Sunday, May 29, 2011

Old Plank Farm.

Plymouth, WI. Population 8000, home to the quintessential bread-and-butter American who does his groceries at the Piggly Wiggly Supermarket and his laundry at the local Laundr-o-mat. The town lies in the middle of miles and miles of green pasture and cheese farms.

I’ve been here for a week now, working for a young organic farmer on her 25-acre plot of land. There are 900 egg chickens, 200 meat chickens, 4 goats, a cute border collie named Max, and two kittens that live out in the barn. 3 pigs are due to arrive next week. Out in the fields, few vegetables are ready this early in the season, but small signs of life are beginning to poke out from the dirt – sweet corn, lettuce, strawberries, and newly-planted potatoes. In the greenhouse, currently in seedling cells waiting to be transferred into the soil are kale, chard, tomatoes, cucumbers, kohlrabi, zucchini.

The beginnings of sweet corn.
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The eggs are sold at a local coop a short drive away in Sheboygan. 20 people subscribe to the farm’s CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, which means they buy a share of the land and drive out once a week to collect their fresh produce.

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Now in its third year, the farm is still in its infancy. The land is still haphazardly divided, the soil is a bit rocky, and there is an irrigation pond that needs to be built. Not much money rolls in yet, many functional structures still need to be constructed, and equipment is borrowed – but there is bounty enough to eat from the earth year-round, and this farmer has a work ethic to rival three men combined. The only thing that seems to frustrate her is not being able to work 24 hours a day.

Greenhouse.
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The days start early with routine morning chores.

The goats need to be milked every 12 hours. Momma, the gray one, is a stubborn thing who withholds milk on purpose just out of spite. Lucy, the small brown one, is ever fidgety, always threatening to knock over the milk bowl. If I can manage to get them calmed down and cooperating – and that’s a big if – the pinch-and-squeeze rhythm of milking isn’t as difficult as I’d imagined. The other goats will come by and nibble on my ear, and the cats will try to steal a few licks. After all this, the milk gets filtered for impurities, and we drink it, raw and chilled, with breakfast lunch and dinner.

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Twice a day, I’m responsible for feeding and watering the little chicks that are now housed in the brooder for warmth, as they slowly grow into sizable broilers. If they get too hungry, they attack my scoop as I reach in to fill their troughs. A madly chirping, adorable yellow mass.

Brooder where the chicks are housed.
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Out on the backside of the field, there are five coops of adult broilers that have to be moved every day. This ensures that they get fresh grass and new bugs, and that they’re never trampling over their own feces.

Same with the egg-laying chickens. They’re housed in wooden triangular frames in a large fenced-in area of land that also has to be shifted every few days. The problem of moving the frames is not a trivial one. Another intern has been working to construct an egg-mobile on wheels, to make things easier.

Ever-curious chickens gathered around to see what I'm doing. Triangular frames in the back, where they lay their eggs.
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Construction of the egg-mobile.
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Every day, we go out with baskets and collect the day’s fresh eggs that the hens laid in their triangular houses. Then they must be washed one-by-one, inspected for cracks – small cracks we salvage for ourselves, bad cracks we throw to the animals – and then packaged in cartons for sale. Every day, the hens produce at least 50 dozen eggs.

Those “pasture-raised” eggs and chicken you buy at the grocery store? Behind them is a lot of labor, dirty work, and love.

Aside from these daily chores, other tasks vary from day to day. Right now I’m working to paint a rolling vegetable stand that will be used to sell roadside produce. I’ve planted seeds in cells, turned over rows of soil, pulled up thistles and dandelions from the strawberry plot, covered up plants to protect from frost, and helped cover potatoes with moldy hay to help them grow. The two other interns that also live here have been working to construct a chicken-plucker in preparation for when the broilers go to be slaughtered, and also a fenced-in pen to hold the pigs.

The flats where seeds are planted, before being transplanted into the ground.
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I have a week left on the farm. There is much more to do and to learn.

2 comments:

Stu said...

Where did you hear about this opportunity?

justinnhli said...

Also, your photos are pretty amazing.