LARRY KAPP, APPLE PICKER & BREAD BAKER

Larry picked apples for twenty years before going to Tech school. He used to pick 140 bushels of apples in a day, that’s how quick he was. His fingernails tell the world that he’s known physical labor, and his sourdough bread says he knows what he’s doing in the kitchen.

Larry picked apples for twenty years before going to Tech school. He used to pick 180 bushels of apples in a day, that’s how quick he was. His fingernails tell the world that he’s known physical labor, and his sourdough bread says he knows what he’s doing in the kitchen.

I got my start in the food industry from an ad in Mother Earth News. There was a section called “Position and Situations,” and after high school, I saw this ad for apple picking in southwest Wisconsin, in Gays Mills. When I was in high school in a suburb of Chicago, I learned how to garden from my neighbor. He was into growing things organically. I like nature, and I wanted to get away from the city, be in more natural surroundings. So I wound up picking apples.

Oh, apple picking was really fun. When I first started, they put me in the old-timer crew, and those guys worked by the hour. All the others, they worked by the bushel, but these guys got paid by the hour. So they weren’t in any hurry. So they’d tell stories about the old days, and it was fun to listen to them.

It wasn’t this menial job. It was one of the biggest employers around, and for a while it was one of the few jobs you could get, so almost everyone had experience with it. So people knew how important it was to the economy, and they understood what you were doing. You started in late summer, and worked through October. The last two or three weeks the company offered a 10 cent a bushel bonus. When it was 32 degrees and freezing rain, and you were mostly doing clean up, who would’ve stayed around if there hadn’t have been a bonus? Those extra few hundred dollars were a good incentive to stick around until the end. They “got you by the bonus,” we used to say. 

Before, they would plunk you down between four trees and give you these big bins. And you could be there for a long time just in that area. So the skill was putting your ladder in the right place to pick the most bushels and make good ladder sets without having to move it. That was the difference between a really efficient picker and someone who was new to picking.

There weren’t a whole lot of women pickers when I started. I think because it was so hard physically; the ladders we carried were 16 feet tall and really heavy. But that changed some when the trees got smaller. Now you only need an 8-foot ladder to pick, and they plant so close together everyone picks rows and rows. Before you had your own tree, and it was more mellow out there. It was pretty quiet until you called the tractor over to replace your picking bins or something. But now it’s noisy, and there’s tractor fumes because you have to move from different trees so much. Sure, you can pick more fruit because there’s not as much ladder work, but it’s harder on your back too. Having 40-50 pounds of apples around your waist gets pretty heavy, especially when you’re bending down more because fruit is lower down.

I picked apples for 20 years. My minimum was 60 bushels a day. But back when I was a super picker, I could do 60 bushels in my sleep. I could 120, 140 bushels a day when there was a good crop. My best year I picked 7,500 apples. I would pick through lunch, and I worked really hard. There was some competition between us workers.

Calendar from Sept 1993 showing how many bushels Larry picked
Calendar from Sept 1993 showing how many bushels Larry picked

You would pace yourself against somebody else, and that made the day go by quicker. The company was lucky they had a dedicated, experienced crew to come back every year.

Sometimes I would look at my social security deposits, and I would see a year where I made less and I would say, oh yeah, that was when the crop was really bad. I only made $4,000 a year. Sometimes I would get a little unemployment but I lived on four- to six-thousand a year. When you’re poor, like apples pickers are, you could always find somewhere cheap to live. I would live in an abandoned school bus on someone’s land. There was no plumbing or electricity, but I didn’t care about that.

Living like that, you had time to learn skills. I only picked apples for three months of the year. The other nine I would help out on some small vegetable farms and volunteer at the food co-op in town. And I had time to live the good life. I read books, just hung around, traveled.

Someone had started a wholegrain bakery in the back room of the food co-op. So I took it over when the woman was pregnant. She showed me how she did it, but I developed my own recipes. Did I have any formal training? (Scoffs.) I learned on the fly.

It was so efficient, you were in constant motion. I added one thing to my bread that made a huge difference in the quality. Before the bread was kind of crumbly and dry, but I made a small change and it made a huge difference. I’d be doing one batch, and getting the next batch going, and working until the last minute. That was fun.

