Thank you, bunnies


As of last Saturday my rabbit experiment at the yurt is over. Successfully concluded for the most part I would say.

Back in April, I couldn’t believe that Alice was talking me into raising meat rabbits.  Now 7 months later, the bunnies and everything that goes along with them feel like a normal part of my daily life.  Alice and I raised our first litter together – they were born in May and we harvested right before Al left in August.  I decided to do a second batch by myself so they were born in Aug and just harvested last weekend.

I remember before my first farm apprenticeship feeling like meat was very mysterious.  After reading books about the industrial meat production system, I wanted to get “better” meat but I felt like I didn’t know how.  I had no real connection between meat and animals.  Over the course of that first season on Bainbridge, just the fact of being inside the farming community demystified meat quite a bit for me.  I got to see some aspects of small-scale meat raising and learned a little about butchery of both mammals and birds.  I am very grateful that my first butchering experience was alongside Betsey.  Watching and listening to her as she went about it and witnessing her respect for the animal and the seriousness of the process  set a very good tone for the rest of my future experiences.

It was a very powerful experience both times we did butchering at the yurt.  Of course harvesting the animals we’d bred and raised ourselves was a bonding and thought-provoking thing for me and Alice.  Additionally, especially this second time around, I felt that I was taking part in an important passing of knowledge.  I learned the method of rabbit slaughter and butchering from Noe, who learned it from Charmaigne.  I assisted Noe a couple of times and then I was on my own to teach others.  I set up my processing station as closely as I could as an exact model of Noe’s and remembered her advice about things like stopping food and water 24 hours before slaughter.  Alice and Remington and I kind of felt our way through the first butchering back in August.  It went well but I felt much more assured the second time around.  This time I had a whole crew of friends who were eager to learn and I loved watching them learn by doing after I gave the initial run-through.  I feel like this type of thing can’t be learned by watching a YouTube video but rather needs to be done with one’s own hands.  As I watched Peter’s hands shaking a bit as he went to make the first cuts, I recognized the same rush of adrenaline and nerves and the heightened sense of focus that I got with the first rabbit I did at Noe’s and that I still get now as I carry the small animal through the steps that make up its final moments.

I am very thankful for the friends that came out to help; it’s a great crew of folks that I met through bike-riding friends in Seattle.  They have all been friends for awhile but are now treating me like one of their own.  One of the ladies, Clair, owns a small farm in Olympia where she raises a lot of meat birds, so these guys often get together to help Clair and Kalen with bird processing.   So for them, coming together for an event that involved killing a batch of animals was nothing new.  For me it meant that I didn’t have to worry about anyone getting queasy when they realized it was more than they’d bargained for.  Having a group of friends who are totally up for the job and who can come together when extra hands are needed is an invaluable resource for the tiny-scale farmer or homesteader like Clair with her birds or me with my rabbits.  It put me in mind of what things must have been like back in the day with barn-raisings and making hay and whatnot where each farmer in turn would call upon his neighbors to help get the big jobs done.

The old-timey feel was very strong in general on Saturday.  After finishing with the 8 rabbits we cleaned up and made dinner in the yurt.   My favorite moment of the evening was when I walked back inside the yurt after having gone outside to change the batteries as we were running low on power.  All the electric lights were off but the soft illumination from kerosene lamps and candles was lighting everyone’s faces as they sat around the woodstove listening to Kalen playing his concertina.  The place was full of rich aromas from the rabbit braising on the stovetop and potatoes roasting in the oven.  The mood was warm and the sense of camaraderie was strong as we had just worked in synchronization on this important task and seen it through to a successful conclusion.  I felt very lucky to be right there right then at that moment.

I now am the proud owner of exactly one rabbit.  Edith, a doe from the first batch of babies that Alice and I birthed, is now 6 months old and ready to become a Mama.  Edith is going to come with me to Wallingford and join the herd there when I move back in December.  I’m pleased that even with the ups and downs of the rabbit scene this season, I feel like continuing on with a bunny in my life.

I really appreciate the support that I’ve gotten as I’ve pursued this little experiment.  Especially from my family — I was slightly concerned about showing you all the cute bunnies when you visited for fear you’d try and talk me out of butchering them or else think of me as a hard-hearted murderer from there forward.  Instead you seemed totally down with the idea and even sent me sharp knives in the mail as gifts when I expressed my need for more reliable butchering tools!  Thanks guys; I’ll bring you some rabbit stew if you think you’re up for it 🙂

This rabbit experiment has brought me that final step toward knowing where meat comes from.  I’m not going to only eat meat from animals which I personally raised from birth to death.  But having done it once I feel at least gives me a new perspective on the whole business.


Advertisements

Self-reliance

Caution: if you have a squeamish tendency, or you are my parent, you may not want to read this post.

Just kidding.  Kind of.  But here’s the tale of my last week and a half!

