Believing that the Creator’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world, the Salatin family invites like-minded folks to join in the farm’s mission:  to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.

I hope this answers your question.  Thank you so much for asking!!

And remember... If anyone has a question about me, the farm, pluto... just ask in the comment box.  Thanks.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Cattle and RAIN!!

Over the past few days the Salatins have been buying weaned calves to replenish Polyface's stock.  We send about 7 to the slaughterhouse that is partially owned by the Salatins every two weeks.   Yesterday we received 25 calves and today we received 50.  We also had about one and a half inches of rain fall over the same two days.  

Moral of the story... If you need rain, plan on working cattle in the corral and the rain will come and make everything sloppy.

New Calf Protocol  (How do you prefer your tail pulled?)

I had always wondered what Polyface's protocol was for receiving new cattle and after the last two days I have a pretty good idea.  Both sets of cattle came from local cow/calf operations.  In fact the first 25 came from the neighbor bordering the south side of the home property.  The others came from about 30 minutes away in Stuarts Draft.  

(It was nice to get local calves since local is a huge word around here.  I heard somewhere that the average steak travels 1100 miles from birth-to-grill or womb-to-tomb, so its nice to think that some of the meat I will eat here on the farm walked everywhere but to the butcher.)

Anyway... Once the calves were sorted off their mothers and/or put into the corral, we had a series of tasks for each calf before turning them out onto fresh pasture.  Here at Polyface we run both steer and heifers.  (We have some cows that produce calves every year also, but to keep up with the beef demand they started buying calves and finishing them on grass.)  One task involves putting each calf on a set of scales to get there weight.  Then we run each calf into a head gate that holds them still so we can put in new Polyface ear-tags.  Both the bulls and heifers are pretty easy up until this point, the only difference being that we still need to castrate the bull calves into steers.  The heifers are turned loose to hang out in the coral, but the bulls are held a little longer by the head gate and a human (I had the lions share this week, but its wasn't to many).  Try and imagine this... I stood on the fence straddling the bull, both feet about belly high on the bull, facing toward his hind end.  This allowed me to pull on his tail and sit on his back while either Daniel or Joel did the castrating.  This worked pretty well under the circumstances and we only had a few that really fought what we were doing.  Once you get their tail pulled over there back, they calm down quite a bit.  In between bulls I would just climb up into the barn, over the chute and cattle to wait till the next calf.  This put me out of sight and allowed for easy access when I was needed to pull tail.

I keep saying calf but I think a different word needs to be used because some of these "calves" weighed in at over 600 lbs.  One in particular weighed 712 lbs.  Surprisingly enough, he didn't fight as much as he could have.  I guess you could say he stood there and took it like a man... or a lesser of a man now?  

This way of working new calves was a little new to me.  I'm used to having the calf either at the end of a rope pulled by a horse and cowboy, or in a head-gate with a squeeze chute.  This is how I've always castrated and tagged cattle growing up.  I can say that I prefer roping over all, and the squeeze chute is next followed by this new method.  With that said, I also respect the way Polyface does it.  All the infrastructure was low cost (home-made head gate with home-milled lumber and posts for the corral) and we got the job done right.  It's not worth doing unless you do it right.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Any Questions?

It dawned on me today that there may be questions from people who visit my blog about what I'm doing.  If you are one of those visitors and have a question for me just add it in the comment section of this or any of my previous blogs.  

I would feel like I'm actually telling people what they want to know about the work I do on Polyface.  Needless to say I am not the spokesperson for Polyface, but I can give insight from the inside looking out.

"There are no stupid questions."

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Farm Food Deliveries

"The Bus" (Delivery Vehicle)
On Thursday of this week, I spent the day making deliveries with Richard (our full-time delivery driver).  We delivered to several restaurants and stores, and did two buying club drops.  Needless to say it was a long day.  (Wake-up time = 5 AM... Start Work = 5:15AM... Arrive back on farm = 8PM)


As I said before, Polyface delivers to several restaurants in Virginia.  One of the more popular ones is Chipotle (big mexican-style burritos and such).  They focus on getting meat that is  naturally raised, no antibiotics, etc.  Polyface sells them about 250 lbs of pork a week.  If you haven't had a Chipotle burrito, I highly recommend you go and try one soon.  Anyway... I had lots of great experiences on the delivery run while going to restaurants, but I'm going to stick to one story that remains the most memorable for me, the Rev Soup Beef Drop.