The building we were in, the heating wasn’t very good. It would never pass codes these days. You’d have to leave the faucet dripping so it wouldn’t freeze over. When I came in in the mornings in the winter, you’d try to put a spoon in the five-gallon bucket of malt, and it would be so stiff.

I had one employee working for me. She worked really hard. She would always try to sneak sugar into the pastries if I was gone. I was pretty much a purist—I didn’t put any sugar in my bread. When I took her bread to market and after she’d say, “Well, how did they sell?” And if I said we sold out, she’d say, “See, that’s what the people want!” But I don’t think you need white flour, white sugar—just whole grain.

I used to go down to the spring and get water right from the source for my sourdough bread, and it was so fresh, so pure. But they wouldn’t let you do that anymore. So I think people do a pretty good job with food, but there’s some things that people do that aren’t sustainable. Some things are over-hyped or that people just don’t realize about food.

After my big bakes on Friday, with 80 or 100 loaves of bread in my Ford Sedan, I would load up to go to the farmer’s market. Back then, you just showed up found a spot; there’s not all these permits and waiting lists like there are now. I would have to get up at three in the morning to drive to Madison. The smell of bread in the car almost made you nauseous. It was too early in the morning for that smell. That was probably not the most fun part of the job. But hey, I was young.

People liked my bread. I would add extra ingredients to the base for different kinds. Sunflower seeds, herbs, millet. One time, I overheard this woman saying, “You know who makes the best bread? Larry Kapp made the best sourdough bread I’ve ever had.” She didn’t know I was in the room. That was pretty nice. (Smiles.) You’re creating something that makes people feel good. I guess that’s pretty rewarding. 

When people eat something I make, I just hope it makes them feel good. That when they eat it, it warms them up and they feel like they just ate something nutritious. This one bakery in Duluth, one of the ingredients on their label is love. And that’s true, if you’re in a bad mood and just slopping everything together, your product wouldn’t be as good. I like to teach people to make sourdough bread. It’s a craft, but it’s so simple too.

My career at Wheatheart Bakery ended after a summer, when the coop burned down. The funny thing was that my next two bakes would have finally paid me back for all my labor for the summer. I always invested my pay in the bread, and I had just bought 500 pounds of flour. And then the coop burned down. Oh well, I just went up to the orchard and asked if I could start working again.

Why did I leave the apple orchard? Well, I traveled around a little, and I went to California and saw a lot of homeless people on the streets. And I realized I was getting older and I thought, what if there was no apple crop and I couldn’t make any money? I could be living on the streets too. So I decided to go to tech school, and I picked out HVAC, which is what I do now. I work for UW-Madison doing heating and air stuff. I’ve always been a handyman; I like to tinker with things.

In a real job, you have to be careful with what you say. Where you could maybe talk freely with the guys picking apples, here you have to watch your language. And it’s more civilized, in a way. You know, there it’s a smaller group of people but here there’s a wide diversity of people. But you get benefits too. So they’re both okay in their own ways. One was hard work, and here, well… When you’ve done that hard physical labor outside and then you come here and think to yourself, I know real hard work.

I might retire soon, and then I was thinking about what would I do. I might get a job picking apples, or working with a truck garden all day, doing their maintenance. That wouldn’t bother me at all.

Do I see myself getting back into the food industry? I don’t feel like I’ve left it! I still garden and bake and I share my food with my coworkers. I shop at food coops, and I have a lot of friends who truck garden. I’m still surrounded by it all the time. I understand all the labor that goes into making food. The people harvesting it, packing it, shipping it, and the cooks preparing it. Food has always been an important part of my life. It’s just not my occupation. It’s not where I get my money.

Larry with his home by the apple orchard
Larry with his home by the apple orchard

–Liz Schnee

TOM TREINEN, FARM BOY TURNED LIFELONG GARDENER

Born and raised on a small Wisconsin farm, Tom Treinen grew up immersed in the culture of farming, but realized it was not a career that interested him. He did, however, become a lifelong home gardener.

Born and raised on a small Wisconsin farm, Tom Treinen grew up immersed in the culture of farming, but realized it was not a career that interested him. He did, however, become a lifelong home gardener.