We are entering the upswing of the honest-to-goodness farm season.  The time when you realize that you were just being silly and naive when you thought things were busy before.  You ain’t seen busy until you’ve seen mid-July thru the end of August on a vegetable farm.  The vegetables are finally appearing out of nowhere… there are now MOUNTAINS of goods maturing daily that need to be harvested, cleaned, packed and sold.  (Actually, they are appearing out of somewhere — all those thousands of seeds we planted back in the spring).  We are having to work hard and work fast and work long.  This ramp-up time, I remember from last year as well, is not necessarily a smooth transition.  It hits with a rude awakening.  With the lack of sleep and increasing frantic-ness around the farm, semi-major and semi-minor catastrophes start piling up in all of our personal lives as well.  This serves to remind us that oh wait, were we trying to *have* personal lives in mid-season on the farm??  That would be a silly and impossible idea 🙂

So it was on a Thursday at the beginning of July, as I awoke at 5:45, that I first felt it catching up to me.  For the first time this season, I did not want to go to work.  Alice and I dragged ourselves in to the barn.  I could not wait for the weekend and a chance to catch up on sleep.  “I can’t believe Saturday is still two days away,” I was thinking to myself.  Farmer Adam greeted us with his usual enthusiasm.  “Good mornin’ rockin’ ladies!  So we had talked about everyone having Monday off for the 4th of July, and that is still cool, but we’re going to have to work Saturday instead to make sure we have everything prepped for Sunday and Tuesday.”  Sinking-heart feeling.  Add an extra workday before that needed weekend.  Gotta go to bed early tonight, I thought to myself.  I drove home after work, and, feeling lazy, I drove all the way up to the yurt, maneuvering my car around the ruts and mooshy spots in the road instead of parking in the usual place on dry ground a little ways away from the yurt.

Friday dawned much the same as Thursday.  I hit the snooze button a few times, raced through bunny chores and wolfed down breakfast, then sped off in the car with about two minutes until 7am start time.  Sped off, that is, for a few feet until my car came to a dead standstill as it buried its right front tire in a deep mucky rut and propped its front end on a solid ledge of dirt.  FUUUUUUUuuuudge.  I walked in to work, arriving about 7 minutes late.  “Sorry Adam!”  “It’s okay, Becky.  Why don’t you go out to field D and harvest cabbage.”

Nice!  A new crop to harvest for the first time this season.  I swung my harvest knife with gusto, chopping through the thick, meaty stalks of the plants.  With practice, a harvester can make a single swipe to sever the cabbage head at exactly the right point so that it can be plopped directly into your tote without spending any extra time peeling away loose leaves.  You want to refine this skill so you can be quick because you have 158 heads to harvest this morning, and plenty of other tasks to get to after that.

Phone call: “Hi Adam, I finished cabbage.”  “Cool, why don’t you walk over a few beds to where Yolanda and Flaviano are harvesting parsley and help them finish up and then all come in together.”  Okay, great.  Okay, I’ve never harvested parsley before.  Okay, I don’t speak Spanish all that well so I’m going to watch how these two are doing it.  Man, I’m really hungry for lunch.  Man, I’m really… THWACK.

OHHHHHHHHHHHH FUUUUUUUUUUDDDDDDGGGGGGEEEEEEEE.

Holy effing frick, I just CHOPPED MY HAND with my harvest knife instead of the FRICKING PARSLEY. Not good not good not good.  Owwwwwwwww there’s blood, thumb goes in mouth, drop knife, grab cell phone, call Adam.  In the truck next to Adam, I examine my left hand and see that I’ve sliced neatly THROUGH MY FINGERNAIL at the very base of the thumbnail.  “I’m glad you’re okay, it’s going to be okay” says Adam as he takes me in.  I’m crying, from hurt and shock and embarrassment but I can tell I’m not injured badly enough to go to a hospital, just badly enough to bandage it real well, get some hugs, stop crying, sit down for an early lunch and then get back to work on some tasks requiring only one functional thumb.

After work that day, I headed home with Alice and my bandaged hand.  I was fully expecting her to be able to help me pop my car out of the mud situation.  We’d gotten the Jeep stuck plenty of times and it always just needed that extra shoulder shove.  What I’d forgotten to factor in was the difference in clearance between my car and the Jeep.  No shoulder shove in the world was going to get that Mazda off its little perch.  God damn it all.  I got weepy again as I limped my sorry ass home with a broken thumb, an immobilized car, the prospect of another 7am workday, and PMS.  (Seriously, it’s true, I have up to two grumpy and/or sad days per month and they were happening right now).  Everything seemed totally out of control and the only appropriate reaction seemed to be tears.  It’s kind of funny for me to have these emotional moments every now and then and kind of watch myself acting all irrational, because most of the time I am the most overly rational and cerebral person you’ll ever meet.  I always feel like I have to be in control of everything in life, to the point where it is a bad thing.  It takes a kind of big curveball (like almost cutting my thumb off) to knock me off my pre-planning mode into reactionary mode.  It’s obviously not super great to get injured, but it’s good for me to be reminded that life can’t ever be pre-planned, life just happens, unexpected things happen, and that’s the beauty of it.  Sometimes something really great could happen.  Sometimes shit could happen that makes you cry.

