Cooking a Heritage Turkey

We’re having a slightly different sort of Christmas this year.

A few months back, close friends called and said, “we’re coming for Christmas!”  “Great!” We replied.  A few weeks ago, as we started to make preparations, we thought, “What the heck.  Let’s see if our favorite farmer down the road has any turkeys left.”

Adele and Michael Gelling raise heritage livestock and garlic.  What could be better?  We LOVE watching their beautiful Narragansett turkeys grow up; they’re such mellow, friendly, and stunning birds.  We’ve often come home from a visit scouring our yard for a spot we could tuck a few.  No luck so far.

This year, we were in luck; there were a couple of turkeys left, though the smallest she could do was 15lbs.  We thought we’d be 5 adults, and would be able to make a suitable dent in that much meat.

A week or two later, we got the text–our dear friends couldn’t get away and weren’t going to be able to make it down after all.  So sad.  And slightly daunting–what would we do with our big bird?

Last week, we got a text from another friend, who was travelling with his blended family of 6 across the island for Christmas.  Could they stop in on their travels for a quick visit?  “Great!”  We said.  “How about a turkey dinner?!”

So yesterday, December 23rd, we had a fabulous Christmas dinner.  We went all out: our potatoes and rutabagas from the garden, stuffing made with our potatoes, apples, onion and bacon.  Brussel sprouts, gravy, Skipper made a pumpkin and an apple pie (both from our garden), and of course, the bird.

First things first: It was the best turkey we’ve ever eaten.

Second things second: we were incredibly confused about how to cook it, based on all the contradictory information on the interwebs and other various sources.  So we took a deep breath, combined some of the better tips and instincts based on cooking our roosters over the last year, and dove in.  Because it turned out SO well, I thought I’d share, and because we likely cooked our turkey days before anyone else, I thought it might be helpful to get the recipe out now!

Roasting a Heritage Turkey

The big goal is to end up with crispy roasted skin, a cooked-though bird, and super-moist meat.  Not an easy balancing act.  The trick with non-supermarket poultry, according to my new bible, The River Cottage Meat Book, is to do a hot initial sear, and then a longer, low-temperature roast.

We started with a very fresh, never frozen turkey (15.6 lbs).  Obviously not everyone can do this, but I’m sure it made a difference!

Chefs roast a bird that is dry and at room temperature.  After our bird sat in the fridge for more than 24 hrs (which also makes a difference with a fresh bird), we took it out of the fridge, dried it off, and let it sit on the counter for an hour or so to warm up.

The next key thing is to add fat to the bird which helps to crisp the skin and to retain the moisture.  So the Skipper buttered the dry bird, and then added salt, pepper, and herbs.  We also quartered a couple of our apples and stuck them in the cavity (my father always used to do this with oranges, which is also delicious).   Butter inside and out.

Then we realized that our turkey wouldn’t fit in our roasting pan.  Luckily, because it wasn’t actually Christmas yet, the neighbours had something we made work.

The turkey then went into a preheated, 400 degree, hot oven for 20 minutes.  Then, to the hot pan, we added a half-cup or so of white wine, and on went the roasting pan lid, tightly.  We turned the oven down to 325.

Recipes had varied as to how long to roast a turkey, from 20-30 minutes per pound.  With 15 lbs, though, that’s a huge range!  There’s also some debate about what the final temperature of the turkey should be, with the USDA guidelines at 180, but many cooks saying this is WAY too hot, and a guaranteed way to get a dried-out (though safe to eat!!) roast.  Chefs argued for 160-165, especially if you were comfortable with the provenance of the bird, which we were.

We decided to go with 20 mins per pound, and aim for 165, and see what we ended up with.  That math would have given us 5 hours, and we were expecting our guests at 5pm.  So we put the bird in at 12pm, and then decided we’d check on things at 3pm or so, to see if the turkey needed basting, uncovering to crisp or brown, etc.

At three o’clock, we pulled the bird out and uncovered it.  It was stunning!  The skin was crispy and had pulled away from meat in places.  The meat looked juicy, and there was lots of yummy smelling juice at the bottom of the pan.  We stuck the thermometer into the thickest parts of the meat–it was off the charts!  The bird was way over 180.  Ummm, that meant it was done.  2 hours early.

We crossed our fingers that the high temperature didn’t mean a dry bird, texted our friends to see if they could come a little sooner, and left the bird covered in the pan to rest while we pulled together the side dishes.

An hour later, our friends were here, and we had 8 hungry people to do justice to the most succulent, moist, flavourful turkey any of us had ever tasted.  And today, as Skipper and I nibbled on leftovers, we can report that even after a day in the fridge, the meat is STILL MOIST.  Amazing.

So tips we’ve learned about cooking heritage turkey:

Free-range, heritage birds have less meat and more bone for their weight compared to their fattened counterparts.  This throws the cooking times off.  Be warned!

Next time, we will again do the hot initial sear, and we will again cover the bird for the rest of the cooking, after adding a little liquid to the pan.  But Skipper says next time he would lower the heat even more, down to 315 or so.  We’d still use 20 mins per pound as a general guideline, just in case (especially at a lower heat), but again, we’d plan to check the bird early, after 10-15 minutes per pound.  Our bird took 3.5 hours for 15.6 lbs.  But the point is that there is a lot more variation in the heritage, free-range birds, and you can’t just plug in a formula.

We did not brine our bird, and opinions on this for heritage birds varied.  But given that our bird was so fresh, and so potentially tasty, we were worried about over saturating the turkey with water and salt.  After all, in theory a good quality, traditional turkey shouldn’t need to be altered too much to add flavour where there might not be any…We have no regrets.  We think that keeping the bird covered while roasting with extra liquid took the place of brining, and was much simpler.

So there you go!  Hope that helps someone else have a very merry turkey-mas, and whether you’re having a turkey feast, or, as we’re doing tonight, a Ukrainian wheat-free vegan Christmas even dinner, have a wonderful holiday.  On to the garden goals of 2013!

