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Working with Joel Salatin: An Intern from Polyface Farm

This summer, Scott Price completed a four-month internship at what may be the most well-known and well-respected organic farm operation in the country: Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, run by Joel Salatin.  An accountant by education, Scott  cut his teeth farming in this internship, and he hopes to make farming a lifelong career.  Below, Scott tells us about a typical day at Polyface, his hopes for the future, and what it was like working with Joel.  Although he had a unique and coveted experience among young farmers, Scott emphasizes that his internship was just that: an introduction to farming from a respected mentor.  It does not define him as a farmer, nor does it guarantee he’ll find success in the field.  Scott’s internship at Polyface did, however, provide him a sturdy jumping off point to continue what he hopes is a flourishing career. He is now in Oregon continuing to farm on a start up poultry operation. 

Lacking motivation in college, I spent plenty of time wandering from one interest to another. I started with Mechanical Engineering, and graduated in Finance, but along the way I decided I wanted to do something fundamentally valuable for people.  Having made that decision, I saw two options open up for me: teaching or farming.

Farming held several attractive possibilities. Healthy food, working outdoors, exercise, no commute, meals and time with family. Hulu assisted by showing me a movie called “The Future of Food”. That movie showed me farming was more than a career possibility, but also an important cause. I wanted to educate people about the evils of Monsanto and the value of healthy farming practices.

So I was interested in farming, but did I believe I could make a living? No, I found it too risky. Instead, my plan was to use my Finance degree to work and save up, and then I would take the plunge. A friend helped me get a job as an accountant, but I quickly became unhappy.  I commuted an hour to work in a cubicle. I was expected to give 60 hours a week to a job that sucked the life out of me, and only gave me money in return.

Nearly nine months after starting my accounting job, I housesat for a young family at church who had five egg-laying hens. At that house, I read my first bit of Wendell Berry, and discovered Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm through the Polyface DVD. I read more about Polyface online, and I was impressed. In August 2010 I left my job, and by the end of the month I applied to be an apprentice at Polyface. Five months after applying, I was hired as an intern, the four-month version of the twelve-month apprentice.

I ate and slept on the farm, in an old portable classroom called “The Roost”. Four other guys lived there also. The Roost was positioned against black walnut trees for shade, with a creek running alongside. It had one bathroom with a composting toilet, shower, and sink, a kitchen/living area, and one bedroom with 5 beds (4 bunk style). The Roost was where all the interns went to cook and eat breakfast and lunch. It was a bit crowded for 8 interns, and we had limited cooking supplies, but we made the best of it. I really enjoyed our meal times, partly because I was so tired and hungry, but also because the more I worked with the other interns, the more I enjoyed hanging out with them.

On a typical day, we started morning chores shortly after daybreak. Morning chores involved moving forty 10’X12’X2’ chicken pens with a dolly to a new patch of grass, feeding each pen’s feed tray, and filling each pen’s 5 gallon water bucket. Each pen holds 75 Cornish Cross broilers. Before the turkeys outgrew the chickens, they were also mixed in with the broilers, but no more than 75 birds were ever in one pen. On chicken processing days, we also put them in crates, loaded them on a trailer, and cleaned the processing facility.

Interns working on a turkey roost, Joel hangs on the right

While the chicken chores were being done, 2 groups of older turkeys were fed and every other day they were moved. Each group of turkeys had a large roost built onto an axle connected to a large feed box on another axle (if the roost isn’t sturdy enough, you’ll find out when 150 twenty pound turkeys collapse it.). A tractor was used to move the feed and roost combo trailer into a new paddock.

On some days pigs needed to be moved into a new paddock. This involved moving their 1 ton feeder into the next paddock with a tractor, filling it with a PTO driven feed buggy, herding the pigs in, dumping the 30 gallon float valve waterer, carrying it to the new paddock and turning the water back on. Each pig paddock is surrounded by two strands of electrified aluminum wire. The pigs are trained to the electrified wire, so they want to stay away from it, but pigs have great curiosity and are very stubborn. We had to test the voltage of different areas of the fence to make sure it would contain the pigs. Chasing around loose pigs can really eat up some time especially if you’re in a heavily wooded area or you don’t have enough help.