When my Grandpa came to America from Germany in the late 1800s, he built a house and a barn. That house and barn transformed into the place I called home. I grew up on a farm located outside of Lodi, Wisconsin. Since I left the farm, it has stayed in the family. My sister’s son lives on the farm currently. When I was young, the farm specialized in grain, corn, and alfalfa. All of these crops were successful to feed the dairy cattle, chicken and hogs. The farm does not milk cows anymore; it now has mostly cash crops. The farm is still located where we cleared the original stones. However, I’ve been off the farm since 1957, but have fond memories of the farm and it sparked my current love for gardening.

Growing up, my family got all our food we ate from the farm. The only thing we bought at the store was butter, lard, sugar, flour, and main staples to help make the food. We would can and freeze all of the fresh vegetables, but I enjoyed the canned beef the best. It was canned with good gravy. You would open it up, and poor it over potatoes. We usually canned it every six months. We butchered all our own meat and raised all our own vegetables. I felt that all my meals were healthy and fresh. There were rarely any left overs. 

Although I enjoyed eating all the food my family produced, we did not have any other choice. The children had to keep the garden clean and keep weeds out, otherwise we would get in trouble with our parents because that is where our food came from all winter and year long. My family’s food supply never struggled in the winter; we always had enough. We kept carrots and potatoes under sacks on our dirt basement floor. The dirt preserved the vegetables.  My family would swap produce with the neighbors if a family was in need of a specific food item. My neighbor had a special spring-fed well. We could go down there and get fresh produce from their root cellar that we could not preserve on our own. They were friendly neighbors, and we would swap something extra we had at that time.

I started working on the farm at age five or six. My first job was to be in charge of keeping the wood stalked for our heater and wood stove in our kitchen; every day, every night, summer and winter. I also fed the chickens, picked up eggs, and fought with the hens. My favorite task was to work in the garden. I enjoyed pulling vegetables and eating the raw vegetables. I did not like to milk the cows and feed the hogs. The hogs were sassy. I did not enjoy milking the cows because it was hard labor. I did not have to do this until I was older, because my older brother, father, and grandfather assumed those roles. My older brother was four years older. Our parents gave us specific tasks at a young age. He worked in barns and I worked with chicken and the pigs. The milking machines required heavy buckets, and chickens required smaller, lighter buckets, so it made sense because he was older he worked with the heavy buckets.

Farming required a lot of heavy work. The wintertime was the hardest on the farm. The water tanks and pipes would freeze, and it was hard to keep the animals warm. However, the physical work was harder in the summer because I would itch so much from the chaff of the corn.

Back then people shared workers when needed. If you needed help your neighbor would help you, and if they needed help we would help them. There were 3-4 other farmers near by who would help us. We never hired other help. All the farmer’s work was evenly divided. There was never anyone mad because someone else got more help than him or her. Everyone was willing to help.

My favorite memory of working on this farm was there were always cold beverages in the cow tank at the end of the day. This is the only time we had pop. We belonged to a thrashing ring, which is a group of five farmers who would rotate farms together. There was “thrashing of the grain” and “shredding the corn” once in Spring, once in Fall.  The ladies would cook great big meals and the kids would be there too. There were always good desserts and beverages.

I decided to stop working on the farm when I got out of high school. I realized it was not my cup of tea. I graduated and I went to work at a canning factory. I planted peas and sweet corn, and worked on fields for the canning campy. Although still hard work, I got paid for it. It was probably around 2-2.50 dollars an hour back in 1956. It was not considered a well paying job, but it was money. I quit that job and decided to work in town meat-cutting. Then I went to work for a hospital and then I finally ended up, and retired, at the post office.

I am happy I didn’t decide to become a farmer, but I wish I still had the space to garden. I love to garden and get my hands in the ground. The biggest thing I miss about farming is the openness of the land. A main skill I learned from farming that has transferred into my other careers is knowing how to be prompt in doing a lot of things. On the farm you had to do your job at the right time otherwise the crops would not turn out. I know the value of being told you have a job, and you need to get it done.

I had a garden that was about 1/4 of an acre big. I plant the same crops every year: radishes, lettuce, carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes, sweet corn, asparagus, rhubarb, and tomatoes. The first crop to come out of the garden in the spring is always the best. I used to give a lot of the vegetables to everyone else and we ate them ourselves. The similarity between farming and gardening is that you are growing things for other people and animals to eat. Gardening is much more meticulous, while farming is much more mechanized. I like being in control of what I grow.