Revolutionary Soup Beef Delivery

That morning we loaded up a half of a beef into coolers that were headed to Rev Soup.  The half beef was only cut into 4 pieces, so none of the coolers shut all the way (imagine beef legs sticking out the top).  I wasn't sure what kind of place Rev Soup was but I figured that they would have a back door that we could bring in these HUGE pieces of meat.  We arrived to the drop location and Richard had never delivered to this particular Rev Soup (there are two), so he went in to ask where the service/delivery door was located.  Turns out there wasn't one.  Only the main entrance.

So there we were pushing this cart loaded with coolers with beef sticking out the top for all the world to see.  Though I shouldn't have, I felt as though I was wearing a dress and the world had a free shot to look up it.  We got to the front door and Richard took the first cooler in while I held the door and the cooler cart.  When he got back I picked up the largest and heaviest of the coolers (96 lbs of grass-fed beef!) and asked him where to take it.  He said to go straight back to the kitchen and they'll be waiting for me.  I hadn't noticed till now that the place was PACKED full of customers.  It was a little after noon, so you can imagine the lunch rush this place had going.  As I walked in the door carrying this huge leg of beef I looked toward the kitchen and realized that I had to walk right through the long line of patrons studying the menu.  I thought immediately, "What are they going to do when they see this huge piece of meat, sticking out of the cooler, headed into the kitchen."  I pressed on through the line and into the kitchen and when I got inside the owner was there and SUPER excited to see the giant piece of meat I was carrying.  That ease my anxiety a little.

This happened a total of four time between Richard and I, and it gave me kind of an adrenaline rush.  I was thinking about it afterward and it dawned on me that, to my knowledge, not a single patron realized what we brought into the restaurant.  The restaurant was located next to the University of Virginia so most of the customers where college-age young-adults.  This lead me to ponder this, "Is my generation so removed from our food that we don't even recognized what it looks like before its soup?"  I hope not, but I think we are.


As far as retail stories go, most of them sell Polyface eggs and pork products.  Some of the places were awesome little hole-in-the-wall places but there were a couple large, unfriendly places on the route.  It seems to me that the larger any store of any kind gets, the harder it is to keep employee moral up (no just food stores).  Maybe a thought to ponder in my other blog.

Anyway... at one of the retail stores, they returned several packs of bacon that they couldn't sell.  Why were they having trouble selling Polyface bacon you might ask?  Was it the taste?  Was it old? NO!!  It was because of the USDA blue edible ink that they stamp everything with at the USDA inspected abattoir.  "Our customers won't buy the bacon if it has the ink on it." says the man at the store.  WHAT A JOKE!  Thanks again USDA.  

So now what?  We can't sell our product in retail stores because in order for it to be "Safe" the USDA must have an inspector on site using his stamp at will.  But because he deems it "Safe" with his stamp, no one will eat it because of fear of the ink.  So were stuck having to sort through bacon each time we send it to this store and forced to explain to customers this ridiculous reasoning and the fact that the ink is soy based.  Awesome... more petroleum being used for a totally natural product.


In the middle of all this we made two buying club drops in Richmond.  I love doing buying club drops.  Every six weeks customers order online and we delivery their product(s) to them at several drop sites.  (You can learn more at  The day before the drop (or a couple days... whatever works) we put together orders in coolers and store them in the walk-in freezer until the morning of the drop day.  On the day of, we load the coolers in the bus and head to the drop.  Once there we unload the coolers for each specific drop and customers arrive with coolers of their own (or sack, boxes, etc.) and we hand over the order as they hand over the money.  It works out really awesome and in 30 mins to an hour we've handed out between 30 and 80 orders.  Polyface has a well oiled machine and I was able to jump right in like a greased cog.  Its wonderful to know that a lot of the customers have been to the farm and most have read about the farm and are excited not only by the good food, but by the awesome stewardship on the farm.

Stay tuned... I'l try and take some pics...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Moving the Cows

Today we moved the cows at one of the rental farms, Greenmont.  

Matt and I left after chores and breakfast and drove over in his truck with some fence and a few re-bar stakes.  After we drove in the pasture Matt showed me the map Daniel had drawn us that illustrated where the cows were and where they were to be moved.  It was quite a distance and over some really nice grass.  Needless to say I was a little anxious.  Either way we went to work moving fences and preparing the future paddock for the cows and their calves.

You may be asking yourself why was I anxious?  Maybe not.  Either way, I was.  Yes, I grew up on a ranch and, yes, we drove lots of cattle over lots of obstacles, but this was different.  It was different mainly because I had never driven these particular cattle on this kind of pasture.  Since there was just the two of us Matt decided that he would go ahead of the cattle with his truck and call them and I would help steer them(no pun intended) in the right direction.  He left me at what he figured would be a troublesome spot and went over the hill and out of sight to get the cows.