On other days, the mornings involved sorting cows and pigs to bring them to the slaughterhouse. To do this we had to move the cows into the corral by running a few “bluffs” that resembled their fence along the desired path, and then calling them in the right direction. A couple of us always tailed the cows to keep stragglers like young calves from falling behind. In the corral we just ushered them where we wanted them and opened and closed doors.

We took an hour for breakfast after morning chores. After breakfast we checked in to see what was next. Some days we worked on hay before and after lunch until afternoon chores (or dark). Some days we worked on fencing, hauled wood from the new pond site, or set up a new pig paddock in the woods. Twice a week we pulled buying club orders for Polyface meat from freezers, loaded them in coolers, and stored them in a freezer to wait for the next morning’s pre-chores delivery load up. Some days we built a new turkey roost, a new feed box trailer, or a new eggmobile. Almost everything was built with wood milled by Polyface from trees at Polyface.

We processed an average of 350 chickens every Wednesday and also on Friday every other week. Our best rate was about 19 birds per person per hour from kill to the ice bath. Super efficient. Each turkey took a little more time, but the bird weight was more per hour. We each got experience on every station, including killing, scalding-plucking-legging, eviscerating, lunging, and quality control. We started processing after breakfast and when the birds were all in ice baths, we took lunch (45 minutes) while they got down to the right temperature. After lunch we’d return to bag and box them for the freezer. Around 100 birds were always kept unfrozen in the cooler for restaurant orders, and for the occasional “fresh bird pick up” that Joel talks about in his Pastured Poultry Profits book.

Afternoon chores involved feeding and watering chickens and turkeys and collecting and washing eggs. Every three days we moved a large egglayer nestbox structure called the “Millennium Feathernet” that held one thousand egglayers. At the Millennium, the chickens foraged on grass within an electrified netting fence. We set up a new paddock for them to roam then moved the Millennium with a tractor.

The work was hard, of course, but the food lifted my spirits throughout the summer. We devoured delicious, conveniently located mulberries between chores throughout June. When we drove up the mountain to the highest pond and pig paddock in June and July, we ate the wild blueberries.  Wild blackberries lined much of the road that led up the mountain, and in addition to scavenging during breaks in July and August, we picked several quarts that we enjoyed in pies made by fellow intern Leanna, or in my raw milk and granola. In August the apples ripened, and we snacked on them on our way to chores or saved some for breakfast. In late August and September, Autumn Olives began ripening. Autumn Olives are tart little berries that offer a refreshing bite. I found some that were actually really sweet. Also in August and September, the wild mushrooms were in full flush. I’ve always enjoyed mushrooms/fungi in food, and one of the interns, with a degree in horticulture, had some experience picking and eating wild mushrooms. I looked at his mushroom identification books and he taught me to find chanterelles. I had never heard of them, but they were plentiful at Polyface. I harvested a hat-full on two occasions and found they are delicious. The chef/gardener sautéed my chanterelles in butter for us as a side one night. Now I’m in Oregon for the foreseeable future, and I’d like to find morels here.

Scott, right, enjoys lunch on the farm

Farming internships are under scrutiny right now, but I don’t feel cheated by Polyface. I now have job skills related to poultry, cattle, and pig farming. I came out with a little bit of money in my pocket instead of  thousands of dollars of debt I may have racked up in school. I’m also happy to have only spent four months on focused, hands-on learning instead of four years of “well-rounded education.” Thanks to the internship, I came across job opportunities and quickly found a new job on a farm. I am confident enough to start my own chicken business when I have the money. The experience was definitely good overall, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to farm.