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Taking Stock and Stocking Up

It’s no coincidence that I’ve been AWOL between Labour Day weekend and the first week of December this year.  Can you say “School semester?!”  Sadly, this was one of those semesters that just didn’t leave me 2 hours free to put a post together.  I’ve considered dropping the blog altogether, but that doesn’t feel right either.  So my goal is to post once a month or so and see where that takes me.

The fact is, there’s been lots going on around here, and I want to share it.  It’s been a busy and productive fall, and all the reading and grappling with the transitions underway have had some transformative impacts on our lives.  There are also still many things that I remain unsettled and anxious about.  I continue to swing regularly between despair and acceptance about what’s happening in the world, and my homestead work calms me to some degree.  But I also recognize that the real work needs to happen at the community level, and I’m reflecting on how I want to participate in that broader picture.

In the meantime, I thought I should report a bit on what we accomplished this fall!  One of my goals after last summer’s chicken-ravaging of my winter garden was to do a better job of extending our garden’s production for as long as possible.  About halfway through the season, I also got serious about preserving and stocking up the pantry, even if that meant buying some local produce from off the property.  The results have been so heartening–and a giant leap forward!

The Well-Stocked Larder
The Well-Stocked Larder

This fall, we are looking at a pantry with

  • 48 pints of thick tomato sauce, plus some stewed tomatoes and salsa
  • almost 100 lbs of potatoes stored–enough to get us to spring, if I can keep them from sprouting!
  • umpteen jars of assorted pickles: cucumber, zucchini, beets
  • canned cherries and peaches, frozen berries, and umpteen jars of jam
  • a decent supply of onions, as well as a garden full of leeks, some garlic
  • a garden bed full of huge rutabagas and parsnips
  • a successful patch of cabbage and (hopefully!) brussel sprouts–enough cabbage til May
  • 40 lbs of winter squash
  • a few lbs of stored dry pinto and fava beans
  • a covered bed of salad greens that we should be able to eat from for another month or so
  • a solid patch of healthy chard also covered to pull from for another month or two
  • a decent bed of winter kale
  • a freezer full of corn, green beans, chicken (ours and some heritage roosters bartered with a friend)
  • eggs and…a half-side of pork raised by a farming colleague!

And…from a half-dozen espaliered and dwarf apple trees: 450 lbs of apples!!

The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes
The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes

These have been taken off to the local u-brew to make cider (we don’t yet have a press/grinder), frozen for deserts, and made into apple sauce.  We’re still working our way through the last of the processing; I’d also like to try drying some slices by the wood stove.

In other words, we’ve got enough of our home-produced food to keep us going for a number of months yet, supplemented by a few basic grocery staples: rice, oats, pasta, bread, milk, cheese, etc.   I have accepted that our homestead (for now!) will not produce grains and dairy.  But I’m so impressed that we’ve produced so much else, and very curious to see how long it lasts!

As the December break rolls around, I’m setting new garden goals and getting ready to order seeds.  I want to improve my carrot and beet production, and continue to clear brush and ornamentals to make room for more food.  I got an expanded strawberry patch and an asparagus bed set up last year, but I killed off most of the blueberry starts 😦 .   And I’m planning next year to make a concerted effort to save seeds.  We managed a few beans and sunflower seeds this year, but I want to start settling on my favourite varieties of my crops and starting to strategically and systematically save seeds from those where viable.  Right now we just save a few once the plants are done and the harvest over, but that isn’t actually selecting for the best traits!

Beyond the garden, we’re also starting to think more strategically about our overall homestead and its sustainability and resilience.  We continue to count our woodstove as one of our biggest blessings, and with its help, we’re trying to reduce our energy use even more.  The Skipper has decided that using the dishwasher–though a high efficiency model–can’t possibly be as energy-efficient as heating water on the woodstove to handwash dishes.  We’ve bought some cast-iron enameled pots to experiment with cooking on the woodstove.  In BC, we have a two-tiered billing system for our electricity, and the Skipper has set us the challenge of trying to get our consumption down to the first tier: about 22 kwhrs per day.  We bought a bigger freezer to accommodate the food storage, and with a new energy-star model, we got rid of an older extra fridge and the small freezer and are now using less energy with more space. Win!

Also on the priority list is some rainwater catchment.  We’re on a good well here, but resilience is about redundancy, and at the moment we are completely reliant on our well and it’s electric pump.  There are manual pumps available, and we might also look into one, but rainwater storage makes a lot more sense as low-hanging fruit.  I’ve been angling for this for months now, but the push came last night, when the Skipper said a colleague of his is stuck at the moment because his pump went, and it’s (of course) thousands of dollars and a huge hassle to have someone come with a machine to pull out the pump (!), repair or replace it and put it back in.  That’s the kind of personal emergency that Sharon Astyk reminds us about.  I don’t know how we would pay for that kind of problem at the moment, and of course, while all of that decision-making and work is in progress, you have no water!!  There’s a strong case for a back-up plan!

There’s lots more to share, but I’ll stop there for now.  Hope you are also looking forward to a winter with a full woodshed, a warm fire, and tasty food shared with good company.

Surviving the Age of Transition

Yesterday’s top news stories:

In Eastern British Columbia, a toxic mining tailings pond threatens to spill its waste in a small community, potentially contaminating everything in its path including rivers and drinking water.  The cause? Record rains straining the dam.

Extreme heat..well, you know..everywhere (except the PNW), and still almost 100,000 without power almost a week after an extreme weather event on the East coast.  And, of course, forest fires burning up Colorado and neighbouring states.

