Saturday, August 27, 2011

Overrun with Cabbage

Now I can't recall whether we started our cabbages indoors and a fungal root infection killed them, or whether we planted the small seedlings out and slugs did them in. Either way, let's blame the slugs. After loosing our own seedlings, we were forced to buy cabbage starts from a local greenhouse. They had started them quite early, so by the time we took them home to plant they were already several inches tall. This didn't concern me at the time because I didn't consider the corner that 15 mature cabbages might force us into. I tried to ignore all the large and robust globes forming around me, as if that would solve something. When I finally addressed the situation, many of the cabbages had split open. Water had begun collecting in their new crevices and a fishy smelling rot was encroaching at the edges. I should have acted sooner. Next year. I brought a machete to the garden and whacked the orbs away from their roots.

What does one do with this much cabbage? Lacto-fermentation is the only answer. Luckily it is a good one because, beyond preserving the cabbage, it makes its nutrients more available and offers beneficial bacteria for your intestinal flora. Unfortunately the temperature is still a bit high to make sauerkraut. It would be ideal if it could ferment for 4 weeks between 60 and 65 degrees. We considered burying our imaginary jug of sauerkraut in the stream bed, but the temperature two inches below the water level was 66.9. If this were mid-September, we would likely have perfect conditions, but August is August, and August it is. We proceeded anyway.

There is a lot of chopping to be done. We read that you should sterilize all of your tools before commencing. We didn't go farther than giving them a good wash. I have a number of food grade five gallon buckets. After rearranging all of our stored nuts, one became available.

After weighing and slicing, we added around 3 tablespoons of salt for every 5 pounds of cabbage. You are meant to bash away at all of this cabbage until it releases and becomes submerged by its own juices. We were without a proper utensil, but we made good use of the rolling pin, the potato masher, the metal tongs, and the knife sharpening steel.

Finally it became like soup.
There are fermenting crocks that are designed specifically for this purpose, and I hear they work perfectly. The crock itself has a large rim that holds water that the lid sits down into. The gases that escape during fermentation are able to move through this seal, while it remains impervious to air and pathogens from the outside. Ingenious... and expensive. The smallest one I could find was over $125. So we are winging it, again, like we did last year. Hopefully this experiment will turn out better than last year's. Last year's sauerkraut rotted because we didnt' have a good seal. When the gasses escaped there were air pockets left in their places and deterioration took hold. This year we filled a 2 gallon plastic bag with salted water (in case the bag breaks for some reason) and placed it on top of the cabbage, thereby keeping everything submerged. Garth found a lid for a five gallon bucket from his beer making days with a contraption on the top that lets gasses out without letting air in. The bucket is on the dirt floor of our basement at the bottom of the stairs. If all goes well, we'll be in sauerkraut for months. If it doesn't, we will have wasted a few good hours on a Sunday, and a season's worth of cabbage. I'm not sure where my bets lie, but I know where my hopes do.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Slaughtering Chickens

Warning: this post contains photos documenting the honest slaughter and processing of chickens.

Some people hold strong views on the topic of animal welfare, ranging from a utilitarian belief that the pleasure and suffering of animals is as meaningful as that of humans to a biblically grounded belief that humans have dominion over animals, a dominion so absolute that the existence of an animal is justified only to the extent that it serves a human end. But most people I’ve talked to about it search for a comforting middle ground – a place where animals lead happy, healthy lives, but are then quickly dispatched, packaged, and sold for a reasonable price in a supermarket refrigerator case. As I know from personal experience, the trick to rhetorically supporting this sort of food system while eating a burger that concretely supports factory farms is to not think about it too much.

But I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot lately. A bit over a month ago we butchered the sixty-five broiler chickens we had been raising, a few more than last year. The experience of killing animals is a singularly difficult topic to address in writing. When I say this, I do not mean that it makes me uncomfortable to discuss or describe in detail. Most any striking or meaningful experience loses something in the translation to writing, though it may gain something as well. But in the case of killing another sentient creature, the act itself is uniquely visceral.