I have noticed that my dad seems to worry about me losing life and limb in a farming accident.  He has pointed out the dangers of propane heaters, tractor tires exploding, stepping on rusty nails, etc.  See, Dad, I have been listening. There are indeed lots of things that can happen.  I never would have considered parsley harvest a dangerous task – things just happen when you don’t have your mind focused properly.  Mom and Dad, I was scared of what you would say when I told you I hurt myself farming.  I briefly considered not telling you about it but it turned out I needed a Mom call to help me when I was crying and upset 🙂  Thanks for that, and thanks for not suggesting that I could avoid future injury by pursuing a less dangerous computery type activity.

The next day was Saturday, which was finally my last day of work for the week.  Alice was gone to the city so I was going to be dependent on either myself or the farmer bosses for getting my car out.  I mentioned it in the morning, hesitant to ask them for a favor.  “Yeah, we can help…” said Adam, when I asked in the morning, but I saw the “I don’t get a lot of time to spend with my family and have you really tried everything you can to get it out yourself?” look in his eye.  So I left work in the evening without asking again and I took a shovel home with me.  Instead of feeling frustrated this time, I was feeling doggedly determined.  Hello car, hello mud.  I’m going to do whatever I have to do to separate the two of you from each other.  And that is how I ended up spending my Saturday evening on my hands and knees in smelly muck, getting bitten by mosquitoes, with my arm up to my shoulder underneath my car while I had it up on my jack (which the manual is very explicit about CAUTIONing you NOT to do… sorry again for telling you this M & D), digging with a shovel and a hand trowel and my HANDS to unstick my car from the Earth.

Pro tip: shingles, discovered in a pile back behind the yurt, make excellent grippy things for tires to grab onto instead of mud.  They work better than 2×6’s.  One go-round of jacking… shovelling… trowelling… shingles… unjacking… rocking it back and forth between Forward and Reverse… I could feel it getting somewhere but not quite popping out.  Another go-round of the same.  Rock it, rock it, ever so slightly more each time…. aaaaaaand….. UP and over and out.  Oh good god yes.  Thank youuuuu….. mission accomplished.  I drove in to the barn and did my laundry and then I went to bed.

In a weird sort of way, all these unexpected events piling on top of each other have reminded me that I can relax and let life happen.  Scary and sad and frustrating things happen, but I can depend on myself to be able to deal with whatever it is – on my own and with the help of the others around me.  I can do more on my own than I give myself credit for.   I don’t have to fall into my usual trap of “I haven’t done that before so I can’t do it.”   I’m the queen of over-preparation, hedging against any eventuality so that nothing will ever “go wrong.”  When things go a little bit wrong, I get stressed out about it easily.  But as it turns out, when things go a lot wrong,  I can handle it.

As if I needed another occurrence to drive this point home, here’s another story from just a couple of days after the prior events.

Backstory: As you may know, we are raising meat rabbits at the yurt.  They are 7 weeks old at this point, and have been moved out of their Mamas’ hutches and into a separate run where they can graze.  Alice’s dog Russ has been driven to distraction by our poor bunny-management skills.  As a hunting dog, he is simply following his instinct to track and chase these little critters that kept escaping the run that we had built with too-large a gauge of wire.  “We gotta fix it so they don’t keep getting out,” Alice and I kept saying to each other.  But the task got pushed to the back burner.  Each morning we’d get up, round up one or two little escapees, and put them back into the run.  It stressed me out that it kept happening, but I felt too busy to do anything about it.  So.  Cut to a Weds afternoon less than one week after all the above incidents.  Alice leaves Russ home with me while she’s out and about.  I’m alone near the yurt, doing some gardening, when I hear a frantic high-pitched sqealing.  Without knowing what’s going on, alarm signals start firing in my brain.  I drop my watering can and run to the yurt where Russ has chased, caught, and killed one of our rabbits.  The white bunny lies twitching on the ground, already dead with its neck broken but involuntarily spasming as Russ stands by looking aghast at what his instinct has caused him to do.  I, also instinctually, scream some nonsense at the dog that causes him to run into the yurt with his tail between his legs.  I then stand there over the small furry body, “Ohhhhh, nooooooo….” all I can think.  There’s no blood – it’s a clean kill.  I’ve seen a dead rabbit before when I helped my friend Noe process hers, and my mind clicks in.  I have to process it.  I have to.  This was an accident and I’m feeling awful and guilty about an early death being caused by my poor animal husbandry, but these rabbits were being raised for meat and now this animal is about to become meat, if I can remember what I learned from Noe.

