Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Food for thought

Food is what led me to farming and working with livestock. I love so many aspects of food; eating, preparing, growing, gleaning, discussing and sharing. And while growing vegetables, picking fruit and baking bread have brought me closer to my food sources, there is a significant part of my diet that I had never experienced bringing from the field to the table- that is meat. This weekend Matt and I were offered the opportunity to assist Dan and his family in the slaughter and dressing of chickens they raised specifically for this purpose. Matt and I decided this would be a valuable opportunity to learn exactly what is involved in bringing meat to our dinner plate. We have both written about our experience here, with my writing in purple and Matt's in blue.

Eating any kind of meat involves the death of a creature. Rather than leave this death to the cold calculations of a machine in a processing factory, Dan and his family have decided to participate directly in it and treat each animal with respect and dignity. 

Processing chickens with Callie was interesting, inspiring and appetizing; I was excited and interested in learning. Much of the food I eat is fresh, local and organic. But the meat I get, even though it’s from the Natural Foods Co-op in Sacramento, is pretty far removed from its natural state. It’s true that by the time the meat gets to my table I’ve little idea where it came from, who or what touched it. I feel like for someone who cares about food so much I’m missing out.

My excitement came from a place of curiosity – an opportunity to be directly involved in the food chain, as it were. Plus, I really trust Dan, who is a great teacher, so I knew the animals would be handled humanely and with dignity. My excitement nearly died as soon as we started. Perhaps the feeling didn’t die as much as it morphed into nervousness. I was still excited, but no longer was it a happy, curious interest, but more of an uneasy slightly sick feeling accompanied by a strong desire to learn.

We  picked up the chickens and carried them from the coop to an open area where we could begin processing them. Their feet were leathery, warm and softer than I’d expected. The chickens squawked and flapped at first, then quickly became docile. This is when I began questioning my willingness to kill the chickens. In the back of my mind I knew it was something I wanted to learn and I was almost sure I was going to follow through with processing at least one chicken from start to finish. However, there was a part of me that thought of becoming a vegetarian. I thought of other animals that eat meat and how much I relate to many of them. Then I thought this process of catching, killing and cleaning the animals was necessary unless I was going to eat these chickens alive. With this fresh wave of insight, I was again glad to be part of the process.

Once we brought all 15 chickens out we watched Dan slaughter the first one. I was physically ready to go through with the lesson, alert and focused. Emotionally I was still struggling a little bit; I couldn’t help but to empathize with the chickens. The tone had turned solemn and serious. Earlier in the day at the Farmers’ Market in Auburn there was an opportunity to joke around, be friendly and loose. This, however, wasn’t a time for joking around; it was a time to be respectful and everyone seemed to pick up on that.

Slaughtering a chicken involves using a sticking knife to pierce the jugular vein and letting the chicken bleed out. Letting them bleed out is important for the feather plucking, evisceration and cleaning that follows. For many reasons this is the most humane way to process chickens. I also learned that in large operations where machines are used, the inside of the chicken can get all over the outside and therefore it must go through a bleach bath before it is fit for consumption. Those large mechanized farms are hardly capable of respecting the life of animals or of handling the product in a dignified way.

After Dan used his experienced hands to slaughter the third chicken, the first had bled out and was ready for plucking. We used a chicken plucker, which speeds up the process and does a clean job. The machine does the plucking but requires a knowledgeable person to hold and guide the bird so most of the feathers can be removed.  I still retain the idea that hand-plucking is a bit more dignified for the spirit of the animal because they do look a little silly on the plucker. It was the only time that I felt the slight urge to laugh, a sign that my often-strange sense humor hadn’t left me.

Then it was time to be serious again. Dan knew I was interested in learning the full process. He asked me if I wanted to dispatch one of the birds and reassured me that I didn’t have to. I wanted to and I did. I was determined to learn and it was a good thing. The way Dan showed me how to use the sticking knife was to bypass the windpipe and esophagus and strike through the jugular vein. The first bird I cut through the neck, and there was no blood meaning I had done it wrong. It wasn’t like many mistakes where you can erase it and try again. I held the bird’s head and tried again. I missed two more times, and gave the knife to Dan who quickly finished it off. The next bird I did better; I did it wrong at first, but was able to finish it off myself and learned exactly what I was doing wrong. The third bird I did perfectly on my first try. I remember exactly what I did differently and am glad I was capable of doing so.