We raised our chickens in a 10’ x 12’ cage with an open bottom. Twice daily we shifted this onto fresh grass, so the chickens always had fresh forage and somewhere clean to lie down. We actually purchased 100 chicks, and we only lost the expected few in the first two weeks, but a few days after we put them out, 30 died in a single night. A predator had killed five, and the rest had suffocated after piling up in a corner of the cage. A few days later I trapped and shot the skunk that was responsible.

Modern chickens put on weight incredibly fast, and even though we were raising broilers bred to gain slightly slower than the most aggressive commercial varieties, by nine weeks they were big enough, and dragging the cage around the pasture had started to bother both my and Ed’s backs. So on an overcast Saturday we set up the scalding tank and plucker beside a table in the hops barn and positioned the killing cones just outside.

Ed went and caught about a dozen chickens at a time, placed them in smaller cages, and trundled them in a wheelbarrow from the pasture to our makeshift abattoir. Each went upside down into a stainless steel cone with a hole at the bottom just large enough for the head and neck to pass through. Each head was grasped, and each neck slit with a sharp knife. After this they went into the scalding tank, and then the plucker, and then to a table to be cleaned, bagged and frozen.

Last year Ed and I did all these tasks in roughly equal measure, but this time, with both Alanna and my aunt Juliet helping, we each more or less took responsibility for a part of the process. I only killed a few of the chickens early on and spent the rest of the time gutting them.

There are parts of the whole experience of raising chickens this year that I regret. I am saddened by the ones that died near the outset, though I recognize that some predation is inevitable in any outdoor production system. Feed is extremely expensive, and I wonder if chickens with different genetics would have been more efficient and generally healthier. And the actual, final act of killing is sad. I do not feel guilty when I kill a chicken, nor do I feel empathy for it in the narrow sense of the word. The sadness arises from the simple recognition that nothing (except maybe mayflies and salmon) dies without a struggle, tempered with the recognition that deaths large and small constitute each of us.

Although I can’t imagine a plausible alternative, I find slaughterhouses problematic. Of course I am horrified by unnecessary brutality found in many of them, but I am just as troubled by the idea that most of us do not confront the deaths we have chosen to endorse while a few of us become utterly desensitized to them. One step in the right direction would be to let farmers harvest animals and sell their meat directly to customers, a practice which is allowed to a limited extent with chickens, but doing this to a broad extent would require a complete overhaul of the regulatory system, and it would raise a host of health concerns, some legitimate, others not.

In the meantime, we will keep raising and hunting and butchering for ourselves, and I would encourage anyone – particularly anyone who eats meat – to have a hand in the death that preparing dinner really starts with.


Friday, August 5, 2011

More Mowing

With the gracious help of Edmund and Garth's father Lach, we are maintaining our resistance against unruly monocultures. The golden rod has just lit up our pastures, and we are eager to set it back. Both Edmund and Garth's unanimous distaste for machine work is inversely represented in Lachy, who is content to spend hours meticulously leveling these vast stretches. God bless him. His efforts were stopped short when, upon encountering the densest swarths, the drive wheel of the mower overheated and shattered in action. Enough was enough. The part won't be in until Wednesday, so the opposition has a little more time to dig in its heels.

Walking back from feeding the chickens yesterday, I ran into Datura. She had wandered away from the herd with her sister Lillyvale, breaching the electric line in an area weakened by tall grass, no doubt. I stopped to admire her. Isn't she beautiful? Edmund and Garth chased them back in a few hours later, which was easily done because they couldn't resist the companionship offered within their old confines.

Tall grass has a clinginess that cut grass lacks. It folds around my boots, clutching and then releasing. The bedstraw tangles and confuses my steps. Cut grass is not so jealous. It has been chastened, but will return stronger with less competition, we hope.