Eleven Roosters

January 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

Oh yes, there is another slaughter story. If you are sensitive, sharing this with youngsters, or just downright don’t like dead birds (like me) I advise a certain amount of caution in proceeding. In the following pictures, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. That is, the killing and processing of eleven roosters, with hopes that they are educational and not tasteless.

Back in the spring, we made a minimum order of chicks (25) with the intention of eventually only keeping 12 for laying. After all, how many eggs do you really need? The roosters we planned to use for roasters. They grew, roamed, and fed on all of the delicious grass and bugs and food all summer, and in November, they grew too big for their britches and it was time to take them down to Lyme CT to a friend’s farm for processing. Interestingly, this was just a few days after the pigs went in, and days after that, Andy shot a deer and we processed that as well. We came to call it ‘Kill Week’ and really felt like we were depositing a lot in the emotional bank account. It was a bountiful but sacrificial time.

Several days before, we separated the roosters from the hens and popped them in the stationary chicken coop. I was really not looking forward to it. I like chicken meat, but for all my other experiences, had never killed an animal on purpose before and felt a bit sick about it. This though, is exactly what getting food should be like; working for it, both emotionally and physically. It’s not pleasant, but it is satisfying. Despite all my convictions, my stomach fluttered as Tuesday approached.

On the morning we were set to do it, into a wooden box they went (actually a converted dog house) and we strapped them into the back of the truck for the hour’s drive to Lyme. At White Gate Farm, David and Pauline had everything set up for us. They grow organic chickens and usually process up to 200 at a time. There were the cones, buckets, hose, scalder, plucker, and scalpels, and even two or three of their farm staff to help us. We unloaded the box, and watched as David demonstrated the technique, generally considered to be the most humane and sanitary method. A rooster is taken from the box and placed upside down in the cone. His head comes through the hole in the bottom and his feet restrained by the board lid on top. With a sharp knife, you hold the bird’s head and stab though the top of the beak into the brain and scramble it, rendering him unfeeling. Then you cut the large veins on either side of the neck (NOT the windpipe) and allow him to bleed out into a bucket.

You always hear about a chicken running around after the head’s been cut off, but it’s hard to imagine what that really looks like. Seeing the first rooster die, and the thrashing that took place as he did, it was easier to understand. Jarred but surprisingly calm, I grabbed the next rooster and worked the knife. You can’t be a farmer if you can’t kill a chicken. The blood was very hot.

We worked our way through the rest, moving groups on to the next steps as they were prepared. After killing, the birds are rinsed of blood, and then four at a time go in the scalder. They soak in the hot water for two minutes, then move on to the plucker. A cylindrical spinning bucket with rubber fingers and a rinsing spray, the plucker is an amazing but grisly machine. The chickens emerged naked, yellow feet and beaks bright. Then the heads and legs were removed, and they were brought inside for gutting. After a final rinse, they went into the cooler packed with ice and that, as they say, was that. Ugh.

Andy wrestles a roo into the cone.

Three are ready to be scalded, which loosens the feathers for easier plucking.

Whizz, bang! Plucking the chickens.

Starting to look like dinner.

The final step.




Winter Green

January 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

The icy weather has arrived. Everyone around here was hunkered down today, the chickens standing on one foot while warming the other in their belly feathers, the goats fluffed and eating constantly, the dogs nipping outside for short runs and then waiting by the door to be let back in, their frosty breath melting the ice on the window.

This time of year, when there is not much forage to eat for any of our animals (except perhaps the cat) I like to try and diversify their diet however I can. The goats, who in the summer eat grass, leaves, brush, bark, and brambles, are stuck with plain old dry hay in the winter, and oh boy, maybe even a dried oak leaf or two that blows through the fence. Luckily, this particular post-new-year week is an excellent time to forage for another source of green; Christmas trees!

When I was little, we would throw the spent Christmas tree in the burn pile, and in the late winter, burn it along with other brush collected on my parents’ property. But plenty of people can’t just have a fire in their backyards. To the dump it is then, to be chipped. That is better than nothing, but certainly a chore, and so the other night I made on offer on my local Craigslist: leave me your address and your tree, and I will come pick it up for you, to become a delicious healthy meal for my goats.

