Just a city guy working a farm shift

Just a city guy working a farm shift

Ever have that moment when you wake up, open the laptop, click on Zoom and think to yourself, "Yep. I'm ready to work on a farm."

Now, don't get me wrong, this forced work-from-home arrangement started out great. No commute. Optional pants. But I feel like I signed a deal with the devil. He sold me on sweatpants but didn't mention this would go on for a year, maybe longer. He didn't tell me that by October the phrases, "Wanna hop on a Zoom call?" "Let's hop on a Zoom," "You get my Zoom link?" would make me want to throw my laptop into a lake.

But it seems like a lot of people enjoy this new setup. Or at least that's what the headlines say. At most, you'll see something like, "Employees mention 'Zoom fatigue,' but by and large are thriving with work from home.' Out in Silicon Valley, companies compete for who can extend work-from-home longest.

"Our employees will be working from home til the end of 2020."

"Oh yeah? Well, ours will be working from home til 2022!"

"Yeah? Well, ours will no longer be working at all. We're paying them to do yoga, from home, til 2025."

"Wait, really?"

"Eh, that might've been too far."

For introverts, this is the golden era of office work. Years of trying to focus at their desks surrounded by, "Hey, how bout that Bears game? You see that Bears game?" has been replaced with a working nirvana. They're getting so much done. Introverts are on fire. Extroverts are talking to their plants.

As an extrovert, what ultimately led me to work a farm shift was simple: If I can't be around co-workers, then at least give me some cows and chickens. Doesn't matter if it's on a Saturday, doesn't matter if it's 6 am, I'm ready to do some work that's not held over Zoom.

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Welcome to the Farm

I show up at 6 am to All Grass Farms. The sun is rising off in the distance and there's fog over the prairie. I take it in for a second, ready to let out that work-from-home sigh, the one where you think, "Man, I wish I could be outside today," before it registered,"Wait, this is my office." The sunrise, the fog, the field. It's all part of it. I look around and the space seems huge. It's a whole different outlook than scrolling through Outlook.

I meet with one of the farmers and our first task is to fill up buckets of feed to take out to the egg-laying chickens. We fill up the buckets, throw them in the back of a John Deere Gator. Drive over and when I see the two chicken areas, there's gotta be a thousand chickens. Maybe more. All of them are going crazy. Cluck-cluck-cluck. When you carry a bucket of food around a flock of chickens, you are their god. They all surround you and there's no sense of order, no middle manager chicken who says, "Alright guys, now let's line-up single file." It's total chaos.

They have a big dog named Baraboo who hangs out with the chickens and fights off any intruding foxes, raccoons, or other predators that try to sneak in. He occasionally takes out a chicken himself, but that's only when they get too close to his food. All the animals on the farm take their food very seriously.

After the chickens, it's time to feed the pigs. When you're with a group of pigs, you look down and wonder, "Where did the Porky the Pig cartoon ever come from?" Pigs aren't pink, they're not cute, and they don't have a stuttering problem. But they definitely pig out. And they're a total mess. Where the chickens look up to their feeder as a god, I don't think the pigs even see someone holding the bucket. I probably looked like food to them too.

Actually, it's kind of like how I look down at the pigs. All I see is bacon.

The Guernsey Girls

The next stage of the shift is the main event. All Grass Farms is, first and foremost, a dairy farm. They've got 25-30 Guernsey cows that need to be milked every morning for the 9 am opening of the farm store. We head over and herd the Guernsey cows into the barn. I look and each one has a nametag. There are a few one-month, two-month-old calves hanging out with their moms. One of the farmers talks about the different personalities of the cows and it's true, some are easy-going, they're good with walking right into the barn. Others fight back a little. A few are just lying down like teenagers on a school day. "Come on, just give me like 15 more minutes. I got the snooze button."

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We take the cows into the milking area and I look up at the clock. "It's not even 8 am!?" They bring in four cows at a time, bring each one to a stall. My job is to setup four big bowls of food in front of them. Cows aren't nearly as crazy as the pigs, but they don't look up to me like the chickens. They have more of an entitled look in their eyes like, "Alright, skinny boy, keep my food coming."

After eight, maybe 12 cows, they give me my first shot at milking. There's a milking machine, but the process is first you wipe off the udder, clean off any dirt from each teat (and there's nothing wrong with giggling each time I use the word 'teat' in this post). After that, here's the tough part. Time to manually get a couple of squirts. The squirts go into these four petri dish type things with a purple dye. You're testing the milk for mastitis, which you determine based on the color and consistency in each dish.

My instinct when milking is to pull down like you're ringing the "Thank You!" bell at an Arby's. Doesn't work. Try again. Nope. Turns out milking a cow is a lot like the surfing scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall; the general rule is "To do less." I'd try and describe the right way to do it, but I don't think I 100% figured it out. Had to be bailed out a few times.

It reminded me of the introvert vs. extrovert dilemma in the work-from-home era. In the office, the extrovert could always point to the "morale" boost they provided to the team. Being a good "locker room guy." And so a manager might say, "Well, they don't know how to milk the cow, but their Arby's tug makes people laugh and it's good for the culture." Meanwhile the introvert is flying through their tasks but the manager says, "Ehhhh, but they don't really talk to anyone. And they didn't join the work league softball team." The extrovert ends up winning because of those "intangibles." But the work-from-home era has wiped out all the extra stuff. Now it's only about who can milk the cows the fastest.