He left me by a large stack of hay.  Being curious and adventurous by nature, I wanted to see the view from the top of the stack, so I climbed.  What a view!  From the top of the hay I could see almost the entire lay of land, but I still couldn't see Matt.  After what seemed like a long time I began to think something wasn't going as smoothly as we had hoped.  I had almost convinced myself that I needed to go and check on him when I saw his truck headed my way over the hill.  He was booking it and the cattle were right on his tail... gate.  I've never seen momma cows run so fast toward something (maybe away from something but never toward).  

They were running along just fine till they got to the top of the hill where they began to slow down.  I knew we needed them to keep going and not put their heads down so I trotted up to them and gave what turned out to be a final push toward the gate.  They once again ran down the hill toward Matt (no out of his truck and on foot) and into the gate.  Happy Cows!

Matt walked up with a big smile, and I'm sure I was his mirror image of happiness and relief.  We drove into the paddock, hooked up the charger to electrify the fence, put out mineral, and headed to town.  Task complete.  Check.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Broiler Butchering Bonanza

This week was a BUSY WEEK...

We butchered birds four out of the last six days.

Wednesday = ~500 broilers
Friday = ~230 broilers and ~100 turkeys
Saturday = ~450 broilers
Monday (today) = ~620 broilers

On Wednesday of this week we will butcher the last batch of broilers for the year which will be about 500 birds.  All turkeys have been butchered for the year, so after Wednesday we will only be left with cows, rabbits, layers, and pigs.  Needless to say the chore list has been shortening dramatically on a daily basis.

My thoughts on butchering broilers.

I haven't butchered many birds yet and since the season for butchering is ending in a mere two days I guess I'll have to wait till next year to get the full effect.  But, I do have some tips for those of you who are butchering poultry.

Tip #1:  Use a sharp knife

Using a sharp knife is essential for butchering a bird properly.  I picked up a dull knife during one of the butcher sessions and it wasn't pretty.  A good sharp knife allows you to make the necessary cuts and do it quickly.

Tip #2:  Crate the birds the night before if at all possible

Two of the days we butchered we gathered the birds the night before and had them ready to go the next morning at the processing shed.  This allowed the birds to rid themselves of all fecal matter which makes butchering cleaner and user friendly.

That's all for now.  The days are getting shorter so I'll try and get to blogging more.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Week 1: The Beginning

I arrived at Polyface at 2:00PM on October 1st and the feeling of intensity was enormous. That morning the summer crew and family had butchered several hundred chickens and were milling around getting chickens into bins and bags to be cooled so they could be sold. That afternoon chores consisted of feeding lots of chickens and collecting, cleaning, and sorting eggs. When we sat down to dinner I looked around to see faces that spelled relief and accomplishment. I knew I was surrounded by a group of hard-working, self-motivated, optimistic people. What an environment. What a place. What a group of people.

So, I've been here less than five days and today my body let me know that my current routine was out of the ordinary. It keeps asking: What happened to that recliner? Where is the Mountain Dew and other various soda pop? Why do you walk so far and carry all those heavy buckets of feed and water? Fast Food? Beer? Are we on some sort of diet or at boot camp? I guess I forgot to tell my body that we were headed for an experience that might equal an farm business fat camp. The second of third night at dinner I commented to Matt and Andy how much food the both of them could and did consume. Endless bowls of tomato one night, chili the next. Trays of no-bake cookies. It was incredible. Matt made a great comment.

He said, "Grady, here in about a week or two your going to sit down for dinner and begin to eat. You're going to wonder why you're not getting full and how it appears that your stomach is a bottomless pit. Don't worry, that's normal." I got a kick out of that. We'll see if he's right, and if the way he and Andy eat is any indication then I'll probably join them bowl for bowl, plate for plate.

Where I sleep is cozy and efficient. Large and drafty are not proper words that would ever describe "The Cottage." I share this one and a half-ish room with Andy. We have a kitchen area, bathroom area (This is the half I mentioned. I call it a half because there is no door, only a curtain which works quite effective.) and a sleeping area which consists of bunk beds. You guessed it, I'm on the top bunk. I'm working on making a writing desk area and getting a cushy chair so to have an office area. There isn't much more room to make any more areas, but we'll see what we can do.  I made a shelf today that doubles as a hanging rod for Andy and I's nice clothing.  It worked out really well so I guess we also have a closet type area also.

My goal is to post every sunday at least and maybe more... We'll see what happens.  Polyface is starting to slow down so I'm sure I'll be able to keep up.  Hopefully I'll be able to expand some philosophy and tell stories.  Stay tuned.