In BC and Washington, the shellfish industry is scrambling.  Ocean acidification means that shellfish hatcheries’ seed stock cannot form shells.  They are now rearing the seed stock in places like Hawaii, where, for the moment, the acid levels are still tolerable.  The companies then ship the young shellfish back to grow in local waters when they are older and can tolerate the conditions.  The commercial industry is adapting.  Unfortunately, wild stocks don’t have that option.  Mussel beds are not reproducing.

Ocean acidification happens because the oceans absorb 30% of our atmospheric carbon.  Unfortunately, the acidification that we’re experiencing now is from C02 absorbed 30-40 years ago.  So even if there was no atmospheric carbon left to absorb, we still have 30-40 years worth of absorbed carbon on its way.  Goodbye marine food.

The global economy is still flailing 4 years after the major collapse in 2008.  No sign of recovery in sight.  Canada was one of the least affected nations in the world, and we are an energy exporter.  But in this global economic climate, the best we’re seeing is flat “growth.”  Guess what one of the major causes of the meltdown was?  According to the Wall Street Journal, the 2008 spike in oil prices may have been the tipping point.

…To recap: massive species die-off, extreme weather events straining our infrastructure, rising cost of living and flat wages, long economic recessions (when does this qualify as a Depression?)…

Umm, folks?  All those scary scif-fi-like predictions of a world affected by peak oil and climate change?  We’re already living it.  And there’s a concensus building that the tipping points that scientists have spent the last decades warning us about are now visible in the rear-view mirror.

I know I haven’t been posting much over the last few months, and this is one of the reasons why.  I’ve been immersed in the latest research into Peak Oil and climate change in preparation for a course I’ll be teaching in the fall, and the conclusions I’m coming to are leaving me in a thinly veiled panic.  In a nutshell?  We’re screwed, and it’s time to start thinking about how we’re going to survive.

Now, I am not a survivalist.  I am a skeptical academic who is suspicious of fear mongering and who has a sunny, optimistic personality.  And part of what is troubling me right now is just how difficult it is to predict the future.  There are experts out there warning us about the apocalyptic collapse of civilization, and there are others who take the long view of history and suggest a slow, grinding, decline is more likely.  After all, as John Michael Greer points out, after suffering two devastating world wars and a great depression, Europe still did not collapse entirely.

However.

We are looking ahead to a very different future.  Every country in the world is holding massive debt, which in theory falls on its taxpayers to repay.  Money that used to be in government trust has been funneled into and centralized in corporations, and is therefore unavailable.  Each extreme weather event that requires massive emergency funding sucks money out of the public coffers, and thus out of the rest of the economy.  With oil prices staying high (even allowing for modest fluctuation), rebuilding and maintaining our infrastructure gets harder and harder.  Food production is threatened by the double whammy of extreme and unpredictable weather coupled with high fuel costs that impact the cost of fertilizers, pesticides, running farm equipment, and distribution.  The cost of every consumer good continues to rise with the rising costs of production.

In the meantime, at the community level, my provincial government has started to sue its local municipalities to try to recoup healthcare costs.  Umm, fighting over scraps anyone?  I used to look to the natural landscape and systems to help supplement my attempts at self-sufficiency–hunting and fishing–to provide the protein that my small homestead cannot produce.  But those natural support systems–if the ocean acidification example is any indication–can not be counted on for much longer.

The burning question for me at the moment is: how long do we have?  And of course, that’s an impossible question to answer.  Way too many variables.  And this makes planning and preparing and adapting tough.

Right now, in this moment, everything is great.  Skipper and I have good jobs, we can afford our mortgage even if costs increase or wages go down in moderation.  The garden is in full swing, and happy, adorable chicks are racing around exclaiming over every new leaf they find.  We and our families are healthy, and our network of wonderful friends continues to grow.  I count our blessings every day.

But I’m looking around our homestead and lifestyle with fresh eyes.  If the economy (globally and locally) continues to shrink and prioritize, we will need to become increasingly self-reliant.  Right now, all of our water and septic needs require electricity.  Rain catchment is moving up the list of priorities, as is the “pizza” oven, which I initially considered a luxury.  But wood-fired ovens need small, hot fires from small brush, of which we have lots from our prunings.

I’m going to be experimenting with dehydrating in the greenhouse, which is otherwise too hot and dry to use in the height of summer.  Dehydrating is less power intensive than freezing or even canning, although I’ll still do that too.  I’ll be working at building my capacity to keep us in food year-round, but I won’t be investing in grow-lights.  As one friend put it: you can replace heat cables.  You can’t create light without power.  A small solar panel won’t power even a cfl grow-light at this point (and covering the greenhouse roof with solar panels defeats the purpose! 🙂 ).  But YMMV–depends what happens to our sunshine over the years to come.

Oh and permaculture?  I’ve been reading and admiring for a few years, integrating a technique here and there.  But I’ve been stuck in the idea that there’s little that’s “natural” about permaculture–you’re basically trying to imitate a natural system with imported plants in order to create something productive for humans.  But now I get it–permaculture is essential, and I will be picking up the new Garden Farming for Town and Country asap.  Because although working WITH natural systems is the only way to be productive without oil, climate change means that the ecosystems that we’re used to integrating into will be changing dramaticallly.  So we need to work with more resilient perennials, maximizing diversity, and creating food systems (even basic ones with annuals to supplement) that require few if any inputs in the future, when it counts.  In the long term, we will need to go back to living off the surplus of the land, but the land as it is is too degraded to support us.  Permaculture is the way to rebuild that support system.

I’m also reflecting on our chickens.  Our flock is very productive and useful; they will stay.  But the backyard chickens movement has really focused on dual-purpose birds, and I’m starting to question that.  Dual-purpose birds are calm, don’t fly much, and produce both eggs and meat.  Awesome!  But they were really bred for the integrated farm, to live off the farm wastes and surpluses, like grains.  They could also often forage over the whole farm property, which could provide lots of food.  Neither of these scenarios describes our situation.