So this morning, when the chores were done, the truck warmed up in the chill and we made a run to a gentleman’s driveway where he had left his tree. Thanks, kind stranger!  And if that weren’t enough, we found ourselves behind another man on the way to the dump with his tree and he agreed at a stoplight to hand it over. Back at the farm, the goats munched happily on their needly salad.

For the rest of the day, Andy fenced while I worked in the greenhouse, a relief from the biting wind. It was actually pretty warm in there, and I had to take off my hat as I worked. The greenhouse is unheated, suitable only to overwinter hardy herbs like parsley and sage. There are even some volunteer cilantro seedlings in there that aren’t really growing, but provide a fresh nibble here and there in our otherwise creamy winter meals.

Today I made a rich bed by digging out the north side dirt, then mixing in a generous amount of very well rotted manure. Then I planted a bunch of different leftover seeds; lettuce, arugula, and swiss chard. With a second layer of plastic over these, they will germinate and grow without the need for heat in the greenhouse. The double insulation will keep the air around the plants 15-20 degrees higher than the outside temperature, and allow modest harvests of these greens throughout the winter months.

And at the end of the day (4:00, these short days), it sure feels good to get in to the house and light a roaring fire, working on projects that have been pushed back for months and now are finally on the bench.

The simplest pleasure

January 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

A perfect soft boiled egg.

Pick out the prettiest eggs, cover them with water in the pan. Watch carefully and just when they reach a rolling boil, start timing three minutes. Remove from the heat and flood with cold water until you can snatch out an egg. Eat with salt and butter.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

January 2, 2012 § 6 Comments

We’ve been steeped in animal husbandry tasks the past few weeks, what with all the breeding and slaughtering and acquiring. Jane, who did not get pregnant the first time, just returned from a sleepover with the bucks at their farm last night, and we’re beginning to work on the plan for next year’s pigs. With the new year comes a new sense of growth, opportunity for development, and excitement about what crops to grow, what other products to offer to our customers, and all the many, many things we have yet to learn.

But today, we’re celebrating one major accomplishment, which for better or worse has taken us almost a full year to finish. That is our kitchen renovation.

Here at Eddy Farm, the kitchen is where the magic happens. It needs to be able to handle big family dinners, whole animal butchery, extensive canning and pickling, cheese and milk processing, and storing a lot of equipment. It’s also got to look nice and be easy to keep clean (I have standards, people) and at the request of my mother, be able to accommodate several cooks. That’s a lot for any kitchen, let alone one last renovated in the seventies (I think.)

Here’s what the kitchen looked like before:

As you can (sort of) see, there is a lovely blue floor, a built in table by the window, a cooktop, wall oven and stove, all rather awkwardly set together and with plenty of room for my grandmother, who was in a wheelchair since her forties, to maneuver. The countertops were cracked and warped formica, the sink and faucet a somewhat leaky stainless steel job, the dishwasher inhabited by mice, and the white drawer fronts peeling. Also notice the lack of upper cabinets and storage, the beautiful cherry paneling, and the general good size and airiness of the room. There was a lot to work with.

We soon set to demolition. That was fun!

Out came the table, the cooktop peninsula, and the wall oven. Out came all the old countertop. The drawers we rebuilt into bench storage in our workshop, and we saved the refrigerator, dishwasher, and cooktop for the new kitchen. The sink was destined for the laundry room, the old wall oven scrapped. We repainted the floor a slightly darker shade of blue (as it was in my memories of this house when I was a child) and touched up the walls, the radiators, and all the grimy corners. Our handyman also cut a window from the kitchen to the living room, for more air flow and natural light. Several weeks later, it looked like this:

First to be replaced were the countertops. When my grandparents were alive, we would come to the farm for family holidays. Lacking a table large enough for everyone (which usually included everyone who worked on the farm as well) my grandfather used three huge slabs of pine and sawhorses for tables. Andy and I loved the idea of thick wood countertops, so we sawed and sanded and finished two large pieces of the pine and replaced the long counter with a shorter one along the north wall. We added one under the new window to the living room over a four drawer Ikea piece that Andy forged custom handles for. The offcuts and edges of the pine became live-edge shelves for plates, glasses and bowls.