It’s almost like I’m watching myself from an external standpoint.  My actions are not pre-thought-out but simply happening by necessity.  I pick up the bunny and leave it on the picnic table while I walk into the house and get a knife.  It’s not sharp so I get out Alice’s sharpening block and sharpen it – a skill I only learned recently. I walk outside and cut the rabbit’s head off to bleed it.  I can’t believe I’m doing this.  Standing on my front lawn butchering a tiny animal.  But at the same time I’m feeling focused, knowing what I need to do.  Next I need to hang it up.  I go inside and get my drill, a recent aqcuisition from my Gramp — little did he know what I’d need it for!  I put two screws at eye level into the back of the yurt platform and search around for twine to make the slipknots that will hold the rabbit’s hind legs.  No twine.  No string.  I find some red curling ribbon from my present-wrapping stash.  Festive.  I tie two slipknots.  I bring a five gallon bucket to catch the internal organs and a bucket of water for the hide and two ziploc bags — one for the carcass and one for the giblets.  I hang the rabbit and I skin it.  I remember where to make the cuts and how to pull the hide off.  I save the pelt.  I’m feeling intensely focused and quite calm.  I slit open the abdomen and pull out the insides, saving liver and kidneys.  The liver looks healthy compared to some at Noe’s which had spotty livers indicating parasitic infection.  I puncture the diaphragm, pull out and discard the lungs, pull out and save the heart.  It cleans up easily and cleanly – the last things are to remove the tail and hind legs.  The little carcass feels familiar in my hands as I clean it off with water and slide it into a baggie.  It’s smaller than the ones I did at Noe’s, but not all that much smaller.  There is meat here, and Alice and I are going to be able to eat it, turning this lemon into lemonade and following through on our original intention to raise these meat animals for our own consumption.

And we did.  Two days later we both had the morning off and we made wine-braised rabbit with onions and fennel and ate it together for lunch.  It was delicious, albeit a little earlier than planned.  It was a moment for us both to pause in our increasingly busy lives, look each other in the eyes, and appreciate the import of what we are doing: trying to do the best we can to eat *well*, in every sense.  The rest of the butchering is going to be easier to do because of this.  Having been surprised into doing it once without any forethought or preparation and having done it properly, I feel confident about doing it again in a planned fashion.

I’ll post the rabbit recipe later.  Right now it is 8:45 pm and I’m going to make the smart move of going to bed.  My thumb is to the point where I wear a Band-Aid for work and leave it uncovered the rest of the time.  It looks gnarly but it’s going to be allright.  My car is safely parked at the barn and I’ve been biking to and from the yurt which is nice anyway. We added a layer of chickenwire to the rabbit run and have had no escapees since. Today I had a great farm day in which I packed and delivered vegetables to three CSA drop-off sites, two restaurants, and a grocery store.  Tomorrow I’m going to wake up and harvest some more produce and tend to some more plants.  Or maybe not – you never know what’s going to happen until it happens, do you?  But you can bet it’s going to be another good day in the life.

Weird farm breakfast #463

Breakfast is a very important meal on the farm.  I’ve always been a breakfast eater (mostly Cheerios during my formative years 🙂 ) but farm work burns a lot of calories, so these days a nice big protein and carb load in the morning is absolutely necessary to get from 7am start time until noon lunch.  We get pretty experimental and crazy with these breakfasts – gotta use whatever is in the fridge and pantry – and we sometimes come up with something surprisingly good!

My hot cereal breakfast is a very regular one.  I start with Bluebird Grains’ cereal mix, which we trade for at the farmers market.  I mix in some rolled oats for texture.  When I cook it I use about half water and half milk (raw & organic whole milk from Sea Breeze Farm which we trade for at the farmers market).  Then I put on sweet or savory toppings depending on the mood I wake up in.  I enjoy being able to check in with my stomach in the morning: is it a day for cheese, sauerkraut, and seaweed/sesame sprinkle on top? Or a day for peanut butter, raisins, and honey mixed in?

Savory breakfasts definitely have more sticking power than sweet.  I make eggs often, with the quickest and yummiest preparation being poached eggs on toast.  The other day I woke up craving something tomatoey, and we were also almost out of water in our tank at the yurt… so I poached my eggs using a jar of last summer’s canned tomato puree instead of water!  It was so simple and delicious and fulfilling, I wanted to write it down:

Eggy Tomato Bread

  • 1/2 pint tomato juice/soup/puree (Butler Green Farm 2010)
  • Couple sprigs of fresh rosemary or thyme (my porch)
  • 2 eggs (trade from Stokesberry’s at Ballard FM)
  • 2 slices ciabatta bread (trade from Alex the baker at Carnation FM)
  • Salt & pepper

Crack 2 eggs into a small bowl.  Bring tomato to a simmer with herb sprig in a small saucepan.  When tomato boils, turn it down to maintain slow simmer.  Extract the herb sprig and then gently ease the eggs in.  Simmer for 3-5 minutes until eggs are cooked but yolks still soft. Place 2 slices of ciabatta bread in the bottom of your bowl.  Pour in the egg/tomato.  Sprinkle salt & pep.  EAT IT.  The bread soaks up the tomato and egg yolk for a mouthwatering mouthful.