The vegan argument around livestock has long revolved around the feed conversion ratio: even the most hybridized birds eat 2 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of meat, which is a waste of grain that could be feeding people directly.  Now there are lots of reasons why this is not a useful argument, but the core principle remains: if grain prices continue to rise and my forage space is limited, are dual-purpose chickens the right livestock for us?  I will be investigating the Mediterranean breeds and the Euskal Oiloa to see if the more traditional third-world backyard bird–the scrawny egg producer that needs much less feed–is a more viable option.

Over the coming months, I’ll be considering every aspect of our lifestyles for their resiliency, and I’m prepared to make some radical changes if necessary.  After all, our family has a window in which to get better prepared, and I want to make the most of it.

 

 

 

Life, Death and Roosters

On Sunday, we culled a rooster.

This was our big handsome Roo, a beautiful Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte rooster, who has been leader of the backyard flock for the last several months.  Roo was an excellent leader; he protected his hens from eagles and ravens and hawks and was always tame and calm around us and all our visitors.

So why did we kill him?  Because once Hen went broody, Roo started acting very aggressively toward our second rooster, Percy, who is Hen’s sweetheart.  We let it slide for a while; Percy had lots of space to get away, and there were no serious injuries.  We suspected that one of the two roos in our small flock would have to go (2 roos to 7 hens is too many, generally speaking), but they had been getting along well for months without issue.  While Hen was ensconced in the nest box, Percy was the odd man out, and we actually wondered if he might have to be the one to go.

But when the chicks hatched and started running about happily, Percy became an awesome Papa, and Roo started acting aggressively toward Hen too.  The choice became clear.

Why did we kill him?  Why not just rehome him, or sell him?  Because my views and values around death and eating meat have been transformed by raising livestock, even on this tiny scale.

I grew up in a pretty normal urban North American environment, I think.  We had the occasional pet–fish, rabbits, later a small dog.  As a child, I found my goldfish periodically belly-up  in the fish bowl, and gave up after a few replacements.  One of our rabbits disappeared–probably thanks to a raccoon–the second one was (I hate to admit it) released (to become one of the contributors to the urban feral rabbit pestilence!).  The dog was found another good home when it no longer fit my parents’ lifestyle.

One of my grandfathers died when I was a child, and I vividly remember everyone crying at the funeral.  But that was pretty much the extent of my experience of death.  I ate meat until I left home, but being vegetarian was nothing radical in 1980s and 90s Vancouver, meat in-and-of itself had no relationship with death for me, and my reasons for giving it up had only peripherally to do with animal rights.

In other words, I don’t think I had much exposure to or gave much thought to death as I grew up, nor did I feel the kind of regular, close attachment to animals that might make me feel like their deaths were inherently a horrible thing.  Death was an abstract, as was food, really, until just a few years ago.

Coming up to 4 years ago now, my father died of cancer at 57.  He was diagnosed a few years before that, and he embraced living every day of those few years he had left.  Some of the time, as he headed out with friends and family for another round on the golf course, I would forget that he was sick at all.  I remember distinctly, though, coming home one Thanksgiving and feeling with great and highly uncomfortable clarity that he and my mom had come to a deep level of understanding that he was, in fact, going to die, and I wasn’t at all there yet.

We all spent a lot of time together, in his final weeks; it was a precious and blessed time that has left me with many legacies thatcontinue to unfold.  One of those was a different understanding of death.

You see, Dad was diagnosed with a very rare cancer about which very little is known and about which very little treatment could be offered.  Fairly quickly, he was left on his own, outside of the usual cancer treatment industry, and he died at home, peacefully in bed, on his own terms.  It was the best of all possible passings, from my point of view.

In his last weeks, we talked about the fact that not so long ago, having a family member close to death and then dying in a bedroom at home would have been a normal part of life.  Just like being born at home was the normal way to be born, dying in an upstairs bedroom being cared for by one of your children and their family was the only option.  Most traditions even include a time of the family sitting with the dead body in the home while visitors pay their respects.  But when we started outsourcing seniors’ care, we also largely outsourced death, and for me, at least, death then became something strange and abstract and foreign, something that existed only in my imagination, and as such, something potentially horrifying and troubling.

Another of my father’s legacies, I now know, was the  gift of being open to the mysteries of Life and the universe and the spirit.  He was a minister, and I was raised Christian, although I wouldn’t categorise myself that way now.  His death shoved me back into spiritual journey, and I have found myself returning to many of the vaguely Buddist beliefs that shaped my worldview in my early 20s, particularly non-dual theology: the belief that God is not an old man on a mountaintop ( 🙂 ), but instead is the divine life energy present in all things.  In my mind, God is simply Life (with a capital L), creativity in its most basic desire to explode into every possible material experience.

Life is clearest to me in the garden.  Life is growth and then decay, and death might simply be the point at which life decays so much that it becomes life again.  I plant a seed, it grows into a plant which flowers in order to reproduce.  As soon as it flowers, however, the process of decay begins until the plant finally dies, at which point the decomposers take over and turn the plant into the food and soil that become another plant’s life.

In the garden, death is so clearly a necessary, transient, beautiful, and enriching phase.  There is nothing scary or horrifying about it–without the death which is the harvest of my vegetables, I would have no life.

When we first got chickens, I had no real plan for the roosters.  We talked about buying pullets–already sexed females ready to start laying–but decided to raise straight-run (unsexed) chicks to make sure that they would know us and be comfortable and tame around us.  From the beginning, the chickens were intended as a kind of pet, though certainly of a more independent kind!  I had vague ideas about letting hens live out their natural lives with us when they got too old to keep laying, and even more vague ideas of what roosters might be for; we certainly didn’t intend to keep any of them, at first.  Eat fertilized eggs? Gross!  I had equally vague understandings of chicken sex and anatomy! 🙂

As our chicks grew up, we found ourselves with the unsurprising percentage of 7 boys to our 7 girls.  We had to put one rooster down early because it developed physically lame and began to suffer.  We had no idea what we were doing, but going to a vet was not an option, and the internet was a fount of information.  Nonetheless, that death was not easy or peaceful, precisely because we were such amateurs.  The next two roosters we found another home for.