My favorite crop to grow is lettuce and tomatoes because I like to eat them both. The most difficult crop to grow are parsnips. They look like a big white carrot because all the seeds don’t germinate. You plant in spring, grow all summer long, in the fall you leave them in the ground, and then you dig them in the spring and eat them. It is a long process, but it is very good.

The basics of gardening I learned as a child on the farm, but every year I learn new things about gardening. Now you can grow things with little dirt and use mulch, which makes it easier so you don’t have to dig up the dirt. There are also new varieties of vegetables such as zucchini squash.

I try to use little pesticides, but sometimes you need to use a little because it gets too bad. With potato bugs, I would take a pail with water and use a stick to knock the bug into the bucket. A lot of plants now are bug resistant; the earlier the plant grows in the season the less pests. That is why I plant most of my crops in the spring. I don’t like using pesticides because I don’t think it is healthy for people, and I don’t want to get sick or give it to someone and have them get sick. If I have to use pesticides, I soak the produce in vinegar water before consuming it. I just don’t like using pesticides.

My garden used to be a reliable source of food for my family, but now I just have a small garden, so it is not very reliable. The farmer’s market is where we get most of our food. I really enjoy buying the fresh produce from the farmer’s market. I gave a lot of my own produce away. People were really happy when we gave them our produce because many did not have the knowledge of how to grow their own.  I never sold what I grew in my garden, I enjoyed giving it away so much.

It seems like a lot of people are going back to gardening because they like more organic crops. People have better control of how their produce is grown. The grocery stores and farmer’s market have really provided people with fresh options, so I don’t believe that this coming generation will fully rely on gardening.

— Jenna York

MAXINE ORTH, DAIRY FARMER

Maxine Orth grew up in a small town on a small family farm. Her husband, Dennis, passed away from a farm accident so she now owns and operates their dairy farm with two of her sons.

Oh, I really enjoy farming. My sisters always said they would never marry a farmer and a lot of them didn’t. I guess my husband, Dennis, and I had a lot in common that way. Growing up I always helped on the farm. I remember getting up and helping with chores before school and worrying that my hair would smell like a barn, maybe it did. I don’t know (laughs). I helped with milking and we didn’t have silo loaders like today so I would climb up the silo and someone would come with a wheel barrow and I’d pitch it out to the wheel barrow and they would say, “Enough!” Then they’d wheel it back around to get situated again and then they’d say, “Ok!” and I would start shoveling again. It was a lot of work. Farming is a lot different nowadays.

My family was very old fashioned and farming back then was very different from now. Very very different. Everything is more mechanized now for sure and there weren’t all these additives for planting, you know. At home it was always whatever would be the most reasonable thing to do and the cheaper way to do things. My dad didn’t believe in borrowing money, for sure. He said if you don’t have it in your hand you just don’t buy it. You just don’t buy something you don’t have money for. I guess in that way our farm never really progressed. It’s probably the same right now (laughs). But the farm kept going and I guess as long as you had help with the work and things it was always okay. My dad had 500 acres of land which was a lot back then but he had the help because there were nine kids at home and everyone helped. We all grew up good and everyone is a hard worker, for sure, everyone learned how to work. We farmed and grew up the old fashioned way and that worked too. You farmed to make money where nowadays it makes your living but you still enjoy doing it so you want to keep up with the times and keep things nice for the animals.

Farming with my husband, Dennis, was very different for me. He was very progressive and loved to try new things that were coming out you know which was very different from my frugal and old fashioned family. When Dennis came up with new ideas for farming it was different for me because it was always like, well why not just do it by hand, you know. There is nothing wrong with doing it that way. It’s kind of like I was protecting how it used to be, you know, a little bit. But you only have one body so making it easier on yourself sure is worthwhile. 