We started scouring Craigslist for replacement appliances. We found an excellent convection wall oven for $90, and built it in under the old cooktop in the long counter. We reinstalled the dishwasher in its original spot, and cut a hole for the sink to its left. Then, we had a series of lucky antique finds. First, my mother offered her antique blue enamel and brass icebox, which we mounted on a custom made oak riser as a pantry. Into the riser we built three basket drawers for holding potatoes, onions, and linens. Mom’s electrician, hearing that we were renovating and knowing we were interested in old stuff, mentioned a wood burning Glenwood forties cookstove, which we bought from him for $400. He delivered and helped install it, and I cooked all of Easter dinner on it, including the shortbreads. Finally, I found the perfect sink on Craigslist, and after bargaining with the tough old bird who was selling it, got it for $200. We had all the pieces, we just had to put them together.

After that first wave of work back in April, we got the kitchen to a place where we were satisfied, and ran out of time for more improvements while the summer toiled on. When the weather got cool again, and we were inside more, we finally finished the rest: a heavy duty pot rack for all the cast iron we use on the wood cookstove, a free standing butcher block, and improved workspace between the stove and the refrigerator. The entrance is dominated by an oak shelf, built in bench, and plenty of room for shoes, boots, and recycling baskets. The result is pretty great, and more so because it truly feels like our own.

Maiden Goats

December 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Tis the season for many things, but around here the last few weeks, it’s been the season for goat breeding.

If you want goat milk (for cheese, soap, and drinking…and I do) then your milk goat needs to have a baby. She needs to get pregnant. She needs the services of a stinky rutting buck goat.

We’ve raised animals for meat, and we’ve killed and plucked our own chickens, and now we are diving into the world of livestock multiplication. In practice, these things are pretty straightforward. With the right set of circumstances and two goats, they can get the job done, as it were. In theory though, it’s very stressful, and there are many hours of nail biting, teeth grinding, goat watching that happen in the late fall of a virgin goat breeder and her virgin goats.

The basics are so: doe goats can begin breeding at 8 months or 80 lbs. They start to have heat cycles, a several hours to two day ‘window’ during which they will be receptive to the advances of a randy buck. These happen every 18 to 21 days and I began watching for them in November. Jane and Monique both cycle at 20 days, their tail flapping, swollen private parts and general over-hyper play a good tip-off. Once I established their heats (one week apart from each other) I knew when they would be entering them again, and began looking for a likely buck. My main criteria: he needs to have balls, and he needs to want to use them. On top of the stress of watching for heats, male goats are only interested in breeding from about September to December, and I needed to find one who was still willing.

I was not terribly concerned with the pedigree of the father, but as luck would have it, put an ad on Craigslist and turned up with an offer from a woman with not one but two rutting, purebred, healthy Oberhalsi bucks. Not only that, she was willing to deliver them to my extra pen here on the farm and let them stay for a couple of weeks until their work was done. Bob and Marley arrived the day before Jane was due to come into heat, and along came their acidic, rancid hazelnut odeur. We popped them in the pen to get comfortable and they both immediately crouched low, swung their heads back and with shiny red pokers, pissed all over their heads and necks and lapped on their dewy beards. Yes, they would do just fine. The ladies called plaintively from their pasture.

And then the waiting game began. Poor Jane got her rear checked every hour, and I sat by the window willing her tail to start flapping uncontrollably. Nothing, nothing, and then…

Early on Tuesday morning, there she was, fluffing, flapping her tail, with a pink and swollen back end and a funny look in her eye. I had chosen Marley as the buck to use, since his coat was a magnificent rich chocolate color and he was a but larger than his brother. I bundled Bob into the barn and then brought the shy and light stepping Jane down to the buck pen. So began their date.

Everything I had read about goat breeding went pretty much along the same lines. Put doe in heat in with buck in rut. Wait and watch while they do it three times, then bring the doe back to her pen and it’s all over in a matter of minutes. That is not what happened.

The terrified Jane started sprinting around the pen, slipping in spent hay, her tail flapping wildly. Marley, enticed by her scent and obviously attractive behavior, tentatively followed her, tongue sticking out and a fresh coat of urine giving his face fur a good shine. She threw herself against the plywood walls and baa’ed relentlessly. She rammed him over and over without quarter when he tried to approach. If I slipped out of sight, she made a noise like a hoarse human scream. The mating was not happening. After an hour, maybe two, I couldn’t watch her be so obviously upset anymore, so I took her back to the ladies, frustrated and cold, and extremely disappointed. What was wrong with my doe? How come the buck wasn’t more aggressive? I vented to a goat-owning friend of mine, and fumed for a few hours. Was I going to have to find another buck?