As I stood there with the animals I had killed, letting them bleed out, I felt a special bond. It was strange how by killing this animal I gained a respect for it and for all life. I authentically accepted a natural order and gained an appreciation for all life. I looked into the sky and felt a gentle, yet intense connection to a great, giant spirit. I thought of the life of grass and grain. I thought of that life passing into the bodies of the chickens and sheep. I thought of that energy going into me. I thought of using that energy to learn and build. Then I felt a reassurance that all that energy and life would one day leave me to join that Great Spirit, as well as feed the grass and grain in the soil.

I’m so glad I learned how to process a chicken in this way; tt is a skill I hope to use to help feed my family and friends in the future.

While I couldn't bring myself to slaughter a chicken, I did help Dan's wife, Sami, in the dressing and prepping of the birds for storage. As each plucked bird was brought to us we would remove the heads and feet. Then the innards were skillfully separated from the carcass (a skill I was slow to learn, thank your for your patience Sami!) The birds were chilled in ice water, weighed and packaged for freezing.  By the time we were through they looked just like what you can buy at the supermarket, only we knew their whole history; what they ate, what conditions they lived in, how they were treated and how they died.  This is information you just cannot buy.  

While eating meat has been morally confusing to me at times, having this experience is invaluable to me. I have made the decision to eat meat, I feel the least I can do is know what is involved in turning a living being into "meat". I would also like to give a heartfelt thank-you to Dan, Sami and their daughters for allowing us to learn from them; you are thoughtful and patient teachers and are a valuable asset to our community.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Field Trips

I am learning that flexibility is key in any kind of farming. There a just so many things that cannot be controlled (i.e. the weather, frightened animals, accidents) and I find this realization very humbling.  Of course there are some aspects that can be controlled and this is where I am running into some difficult choices; there are trade-offs to every decision and sometimes it feels easier not to have a choice.

I stuck to my plan to volunteer at Soil Born this last weekend.  They were preparing for an event called "A Day on the Farm" and expecting 2 to 3 THOUSAND people! While I could not attend the actual event (one of those difficult decisions...I chose instead to help with sheep shearing), I did go the day before to help with set-up.  It was interesting and clarifying for me personally to work beside and talk with the people there-farm interns, farm managers, volunteers, employees from the Co-op.  One thing about working on a farm...the food is generally awesome!

Another difficult decision came Monday when I chose to spend a few days off work not at the Rudolf Steiner biodynamic gardens as I had planned but with some sheep and their shepherds. A tough choice but I decided to invest my time where I feel my farming future lies.

I tagged along with Dan to Fairfield where he led a discussion on website building/blogging/facebooking for farmers and producers. The farmers in that county are in the beginning stages of establishing Solano Grown and it was very interesting to hear their thoughts on marketing their farms and how the setup of the new organization is going.

After the class Dan drove his big truck and trailer out to a 4th generation sheep ranch in Rio Vista to pick up 30 ewes. It was incredible to see a sheep operation on such a huge level: extensive, permanent corral systems, a shearing barn, a lambing barn, a wool barn, two large foot-baths and somewhat unrelatedly, hundreds of silent, massive wind energy generators.  It was a great learning experience just to be there.

Wednesday it rained and boy did it rain. I worked with the other Flying Mule Farm intern, Paul, and we set up electric fence all over the countryside (not really, but it sure felt like it). Lesson learned: NEVER leave home without your rainboots! 

Soggy sheep

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shear enjoyment-enthusiam-exhaustion

Sunday was a whirlwind of mad action, new people and interesting experiences. It was the final day of sheep shearing at Flying Mule Farm (about 90 sheep).  There were a lot of people who dropped by to see the action and to help including farmer's market customers, interns from nearby Riverhill Farm, parts of my family and some 4-H'ers.  Here are some pictures of the action.

Derek the pro shearer - around 2 minutes per sheep

Matt the pro pen sweeper

Skirting the fleece - picking off the yucky bits so the rest can be spun into yarn

Dan stomping the wool down in the big burlap sack

Sack o' wool

Loud sheep

Everybody happy (and quiet) back in the pasture
 Shearing is a big but necessary yearly job and I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to it. The ice cold beers we enjoyed after it was all finished didn't hurt either~

Friday, May 20, 2011


Another lesson in flexibility this week...

