Category Archives: death

On spring chickens

Ah, spring.  The temperatures have finally climbed above the finger-numbing range so I took it upon myself to off a few supernumerary roosters on Sunday.

It seems that March through June is such a fraught time around the place, so much so that I awake at night with worries of “did I do that already?  ohgah when am I going to find the time to do X time-intensive, necessary farm task?” and it’s tasks like killing roosters that I put off and put off again and again.  Usually, things need to rise to near crisis level (read:  they’ve begun fighting) for me to really jump into action.  Let’s face it:  Chores like cleaning out the chicken coop or putting up a new fence, however distasteful, beat chicken killing any day.  But it’s come to that with these birds.  Spring means rooster testosterone flows just as readily as chlorophyll in the grass or lutenizing hormone in the egg chickens.

Life became a lot more cushy for this farmgirl when I found a local butcher to do in my critters for me.  Fifteen chickens takes him two hours, whereas five chickens nearly kills me and shoots my whole day (it takes me four hours, plus recovery for my feather-plucking fingers).  At $2.50 a bird, it beats the heck out of what I bill an hour, and even math-averse me can see that Mike’s skills, though cheap, are priceless.  But I won’t bring him these eight-month-old little bantam roosters.  It’s not worth his time!

Me, on Sunday

Two of the birds went to the freezer, but the last went into a wonderful mild soup called Cock-a-leekie…it’s a Scottish dish.  It’s traditionally prepared with the losing roo in a cockfight, actually!  Perhaps this boy didn’t lose a cockfight, but he lost the game of numbers…a farm only needs a tiny number of roosters.  Caput kaput, which makes me snort.

Cock-a-Leekie:  I harvest a good pound or more each of leeks and carrots out of the outdoor garden, grab a huge hank of thyme from the herb garden and scrounge up celery leaves, parsley, scallions and chervil from the greenhouse.  The rooster, gutted, headless and footless, is in a heavy pot with hot salted water to cover; I start braising him at the barest boil while I prepare the veggies and herbs.  After about an hour, I take the meat off the carcass, pan-sear the leeks and a handful of pearled barley in some butter and then put the leek/barley mixture, meat, bouquet garni (thyme, chervil, parsley tied w/ string), chopped carrots and celery back in the broth pot to cook another hour or so until the carrots are softened…adding spices to taste.  Traditionally served with prunes, this soup is sweet enough without them thanks to the winter-grown leeks and carrots, methinks.  Thanks, little annoying rooster!

On preparing for the high holy day of local food

Ruby (center) and Earl (top left) with this year’s birds

The American Thanksgiving holiday:  there’s a lot to like about this day of belt-loosening gluttony.  All the world ’round has harvest festivals of some slice or another that’re trussed in tradition and stuffed with myth and baked to a golden brown glory mostly by the women of the household.  Ours is no exception, as we like our edible myths here.  The reality, though, is that it is a lot of work, especially for this hausfrau.

My call to the butcher’s wife a month ago had me crestfallen at her guffaw of laughter.  “Sorry, sweetie, we closed our calendar for turkey processing three weeks ago!” she snickered.  Sigh.  See, I have not one turkey to do in, but two, actually three; one for selling, one for eating…the other, well, she’ll just be “dinner on the hoof” until we feel like eating her.  And my father in law emailed recently to say “can’t I just buy you a bird for the day?  I mean, I don’t like the idea of eating something that I’ve talked to every time I come over to your house,” which made me laugh.  (“Don’t talk to them then,” was my response.)  So it looks like I will need to take a day off to actually butcher the birds.

It’s okay, really.  Every year, I shuck another side dish; by this point, well, the side dishes are spare (three) and the desserts are singular (pie).  Soup course, salad course, cheese course, check; everything else though?  It gets baked in the masonry oven this year.  And yes:  I made sure to size the oven door to fit a 25-pound, rack-lifted, home-grown bird in a roasting pan.  Functional design does matter, after all.

I wish all of you a great harvest holiday…and may we all be thankful for, and appreciative of, what we have.