Den and I worked here for a long time before it was ours, we were about in our late 30’s before it became ours 100%. The day we signed papers at the lawyer’s office for his parents’ farm we were kind of already taking things apart and making changes on the farm. It was very exciting. His mom didn’t want to let the farm go and I think it was surprising to them to see the cement get torn out only a day or two after we signed papers (laughs). We were planning on building a milking parlor and then when Dennis and I were picking out a parlor we went to different farms in Wisconsin to look at their parlors a little bit and it was very exciting to kind of pick out what we wanted, you know, together. The most exciting day was when the parlor was done and seeing the cows’ reaction because it took a while for them to get used to going into the parlor so a lot of people had to like push them all in. We started out milking them twice a day but after they got used to the parlor we milked three times a day. Den’s parents were skeptical of the changes and it was a little hard with them questioning things but I guess they could see it’s the only way to go, you know. Things just change. His mom was like, “how big do you have to get?” (laughs). It’s also hard for them to understand why we need the farm to grow when land is so hard to come by right now. Nowadays if you find a little piece of land that’s close by, it’s almost impossible to buy it. But, you know, it’s just how things go.

It was hard for the older farmers to see and understand all of the changes in farming but they had to understand that farms could not survive monetarily if they did not grow or keep up with technology.

What I love most about farming is that you’re always at work. When you are home you are always at work, you know, it’s right out the door. I like that you can raise a family while you are home and don’t have to take the kids to day care. Yeah, I’d say that’s the best part. It is dangerous though to raise a family on a farm. A lot of accidents can happen. Actually, when my son, Nicholas, was one or two he followed a cat under this cow and she started to kick wildly and Nicholas was under her and got his teeth knocked out. I just went in and I don’t even know what happened. I went in to get him and I got knocked out and had to go to the hospital for a couple of days from a concussion (laughs). Yeah, that was a bad night. A very bad and unexpected night (laughs).

My role on our farm has definitely changed over the years. I used to feed calves full time twice a day and before that I milked twice a day until we added the parlor and then it became three times a day. I did a lot of milking years ago. I would take the kids out by the play pen or the big pile of sand out the door of the parlor so they would be playing in the sand pile while we were milking and they’d always stay put. My role is very different now from how it was though, I have it a lot easier now. What am I? I guess I keep everyone’s spirits up (laughs). I cook and I do help wherever they need me outside like if a calf would need an IV or you know I’m always around and I do like to see what’s going on out there and things.

Even though I kind of liked not being out there as much, I kind of felt like I wasn’t as important. You kind of always want to feel important and that you’re an important part of the team but I guess I kind of got over that feeling (laughs).You know, now somebody else is doing the job that I thought I really could only do. But my old job has really changed now too, we have a pasteurizer for the calves which helps it go a lot faster. You can be important in other ways though and I’m still part of the farm, even though I’m not doing certain things every day. Now I take care of the landscaping and lawn because that has gotten to be a really big job too.

I am very thankful for our family and the farm. I always loved the farm and love that it’s doing well, but I guess after Den was gone, I’m proud that we were able to keep things going until the kids were old enough to be partners and old enough to really be involved. I am really proud of that, you know, this is the twelfth year now that Den has been gone, so it’s been a long time. Those years were not money making years either, we just barely got things covered but we kept things going and things have really changed since then. We moved some people out and brought new people in. I’m very proud of the family, that everyone is so close, gets along, and that everyone loves the farm. I know at my home not everyone loved the farm. I’m happy that when the kids think of their home it will be good memories and good thoughts. I’m very lucky and I’m happy. I want everyone involved in the farm to be happy and I think they are.

— Laura Lange

ANGELINE VICK, FARMER & SELF-PROVISIONER

Angeline Vick grew up in Watertown, Wisconsin, where she met her husband, Don. They married in 1952 and bought land close to Don’s parents’ farm. Don and Angeline lived and worked on their farm of 298 acres from 1952-2003. 

I was introduced to farm life when I met my husband, Don. We bought the land that was next to his parents’ farm and we moved out there right after we got married. I believe that was in…1952. We bought Don’s parents’ farm after they retired, so we had about 298 acres. We came to town about eleven years ago, so we lived and worked on that farm for over 50 years.

We did it all. We were mostly dairy farmers, though, because the farm was set up for that, so milk was our main source of income. We had 30 cows, so not like today. It was all manual labor. We milked them for about an hour and a half every morning and night. We used the milk machine and the milk tank and cans, but there was no pipeline. We just filled the buckets and dumped the milk into the milk cans. Sometimes, we would just reach into the milk tank with a cup and drink it right out of there. It was ice cold and so good! We always had a really high test for percentage…about 4%. It had a lot of cream in it, so for me, it tasted just as good as ice cream.