After that, though, we had to suck it up.  We started to understand what “flock management” meant.  We were the flock keepers and we had to do what was best for the health and well-being of the whole group, which at the time included younger chickens that were being hurt by rooster #4.  It was time to get comfortable with “processing”.  The Skipper fashioned a “killing cone” (the chicken is placed upside down through a cone so that the head pokes through–death throes are contained, the jugular is easily accessible, and upside down, the bird is comfortable and relaxed), took a deep breath, and we said goodbye.  The Skipper, who once worked as a commercial fisher, commented that this shouldn’t be any different than killing the thousands of fish that had crossed his path over the years…but of course it was.

That roo was packed up into the freezer, but it was a few months before we felt prepared to eat him–to bridge that gap between individual animal and food.  I had started eating small amounts of meat by this time, and I had small pieces of that roast bird as well.  I was starting to get comfortable with the idea of eating meat, although I still was (and am) uncomfortable with leaving the category of vegetarian.

Our big red Roo on Sunday was our 4th culling in about 6 months, and the process is starting to feel familiar; we are gaining confidence.  A friend–another vegetarian turned farmer–has asked us to come up to her place and show her how it’s done, and I think we were glad to go through the process ourselves one more time before sharing what we’ve learned.  This time round, we got orgainzed in advance; we knew what to expect and had learned from previous experience how to prepare.  As I helped gather materials and scrubbed the kitchen clean, I felt like I was going through another set of rituals that would have been commonplace not so very long ago (and which probably still are in many homes).  The cleaning and gathering felt appropriate to the weight and significance of the death to come and to the gratitude and humility I feel for the life-sustaining food that the death provides.

The preparations went smoothly, and I felt confident and sure.  Until it was my turn to go and collect Roo.  I got the birds into their run and put out their evening scratch, knowing that when their attention is on the ground, I can easily pick them up.  When I got everyone settled and went to pick up Roo, though, all my breath left me and the world tilted a little.  It is a powerful and uncomfortable feeling, that knowledge that you are leading an animal to death.  And so it should be!  Like saying grace before a special family gathering, saying a blessing and a prayer for forgiveness and gratitude seems the only appropriate thing to do–regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.  I took a deep breath to steady myself, and from then on, the rest of the process was straightforward.

What I’ve taken away from these cullings most of all, I realize, is that although death is the part of the process that we dread, the part we have to mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for, the part so culturally loaded, death is in fact not the biggest part of culling.  Death, in our backyard circumstances, is extremely quick and painless: there is only a split second between alive and dead.  And now that we’re more sure of what we’re doing, there was probaly no longer than a minute between Roo blissfully eating his favorite food with his harem, and no longer being alive.  We should all be so lucky!  Compared to the hour of getting all the equipment assembled and the kitchen ready, then the hour of plucking, butchering, and disposing of the intestines, feathers, blood, etc (which I bury in the garden for lucky plants and micro-organisms to convert into more food), the actual death is the easy part!

Perhaps the biggest shift for me over these years since my father passed away and in the months of being so intimately tied to death on our wee homestead, is that I now understand in a visceral way that death is not just not an end–whether you believe in spirit or not–but that death is also not necessarily a tragedy.  When there is suffering, death is a gift.  Death was welcomed by my father; he was ready to go.  When we kill an aggressive rooster, it is a gift to our remaining flock.

For the first time in my life, I can also say with deep honesty that I am not scared of death, whether of a loved one or of my own.  Skipper and I were talking not long ago about cancer, heart disease and other dreadful ways that people we know have died over the past year or so.  He asked, as we have contemplated over the years, about how I would cope with him getting sick, how could we prevent one disease or another.  I realised in that conversation, that it no longer mattered.  Death WILL happen.  No matter when or how I or the Skipper go, it will be too soon in our life together.  The remaining partner will grieve deeply, then have to find a way to carry on, if one of us has been left behind.  Those are the truths of life; the details don’t seem that important anymore, and I’ve realized that there’s no need to live my life in fear of them.

So why did we kill big, beautiful Roo–such a proud and handsome creature?

Because he was starting to harm the flock and needed to be removed.  Because he had the best of all possible Roo lives here, and although we may have been able to find another place for him to live out his days, it’s more than likely that place would not have been as nice as this, and that’s not good enough.  Because if we had left things as they are, the two roosters would have eventually fought each other to death–Nature’s way of sorting out excess males is often brutal, painful, prolonged, and humiliating.  Because, although selling him is technically another option, roosters are not economically valuable–even high-quality heritage birds go for as little as $10.  A breeder might have taken him, but it’s more likely that he would have become food for some other family.  The 4 lbs free-range, pastured chickens that we buy from local farms around here periodically cost $14 +.  Roo dressed out at over 6 lbs.

Most importantly, though, we processed him ourselves because doing so meant his stress-free life continued right up until the moment of death; because we know his death was quick and painless;  because the meals that he will provide for us are as sacred–unique and not commodified with a price tag–to us as his life was; because his body will feed us and the garden, generating new life on the homestead.  And because, for me, this has become the ultimate definition of ethical eating.

Not Busy: Full!

This is my attempt at a new mantra.  Life is FULL.

These last days of summer are zooming by so fast it is literally making my head spin.  There have been visits and social times, big changes in my work circumstances (and seemingly new ones every day!), and in the midst of it all, the constant rhythm of harvesting, canning, crabbing, freezing.

I’m reflecting all the time, and mostly grateful and overjoyed that this is my life.  But anytime someone asks me how life is these days, or asks about adding one more thing to the whirlwind, the answer I hear myself give is that life is “crazy” and “crazy busy”.

