My Week as a FarmerPosted: January 5, 2012
Through the WWOOF organization, I ended up spending the last week of July 2011 volunteering at a pastured based farm that produces turkey, eggs, broiler chickens and manages steers in their formative years. The farm itself is owned by a woman named Kip, who offered it to Polyface (of Joel Salatin/Food Inc/Ominvore’s Dillemma fame) as a satellite farm. It is located in Millboro Springs, VA, about an hour away from Staunton, VA (closest train station) and Swoope, VA (Polyface). The place boasts about 1,000 acres, check out a map of the place:
Buxton Farms, with borders outlined and points of interest pointed out. The farm is roughly 3 miles wide. Google Maps Link
I’ve been on a nutrition and agricultural kick lately and was eager to see how 70% of my diet is produced. I contacted them after searching for ‘beef’ on WWOOF and after a short conversation on the phone, a train ride where all I could think of was SimCity, I arrived at the quiet town of Staunton, VA where Grace picked me up. The farm is run by this hippie couple in their 40s, Grace and Michael. We got right to work, picking up eggs, carrying feed for the chickens and setting up a sprinkler cooling system for the animals. This was in the middle of the incredibly July heatwave and by the time I arrived, Buxton lost about 20 chickens and turkeys to the heat. I was joined by this other WWOOFer from Brooklyn, a quiet, priest-like gentleman by the name of Jason. We were informed that tomorrow would be a butchering day, and that therefore our help would be required almost the whole time. However, they usually scheduled an “off-day” after butchering days given the workload where only “chores” had to be taken care of. When they said “chores”, I thought that we’d wash some dishes, hang some laundry and maybe sweep the kitchen floor.
A typical ‘off-day’ where only ‘chores’ are taken care of still starts at 6:00AM. We would meet at the main farm house and fill up feed buckets. The feed buckets each weight about 40lbs and would be loaded up on the truck or the ATV and taken to the egg-laying hens. At the hens, we would open the doors to their “eggmobiles” and it was quite entertaining to see the enthusiasm with which these hens went after the crickets and other critters on the field. If we had any composting vegetables from yesterday’s meals, we’d throw them to the hens and watch them fight over it. After opening the doors, we’d also open the hatches to the straw-covered nests. We’d check their water and move their hose if necessary. Every few days, Michael would bring out the tractor and move the eggmobiles. Given the open grate floor of the egg mobile, you usually end up with an ample layer of chicken poop right below it. At the same time, particularly given the heat, the undercarriage of the eggmobiles were a popular hangout spots for the hens. Moving them also helps further propagate the waste nitrogen over the fields, thus yielding even better grass growth.
If you haven’t seen Food Inc (and I highly recommend you do, you can watch it instantly over Netflix) or any of Joel Salatin’s lectures (Here’s his TEDx talk from 2009), or read the Omnivore’s Dilemma (Here’s the Michael Pollan TED talk, check about 11 minutes in) you’re probably unfamiliar with how exactly how Polyface’s “holistic farming” works. The basic mechanism is cows eat grass, cows poop, flies lay maggots, chickens eat maggots and in the process spread the manure even further and lay eggs with 20 times the omega-3 fatty acids and between 2 to 6 times as much vitamin D, among other benefits. The level of input required to feed the animals is therefore also drastically reduced. The only thing the cows require is fresh grass and well water. The cows are injected with no antibiotics but are provided a micronutrient hedge in the form of sea salt, kelp and grit. The chickens and turkeys, on top of eating the various fauna available to them, are fed a mixture of corn, soy, wheat, oats and other leftover grain components along with grit. Speaking of grit, I found it amusing with how much energy turkeys will eat rocks by themselves. At least the chickens had to have the granite grit mixed in with their food.
Days of Slaughter
Part of the motivation behind this venture was to have a hands on experience in the genesis of my food. I made a serious vow before I departed on my trip that if the butchering process made me uncomfortable, I had no justification in relegating that unpleasant tasks to others and still enjoying its fruits. I’ve made similar comments before in the past, largely in response to omnivores that would cover their ears and close their eyes at the mention that the anonymous cut of flesh sitting in their styrofoam package used to be alive. There’s nothing virtuous about willful blindness and ignorance for the purpose of maintaining habits.
With that said however, I actually didn’t remember my vow until after I was done slitting the throats of four chickens. I was fully expecting a phase shift of some sort or at least a nervous reaction to the deed but the overwhelming feeling at the time was a concern for the animal that seemed incongruous. I was completely comfortable (neither eager or apprehensive) about slicing a chicken’s throat and having its warm blood flowing down my hands, yet my biggest concern throughout was to minimize its pain and discomfort as much as I could. My biggest fear when we were transferring them to the crates was that I would somehow break a chicken’s wing or leg as it flailed around in my hands.