We had pigs; we had steers, ducks, geese, and chickens. The chickens were pretty much my work, though. We would get 300 new baby chicks every spring and when they were old enough they would give us 250, 260, 270 eggs a day. We’d sell the eggs pretty quickly. I’d pack them up, about 30 dozen into a case, and take them into town and the special place that bought eggs would just give you what they wanted to give you for the day.

Angie's chicks
Angie’s chicks

I butchered a lot of the chickens, too. Everybody wanted farm dressed chickens! First, you have to bleed ‘em out. Then you dip them in hot water so the feathers come out easier. I picked out all of the feathers by hand. Then you just take the insides out and put them in a tub of cold water. Don grew up on a farm, so he was the one who showed me how to do it.  The first time was a little hard, but I got good at it after a while. I just did it!

We had a lot of crops, too. We dipped our fingers into everything, really! We had oats, wheat, alfalfa, soy beans. Later on, whatever we needed to feed the cattle, and corn. We got free corn seeds from our seed dealer and oh, was that corn ever good. One year, we had so much sweet corn, so we took a pickup truck load to St. Mark’s, gave it to the cafeteria ladies, and said here you go! They said the kids ate five cobs each! 

I suppose my garden was my favorite work on the farm. I liked planting and harvesting…I didn’t like the weeds though, but those came with it (laughs). I planted lettuce, radishes, onions, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, beans, pumpkins, and the list goes on. We had strawberries and raspberries, apple trees, plum trees, and cherry trees, too. We didn’t use those commercial fertilizers. Everything was all organic. I canned and froze…well at first we didn’t have a freezer, but we canned and eventually froze everything from the garden. I did pickles, pickled beets, and sauerkraut. I canned a lot of apple sauce, too. We had a cellar for storing everything and another cooler area for potatoes and onions. That was a big pile of potatoes, because we ate them pretty much every day and it lasted us the year.

I canned meat too! Every year we’d get a new batch of chickens, so I’d butcher and can them. You just cut the meat into pieces with some salt and pepper, cap it, and cook it in a water bath. We didn’t have pressure cookers then, well they maybe did, but I didn’t really like them. I canned chicken, pork, beef, fish, and salmon from Lake Michigan, too.

We smoked a lot venison and beef sausage; about 100 pounds every year. We cut up the meat and ground it up in the big grinder with the seasonings, usually just salt pepper and some kind of preservative. In the beginning we used sugar and salt, but then we used the preservative. We used intestines for the casings before the artificial ones came out. It was easier with commercial made casings, though.

I made most of the meals until Ruth was old enough—then she helped out. We would usually go to the grocery store once a week for a bag of flour. I cooked what we had on the farm. We had our meat, milk, and eggs and the vegetables that were canned or frozen from the garden. Breakfast wasn’t a big meal and neither was supper, but lunch was the big one. Meat, potatoes, and vegetables every day. I baked a lot of bread and rolls, too. That was the way my husband was brought up.

You know, I would put a beef roast in the oven before we went out to work and when that was almost done, I’d come in and get the potatoes cooked with a jar of vegetables. And we always had to have dessert! Cookies, cakes, pies, you name it. I liked to bake cakes. You just put it in the oven, take it out, and frost it. I made a lot of chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting—Don’s favorite! He loved his cake. In the spring and early summer, there were always lots of strawberries, so I would make strawberry shortcake a lot, too. I’d make baking powder biscuits and we would have fresh whipped cream skimmed off the top of the bulk tank. Oh, that milk from the bulk tank was so good!

We made a lot of wine in the later years. We had so many raspberries and cherries in the freezer, so the kids got us one of those wine-making kits. We would just take whatever berries or fruit we were using, measure them out with the sugar and the yeast and the water and let it ferment in a big five gallon pale for about one to two weeks. You have to stir the wine twice a day, so you say good morning and good night to the wine…that’s how you remember how to do it! When it stops bubbling, that’s when you know the yeast stopped working. You strain it and put it in jugs with a stopper and an air lock. The first time we made it here in town, we kept it in the closet and we could hear it go ‘bloop, bloop, bloop’ at night.