Earl concurs, as he’s thankful he’s not table fare

On the killing season

From the Class of 2010:  Peaches (left, a roo) and Eagle (right, a pullet)

The wind is coming in strong puffs, and it’s bringing with it the smell of the lake.  I’m not too happy about the task at hand.   I am dry-plucking a chicken.  A half-grown chicken, actually, a half-grown bantam…that’s practically no chicken at all as he probably only weighs a pound, a pound and a half.  Four and twenty of them, yes, might just fit in a pie:  I am holding him by his legs and I believe I have eaten bigger frog’s legs in my lifetime.

I had to put the guy out of his misery, you see.  His foot had gotten stuck in the little fence surrounding our back yard garden, and his compatriots had pecked him into a stupor.  I seriously doubted he’d recover from his head wound.

Poor guy.  I know I am either grimacing or am biting my lip; I try to just relax and do what is needed before my husband and daughter get home.  Poultry deaths aren’t easy, unless they’re expected.

It’s been a year of lots of birth and little death around here this year.  Six turkey poults followed the original seventeen of this spring.  (We kept three.)  Twenty-eight chicks have hatched under various chicken mothers; of them, eight of those cute bantam babies died when their idiot bantam mother decided she needed her nest up on top of a box, and the chicks couldn’t reach it, dying of exposure in a 60-degree night.  I walked in to the goat shed in the morning gloom and thought, who left these kleenex lying around, when it was little bantam bodies I was seeing on the straw.  And then this little death in my hand:  we’re left with twenty.  Plus the twenty-five meat birds (Freedom Rangers, much overrated) and the five girls whose egg-eating habits have sealed their freezer fate…as you can see, exponentially, the poultry population explodes every summer here.  And it recedes in the fall.

We’re keeping two laying hens out of the twenty home-hatched babies that remain.  There are three female bantam chicks who might live another year too, depending on how generous I am feeling.  All the home-grown chicks are amazingly colorful, but all the bantams have their father’s boring white plumage.  With all of them, I stare and think “Who’s yer ma,” hearkening back to one of the putative definitions of Hoosier (i.e., one of the thing Indiana residents said in days of yore was this direct question of your parentage:  who’s your ma, who’s your pa, who’s your folks?, who’syer, hoosier).  Daddy is definitely known:  he’s our handsome Black Sex Link boy Mary Ellen, and he’s lent speckles to every baby.  All the chicks are named and cared for by our daughter, which is why I was hurrying in my grisly task.

Plucked, gutted, de-headed, de-footed; this little creature is reduced to nearly nothing.  He’s crowed his last croaking adolescent crow.  I pluck the last of his down off his waxy skin, hose him off and bag him up for the fridge.

On sex and the barnyard

Let’s face it, people.  The male sex is not valued in the world of the farm.

It came as a shock to me.   A very parallel universe to the one I knew:  being of the female persuasion is actually highly valued if one is a farm animal.  All males are either quickly eaten or dispatched at birth/hatching.  This is NOT a hard and fast rule, of course:  being male won’t hurt your chances of growing to maturity if you’re a cloven-hooved creature, or a turkey.  You just most likely won’t get there with your scrotum intact (cattle, pigs, sheep, goats) or once you hit sexual maturity (turkeys).

I am not blind to the reason that female creatures are welcomed:  We desire the products of their reproductive organs (eggs, milk, more babies).  And even as a vegetarian I harbored no illusions that I wasn’t killing animals in my quest to have milk and eggs:  you need to get pregnant to have milk (duh!) and, the chicken DOES come before the egg…and the ratio of males to females in almost every animal grouping is 50/50, thus, for each egg-producing hen, one potential rooster chick was snuffed out.  The fact that you don’t even need male poultry to produce eggs further reduces their chances.

So it was with some sadness that I learned all three of our goats turned out to be boys.  Sigh.  And in my readings of goat-rearing handbooks, most dairy manuals were clear-eyed about this–a lot more clear-eyed than my usual gimlet-eyed self, too–that the most humane thing to do with newborn bucklings is to drown them in a water bucket.  “For every 500 males born, only 5 will find productive service as stud, and it most likely is not the one born in your barn,” is the way one manual put it.  Other suggestions were to skin them for their downy-furred pelts, or tan their hides for kid gloves.  (Eeps.  I am so not there yet, people.)