I’ve become a little worried that when a friend hears that, s/he might think that this means we are overwhelmed, or that what we’ve taken on is too much or maybe too challenging for any less ambitious person.  And maybe it is, a little.  It’s true that when friends or family ask me about going to a movie or a play, I can barely remember the last time I did such a thing.  And squeezing in a trip somewhere–even a weekend trip to the mainland to visit family–feels nearly impossible most of the time.   Because we’re just too busy.

I regularly feel the tension of trying to live a more direct, less outsourced life within the requirements of a twenty-first century world.  The last time that the mass population grew, harvested, hunted, processed and strored its own food (let alone produced much of its own clothing, energy, or household goods), the world was a very different place.  Society may be dynamic and always changing, but it is also a whole, integrated system.  Back in the days before industrial production, gender roles meant that women devoted ALL of their time to managing household systems, they had many children and extended family as labour, and men earned the supplemental necessary cash.  City-working men were paid salaries that recognized that they had families to support. (In fact, one of the reasons that women still earn less is because when they entered the workforce en masse, male business owners rationalized that working women were adding extra money to the household income, not supporting children, and so they didn’t need to be paid as much!)

I was reading yesterday about haying, and how in traditional communities, every other task needed to be dropped when the right weather hit for haying.  One trouble today is that all of society doesn’t work around these cycles any more, but farming often still does.

In no way do I romanticize the past.  There are excellent reasons why families encouraged their children to leave farms and find a “better” life, and I am exceedingly grateful for the running hot water and high-efficiency washing machine and dishwasher that my mother-in-law raised three children without.  And I’m even more grateful that I am not bound or chained to life and behavioural expectations based on being female.

I’m recognizing more and more that what we’re doing here on the Backyard Homestead is not going back in time, though it might look that way, and it is often inspired by pre-industrial practices.  Instead, Skipper and I are learning and adventuring into the future, into uncharted territory.  We are successfully growing a significant portion of our vegetables.  This year it’s 100% from June and counting.  We are learning to harvest wild foods as a significant portion of our protein: salmon and crab are now staples in our diet.  Our chickens are providing eggs and the occasional roaster.

We are also building what Sharon Astyk calls a Real Economy.  This is her term for the bartering and trading and relationships that have sustained humanity through all time, even in times where contemporary economies collapse and by all rights populations should not be able to survive (Cuba, the Soviet Union).  So through relationships with friends or friends of friends, we now are stocked with locally caught and canned (and some smoked) tuna, and cases of maple syrup from Quebec.  Our neighbours are getting a milk cow this fall, and we’ll figure out a trade for enough milk to make butter and cheese (wow!).  We’re giving away our excess produce to everyone who stops by! 🙂

All of this feels like resilience, like diversity, like networks of security.  It’s also delicious.

And all of it takes substantial amounts of time and labour.  Sustaining life was once an almost-full-time job, a job that was the primary focus of the family and of wider society.  Today, no matter how I crunch the numbers, how much we simplify our lives, earning enough income in the form of money is the necessary full-time job, and certainly is the focus of wider society.  That’s the reality of where and how I live.  I have, technically, other options; Skipper and I COULD go live somewhere cheaper, we could live in a trailer or other cheaper home, we could forgo the Energy-Star appliances and new materials for raised beds and drip irrigation.  But we don’t want to live far away from family, we want a home large enough to accommodate visiting family and friends; we love this climate and the culture and community here.

And so we celebrate the privilege of having enough work to have the freedom to make the choices we have, and we fill in our life-sustaining homestead in around the edges.  Which does take up all the hours in the day.  But all this busy-ness is purposeful and joyful.  The satisfaction of the filling pantry and freezer, the routine of evenings spent making jam and shelling crab, of eating simple meals that are often the product of our own land and labour is richly meaningful.  And we still have time for friends and for sharing the bounty with visitors and neighbours.  And I know now that come winter, the dark, cold evenings will bring time for movies and music, for cuddling, relaxing, and for dreaming about the spring to come.

And THAT’s the message that I want my friends and family to hear.  Not that I’m too busy.  Not that life is simple and decluttered and zen-like in its minimalism.  But that life is FULL.  So full it’s brimming over all of the time and there aren’t enough hours in the day to enjoy it all!  So much fun and so satisfying that you should try a little of this kind of life too!

Stocking Up

There’s something about August.  As a perennial student and now teacher, September continues to mark the End of Summer to me, regardless of what the weather’s doing.  As soon as the August long weekend has passed, the shift into fall seems dramatic and poweful.  The shadows lengthen, the lawns bleach out, the mornings are darker longer, the nights cooler.

And the harvests shift too.  It’s a paradoxical time in the garden; the real crops of summer, the tomatoes, beans, zucchini, and cucumbers start to finally come into their prime at the same time as I start nervously taking stock of what might continue into winter and what I might be once again behind in planting.  Will it have time to size up during these cooling, shortening days?

But most of all, this time of year, the pantry and freezer slowly but surely start to fill.  The staples that will sustain us for another year are ready to be put away, and each year we gain confidence in our backyard homestead and manage to stock up on a little more, understanding how much we might need.

I planted garlic in two batches last fall, and the last one is now ready to put away.  It was a good harvest of almost 60 heads, which should give me enough to replant from my own stock in a few months.

This year I was also on a mission to learn how to grow onions; the beautiful Bedfordshire Champions are a heritage yellow storage onion that was very successful for me.  They bulbed up really nicely, and I only seperated these two out for quick use due to potential rot (the rest are curing outside out of today’s rain).

I also tried Thrifty Red onions that have bulbed up reasonably well but haven’t toppled over yet; I’ll take the water right off them once the rain has passed.  Between both types, I was hoping for enough onions to take us through the winter, but germination rates weren’t great for either, and I didn’t end up with as many transplants as I was hoping.  I’ll go big with the planting for next year, though, now that I’ve had this success!