As Matt and I sat in our beginning farming class Tuesday night, watching 3/4" of rain pour down, it became apparent that we were not going to be shearing sheep Wednesday (the wool will rot if it is put in bags when it is wet). Since we were already in the area and had the day off from our city jobs we decided to follow Dan around anyway and help with some chores.  Here's a peak:
Moving sheep down the road to more food
He volunteered for this job

Dan training Ernie the dog

Partial shearing of a grumpy guard llama
The beginning farming class was a great intro class (even though it made for an exhausting week with lots of driving).  The dairy dream continues, even though I feel like the more I learn the more questions arise.

And the cheese was ready!  Not exactly feta, it was creamier and didn't taste quite like feta, but delicious none the less.

There is so much more to come in the next few days...volunteering at Soil Born, shearing sheep on Sunday (finally!), and spending 3 days in Raphael Gardens at the Rudolph Steiner College learning about biodynamic farming, woo :)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lambgen 2011

This weekend we set up for the sheep shearing marathon (which I dub "Lambgen") that will take place later this week.  This is a huge endeavor which takes a lot of well timed movement of several hundred sheep and the forethought to make sure there is enough grass for all of them to eat for several days (among many other considerations and plans). Sheep generally need to be shorn every year before it gets too hot around the foothills. The quality fleeces can either be sold to a commodity broker, or as we will do this year with the best fleeces, sent to a wool mill to be scoured, carded and spun into yarn.  We will have local yarn to sell at the farmer's markets for you knitters!

On Saturday we moved the ingenious mobile sorting corrals and chute Dan has created. They are made with thoughtfulness of the animals natural movements and with the intention of creating the least amount of stress on the sheep and shepherd during sorting.  We set them up next to the small barn where the shearing will be done and got to work sorting sheep.

The Lambgen chute

Sheep on the move

The border collies help a lot

Sheep waiting to sort
Most of the sheep will be shorn by a professional shearer later this week (Matt and I will go out to help on Wednesday, please stay dry weather!).  But Dan needs to get a head start to get some sheep back out on a grazing contract so he decided to shear 30 himself on Sunday.  To pick which 30, we sent all the ewes with lambs through the sorting corrals once.  We sprayed a mark on any lamb that was large enough to wean from its mother, checked the number on its eartag and circled it on our spreadsheet. This took several hours.

The sorting trenches
Once the first round was done and we had marked 30 lambs, we crossed referenced the lamb number to the mother's number, then sent all the sheep through the sorting corral once more, separating the chosen lambs and mothers from the others based on eartag numbers.  The chosen sheep went into a barn to keep them dry and clean for shearing the next day.  The unchosen went back into the pasture for the time being.  By the time all this was done it was late in the day, I was covered in dust, a little sunburned and so exhausted.

Everyone worked hard
No time for rest however, Matt and I had one more ballet to attend that night. It's one of my favorite shows (we have seen it the last 2 years) called Modern Masters.  It is generally very un-traditional works and music by award winning choreographers. The choreographers and dances are different each year.  It was at a local high school this time, so we were much closer to the stage and dancers, we could hear them breathing hard and see them sweating!  It was just wonderful and they have shows in Davis and Folsom in the coming weeks if you are able to attend; it is highly recommended.

I have a couple busy weeks coming up, but it is all good stuff that I will share here..on the agenda this week, beginning farming class on Tuesday and Thursday nights and helping with the shearing on Wednesday.
Stay tuned!

Spring bounty from the foothills

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Friday night I dreamt about sheep, so it was fitting to spend most of Saturday with them.  Dan and I checked on the sheep that are grazing a nature preserve, only to find they had escaped their pen (for the 7th time in 9 days).  It seemed likely the sheep had assistance from local kids in this latest breakout, plus we found part of the electric fence that may not have been functioning properly.  These situations are dangerous and stressful for the sheep (not to mention the shepherds), especially if the sheep have been harassed by people or dogs or they are near a frequently traveled road. The whole flock can be skittish and unsettled for days.

In the middle of all this Dan got a call that the cows he grazes for someone else were out in the road, so he had to go tend to that situation.  Paul, another shepherd intern, came out to meet me and we corralled the sheep and built them a new, hopefully escape-proof pen. This took all morning and part of the afternoon but the time flew by and before I knew it the work day was done.

I really enjoy the physicality of this work - moving through the world, seeing the changes that come with the seasons; interacting with different people and creatures; using my body in the work.  In our culture physical labor has been degraded to the point of being worth very little...just think how little farm field laborers are paid, when they are probably the hardest workers in the country.  Why is this? Why does our culture value the work of the mind so much more than the work of the body?  It is the work of farmers, stockmen and laborers out in the physical world that feed and clothe the rest of us...why don't more people realize this and see how incredibly valuable it is? I wish my "real" job (working at a computer) was anywhere near as interesting and engaging as my days working with the sheep.