If you’re catching a theme here, it is that Oxbow LOVES trading veggies for other goods when we work markets.  This is the great thing about being a producer in addition to a consumer. I get to eat exactly the way I want to eat: whole, real, best-quality foods straight from the farms.  I get to do this for basically free.  We grow our own veggies, so there are ample pick-your-own salads and roasted and sauteed veggie meals to be had.  Then when we hit our three weekly farmers markets, we get to trade our extra veggies for all kinds of other items.  We get to know the other vendors who we trade with on a weekly basis.  It is so fun to run around and trade with Aaron for Seabreeze’s milk and sausage, snag eggs from Stokesberry’s, cheese from Mt Townsend Creamery’s Annika,  smoked salmon from Tim at Wilson Fish, piles of bread from Farhad at Greatful Bread, honey, fruit, etc and etc.  I was hesitant about it at first, but people at these other booths are stoked to get our veggies in exchange for their products.  If someone wants to send me home with bacon or strawberries in exchange for arugula, why would I question that?!?  Alice says that this is the time of year when she basically stops going grocery shopping.  I’ll be buying in a few bulk staples and some 70% cacao dark chocolate, and I’m pretty much set to go :-)!

As the Solstice approaches, we can feel the change in our farm even though the temperature has still been very up and down.  As spring turns finally to summer, the plants are increasing in size more rapidly and the tenor of the work is starting to turn more toward harvest and processing instead of planting.  The busy season is dawning.  Our first week of CSA shares are happening this week!  I got to help harvest and process and then deliver the very first shares to Ballard on Sunday!  What a great culmination to have folks come down on purpose to bring home their own veggie allotment!  300 area families will be eating vegetables from our farm boxes this summer.  It’s fun to think about that group of people and what they will all be doing with their garlic scapes, greens, and rhubarb this week.  Here’s what I did with mine:

Kale and White Bean Casserole

  • 2 cups dry white beans (PCC)
  • 1/2 lb sausage or ground pork – optional (Seabreeze)
  • 1 bunch kale (Oxbow)
  • 1 bunch garlic scapes (Oxbow)
  • 3 cups fatty fatty chicken broth (Nature’s Last Stand chicken from last week)
  • 1 cup Bread crumbs or crushed up chips  (I used corn chips Trader Joes)
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts  (I used almonds from Trader Joes)
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (Trader Joes)

The night before, soak the white beans in water.  Drain.  Cook them in the chicken broth with fresh or dry herbs (sage, thyme, and/or rosemary).  Chop up and sautee the sausage.  Add the garlic scapes and sautee.  Add the kale and sautee til cooked.  Season with salt, pepper, maybe a little vinegar.  Mix the beans & broth with the sauteed ingredients.  Pour it all into a baking dish.  Top with a mixture of the chips, almonds, and cheese.  Maybe dot with butter if you’re feeling crazy.  Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes until it gets bubbly!  Enjoy with lettuce salad.

At home at the yurt, our bunnies are also growing up quickly. 4 weeks old now, they are acting like real little rabbits, eating and drinking a TON, and are squirmy little handfuls to pick up.  We have just started pasturing them (putting them out on grass).  Alice did an excellent carpentry job on an old rabbit run we had inherited from farmer Luke, so they get to escape the confines of their hutches during the day and we put them back in with their Mamas overnight.  They are sooo happy eating grass and the piles and piles of lettuce scraps that we bring back from the barn!  I did rabbit “processing” (slaughter and butchering) with Noe in Seattle again last Saturday to get some more experience under my belt.  I feel moderately confident about it.  Our rabbit experience has not been perfect or without mistakes.  I want to make sure to point out that  everything has not gone swimmingly; in our learning we have fudged up a number of times.  We started out with 15 rabbit babies and are now down to 10 (kind of 11, as I will explain…).  Two died at birth.  One got out of the nest overnight when it was just a few days old and we found it dead the next morning – possibly from cold?  Last week we had our two unfortunate incidences.  One: a bunny escaped.  I left the door open for a second while I turned my back and a little guy got out of the hutch and trundled off into the woods!  To his/her credit, this little bunny has been living wild around the yurt for a week now, foiling all our attempts to catch him.  I see him almost every day, hanging around, enjoying life!  The second incident was more tragic: a bunny got through the hutch partition into the wrong side with the other Mom and the other Mom beat it up.  When Alice got home from work, the poor little one was on the wrong side, alive but severely lacerated on its haunch and underbelly.  I had no idea that Margie would have done such a thing; they are only separated from the others by a chickenwire divider so have been able to see and smell each other the whole time – but clearly having an intruder into her enclosure warranted her trying to kill the foreign baby.  The rabbit was severely enough wounded that the only thing for us to do was put it down.  I luckily knew how to do it because of my experience at Noe’s, so we did it quickly and properly and buried the bun behind the yurt.  I cried a bit as I did it, which was a different emotion from what I’d experienced during the planned slaughter at Noe’s.  It was sad and a wakeup call that this animal had to experience pain and die because of a mistake on our part that we had not made the two hutches isolated enough.  I feel strongly that we should not be taking these animals’ lives lightly because we know they are intended for food.  The whole point is that we want them to live the best possible lives under our care and then die quickly and painlessly.  It is a learning experience for Alice and me, but we need to be more careful.  I do still feel good about this experiment with raising our own meat.  We are getting into a good daily routine with the bunnies, and it will be a new experience when I cook and eat my own meat for the first time.  I don’t know if raising meat rabbits will be something I continue with or not, though.