Wine was just a family thing. We just did it for fun. We made raspberry, cherry, elderberry, strawberry, plum, and cranberry. We got a little creative and made a little batch of strawberry rhubarb wine once. We tried apple once, but that was a little bland. We had little wine tasting parties in our country gazebo…I think Ruth and your mother were there when they were teenagers. They would sit in there, taste the wine, and get all smiley! I don’t know off the top of my head how many gallons of wine we made over the years, but if I had my book, I could tell you. We made lots though and gave a lot away.

It was just the family working on the farm and this was just our way of living. It was a lot of work, but we made it. We just did the work and that was that. We never had a sick day because the chickens had to be fed and the cows had to be milked every day. We were just too busy to have much time for fiddling around… but we would get together with our neighbors every once in a while to play cards: Sheepshead or Canasta.

We had to work hard to make everything go, you know, because things were tough back then. We had to do it to make ends meet and it wasn’t for a lot of money. We had our ups and downs, with health and the weather…a farmer depends on good weather, but we made it. I learned a lot of things over the years and I just learned as I went along. Sometimes this didn’t grow or that didn’t grow, but we always had enough to go around.

Her daughter, Ruth, interjects, “Don’t let her kid you. She drops a seed into the ground and it grows and she’ll have ten pounds of something come up!”

We had a house to live in and we were self-sufficient…we were never hungry because we always had food. That was life years ago and we were lucky that we could keep going. We would just look to the sky and pray…that rain has to come…tomorrow, tomorrow!

The Vick Farm
The Vick Farm

— Aly Theder

ELIYAHU FINK, GREW UP ON A KOSHER CHICKEN FARM

Eliyahu Fink, a rabbi, grew up working on his family’s kosher poultry farm in Scranton, Pennsylvania during the summers of his teenage years. Now, he is a Rabbi at Jewish Experience of Madison.

A famous Jewish comedian once said that you can summarize every Jewish holiday with, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” Food is without a doubt very significant and a central component of the Jewish traditions and culture in my life.  Not only is food a part of my religion, it is also a major component of my family’s business. We own David Elliot, a poultry processing plant, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

I worked at David Elliot during my teenage years for a summer job. Don’t get me wrong, Scranton is a very beautiful place, as it is not far from the Poconos Mountains. But the city is past its prime and living there seems unappealing. However, it was always nice knowing that I had a job at my family farm as a back up plan in case nothing else worked out.

The farm is in its third generation now. Our poultry business began because the Korean War broke out and Grandpa David did not want to go. My great-grandfather, who I am named after, did not want Grandpa David to go and fight in someone else’s war. He had been drafted into the Zar Army, which resulted in a horrible experience because they were not friendly towards Jewish people. So my great-grandfather decided to buy acres of land and began a chicken hatchery business so that Grandpa David could get the farm exemption from the draft.

Chicken hatchery is a hard business though. There is a very high loss rate. We eventually left that business and began a chicken processing plant. Chickens were brought in every morning from eastern Pennsylvania. Now, we get about twelve thousand a day.

David Elliott is a small kosher business. Kosher traditionally means that you don’t mix milk and meat together. As far as animals go, there are only specific animals that are kosher.  One critique of kosher is that it is detailed obsessed and focused on a lot of small things. But I believe that attention to detail is incredibly important and lack of attention to detail has its repercussions. Judaism is a relationship with God, and just like in any relationship, details have utter importance. In Judaism, we believe that we are what we eat. This is why we choose to not eat animals that are predatory. Instead we eat animals that tend to be calm like ruminants and poultry. Being a Kosher farm, this means that we work differently from a conventional farm in a few ways. The main difference is that if an animal is sickly and dying of natural causes then it is not considered kosher.  We need to limit those birds on our farm.

Blood is not considered kosher. This means that all blood has to be drawn out of the chicken. Salt draws out the blood, and this was one of my jobs on the farm. The process was boring. I never wanted to schlepp the 80-pound bags of salt to pour into the basins. Those were extremely heavy. When I took the de-feathered headless chickens off the conveyor belt, I would pack its body cavity with salt. I then sprinkled the outside with salt. A kosher chicken farm is engineered to hang the chicken up on shackle so that it can hang for an hour before it is rinsed. Over the course of the day, I would probably do this hundreds maybe thousands of times a day. It’s extremely rewarding as you can imagine. No, it was actually boring, but it was a summer job.

