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

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