To wrap up, here are a couple of pics – more on my Flickr as usual!

Tomato kisses are bluegreen and iridescent

Sonj and Jess on the transplanter with Adam. We did mechanical transplanting for the first time on broccoli and cauliflower!

Standard random farm meal: squash soup, wild rice, sauteed broccoli and kale, yogurt and croutons. All in the same bowl.

Margot and babes

Lovely spinach row - seeds are sprouting!

Eat good meat: An anti-vegetarian argument.

My fellow apprentices and I learned about sheep butchery from Brandon Sheard, who came from Vashon and visited Betsey's farm. Good meat comes from small farmers who raise a small number of animals on pasture and do the slaughter and processing themselves.

 

Vegetarianism and then veganism have been increasing trends in our culture in the past few decades.  I recently heard an opinion that we are now entering a “post-vegetarian” culture where eating meat is now cool again, as long as it’s “sustainable” and “grass-fed” and (etc, other buzzwords).  I believe this is true, and I also believe it’s a good thing.  I understand that everybody makes their own personal decisions about these types of things, and if you’re veggie, that’s cool.  But I would like to present my thoughts on why vegetarianism might be unnecessary and maybe even counterproductive.

First of all, conscious vegetarianism can be great.  Blind vegetarianism is not conscious eating.  You’re in a bar in Washington state downing a plate of greasy nachos made from genetically modified, pesticide-laden corn shipped from Iowa topped with mysterious “cheese product” and hydroponically-grown, artificially-ripened tomatoes shipped from Florida, washing it down with a Diet Pepsi, but it’s okay because you’re not eating a cow?   Come on.  (Whew, there’s my crazy hippie farmer rant… got it out of my system… now I’ll settle down to logic.) (And, I eat bar nachos too.)

There are a variety of  reasons I’ve heard for being vegetarian.  One: You simply don’t like meat.  I can’t really argue with that one –  it comes down to personal preference – although I don’t really understand it as a person who loves eating food.  I love consuming food and that extends to as many different&new flavors and textures and eating experiences as possible.  Except beets.  I don’t really care for beets.  So I guess some people just don’t care for meat.  Okay, I’ll let you sneak by with that one.  Although maybe you haven’t had really good meat cooked really well.  🙂

Other reasons are given by the animal welfare-conscious: “I’ve seen the films and I know that millions of animals are suffering because of our demand to eat meat.”   And by the health-conscious:  “Meat is bad for you – it has fat and cholesterol and eating it will make me fat.”

Both statements are perfectly valid!  But is vegetarianism the logical conclusion?  Let’s talk about how these issues could be addressed.  Yes, one way is the straight-up elimination of meat from one’s diet.  But is this the only right answer?  Is this even *a* right answer?  My balance-craving mind thinks this is an inelegant & clumsy solution to the problem, swings too far in the opposite direction, and in fact is more like ignoring the actual problem instead of addressing it.  And of course, my food-loving palate rebels against the loss of such a large variety of potential edibles!  I would contend that both of the above arguments for vegetarianism are actually better answered by “practicing thoughtful meat-eating”: eating less meat and only that whose origins you know.

I should be careful to say that I myself am not practicing 100% what I preach here — not yet — but I have made steps in this direction and I have thought about what the ideal would look like.   So I don’t want to sound holier-than-thou; my committed vegetarian friends are awesome in that they have decided to take up a certain dietary policy for reasons that are important to them, and they have stuck to it.  I am only making an argument for a way of eating that I’d *like* to practice, not one that I’m currently living up to.

Be that as it may, let me try to convince you.

Yes, the animal cruelty issue is a HUGE problem.  Mass-produced, factory-farmed meat is a thoroughly disgusting proposition from start to finish.  It is completely understandable, and admirable, for an individual to take this problem to heart and cut meat out of their diet because they can’t stand to contribute to such an appalling system.   And a generation ago, this was probably the only course of action one could take.  But with the rise in sustainable meat production, I would argue that there is now another option and it is a *better* option for changing the system.  Here it is: Buy and eat good meat, and share it with your friends.  By so doing you will support a paradigm shift in the meat industry.

