Barnyard basics: Life lessons from a chicken farm
One summer, when I found myself with no job and no plan, I panicked and took a job on a chicken farm in the French countryside. I told myself the job would look good on my resume– showing I’m adventurous and understand the agriculture business to boot. Neither is true, in fact, and I have never put this experience on my resume. But I did learn a lot on the farm about getting ahead at the office.
My deal with the family who employed me was that I would perform household chores in exchange for room and board. To me, "chores" meant sweeping and dusting. To them, it meant killing and plucking chickens. In my lame French, I said killing animals was not among my duties. The matron of the house said I'd be kicked out for breaking the agreement. So I learned to pluck. Lesson 1: Get everything in writing.
The farmer blocked off a small area of the coop where the wee chicks could live without getting lost. Every week, the chicks would double in size, as would the area. By the end of the summer, the coop was full. Lesson 2: Start small, but prepare for rapid growth.
It was important to move the chickens into the buyer's truck before they realized what was happening. So in the middle of the night, while they were sleeping, we grabbed the chickens by the legs and carried them upside down. The farmer couldn't believe I did it without throwing up, and he gave me three days off. Lessons 3 and 4: Have a strategy, and learn skills outside your job description.
I once bit into an apple before noticing that everyone else had peeled theirs first. The 8-year-old daughter declared in French, "She eats apples like the pigs." The mother responded, "Be careful, she is beginning to understand." Lesson 5: Learn another language.
I picked cherries from the branches that were too high for the 8-year-old. Later she gathered the eggs out from under the hens so I wouldn't get pecked. Lesson 6: Make friends in low places.
I fed the rabbits on the farm for five weeks. One evening, they were gone. "They are not pets like the dog," the farmer said as we dined on my charges. Lesson 7: Never get too attached to anyone you work with.
Relatives of the host family came to visit from Lyon. I had more in common with the city French than the rural French did. They invited me to spend my last month with them, when I was supposed to be harvesting hay on the farm. I told the farmer I would stay only if I didn't have to feed the pigs anymore. Lesson 8: Job offers give you more leverage.
Every day, a few chickens would be trampled to death or die from heat exhaustion in the coop. I walked close behind the farmer, who would scoop up the dead birds before me. Lesson 9: When there's crap everywhere, stick close to someone in the know.
I didn't read any books, and I worried all summer that I wasn't learning a thing. But really, I was learning solid fundamentals that would help me throughout my career. Lesson 10: Never assume that anything is a waste of your time.
Penelope Trunk has worked for many businesses and even started a few, and now she's too busy to write her column, so this advice is reprinted from an earlier edition of the Hook.