Filling our Freezers
The last two weeks have overflowed with activity. Stacking firewood, butchering chickens, processing yet another two bushels of apples, trying to finish outdoor building projects before the snow sets in too deeply, and to top it all off, a four day power outage. A mad dash to the finish line, which I am sure we will not reach, more like the finish line will reach out for us with frozen ground and snow past our knees. And then, we will thankfully be forced to rest.
As I sit here writing this, myself and everyone else near me is anticipating our first snow of the year, arriving later this morning. So easy this first snow will be to manage, hardly asking much of us in terms of labor, and yet, the buzz and the thrill in the air is palpable. Here I am, a flatlander new to the region, and those who’ve been here their whole lives are equally on the edge of their seats. Goes to show that no matter your Vermont status - veteran or new kid - you cannot beat the first snow. At the hardware store yesterday there was talk of snow tires and living on class four roads (responsible for their own plowing) and woodsheds not yet full. The energy is kinetic; folks expressing “so much to do” but at the same time you sense they feel a good purpose in the tasks before them. No time to Netflix binge or scroll/like/comment when there is firewood to stack and plows to attach to trucks. If I am sensing it correctly, it’s as if people are craving this kind of purpose, a diversion from a culture of consumption and ease, where the most active part of the body is our thumb.
In this post I would like to share about our recent experience raising and butchering meat birds. If that is not your thing, this is the moment you should click away.
I’ve never not known meat coming into the home for processing in the fall. The idea of taking life (animal, vegetable, fungi) so that my own may be sustained is not new to me, and to my mind, all are of equal value. My experience with harvesting meat however, has always been wild meat at the hands of my father or husband. My role has been to help with the breaking down of the animals once they come home, and of course the cooking, too. This was my first time raising domesticated meat, and there was a somewhat unique way to how I approached it that might be helpful to some of you looking to do the same.
Aside from building the shelter and fencing in pasture, at least ninety percent of the endeavor was my responsibility. Processing would be a job for me to take care of during the week, as weekend time for Adam is always booked solid with other pressing projects, and hunting, and, well, us. When you don’t share too many everyday moments with your spouse, prioritizing time to just be a couple when you are together is critical. You can’t be casual about that sort of thing. You need to show up. A marriage without investment and intention is not one of much depth.
Add to that a few other reasons, and I was planning to take care of this job on my own. Or better yet, with hired, incredibly skilled help. And this is the part I thought worth sharing, in case some of you are looking to raise meat birds, but not sure you have the means to process them all on your own.
Before I get into it, please know that while there is a good deal of “if you’re going to eat meat than you should kill it” talk out there, it’s not something I necessarily subscribe to. I don’t raise and harvest (kill) every vegetable that I eat, and do not feel the need to do so with meat, either. It is good to be able to kill any animal under your care in case you need to, and I am, but to provide a good and swift death to seventy five chickens is not something I have the confidence for, at least not at this time. To be frank, using a gun is easier than using a knife, and I didn’t trust the strength and quickness of my own wrist, especially seventy five times. It was more important to me that it went well, than to be able to say I killed them by my own hand. Because to me, more important than doing the killing myself, was impeccable raising and split second slaughtering. And now on the other side, I can say that I pray for a death as swift and ethical as the chickens that died here. Though I won’t be so delusional as to pray for a life as good as theirs, because that’s obviously not possible. They had it so damn easy and good.
I hope to raise pigs next year, and at this time do plan on killing them myself, but again, a gunshot to one or two animals feels much more doable to me than a knife to seventy five chickens. (I really hope my vegetarian readers have clicked away by now!)
While I did not feel attached to doing the actual killing of the chickens raised here, I definitely felt it was important that their lives were fit for kings, and that they did indeed die right here on this land. The idea of a stressful transport to a facility for processing holds no interest for me. This is not a judgment on folks who choose that route, it’s just not something I want to do if I have other options.
One of the advantages to living rural is that the people in your community are deeply skilled in ways that most people today are not. There are a few “mobile butchering operations” here, and one of them happens to be owned by an old high school friend of Adam’s brother. Nicest guy you ever did meet, a former engineer who “suffered through monotonous desk work for six years” before leaving the field to first become a custodian (which he loved), and then starting his butchering business along with a mobile sawmill business (both of which he loves even more). His family sugars, too, so add that to the mix. Lots of milling in April and May, chicken and turkey processing May through October. Sugaring in March and April.
I’ve been researching the raising and butchering of meat birds and other animals for over a decade now, and while I felt I had a pretty good overview, my knowledge prior to meeting Dan, his wife Becky, and their daughter Margaret, paled in comparison to just a half dozen phone calls and one October morning with these experts. You just cannot learn from a book or a YouTube video what you can learn from a human being standing right next to you, or across the phone lines. For example: I was under the impression that the best way to get the shrink bags to properly shrink when submerged in hot water, was to cut a small slit in the bag over the breasts so there would be a way for air to escape, hence the shrinkage (because the internet told me so). Then you slap a fancy label over the slit once they come out of the hot water, after you dry it. But Dan said, "I don't know why people do that. Why would you have to cut a hole in a perfectly good bag? Seems like a crazy idea to me. Just leave the zip tie (closure) open a bit and air will escape that way. And if you really want some assurance, slip a straw in through the loosened zip tie, into the bird's cavity, submerge, let air escape through the straw, then once you pull it from the hot water, remove the straw and tighten the zip tie." Of course! Would have saved me a few bucks on those fancy labels had I known that. I wound up using a metal straw, which actually proved really useful as a firm "handle" of sorts, to push the bagged chicken below the water line without burning my hand (I don't work well with heavy gloves).
Last Wednesday morning Dan and his daughter rolled into my driveway with all of the necessary equipment and proceeded to set up. Their only request was that I be the one to retrieve the chickens so they did not experience any stress from a stranger coming into their coop (a request that assured me I’d made the right call, hiring these incredibly sensitive people). Two and a half hours later, all of the chickens were killed, plucked, eviscerated, and settled into chill tanks for me to bag up and freeze. And all equipment was cleaned up. Two and a half hours. Every single death a split second affair, not one “oops, gotta try again,” not one thing that went wrong (other than our very pathetic well/pump struggling fiercely to keep up with the water demands of the job). Because I know you are wondering, the cost was $3.50 per chicken. It was the best money we’ve spent all year, and more importantly, it provided the very best death imaginable to the chickens that will sustain us. I did not need to invest in equipment, instead I invested in our local economy by hiring Dan and his daughter. Cash directly in the hands of a family business for services rendered. Two freezers are now filled with four hundred pounds of meat, some of it will be shared with neighbors, but we have all the chicken we’ll need for a full year. Fifty birds I froze as whole roasters, the remaining twenty five I parted out as breasts, legs, wings, and backbones (for broth). They wound up averaging 5.4 pounds each, butchered one day shy of seven weeks. We had a good number of six pounders, plenty of five+ pounders, some in the high fours, and two came in at 3.8 pounds. The vast majority fell between five and six pounds. We are very pleased with their size.
If you are local and would like Dan’s phone number, just send me an email and I can provide that for you.
Well, I better run now, I can hear Scout howling in the woods so I should see what he is up to. I am painting our dining room today, which is just the thing to do as the first snowfall covers the landscape beyond the room’s four windows. I am slow to these things, needing to watch the light through the seasons, feel out a space, etc., before making many changes. But after one year of living here, I am ready to make this house feel like our home.