Why is this better than vegetarianism for animal welfare?  Well, I don’t think it is in question that people are going to continue to eat meat in this country.  A small portion of the population going vegetarian and eschewing meat entirely is not going to change this.  Animals are going to continue to be raised to become meat.  But *how* they are raised is the important part, isn’t it?  There are without a doubt better and worse ways to raise animals, and these result in better and worse meat.  People buy $0.40/lb ground beef and disgusting, water-injected Butterball “chicken” at Wal-Mart because they don’t know or don’t care about factory farming practices.  Also because this is what’s predominantly available.  You have to look a little harder to find the good stuff, and most people won’t take the time.  Because people buy this grocery store meat, there is a demand for it, and it continues to be produced following the same-old shitty practices.  But I believe that supporting alternative farming can start to change this.  There are small scale sustainable meat producers springing up all over, who raise their animals humanely and slaughter them with respect.  If enough people create a demand for this type of meat, it will start to become more prevalent and hopefully the demand for the other stuff will shrink.

What people who care about animal welfare can do is support the “good” producers by buying their meat.  Help these farmers to succeed and grow, and help more like them get started with small businesses.  More and more meat production can be moved away from the old system and into the new.  Share your “good” meat with your friends who still eat from Wal-Mart.  They will notice the difference.  This stuff is better both in terms of the life of the animal, and also in terms of the tastiness of the meat.  Dan Barber, the executive chef at a schmancy farm-to-table restaurant in NYC, gave a little talk to the young farmer conference I attended.  He talked about how lucky it is that “all the good things tend go hand in hand.”  Chefs’ main concern, he said, is deliciousness.  Sustainability is great, proper treatment of animals is great, but for a top chef it comes down to an amazing eating experience.  Luckily, he pointed out, the absolute best meat and produce taste-wise is also the best in terms of these other concerns.  When animals are raised in the most “natural” way possible (allowed to roam and eat the diet they would naturally eat), their meat, eggs, and milk are truly of a higher quality than those raised in confined, unnatural environments.  What makes them better can’t be completely described in terms of specific nutrients or qualities, but the whole is simply, unarguably better.  As more and more people realize that this is the case and start to make baby steps away from the scary factory food toward more “real” food, the demand will shift.  More and more animals will be raised in a manner that we feel comfortable with.  Support change by supporting practices you agree with.

Sure, “sustainable” and other keywords are losing their meaning through overuse.  How do I know if I’m eating “good” meat?  Is it because the package in the grocery store says “cage-free?”  No,  unfortunately not necessarily.  To really know, you have to get as close to the source as possible and learn a little bit about what to look for.

Look for heritage breeds.  I can tell you from personal experience that Cornish Cross chickens are scary and disgusting and have been bred almost out of recognition as a chicken.  But they are by far the most common breed of chicken meat you can find for sale.  Look for “pastured” – read Michael Pollan’s chapter on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm for a much better explanation than anything I can write of why this is the best.  Basically it comes down to allowing the animals to live in something as close as possible to their natural habitat and eat their natural diet.  The results of this system include healthier animals, healthier land (fewer animals per acre->less damage), and healthier meat (Google for many studies on increased Omega-3’s, etc in grassfed meat).  This “good” meat is more expensive.  Why?  One: land is expensive and it requires more land  per animal.  Two: since the animal is not being fattened up on “junk food,” it takes longer for it to reach its slaughter weight on this natural diet and it must be cared for for extra weeks or months, incurring more expense.

So the farmers following the best practices do have to charge a higher price — a price that actually reflects the true cost of raising meat.  How to deal with the high price of good meat?  Eat less of it.  This has the added benefit of being better for your health.  Many reputable sources have suggested that a healthy way to approach meat as part of your meal is to think of it more as a side dish instead of the main (or only!) dish.  Eat a little bit of really good meat along with your veggies, and you’ll enjoy the yumminess without overdoing the animal fats or overextending your pocketbook.

There is no denying that an animal still has to die for me to be able to eat meat.  I can understand that some people may not be able to get over that fact.  But I found that for me, getting closer and closer to understanding the source of my meat has made it easier, not harder, to eat it.  It was awe-inspiring and an extremely valuable though unexpected part of my apprenticeship to learn a little about Betsey’s attitude toward meat.  She feels strongly that meat should be eaten with respect, and that you show respect for the animal and realize the full import of meat-eating by doing the slaughter and processing yourself.  She made a couple occasions available to us to help her and see the process.  Literally voicing your thanks to the animal for its life.  Learning the butchering procedures and then putting in the time to do them yourself.  It feels real when you eat venison after you skin a deer and and separate its haunch into cuts of meat, seeing how the muscles fit together.  It’s not at all like grabbing a shrink-wrapped package of stew meat from the grocery case.