Also now harvested and ready for storage: 120 lbs (?) of potatoes!

There are more in the box behind!

The final weigh in isn’t totally complete, but that’s an educated guess and if anything, it’s conservative.  These are the Kennebecs and Russian Blues that we hope will get us through the year, and so far, it’s looking good!

The tomatoes are starting to come in steadily, and the onslaught of beans (first bush, then pole, then dry/shelling) is underway.  It won’t be a good squash year, but with a nice September and October, we might get a few.  It’s a GREAT year for apples–I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with another 100 lbs of those to store.

And lastly, the freezer is stocked with Sockeye and Spring salmon after strong local returns this year, and Skipper and I are in the thick of crabbing once more.  Another week or two and we should have enough crab in the freezer to keep us going until next summer (though, truly, people crab year-round here, and there really is no pressure to store enough for the year.  But it’s an intensive routine that’s nice to do in one go).

It’s quite a remarkable feeling to stock up and realize that we will be able to meet so many of our food needs through the year.  Protein? Salmon, crab, eggs, and a few chickens in the freezer (well, the extra roosters.  That’s for another post. 🙂 ).  With any luck, some home-dried beans.  Supplemented with purchased cheese, nuts, tofu.  Starch? Potatoes! Supplemented with rice, pasta, oats and bread/flour.  Veggies?  Stored onions, tomatoes, squash; carrots, turnips, beets, and winter greens and brassicas in the garden for as long as we can stretch them.  Possibly some beans and other veg in the freezer; there will be a little sauerkraut and possibly some other pickles in the pantry.  Dried herbs and garlic for seasoning.  Fruit? Apples, frozen rhubarb and berries, jam.  Skipper has a batch of his own beer on the go, and the hops are ripening on the vine.  Next year they will be in full production, and our cherry and plum trees will slowly come on line as well.

I wish I could find the words to express the awe I feel as I take stock of these staples.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be a measure of security, but it does feel that way.  As well as just immensely satisfying.  It’s a primal, visceral sense of connection to land, people here, ancestors, but it’s also a joyful pleasure in the abundance, the return on months of happy labour, and the signal of winter feasts to come as we share this delicious wealth with friends and family in the months to come.

Here’s to fall!

Is Eating Meat a Sustainable Choice?

Judging by the content of the many homesteading blogs that I read, there are MANY of us wrestling with the place of meat in our diets.  Anecdotally, it seems that those of us who have been working with food issues for decades went vegetarian or vegan in the 1990s, when animal rights, the realities of feed lots, and concerns about feeding a growing global population entered the collective middle-class North American consciousness (or when I headed off to university!).  Fast forward twenty years, and so much has changed in the world of alternative food production and our understanding of what sustainability means that many of us are taking another look at our food choices.

At the moment, I’m uncommitted and actively wrestling.  For the last twenty years, I have eaten seafood, eggs and dairy and in the last ten I’ve made sure those were ethically sourced.  I’ve had years where I ate in a more vegan style and years that were more fish-heavy.  There have been times where I have been repulsed by the meat my dinner companions were eating (the first time the Skipper ordered chicken in front of me I freaked out) and times where I have asked to taste the meat on their plates.  I have had no weight or other health issues stemming from this basic diet.

My sister, whom I love dearly and respect hugely, has been vegan for almost as many years.  For her the choice not to consume any animal products is extremely personal and comes from a deep place of compassion and love for animals.  I have always respected her ability to put those principles first, before all other immediate needs that might come up, whereas I tend to bend to culture and tradition when that feels more important to me.  I feel very temporary and small on this planet, and often feel like there are more important factors at play than the choices I might make at a meal in my own home.

My sis is extremely healthy, and had zero issues even when pregnant.  Her now five-year old son has also been raised essentially vegan thus far, and is the sturdiest, tallest, most physically vigorous child you could ever meet.  In fact, he was so robust as a youngster that the “fragile vegan baby” comment became a running joke!  They are also content and thriving in their food choices.

I cite this personal information because many of those in the “post-vegan” ethical eating ranks often comment that they just never did do well on a vegan diet, got tired of the “you’re just not doing it right” criticisms, and felt hugely better when they started eating meat again, even in small quantities.  In my family, we obviously do just fine on lower protein, plant-based diets, and our health is not really playing into these decisions, except in the sense that the standard info that suggest that the average global citizen is healthier eating less or no meat seems to apply to us.  I absolutely believe that everyone, physically, is different and needs to find the balance that is right for them.

My sis recently wrote that she believed that there would be less animal suffering in the world if we all moved to a vegan diet.  We talked a little about that point, because at my stage in this journey, I just don’t believe this to be true.  But she raised issues that did get me thinking, and rethinking some of the commonly held wisdom in homesteading circles these days, and I wanted to sort out my thoughts.

So here are some of the issues and premises that I believe to be true at this point.

1.  No food product that is produced through large-scale mono-cropping that requires lots of heavy machinery, fertilizers, herbicides/pesticides, other drugs (for animals), uses gmos, produces toxic waste products, and destroys topsoil and soil fertility is sustainable.

At the moment, I would argue that this includes most (organic and not) livestock production, all non-organic soy, corn,  (I’ll have to do more research but I suspect) probably most non-organic grain production, much of the non-organic and according to Michael Pollan much of the large-scale organic vegetable and fruit production.  This is also true, in my mind, of most processed food production, and that includes organic processed foods like fake meats and cookies, and also much of the commercial canning industry which uses metal, plastic, and international shipping to get cans of chickpeas and tuna to my local supermarket.

I believe that eating a diet that consumes the above products causes animal (and human!) suffering whether we eat the animals or not.  Whether it’s habitat destruction, carbon emissions, or combines harvesting hundreds of acres and killing untold numbers of animals in its teeth, this system is horrifying.  A vegan eating exclusively from this system, I belive, is deluding themselves that they are helping.  With perhaps the caveat that CAFO animals are living a nightmare and that at least the wild animals destroyed in other ways got some natural experience in their short lives.  Ugh.