After the mastitis test, you put this yellow foamy stuff on each teat, let that sit for 30 seconds. This is further cleaning and disinfecting. Wipe it off. Wipe the teats with another disinfecting wipe. And then clamp on four suction tubes which begin the actual milking process. The milk goes through the tubes, through the pipes, through another filtration system and into the store. Doesn't get more "milk on tap" than that.

For anyone who has concerns with the safety of raw milk, those fears are gone after a shift at All Grass Farms. When you start with cows that have nametags and personalities, that are allowed to roam freely on the grass, eat nothing but what they're designed to eat, and each teat is checked, cleaned, tested, and then filtered again, that's about as pure as it gets. It's why I swear by their milk - not only being the best I've tasted but I feel great after it. Their milk is a super food.

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Grab a Shovel, Kid

So what do 30 cows do as they wait to go into their stalls? It's simple. Nothing but pee and poop. Each cow is kind of like a 1,600 lb newborn baby. After they've been filed out back to the farm, now it's time to grab a shovel.

For at least an hour, maybe longer, I'm shoveling crap the same way I'd shovel a driveway in January. One row at a time. Reach the end. Throw the pile into a wheel barrel. Start the next row.

This was a new perspective on work. Literally doing the "crappy" part of the job. And it made me think, you know, no matter if the work is something you love to do or not, there's always the shovel the crap part. Even something fun like writing this blog post, Monday's the fun part, but Tuesday and Wednesday I come back in and look for mistakes. Edit. Shovel the crap. At work, there's the parts you love, but then there are the long meetings. And catching up on email. And, of course, the dreaded Zoom. I think next time I have to do one of these parts, I'm gonna look at a shovel on the wall. "Oh yeah, this is the crappy part."

After the cows, we head over to the baby turkeys and chickens area. Our mission is to pick up 20 turkeys that look bigger than the rest and move them over to what I'll call a turkey pavilion.

Those 20 turkeys, it's totally random who gets picked. I'm just trying to spot which ones look a little bit bigger than their counterparts. But I imagine the turkeys talking to each other afterwards. They come up with reasons for why they didn't get picked.

Whew. I didn't get picked because I've been a pretty good turkey this week. 

Or:

Yeah, Dale totally deserved to get fired. He's been a total turkey jerk this week.

Seems absurd, of course, but I think about this in life - when good things or bad things happen - I'm always trying to pinpoint something I did right or wrong to deserve or earn it. Or you look at those age-old philosophical questions, "Why do bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people," whatever the case, we try to assign meaning. I wonder if God feels a lot like the guy looking down, sorting through the turkeys. Just smiles and says, "Oh man, you guys have no idea what's going on."

That's another thing on the farm, you're surrounded by life and death. I saw two chickens and one turkey that didn't make it. Another one who was injured, probably wouldn't make it to the next day. In the office, there's no life and death. The closest thing to death is a broken printer.

I thought about all of these turkeys and some are earlier in the process, but all of them it's onto the pavilion, eat, get bigger, walk around, then eventually show up on our Thanksgiving tables. The whole cycle feels very Lion King "Circle of Life." They go from farm animal to food to nap to a fond memory. So there's really no end to a turkey's life, it's just different stages that all connect together.

Or, to use a quote from Eckhart Tolle, "Death is not the opposite of life. Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal.”

Farmer vs. Turkey

Now it's time for the best part of the day. They attach this pavilion type structure to the back of a Ford F-150. The goal is to move it forward so the turkeys have fresh grass. I'm given a stick that's kind of like a kayak paddle or the offering stick they use at a Catholic church.

I head to the back of the pavilion, get in my defensive stance. As the truck pulls forward, the turkeys rush to the back, trying to escape. I patrol the space like a hockey goalie. "Get outta here!" You smack the stick against the boards, the sound scares the turkeys enough to run forward. But you gotta be quick, another five turkeys are trying to make a run for it. Sometimes you gotta push the turkeys forward with the paddle. And it's for their own good, if they get caught under the pavilion, it's game over.

We repeat this three more times, this time with the chickens. They're a little bit easier. As we're leaving, my co-worker (co-farmer?) points to a pile of cow crap. He talks about how the crap naturally brings in a bunch of flies. The flies lay eggs. Then the larvae/maggots become some of the best food, best source of protein for the chickens. Talk about a Circle of Life.

And as I went home for the day, feeling exhausted and sore all over, I wondered if my time there was helpful at all. I wasn't the fastest shoveler. Wasn't the greatest milker. But I thought, you know, if a farm can utilize a pile of cow crap, well, there must be at least some value in a volunteer shift from a city writer.

Over the last several months, I've been using the Medium Rare blog in a different format, featuring local restaurants and businesses around the Chicago area. These can also drift into a little bit of philosophy and stories from my own life + a historical deep dive like this one a couple weeks ago on the history of milk. You can read more about All Grass Farms' story right here.

To catch up with the city pieces, most about restaurants and small businesses in Lakeview East, check out this book-in-progress over on Long Overdue Books.

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