You have to stand there at the conveyor belt for many hours. I started at about 7 AM, got a 15-minute break at around 10:30 AM as a product of OSHA regulations. The days are long and it’s very boring, so you want to make conversation. Domingo was my partner who would stand across from me. He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak much Spanish. This resulted in very animated conversation through body language and signing. It definitely helped make time pass. I still think about Domingo at times. He accomplished his goal of making enough money to go back home to his family in Mexico and work on his farm. Working with people who were working extremely hard to feed their families gave me a certain sense of work ethic. It taught me that if you have a job, you try and do it well and you try and stay focused on it. It wasn’t a typical teenage summer job like a counselor where you work with friends and try to blow off actually working.

I learned a lot from my coworkers. We had about sixty workers when I was working. At first, they came from northeast Pennsylvania and now a lot of workers come from an immigrant population from Mexico, as the business has expanded. As far as documentation goes, the workers were required to show documentation, but we weren’t obligated to verify it. One time ICE came and people got spooked and left. 

Actually, last year, my dad’s good personal employee was arrested for being here illegally. My dad drove two hours to ICE deportation to pick him up once he managed to get released.  Working on a farm changed my outlook on the world in the way that working with such a large immigrant population has made me more sympathetic to immigration in this country. When you work alongside people, you realize they are hardworking, good people. It’s almost a cliché at this point,  but this country is a country of immigrants. My great-grandfather came here from Russia trying to make a better life. I sympathize much more for immigrants. 

I think that most of the workers that came from Mexico had been working with us since day one in America. I’m not sure how much strange things they attributed to America—or Judaism and Kosher. The most common question that we usually got was about our yamakas because you can see them on our heads.

I do have a story of our one employee. Larry, and his experience on the farm. Larry actually grew up in the area and worked on our farm for years right out of high school. After my grandmother died, he wrote a beautiful letter about how before working for us he only knew jokes about Jews. He didn’t know any Jews because he grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. He wrote about how when he began working for my grandparents, he realized that all of the jokes were way off base. He really loved my grandparents. If Larry forgot his lunch, he would go over to the house and my grandmother would make him one. He even picked up a little Hebrew. I actually saw him a couple of months ago when he came to visit so that he could meet my son. Larry kept telling my wife, who never met my grandparents, how special they were.

Judaism is a relationship with God. Keeping kosher is one of the ways that I do this.  Keeping kosher teaches me self-control. Just because I want something does not mean that I have to pop it into my mouth. We have this evolution psychology tick where if we see food, we want to eat it. Kosher is a reminder that just because something is there does not mean you could, would, or should have to eat it.  It defines my diet, but it doesn’t limit it. It just requires more preparation and planning. Especially when I’m traveling, it makes me conscientious about my lifestyle, as I can usually only grab coffee and fruit at a gas station.

The Jewish experience is very community- and experience-oriented, with amazing food. Every Friday night we have Shabbat dinner. It is a day of rest, so we cannot make food on Shabbos. We can only reheat it, so we start cooking at latest on Wednesday for the thirty people that come to enjoy Shabbat with us at Jewish Experience of Madison.  The food is evocative of the whole atmosphere of family or community coming together and sitting down to enjoy a point of time together. We make traditions come alive through food.

Working on a farm has made me more connected with the food that I eat. I know that the meat and poultry does not just come from the supermarket. It comes from somewhere real. The experience of milking a cow and then drinking the milk is important because it gave me a sense of knowledge that there is a relationship between what we eat and the natural world that we live in. Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan has informed me greatly, and it has pushed me to think about sustainability and the way that we interact with our food. It has made me think about the supply end. I do believe that kosher is doing a little bit better of a job than the rest of the industry because the prohibition of eating sickly animals means that they cannot be too hopped up on antibiotics. However, while it is better, it is not perfect. For long-term sustainability, the way we eat and the way we source our food probably has to change.

— Gaby Graham-Glicksman