Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Homesteading Milestone

The ducks are now happily settled at the parents’ farm! We do miss having those plucky, cheerful birds waddling around the yard, quacking loudly at us every time we walk out of the house. But they have a much bigger area to roam at the farm, not to mention flowing water! No more tiny wading pools. They were getting so big it looked a little sad and ridiculous for them to be trying to swim in water a few inches deep (not that they seemed to mind).

Guiding them to the creek

Now they can REALLY swim!

The plan was to reduce their numbers before they left our home, which we did accomplish, by the way. I decided to “do” only 3 of them, since it was our first time processing birds. I watched them closely, observing the state of their plumage, trying to decide when they would be free of pin feathers. Finally we selected a day my mother would be available to keep Ian for a few hours. Relying on nothing more than visuals and text, we set about the task.

I’ve performed mercy killings before, but never with the intent of processing for food. I really wasn’t sure how I would react to the experience emotionally. No sane person truly enjoys the killing part, especially when it’s an animal you’ve raised from a tiny baby. An animal that trusts you.  Some people are deeply grateful, thanking the animal in an almost religious spiritual experience. For me, I knew if I got too entrenched in the emotional aspect I could never do it. So I checked my emotions at the door. Time to get to work!

Incidentally, we didn’t take any pictures of the process, considering both our hands were full and we had childcare for a limited time. So I will just describe the process:

The killing. This step was a matter of much discussion in the weeks leading up to the big event. We really wanted to use a killing cone, but weren’t able to purchase or make one in time. Then there was axe and chopping block. Had the axe, but no chopping block. I had seen a method on another blog where a woman uses a feed bag with a hole cut in the corner to secure the bird during the beheading process. So we sort of combined the two methods.

 That morning we were a flurry of activity, getting everything ready to go. We set up the scalding pot (e.g. my big stockpot) on the Coleman camp stove and readied the rest of our tools. Then, the big moment came. As I strode up to the duck pen I had a small sinking feeling. This was the big moment. No going back now. I selected the first victim. I was gentle yet firm. We fed his head through the hole and ended him quickly. I held onto the bag until his death throes abated, then strung him up by his feet to bleed into a tub while we dispatched the other two. That wasn’t so bad.

Now for the scald. I added dish soap to the water (WAAAAAAYYYY too much dish soap) and scalded them all for about a minute, sloshing them all around to get them good and covered. The dish soap worked a little too well (like I said, WAY too much) – they were sopping wet and all lathered up. The feathers did come right out though. One thing I hadn’t noticed until plucking time was the pin feathers still present on their wings. After the scald they had turned to goo. It was soooooo gross. Nothing grossed me out during the whole process except for this. We would have benefited from waiting an additional week or two for them to finish feathering out.

The down rubbed off easily enough, but there were still a lot of little pin feathers all over the carcass, which were particularly unattractive on the dark colored drake. We were planning to singe them, but they were far too wet. To save time I didn't really fuss over them much, deciding I could finish cleaning them up when it was time to cook them. Off came the head and legs, then the eviscerating. You’re supposed to use the gizzard as an anchor to pull out the rest of the offal, which really didn’t work too well. Everything was so firmly attached some part of the digestive tract would tear before we pulled it out. It just took a little extra pulling and scooping. The hardest part was finding and removing the lungs. I suppose that’s why the lung scraper was invented. Then we slit the neck and removed the rest of the digestive tract and the voice box. Then a dunk in the water bucket to clean them all off. And – WHOOPS!! Almost forgot: the oil glands! Had to cut those off (they would give the meat an off flavor). By this time my mom needed to leave, so I had to run in and clean myself up so I could take the baby. Mark finished cleaning up the birds and our work area.

We had set up our big cooler in the house filled with ice water to chill the carcasses until the following day. The next morning I set them on a rack in the sink to drain for about 20 minutes, patted them dry and then vacuum sealed them. Now they sit happily in our freezer awaiting the day they will be cooked and enjoyed.

Ducks on ice

So now that the work is over, I can invite my emotions back in, and try to decide how I feel about what we did…..

Sad? No, not really.

Disgusted? Not at all.

I suppose the feeling can be summed up in one word:


We raised them. We slaughtered them humanely. And now they are going to feed us. This is a turning point in our lives. Now that I know that I can do it, anything feels possible.

There are still 4-5 drakes who will go in the freezer later this summer. But in the meantime they get to enjoy a free range lifestyle. I’m eager to compare the flavor of the younger and older birds to decide which we prefer.

Chickens will probably be next on the list. We have one older hen who barely lays anymore, and I know there are several at my parents’ farm ready for “retirement.” So their lucky day will be arriving soon. This time I hope to enlist help from the family. They need the experience too! J

The gardens are growing well, and frequent summer storms are keeping everything well watered. We’re looking forward to those first few veggies. Especially tomatoes. Yum. The wild blackberries are beginning to ripen. The heat and humidity are cranking up. Summer is here!

Oh, and this little guy is crawling up a storm!

Helping daddy air up the tire

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Growing things..

Things are really growing around the homestead!

While this doesn't include succulent fryer rabbits, sadly enough, there are plenty of other things developing into food.