But in my usual take on the world, I knew the most responsible thing to do would be to do the responsible thing:  get them disbudded, castrated, and shot up with necessary injections, pronto.  Within their first week of life, then, they had their horns burned off, their immunizations, and their male parts disarmed.  They will all three find lives as either dinner or as cart-pulling bellwethers.  This is what is required if I want home-grown milk.

Likewise, one male turkey and one male chicken is all I require to have a self-sustaining (closed) poultry flock.  This is the first year we will not get chicks/poults from the store or in the mail, the first year then that we will have truly homegrown poultry (Thanksgiving Dinner and last year’s goslings excepted).

I harbor no illusions about what it is I am doing and what has been required of me to do it.  I am simply a lot closer to the reality of it than many meat-, dairy- and egg-eating people are; the choices pluck a touch harder on my heart-strings because I know and in most cases love these creatures.  But please don’t kid yourselves:  you’re subcontracting the killing if your hands aren’t physically wielding the knife.  And that is okay, as long as you know the animals have been well treated (for whatever their lifespan) in life and through death.  And if you don’t know, then you are, at the very least, being willfully blind.

Don’t be blind.  Support small ethically-committed farmers if you choose to eat meat, dairy and eggs.

On flock protectors

Don’t mess with her

It’s a good thing that Ruby is in with the chickens!

The dog was whining terribly, and as I couldn’t really hear anything over the music I was playing, I let her out…to see a hawk in the chicken run, fighting with our hen turkey.

Ruby got the upper hand, I have not a clue how.  The hawk was terribly injured, so I put it out of its misery.

Ruby is fine, though flustered.

Don’t blame me for this one, says Little Edie

On anticipating the Thanksgiving feast

I knew it.

I knew at first sight back in May that THIS was a specimen worthy of the Thanksgiving table.  All summer and fall I spent many hours feeding and watering.  I was vigilant against predatory attacks from birds and insects.  I covetously watched growth, being ever surprised, day by day, by how big this thing was getting.

Monsterous growth!  So big, there is no way we could eat it all at one sitting!!!  Yay:  Thanksgiving, after all, is the one time of year that we look forward to leftovers.

And then, one chilly day in November, I killed it.

But, gutted and peeled, it came in a quarter of a pound less than Baby Turkey did.

(Galeux d’Eysines squash:  quite sweet flesh!  Pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, and pumpkin pie…plus, a ton of puree for the freezer.)

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday…

NO more Ms. Nice Guy

P1010236It has taken me years, but I believe I am a happy plant murderer now.

Perhaps it is a matter of scale:  scale up one’s garden considerably, there’s not much wiggle room for the slackers of the garden world.  If a seedling looks stunted compared to its fellows, then I pull it.  If half a tomato plant’s production of fruit has blossom-end rot, then I kill it.  If I don’t need any more broccoli out of a perfectly fine plant, then I uproot it.

And with this newfound bloodlust (okay:  if plants don’t have blood, should I say chlorophyll-killing lust?), I am a happier person.  I don’t have that groaning maternalistic impulse to save all seedlings, nurture all volunteers.  It’s liberating, this new relationship with my Felco pruners, these limber muscles normally utilized solely in weed-pulling.  I can now happily lay waste to any garden bed, regardless of contents.  And I did so recently!  All but the paste tomatoes are history, as are the eggplants, okra and tomatillos.  Whee!

This is so contrary to my upbringing and training that it’s quite remarkable.  But it’s a point of evolution most gardeners undergo, I suppose, especially we gardeners bent on year-round food production for our households, because succession planting and efficient use of space both outweigh the needs of any one individual, ailing plant.  And seed-saving likewise does not favor the slackers, the malingerers; instead, it’s all hurry-up-and-grow.  Then:  Quick death in my hands.

I would hate this to be a general policy toward everything, but accepting the full mantle of Plant Grower, Nurturer and Compost-filling Killer is not a terribly heavy burden on my shoulders.  It did take me a long time to get here, though.