I often get the question of whether I actually got to work with Joel.  Joel travels a lot and has off-farm work to do, but all the interns got to work with him plenty.His usual morning on the farm involved moving the eggmobile and/or moving cows. All the interns got their turns helping him move the cows by taking up and running single-strand electric fence paddocks. We occasionally had to scramble to herd the cows back in (almost always because of someone’s mistake), but it didn’t happen often. The interns agreed that we definitely heard about it when we did something wrong, but we were praised when we did something right.

With Joel, I remember we tore down 2 fences and put new ones up. One fence took eight of us about 4 days to tear down and replace, and the other took 1 full day. The fence work involved pulling fencing staples, rolling up barbed wire, rolling up field fence, pulling posts with the tractor, pounding posts with the tractor, stretching and stapling new field fence, and stapling new barbed wire. Joel showed lots of excitement by hooting and hollering when we finished a fence.

Joel showed the same excitement when we finished making and stacking hay after about 4 weeks of hay work, and I shared that excitement since I have hay allergies and asthma. The Polyface team did all the hay work except baling the large bales. We cut, raked, tetted, stacked on a trailer, then stacked by hand in a barn, and stacked large bales in the field with tractor forks to later cover with giant tarps. To show the fertility that Polyface builds in the land they use, the man who baled for us, who has baled for decades, had never seen so much hay come out of such small acreage. Polyface’s pasture has been under their care for over 50 years, and it supports 4 times as many cow-days per acre than the average in the county. In other words, with the way they farm, they’re not taking away from the land—they’re adding to it.

One smaller job I worked with Joel on was laying a water line from a well pump to a cistern. That work can take days of breaking your back and tearing up the ground. Fortunately, Polyface has a subsoil hose laying device—an SSHLD. It’s a tractor implement that buries pipe as you drive along.

Another job we did with Joel was clear trees from a huge, new pond site. We loaded and unloaded a couple dozen loads of fire wood, and chipped a couple dozen trailer loads of smaller branches. Tractor forks were used to load logs onto a log buggy, and I got to use the forks to move the logs once. That was cool, but the strongest I felt was when 2 strong guys and I loaded six, 20 foot logs onto a trailer by hand that we were originally going to move with the tractor forks. To be fair, one of those guys had bodybuilding experience, and the other is just a natural beast. I was the scrawny one.

Scott with the pigs

Daniel, Joel’s son, is known as the Range Boss. He manages the Polyface team and trains the apprentices and interns. We worked with him every day. Daniel’s wife, Sheri, and Joel’s wife, Teresa, are both vital in the farm business as well. Joel likes to tease that behind every great man is an amazed woman, but what he means is that Polyface couldn’t be what it is without his family.







Text by Scott Price

Photos credited to Dustin Pinion, Ian Hensel, Brian Nelson, and Brie Aronson.

Read more about young farmers at Dissertation to Dirt.

5 Responses to “Working with Joel Salatin: An Intern from Polyface Farm”

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I am a fan of Joel and his family, and the work they do…

  2. We love Polyface Farms. Our farm is modeled after Polyface. Thank you for sharing your adventure. More and more people need to realize the need for fresh, safe natural foods. Both of our boys have decided not to go to college but they are not completely convinced that farming is the way to go. I hope to have them read your blog. Thanks again

  3. Virginia Pykonen Says:

    I’ve been a fan of Polyface since I heard of it four months ago. It’s so great to get the intern’s perspective! I’ve thought about interning myself, though I’m not sure I could. I’d love to read a whole book written by an intern, detailing their daily experiences more fully. Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. Thanks everyone! It’s always so great to get perspectives and experiences from different young farmers, so I’m so happy Scott could contribute to the conversation. Joel Salatin has certainly been a resource for me, as I think he has for all young people interested in sustainable farming.

    Farm internships are such an interesting topic for me because I know from experience that they can vary wildly in quality. It’s nice to know that Joel Salatin provides a good experience to the new generation of farmers.

  5. we try to help a mountain village people in china to raise the organic chicken, (50 layers per family), do you have any suggestion how to build a winter coop for 50 birds economically. the winter is very cold and they don’t have money to spend on heating bill.

    thanks

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