2.  A traditional, diverse family farm before industrialization was pretty close to a closed-loop system with animals playing a symbiotic role with all the other parts of food production for the community.  The more I research this, the more amazed and inspired I am by the way the systems inter-related and worked together.  There was no waste, no loss of soil fertility, animals could be raised and killed humanely, and every part of them was consumed.  Much less meat was also eaten in that system than is eaten today in a Standard American Diet in terms of overall quantity.

There are people out there today farming according to these practices, and I love the idea of participating in such a system myself.  But I can’t delude myself, either.  This model takes land (especially for pasture and fallow fields), and it takes labour.  It worked then because families were big and land was available for reasonable prices.  The land-size and system can be scaled down some, we can use goats instead of cows, or mini/heritage cows, for instance, but we still need some acres.  I don’t have acres, can’t really afford acres where we live, and live in a family of 2 who both work full-time.  Much of this blog has been about figuring out how to make the dream fit our reality!

3.  Much of the world’s population lives on small amounts of land, which they do not necessarily own, and eats vegetables and staple crops that they produce with hand tools in small plots.  Meat in small amounts from small animals that co-exist with them provides crucial nutrient-dense calories, fat and protein.  These communities have very little environmental impact in the world and are probably the model that is sustainable on a global scale.

4.  To produce plant foods sustainably takes good soil fertility, which means returning nutrients to the soil in exchange for those that we remove through our food crop harvesting.  That fertility can come from two major places (though it usually comes from both): plant sources as compost, or animal sources as manure.  Jon Jeavons’ work in California has demonstrated that plant sources are adequate and a vegan diet can be sustainably produced, and his system requires that a significant part of your land be used to grown compost crops each year.  I can’t remember what the percentage is, but the whole system requires 4,000 square feet per person.

Small-scale livestock on a homestead can produce major amouts of fertility through manure and bedding compost in a very small space–arguably less than it would take to grow enough compost crops and on poorer land.  My 8 chickens have a generous 200 sq’ of of predator-proof enclosed space in an area of the yard that would be challenging if not impossible to grow in (under trees), and then can forage in the rest of the yard, allowing the orchard, for instance, to do double-duty.  They allow me to stretch my other garden waste to produce the soil fertility I need, as well as eggs and eventually…well, soup stock anyway.  Or more fertility in a garden grave if I didn’t have the heart to eat them. 🙂

5.  Many animals are raised with grain-based feed.  Not all need it–pigs and cows don’t, and pigs produce more manure and consume more waste foods.  But these animals also require more space than we have, so we’d have to buy them from someone else, which means they’re not adding anything to our own system.  But I have yet to meet or hear about anyone who is raising chickens–particularly meat birds–without grain.  In fact, when I decided to look into meat birds as a possible next step in our food production, I quickly realized that much of the conversation around pasturing birds (ie meat birds in a chicken tractor) as an economically sustainable system revolves around the Feed Conversion Ratio–ie, how much grain feed does a bird require to reach a reasonable slaughter weight?

The current dominant Cornish Rock hybrid birds, the ones who have been bred to grow so quickly they can’t stand up by the time they are slaughter-weight at a mere 8 weeks old and who start having heart attacks if you keep them alive much longer than that, have a low feed-conversion ratio of 2.5 lbs of grain for 1 lb of meat.  Many people are horrified by the Cornish broiler and are actively looking at other options; those other options are more expensive because their FCR’s are much higher, if only because they live longer as they put on weight at a healthier pace.  I have seen FCR’s as high as almost 5:1.  This clearly creates a better life for both the birds and the people eating them, but is growing grain for livestock feed at those conversion rates really sustainable?

6.  Growing grain crops to feed livestock to allow more people in the world to eat more meat is not sustainable.  This is well documented.  There are numerous countries in the world who were once exporters of food who are now importers because of the demand for meat and the grain required to produce it.  Undeniable.  However, it’s the industrial system and scale of raising meat that creates the problem; given that all large-scale traditional and sustainable societies ate meat, this imbalance is clearly not necessary.

7.  Wild meat is likely an overlooked and sustainable part of our diets that needs to be reconsidered.  I really think this is a piece missing from both sides of the debate, although the hunting movement is apparently growing.  Around these parts, we have an overpopulation of deer partly due to habitat destruction as a result of urban sprawl which is also arguably unsustainable.  But it’s also because attitudes around hunting have removed predators.  And the overpopulation of deer is a massive environmental problem that we need to take responsibility for.  There’s a great source of locally produced food with an environmental benefit and few ethical issues that would beat a can of chickpeas from Morocco any day.

With all this said (and more to be said–I haven’t touched on fat or fish yet, but this is getting epically long!), I still haven’t changed any of my eating habits yet.  But while I’m still not eating meat at the moment, I’m also not NOT eating meat. 🙂  Because my position right now is that we live in a highly imperfect world enmeshed with an unsustainable industrial food production system.  And although we are personally working our way towards eating only ethically produced foods, there are still gaps, when we look REALLY closely.  I do believe that we have created enough resilience on our own property that we COULD survive if we needed to off what we produce or what is available here.  But that’s not what we’re doing at the moment, which is fine.

But the point I wanted to make is that when I look at all of these facts, what I see is that eating meat or not, in and of itself, is not the deciding factor of whether a particular diet is sustainable.  Very few of us in North America are eating a truly sustainable diet either way, and there is work to be done for all of us to improve the systems.

And I think it’s true for all of us working on environmental issues  that there are easy changes to make–like growing lots of your own produce–and then there are much harder, and potentially higher impact things that need changing.  And if we keep slapping ourselves on the back for opting out of the easy things, we may not end up really doing the work to change the more difficult ones.  And that’s a challenge I think it’s time I took up a little more seriously.