The Gleason Chicken Run
Oren and I walked in the door and hopped to the end of the long line leading to the gas station counter. We exchanged glances and took in the scene uncertainly. At long last, we’d finally made it. Gleason, WI: Home of the Gas Station.
We waited at the end of the line for a few moments, as the lady behind the counter fielded a telephone call amidst an obvious and untimely emotional collapse, and the line lengthened behind us. Finally, I nudged the guy in front of us: a tan, bearded fellow wearing an orange cutoff. Something about him just seemed… local.
“Hey man. Do you happen to know where the chicken sale is?”
“Oh, the chicken sale? Yeah, did you guys come up X? Okay, so just take 17 back to X, head south, and take a left on J. It’ll be on your left, and you can’t miss it. Don’t know if there’ll be any chickens left anymore, but that’s where it’ll be.”
We thanked the man and hopped back into Oren’s Ranger. 17 to X; head south; left on J. Couldn’t miss it. The sign was cardboard; the barn massive, and at the end of the driveway were a family of Hmong women with an impressive butchering operation in the works: coolers, knives, freezer paper, industrial feather plucker. This wasn’t their first Gleason Chicken Rodeo.
We made our way to the chicken barn door and hopped out.
“How many ya lookin’ for?”
The accent was hard to place at first, but the checkered button-downs offered a clue. This was Mennonite Country.
“Okay, and ya bring somethin’ to load ‘em in?”
“Yep, we can just do 10 in each of these cages.”
By this time, 5-6 guys had materialized. They turned on their headlamps, strapped on large respirators, and stepped into the harrowing depths of the pitch-black chicken barn, returning with handfuls of live chickens to stuff in our carriers.
As they worked, I learned that their operation was set up for 25,000. By the time they had our 40 chickens caged and ready to roll, it was obvious to me that getting caught was the best decision these birds had ever made. We were just about to close up the tailgate and hit the road, when one of the younger men looked at Oren and posed the fateful question.
“So what do y’all do?”
“We run a small-scale produce farm.”
“Really… So, you do CSA and farmers’ market and all that?”
“Really…” He was instantly fascinated.
“So what do you grow?”
“Well,” Oren replied with a laugh, “we don’t grow okra.”
“Why are you telling me what you don’t grow?”
“Because it’s faster that way.”
“Really… so you do tomatoes, strawberries and potatoes?”
“Really… so I started my own tomatoes this year, and their leaves turned upside down like this, and they got weird purple spots on the bottoms. What was the problem?”
By this point, I knew we were in for the long haul, and I stood back as the young guy threw question after question at Oren, and the rest of the crew marveled in his vast knowledge.
“…and they just burned up just as soon as I got ‘em into the ground.”
“Yeah, sun scald. So, you have to put them out for 6 hours, then 8, and just incrementally increase the time. What we do is…”
The exchange carried on for quite a while
At some point, one of the older guys fired up his headlamp and respirator and wandered back into the abyss of the chicken barn. He returned with a chicken in each hand, which he stuffed into one of the cages. “For all the information.” Eventually, we closed our tailgate and started to make our way for the cab, when I asked the second fateful question of the day.
“So, do you garden right here?”
“No, it’s a just a couple miles down on J. If you guys have the time and wouldn’t mind, I would really like to show it to ya. I’m in this white car right here, if you’d just wanna follow me…”
We hopped back in the Ranger and followed the white car to an odd little Gleason suburb, where the guy owned a nice little house and garden patch. We walked theperimeter as the dialogue continued, and Oren took the opportunity to sneak in a few of his classic lines.
“Yeah, well I’ve been doing market gardening for 11 years now.”
“See, but if you’re planting 10,000 onions, and you spend an extra five seconds on each one… that’s why I do it like this.”
I hate to admit it, but it was a nice lesson for me as well. I hadn’t realized the extent of the knowledge that had become institutional at Rising Sand Organics, based off seasons of hard lessons and burned up cucumbers. I guess I had just kind of assumed everything grew.
At some point, however, enough was enough, and I interjected for the first time all afternoon.
“Well guys, this is great and all, but we’ve got a bunch of chickens burning up in the back of the truck.”
“Oh yeah, right.”
By the time we made it to the truck, Oren was preaching on the virtues of drip irrigation, and the possibilities for a hoop house. The guy was having absolutely all of it.
“Oh man, if you could show me how to prune tomatoes… Hey, just wait here one second.” He ran into his house, and returned with $40 cash and an envelope to write on. “Here, I couldn’t possibly charge you for these chickens after all this; the information is worth so much more. Here if you wouldn’t mind writing your name and number on here…”
We took our chicken refund and exchanged names, numbers, and the possibility of Andrew coming down to visit Rising Sand sometime later in the summer. We were just on the verge of heading towards the truck when he asked fateful question #3 for the day.
“Hey, are you guys religious?”
Back down the rabbit hole we went, and back into his house he went. I looked at Oren and shrugged.
“It’s his purpose.”
He returned with an impressive array of literature on Our Lord and Savior, and they carried on for a while longer in the realm of the Eternal Soul. Finally, enough was enough.
“Well guys, this is all good and all, but my moral compass is telling me we’ve got a bunch of thirsty chickens burning up in the back of that truck.”
With that, we shook hands and hit the road: 42 chickens and a handful of religious literature richer than when we’d come. I don’t know exactly what I’d expected when we had hit the road for Gleason that morning, but I can tell you it certainly wasn’t that.