Back at home I checked in on the garden and admired Matt's handiwork at weeding and planting eggplants!

Carrots, radishes, lettuce, kohlrabi


We also celebrated Mother's Day a little early with a family dinner and dessert - I made the strawberry rhubarb pie!

I had seconds, of course
On Sunday, Matt and I treated ourselves to dine out at The Green Boheme, a raw foods restaurant in Sac.

Cool Italian sandwich

Portabella "steak" with mock mashed potatoes - the "potatoes" are amazing

Chai macaroons
"Raw vegan – or “living food” –refers to fruits, vegetables, and other natural ingredients that have not been heated above 105°. This approach ensures food remains in a living state, preserving the maximum amount of vitamins, phyto-nutrients, and enzymes to nourish your body."

The food tastes wonderful and is artfully crafted; I don't have the discipline, time or money to eat like that all the time but it is a treat I enjoy on occasion.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Jam-packed weekend in the PC

Saturday was farmers market day but not a normal market day. Instead of setting up to sell, we brought three yearling ewes (female sheep that were born early 2010) to the market, set up a small pen and shearing equipment and Dan did sheep shearing demos every hour.  The demos were a big hit, with lots of interest from kids as well as adults.  It was interactive too...anyone who wanted was able to feel and take home a puff of freshly sheared wool.

If you have never felt wool straight off a sheep, it is a bit greasy because of the lanolin in it, which is a water-proofing wax that is secreted from the sebaceous glands of a sheep.  It makes your hands  really soft.  It also smells like sheep, a smell that I really like now, weird yah?


The good shearers get the wool off in one piece!
I got time to do a little shopping at the market too. I made sure to get scones early from Alice at The Baker and the Cakemaker stall.  She makes the most amazing scones (I had a ham and cheese AND an apricot!) And the rye bread her husband bakes is perfection.  I ended up with too many strawberries to eat, so after finishing the afternoon sheep/dog chores with Dan, I went home and made some strawberry jam.

This took me about 45 minutes and made 3 good size jars of jam from 3 baskets of berries, a box of pectin, a cup of apple juice and 2 cups of sugar.  The best part for me is when the lid pings as it seals and you know you did it right. Then I know it can last for months in the pantry and still taste great! (Not that it will last that long.)

Sunday was just as full and rewarding.  One of Dan's previous interns, Courtney, graciously allowed me to come make yogurt and cheese at her house with her and her adorable baby, Josie.  Courtney has 5 Friesian dairy ewes, one of which is producing milk.  So first things first, we got Cleo the ewe on the milking stand and did the morning milking. Hand milking is a very interesting, oddly intimate experience. It is wild to me to think that thousands of years ago some person was watching a mother animal feed her baby and decided it would be a good (and extraordinarily dangerous) idea to try and get some of that milk for himself!

So, we started by making yogurt out of the warm, fresh milk. We did this by heating then cooling the milk to specific temperatures and adding a little bit of whole cows milk yogurt with live cultures as a starter. Then we had to keep it warm, dark and still for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight. (By the time I left about 6 hours later, it had not yet set.)

Then it was on to the cheese, feta cheese! This was my first experience with cheese making and I found that it is a long and fairly complicated process. You need several specialty things to accomplish it as well, such as lipase (optional, for flavor), meso or thermophilic starter, rennet (which solidifies the milk into cheese), thermometers, cheesecloth, string, big pots to double boil and lots of water. And of course, milk. We used previously frozen sheep's milk, which freezes and thaws out perfectly, unlike cows milk. Here are a couple pictures of our process:

Heating the milk

Stirring the curds and whey (we could have eaten all of these by themselves!)

Draining the curds

Hanging feta curds
After many hours of tending closely to our awesome smelling cheese, we hung it to drain the whey out, then let it sit under a weight so as much of the whey as possible got squeezed out.  Then, since we are making feta, it goes in a brine bath (salt and water Courtney prepared the previous day) and into the fridge for about 2 weeks.  I'll let you know how it turns out!

Ricotta hanging over left over whey (aka chicken feed)
So after we separated the curds (the solid part) from the whey (the liquid part), we heated the whey to just before it boiled and then scooped out the ricotta cheese that formed on the top, amazing!  And the best part...we could eat it right away!

So good!