Of course most people won’t have the inclination to learn butchery.  They won’t have time or space or desire to raise and slaughter their own animals.   Of course not!   The logical step is to buy meat from those awesome few who do want to devote their time to raising meat animals in a way you can feel comfortable with.  But how to you find these people, and how do you know that their practices are good?  My answer would be two words: farmers markets.  Ask around.   What you’re looking for is, who do the vegetable vendors buy their meat from?  I guarantee that most of the veggie farmers are not vegetarians.   They might point you to some meat vendors who are there at the market.  But I bet they also eat meat that doesn’t even make it to the farmers’ market — meat that their neighbor raises, down the street from their farm.  You can get in on that too, if you’re willing to give it a little bit of effort.  Food doesn’t have to come from Safeway.  Build a relationship with a farmer and you can get your food straight from the source.  You will know where it comes from and be able to more thoroughly enjoy and savor it in good conscience.

…. The End!

Also: lettuce!

The chicken and the egg

I recently had a chance to participate in a small batch chicken “processing” (butchering) on the farm. I was a bit nervous about it, but it turned out to be a great experience and helped me feel many times closer to and more comfortable with where meat comes from, just as I have been learning about vegetables via my internship. I discovered that far from being unable to eat my chicken meat afterward, I was excited to take care with preparing it and savoring it as a meaningful meal instead of just some protein on a plate. Pics of my chicken cooking (none of the actual processing) are on flickr: start here and click forward thru a few pictures.

I did come away from the processing wondering about eggs. I got pretty familiar with chicken anatomy while I was helping at the evisceration table, but it was unclear to me where and how the eggs form. Do they just float around in there? How in the world do they come out the vent, which seemed to me to be attached to the intestine? How does the egg form? Yolk first and then it gets coated by white and shell?

Unfortunately I don’t have all the answers for you at this point. Maybe someone who knows can tell us in the comments. But my story is that all this wondering about eggs made me very interested when I found the following recipe. I was flipping through my roommate Renee’s book “More-with-Less Cookbook” (subtitled “suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited resources.”). The book is from 1976. This is the recipe:

“Chicken and Noodles.
In our community the farmers who sell eggs must clear their barns of one-to-two year old fat hens. They could be bought for forty cents this fall, so I bought ten of them. Many had strings of partially formed eggs inside them which can be used to make the noodles for this soup. The following nutritious dish can be made very economically. I serve it often to my farmer men, and they like it.”

I love that this recipe basically starts out with, “first, butcher your chicken.” Chicken comes from your backyard or your neighbor farmer instead of on a styrofoam tray in Wal-Mart. You use the unlaid eggs inside the bird to make noodles – and then simmer them all together into chicken soup. Wow!! How different from the way we are used to cooking.

I was talking about the recipe with the girls at work, and that night Stacy forwarded me a recent article in the New York Times about how unlaid eggs are being rediscovered and making an appearance on some fancy-restaurant menus:

“This now mostly lost treat is well remembered by anyone who grew up with laying hens or bought chickens from and old-fashioned butcher before the advent of factory farming. Now, when the birds have stopped laying they are shipped off to places like Campbell’s where they become chicken soup. They are worth so little that many are incinerated, their immature eggs unharvested.”

The article describes a few New York restaurants that have started featuring unlaid eggs as a gourmet item on their menus. A chef describes them as having “a deep, concentrated flavor. It made the dish very different!”

So, everything old is new again. I wonder though, if these eggs catch back on, it would probably not be in a way that makes use of the whole bird the way the recipe in the Mennonite cookbook does. It could potentially even lead to more waste if chickens are harvested specifically for their immature eggs and then the birds are unwanted and thrown away.

When I cooked my Dropstone Farms chicken, the one whose processing I had a hand in, I tried to use every part. She was too young to have any partially-formed eggs (and, she also may have been a he, I’m not sure..) But I made giblet gravy using the heart, kidney and gizzard. I sauteed the liver with butter and onions for a snack while I was cooking.. first time I’ve eaten liver, and I liked it.. And I attempted to make stock out of the feet and neck. The skinned feet are a little creepy to look at but they are supposedly the best for stock cuz of all the collagen and whatnot. I accidentally left the feet-stock on too long and burnt it past the point of recognition, but everything else turned out great and I’ll try with the feet again next time!

The chicken her/himself I rubbed with an herb butter and roasted for an hour on top of rosemary mixed veggies. The meat was delicious and a delight to share with Renee and a few guests. I used the carcass to make chicken & rice soup which was very rich even without the feet.

I bought another chicken from Lauren and Garth last week, which is in the freezer waiting for his/her time to shine. They charge $5 per pound which makes the bird a $20 investment. I know I would balk at buying a $20 chicken in the grocery store, but somehow it seems like I am getting a fantastic deal on this bird now that I know more of the whole story.

And… That’s all I have to say about that!