Around mid day, my friend responded. “Try her again later….if he is young, he needs to figure it out.  She may be more receptive as she progresses in her heat.  Can you just leave them together for the whole day/night?  You’ll know they consumated their love when she oozes gobs of white goo for hours/days.  Messy and gross but a good sign.

So I did. She was still in heat, and this time, while still nervous, she was less aggressive and more flirty. Instead of humping her front end, the buck got in a few good shots at the rear, and for good measure, I put Bob back in the pen for the night so everyone could sleep cosy (and up her pregnancy chances.) In the morning, I brought her back to the main pen, and the other goats sniffed her all over. She seemed to shrink into herself, and went over to munch hay. In a few hours, I checked her for oozing. It was there. She was no longer a virgin.

A week later, Monique’s date arrived. She spent the day with Marley, and the night with both. Everything was smoother. It was almost textbook.

And so, next week and the week after I’ll be watching for the girls’ heat. If it happens, she’s not pregnant, and I’ll need the bucks back. If not, she’s got one, or two, or more babies growing, will be giving birth in late May, and a whole new adventure will start.

And now it’s called pork…part 2

December 19, 2011 § 3 Comments

It has always been a dream of ours to befriend a butcher in such a way that he would be willing to come over when we had a pig on the board and help us through the entire process. Butchering is a highly skilled and respectable trade, and I find that most butchers I talk to are very interested in their meat. They often know exactly where it comes from, and if you ask the right questions, will give you a better deal or a better piece of meat for what you are making. But I digress.

We made a butcher friend! His name is Tom.

When we arranged to pick up our smallest pig and bring it home for a lesson in butchery, we booked Tom. He would do it for free, but we like to trade (as you probably know) and forced a future ham on him as recompense. He’s going to make it into a prosciutto, and he took the other to make into one for us, too!

Our kitchen is carefully planned to be ideal for full animal butchery…sort of. In reality we have done a lot of work in the kitchen (surely detailed in a blog post to come, worry not interior design junkies!) but the most recent rearrangement, leaving the butcher block in the center and easily accessible from all sides, and the sanitizable marble table (under the window) nearby, makes a rather perfect setup. There’s a place to make the cuts, and there’s a place to put everything after it’s cut, and then it can all be scrubbed and disinfected after. Even the floor is oil paint and is easily mopped up.

Tom brought along a towel roll of his instruments: a bunch of knives, a big bone saw, and a cleaver. We added a filet knife, a butcher knife, and of course, the steel for sharpening. Then we stoked up the fire on that chilly day, shut the dogs away in the bedroom, and got to work.

The first steps (since the pig was already gutted) was to remove some extremities. The ears, feet, and kidneys went into the ‘dog bucket.’ I got a big pot out and started collecting bones and scraps for a stock. In went the tail! We designated a bowl for good scraps that would become ground pork, and we brought in a bucket for throwaway bits. Then Tom, with the careful eyes of Andy upon him, began breaking the pig down into large pieces. The first cut was down the center of the bottom of the ribcage, but Tom did not split the entire animal into two sides. Instead, the ribs remained attached at the spine, and the pig was essentially butterflied. He explained that since it was a small animal, it was easy enough not to split it and that doing so would preserve more sizable cuts, such as a neck roast and whole ribs.

The hams were the first finished cuts, carved around the ball joint that attaches the legs to the pelvis.

The shoulders and front roasts were next, and after they were removed the boys cut off the remaining piece of split spine and into the stockpot it went. The shoulder end of the pig also had quite a bit of meat that went into the ground pork pile, and the neck roast, rolled and tied. As finished pieces were cleaned up, I wrapped them in plastic and then paper, and wrote down the cut.

Two full racks of ribs came off, and then the loin boned out of the spine. Since the pig was a small one, the loin was just a bit bigger than a commercial tenderloin, but beautiful nonetheless. The tenderloins were also cut out and packaged.

The fat layer on the belly and back was lovely, but not big enough to make into bacon. Since we had plenty of bacon from our larger pig, we decided to take the whole hide with its attached fat, and make it into salt pork and lard. The belly was cut into manageable pieces for salt pork, and the rest was set aside to be ground up and rendered.