The pre-butchering process is as follows, we’d go out to pasture with plastic crates, load 10 chickens in each crate, take it to the processing area (pictured right), eat breakfast, and then clean surfaces and prepare equipment. Michael was in charge of the slaughtering, probably the most skillful and most difficult job. He’d pick up a chicken and it would flail around until it made it to the metal cone. It would hang calmly there without a noise until the killing blow was delivered. Michael would use an extremely sharp blade to make two incisions right below the beak. The incision, if done properly, would leave the chicken trashing and bleeding but would kill it within five seconds. After the blood was drained, the entire chicken would go into this machine called the scalder. It’s a metal basket that cycles in and out of hot water set at 140 degrees. The scalder is meant to heat the skin just enough to loosen the feathers without cooking the flesh. The “de-featherizer” (I guess that’s what it’s called) is a washing machine type of mechanism with plastic nubs all around. As soon as the chicken body drops in, it is cycled through by the agitator and the plastic nubs easily get rid of nearly every feather.
Following the de-featherizer, Grace took on the job of twisting the heads off, removing the esophagus from the neck, cutting off the anal gland and then removing almost the entire internal organs in one motion. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a market for chicken offal, so aside from a few chicken hearts and livers kept for home use, the entire contents of the offal wheelbarrow just go into a big compost pile or get eaten by one of the three cats lounging around. WWOOFers and whatever help they might have that day were assigned the QA task. As soon as we receive the hollow carcass, we’d have to use our hands to get the lungs out of the ribcage as well as to check to see if the esophagus was removed. We’d then check the skin for any ingrown feathers (think pimple popping) and pin-feathers on the wings or the tail that required pliers to remove. We’d rinse the entire carcass as best we could, and then make an incision right below the breasts where we would pack the drumsticks in as a way to hold it together. The carcass would immediately go into a ice water bath to bring its temperature down.
Throughout the entire time, water is flowing from the well source to facilitate cleaning. The waste-water and scraps of offal would drain into buckets near us or the main water trough. A pump works to transfer the waste water into a giant vat, where it is later dumped far up a field on the farm. The work is grueling to say the least, and long. Polyface excepts to have 20 chickens processed every hour per person working. Given our relative inexperience, five people managed to process 150 chickens in about 4 hours. The good news is that this was all performed under a Michael Jackson soundtrack.
An Animal’s Place
Michael and I went out on the truck to the cow’s pasture to move them to a new paddock. Temperatures were in the mid-90s and the cows were in an area of the pasture with no shade. Each pasture gets partitioned into parcels about 40 by 100 yards, enough grass to provide a day’s meal for 300 steers. The concentration encourages heavy grazing and discourages the steers from only going after “dessert”. Both of these have an effect in greatly encouraging better grass growth. Since we had the new paddock already set up with electric wire, it was a simple process of moving the steers to the new area using the call “Ka-wee!” After a day’s worth of grazing, the cows are eager to follow Tonja to the new pasture. The lack of shade proved disastrous to our efforts in recruiting their cooperation however.
Right as we corraled them, the heat proved too much and one of them broke right through the wire gauge. As soon as one went, the rest followed. What followed for us was an intense and exhausting 3-hour herding session. It was only Michael, myself and some conductive corralling tape. If you’ve never herded 300 cows, just imagine playing defense against the world’s best soccer players. We had to predict their direction before they started running if we were to have a chance at keeping them together. We swung around big sticks and our voices grew hoarse from yelling so much. At the end of the afternoon, we managed to move them to a new paddock with lots more shade, but only after playing the most dispiriting sport in the world.
Once we had them moved and corralled, we still had to provide them with the water they’ll need. Michael and I had to carry this heavy 300-gallon water through a few hundred yards to their new location along with setting up the proper connections to the well water system. It was sometime on this walk that I realized how many of their needs were taken care of by us. These animals never had to worry about predators, hunger, thirst or anything else. They spent their days eating, shitting and trying to mount each other (the last one is the funniest one). In return, they die a death far less painful than anything they would be subject to in the hands of a wild predator.
It was difficult to see my flesh-eating habits as wrong in any manner. At the same time however, this method of production accounts for a far smaller portion of meat production in this country in comparison to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Before this week, my relationship with CAFOs was one of an indifferent toleration. Although I still exclusively only bought pastured eggs and grassfed beef, animal welfare was not a high priority of mine. After bearing witness to the feasibility and practicality of a pasture-based method of meat production, my patience in regards to CAFOs was gone.
I’m grateful for having Grace and Michael for giving me a chance to see such a fascinating production process. I can’t see myself doing this long term (I love urban living too much) but it was a neat little distraction. If anyone is interested in volunteering in places like these, check out WWOOF.
See the rest of the photo set on Flickr.