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This month on the farm, besides being centered around the exciting tasks of navigating businessy logistics (i.e., obtaining a UBI # and signing up for farm insurance, fun!) has been all about the act of killing to eat, with a bit of goat vomit and poop thrown into the mix (though not at the same time, thank goodness). I know, you were thinking that the process of starting a Parisian-style market garden would involve wearing berets and sipping cafe au lait in a butterfly garden with a basket overfilling with nature’s bounty. So what gives?I’m sorry to tell you, but farms are places of rot and excretion, of mud, guts, lots of poop and of course, death. Any glamour added is the result of an extremely conscious effort.
While establishing my “market garden” vegetable farm this past summer, I’ve divulged in a bit of animal homesteading. Raising heritage breeds of turkeys, ducks, geese, chickens, and pigs for my family’s own subsistence. While I’ve thought about adding animals to my business offerings this coming summer, I’ve decided that the cost and processing regulations and my lack of established market are evidence that I shouldn’t bite off more than I can chew this year. So I’ll be sticking to vegetables at the farmer’s market. And plus, raising animals on a small scale is just plain fun! And very good for one’s mental well being. The daily greetings and snuggles and general ballyhoo of their existence makes for a purely joyful home life experience. Not to mention the free manure. (See, I told you poop was kind of a big deal around here!)
I obtained our young poultry when we first moved to the farmstead in May, and watched them grow up from little wobbly puff balls to squawking, quacking, fly catching, grass eating, slug chomping excrement machines. I knew when visitors had arrived at the farm from all the general chit chat and alarm calling of the flock. Honking from the geese, WAATT WAATTing from the ducks and incessant cockadoodles to communicate all manner of things. Especially to announce the arrival of daylight, no surprise, and to demand prompt delivery of food, of course.
So as the the leaves of the trees turned from green to golden, and the days shortened, and the supply of natural forage in the barnyard dwindled from a smorgasbord to something resembling the fridge of a calorie counter, I decided it was time for the fateful harvest day. This was not a day I especially looked forward to. Raising my own animals for food doesn’t mean I don’t love my animals. In fact, I’d say the reverse is true. I love animals, especially my own, and so that’s why I have embarked on the adventure of raising my meat. Its the only way I know of to truly guarantee the ethical treatment of food animals as well as the beneficial environmental impact of their existence. While all of this may sound euphemistic, it truly is not. As an animal lover and conscious omnivore, I wanted to make sure that the animals i ate had A) a happy, contented life where they were free to roam and play B) choice to eat a free range diet instead of being force fed conventional grains and C) only one bad day in their lives: harvest day (and actually make that 10 seconds or less if all goes well).
So like any sensible person planning a proper funeral, I decided to make a party out of it. There’d be alcohol I decided, because who wouldn’t want to be under the influence slightly while wielding sharp knives?And a bonfire and feast afterward. I determined that if I was going to kill animals, that I’d better make it something to remember. But a positive memory. An act of worship and celebration. After all, isn’t celebrating ones connection to food and land something to be proud of and to cherish? I think so.
My partner and I dispatched our Saxony drake a couple of days before the harvest party. I planned to roast him to feed my helpful troops. Slow and heavy bodied,with obvious low levels of testosterone, he had been the clumsiest and least agile duck of the flock. He was also the only male. Honestly, you’d really be surprised just how many gender stereotypes are both corroborated and decimated in the barnyard.
All it took to transport him to the “great blue yonder” was one swift stroke of a hatchet. As I walked to the kitchen with his limp and headless body, I recalled a night earlier this summer when I had been walking about the barnyard, trying to pinpoint the location of a raspy quack in the pitch blackness. I had followed my ears, blind as a bat under the waxing moon, to the kiddy pool where the ducks often played during the day. There I found the drake, struggling against the slippery side of the pool. Completely alone and trapped by his obese heft. I suddenly remembered placing him there some, oh, 8 hours earlier when I noticed that he couldn’t heave his bowling ball-of-a-body into the water to join the other ducks. Apparently he had been trapped there all day, even as the others made their way back to the safety of the coop as night fell. He was sending out an SOS to his flockmates. There is nothing a duck hates more than being alone. Especially in the dark.
Such fond and funny memories flooded my emotional space before and after we harvested him. And even as he sizzled in the oven. But I wasn’t haunted by these seemingly untimely thoughts but instead was glad for them. To me they were reverent. Making the act of eating more than just a mindless shoveling of caloric contents down the hatch but an emotional and memory space which I could occupy. Eating my animals not only nourishes me, but transports me. It connects me to land, to animals, to experience, three times a day. If that isn’t worship, then I don’t know what is. In a time and place where what and how we eat determines so very much how the world gets used, and the health of the environment, I was glad for this conscious intimacy. Pain and joy and all. It is my lifeline back to the earth.
Six of my friends joined me in harvesting the remaining 10 ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. Between the whir of feathers, and blood and guts, and yes, even laughter (thanks beer), I wondered with a twinge of fear what on earth I would say if one of my neighbors happened to stop on by during this bloody, chaotic scenario. Luckily, it never happened, and we were all able to enjoy a sunny afternoon of merry food making. We got down to it with scientific resolve (“What is that green thing, a spleen?” “Is that the kidney or the liver?” “Its interesting how much more fat is present around the organs of the ducks!”) and finished just as the sun set and the smoky bonfire burned its last embers. We filled our freezer with a year’s supply of poultry.
A simple meal of roast duck (Mr. TooFatToGetOutOfTheKiddyPool), potato pancakes, buttery rolls, Brussels sprouts, and pumpkin pie stuffed us to the gills as we reminisced about the day’s work. The one thing we all agreed on was that we were thankful for the chance to engage in an act that has seemed to skip a generation. There we were, a group of millennials, with skills our parents never had. The ability to raise and prepare our own food. That in and of itself was not lost on us, and I was glad to be in the company of people who appreciated and understood both the gravity of the act as well as the religion in it.
From hello to goodbye, it was the perfect meal.
I will leave you with this, a poem by Kahlil Gibran, which I read to my friends before the harvest:
Would that you could live on the fragrance of the earth, and like an air plant
be sustained by the light.
But since you must kill to eat, and rob the young of its mother’s milk to quench
your thirst, let it then be an act of worship,
And let your board stand an altar on which the pure and the innocent of
forest and plain are sacrificed for that which is purer and still more innocent
When you kill a beast say to him in your heart:
“By the same power that slays you, I too am slain; and I too shall be
consumed. For the law that delivered you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier
hand. Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.”
And when you crush an apple with your teeth, say to it in your heart:
“Your seeds shall live in my body, And the buds of your tomorrow shall blossom in my heart, and your fragrance shall be my breath, And together we shall rejoice through all the seasons.”
And in the autumn, when you gather the grapes of your vineyard for the
winepress, say in you heart:
“I too am a vinyard, and my fruit shall be
gathered for the winepress, And like new wine I shall be kept in eternal vessels.”
And in winter, when you draw the wine, let there be in your heart a song for
And let there be in the song a remembrance for the autumn days, and for the
vineyard, and for the winepress.