We finally got a hold of my dad's tiller, and tilled our little garden space. I was having doubts about even fooling with a vegetable garden this year. With a thick carpet of weeds and the spot only receiving a maximum of 5 hours direct sun per day, I was beginning to wonder if it was even worth it. But we decided to go for it anyhow....

Cardboard makes a good garden walkway/weed deterrent

In addition to finally getting the soil well worked for the first time ever, we are experimenting with deep mulching with hay. I considered buying a big roll of cheap cattle hay, but decided to just use a couple of bales we already had stored away for rabbits. Considering I only have two rabbits and we've not even gone through an entire bale yet, I decided we may as well use them. It still seemed like a shame to use such fine, sweet-smelling hay for mulch. But hey, it's not really going to waste.    

Notice I'm putting the "bunny berries" to good use

It already seems to be holding more moisture. I think it's still too thin in spots to keep the weeds from sprouting through, so I'll probably add some more hay in places. We also didn't have time to rake through the soil and remove all the existing weeds since we were trying to beat an oncoming storm. We got the hay strewn out just in time! If things go well this season we shouldn't have to ever till again. We shall see.

I didn't plant a whole lot this year, just in case things don't do well. A majority of my heirloom seeds got planted in my parents' big garden space at their farm. I planted a row of Painted Pony beans, Edmonson cucumber, Strawberry popping corn, and a hill of Black Beauty zucchini. I bought some Cherokee Purple & Amish Paste tomatoes, as well as garden salsa peppers. So far everything looks great, but we'll see what the yield is like.

Painted Pony bean sprouting

I planted a patch of basil and cilantro as well, and have a little space reserved for some dill.

Since I didn't have a whole lot of space in the garden, I have some other veggies in pots:

Sultan's Golden Crescent beans

It's kind of an experiment as well. I want to see if the plants do better in pots with more sun, than in the garden with less sun. That will help me determine whether it's worth it to plant sun-loving veggies in the ground next season.

I went ahead and ordered heirloom garlic to plant in the fall, and will be on the hunt for seed potatoes as well. This will be my first year with cold-weather veggies, so I'm excited!

My herbs are all faring very well, especially now that I've successfully fenced out the chickens.

The fence is ugly, but effective. Here's my current collection:
  • chives
  • basil (veggie garden)
  • thyme
  • lemon thyme (potted)
  • rosemary
  • sage
  • cilantro (volunteers from last season)
  • parsley
  • sweet marjoram
  • borage
  • florence fennel (not sure how well it will do in this location)
  • comfrey
  • tarragon
  • chocolate mint (potted)
  • lemon balm (potted)
  • horehound (potted)
I've also sewn some calendula and nasturtiums, and added catnip, hyssop & chervil to the mix this year.

I'm trying to utilize my herbs more. I dried some sage in the dehydrator, and have already used it in cooking. I want to start making herbal extracts, teas & vinegars as well.



There are some other growing things camped out at the cabin too. Some extremely rare growing things.

There are a total of 13 he is attempting to transplant

These Harper's Umbrella plants are in the process of being rescued from a Roundup soaking over by the dam. Mark has become the park biologist, and the Corps has been working with him to help preserve habitats and species in the wake of their projects. The hillside where the Umbrella plants are growing needs to be stripped of vegetation so the dam can be inspected. I was impressed that they were willing to  hold off so Mark could attempt a rescue and relocation effort. We've been consulting with botanical experts to try and determine the best way to go about it, because as far as we can tell nobody has attempted it before. If it's successful it will certainly need to be documented. 

Harper's Umbrella Plant by the way, is considered critically endangered in Tennessee, and is only found on the limestone bluffs around the Caney Fork River basin. Otherwise it's only found in similar habitats in Alabama and Kentucky. They have very specific habitat requirements, and very deep taproots, so it will be interesting to see if this project is successful.

The Silver Appleyards are now 7.5 weeks old, and nearly fully feathered.

Well, not in this picture... this was when I introduced them to their swimming pools a few weeks ago. I love how most of them wanted to cram into one.

Here are the 7+ week birds. I made them wait to be fed while I took their picture.

 I can finally tell who's a hen and who's a drake, but I haven't yet taken the time to figure out just how many of each I have. By next week they will technically be ready to process, but I'm not sure if we're ready. If not we'll have to wait until after their first molt. I'm thinking we'll just do 3 of them for starters, and try to re-home the rest. I've already identified the pick of the litter, so to speak:

This hen has great size and color. I will definitely hatch eggs from her next year. The drakes I'll really need to wait until their adult plumage to decide who to keep. 

Luckily we've been able to let them range in the dog yard during the day, at least while we are home. I'm still feeding them twice a day, but I hold off for an hour or two in the mornings to encourage them to forage. 

And last, but not least, is our growing boy!

Here he is playing by the river with daddy while momma got to do some kayak fishing!

Seven months old already! So close to crawling, and babbling up a storm.

Next month our crappy Verizon internet goes away, and we are signing up with the local phone company. Basically the same price for UNLIMITED data. Hopefully my blog posts will become less sporadic.