Now all that remained was to trim the larger pieces and package the rest for the freezer. We also sliced up and packaged the organ meat for the dogs. When all was said and done, the pig looked like this.

Pretty good, we thought, for our first try.

And with the stock boiling away on the stove (with a few onion halves, celery stalks, and carrots) we scrubbed up, drank a beer, and made dinner; vegetarian, of course.

What happened to the pigs…part 1

December 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

Several weeks ago I spoke to my two year old nephew on the phone.

‘Hey Conrad, remember what animal we’re raising here at the farm for you guys to eat?’

‘A pig!’

‘Yup, a pig. And guess what I’m going to bring when we come up for Thanksgiving?’

‘Are you going to bring some bacon?’

Now, I’ll let you know right now: this is a story about some cute animals that grow big and get eaten. In the meantime, they become ugly, brutish beasts, but it is still a sacrifice when they go off to the slaughterhouse. Be warned though, this post has some details and photographs that clearly show big dead animals. We see our raising and eating of these pigs as a very respectful relationship, and that has driven our choice to learn as much as we can about the whole process, both when they are alive, and after they are dead.

Back in April, we bought our first two piggies, Antietam and Manassas, and they sure were cute.

These two were going to be our first experiments with raising our own pork, but we soon agreed to take on a few more for some other folks. In June, we got some pretty Durocs; one for my brother’s family (see above conversation with nephew) and one for our favorite local restaurant, Goldburgers.

The ladies became known as Goldburger and Captain Martin Kellogg.

Throughout the summer, we fed these excellent animals with a wide variety of vegetables and leftovers. When the farm stand was open, they got all the leftover sweet corn from each day (if there was any), the uglier vegetables picked from the fields, and anything that got left out in the sun too long and wilted a bit. We also picked up all the vegetable scraps from Goldburgers and the Hartford Baking Company in West Hartford gave us bins of bread. As fall came on, and they got bigger, it was sometimes a comical struggle to get enough food for them. We’d find ourselves out in the chill morning, picking buckets of down apples from our orchard, or loading up the unfortunate rottens from the pick your own pumpkin patch. In their last week, they were sizeable but not huge, the largest at 200 pounds and the smallest at 120.

It was a strange day when we sent them off in the rusty trailer to the slaughterhouse. While we’d made a particular point to view them only as food, we did get used to their presence, and it seemed empty and a little hollow down in their old pen in the barn. They were good pigs, we liked them, and they sure could eat, making us feel like we never wasted a thing.

In the state of Connecticut, in order to sell any meat to the public, it must be killed in a USDA inspected facility, and then also processed in a separate butchering facility, also USDA inspected. Generally, the job is priced by the weight of the animal. We paid $85 for the slaughter of each pig (the Durocs brought the average up because their coarse, red hair takes longer to remove) and then $0.75/lb to process two of them into various cuts, make sausage, and package everything for the freezer. One went whole to Goldburgers, and we picked up the smallest to butcher ourselves at home, since we felt it was important to learn how.

If we had been consuming these pigs only within the family, then it would be perfectly legal for us to slaughter and process them at home. We were planning on doing that with our two, but in the end decided it would be good to investigate the ‘official’ route, since we hope to sell pork in the future. We also did not feel confident that we could do it in a way that was both humane and sanitary. At the slaughterhouse, they are killed with an electric shock to the brain, and then one to the heart. The blood is let instantly to prevent damage to the meat, and then they are hung to remove their organs, and the hair is either burned or scraped off.

When we went to pick them up, they were barely recognizable, which was kind of a relief.

The kidneys and tongue were left in the pig, and we also took the hearts and livers (for the dogs) in bags. The area around the pigs’ eyes was carved out (I believe to inhibit the spread of any bacteria in the eyes, which must be particularly susceptible) and the rectum and anus were removed, leaving a neat hole between the rear hams. The fleshy interior section of the trotters was also carved away.

We loaded them, wrapped in plastic, in the back of the truck and joked about how things might go if we got pulled over.

Then, one went to Newington Meat Center to await the China Box at Goldburgers, and the other went into our chest freezer (not plugged in, just used as a giant cooler with ice blankets) to be butchered the next day. Meanwhile, the dogs investigated the truck bed.