Friday, September 23, 2011

A Good Gleaning Haul

Yesterday while running an errand I noticed that the Bartlett pear tree around the corner from our home was hanging heavy with fruit.  The owners of this property have put up a "free pears" sign on their lawn about half the years since we've been living here, but it hasn't been consistent.  Well...I wanted those pears, and I wanted them before they all fell to the ground.  Pears are best picked off the tree before they ripen.  Many times the ones that fall naturally develop hard crystal-like formations in their flesh, which aren't very pleasant to eat.

We purchased a long-handled fruit picker basket last year to help us pick the high fruit from our own apple tree.  It's a handy thing that extends our reach by about 9' (2.7 m).  So we put it in the car along with a bushel basket (I was feeling optimistic) and went to ask after the pears.  The property is just far enough away from ours that I don't consider these people neighbors, exactly.  Our area is sort of rural, and sort of suburban; "around the corner" can be a fair distance in these parts.  As is so often the case, when we asked politely the owner of the property was delighted to let us take the pears.  He said he didn't like to see them go to waste, but that he and his wife don't use them.  I mentioned that I'd collected pears from his tree a few times in previous years when he'd put the sign up, and thought perhaps he just hadn't gotten round to putting one up this year.  He said that was exactly the case and emphasized repeatedly that we were welcome to come back any time for the fruit.

We cleaned the tree of almost all the fruit that was still on the branch.  There were a few that even our long-handled picker couldn't reach, but not many.  As a courtesy we picked up all the fruit on the ground too.  Most of these had obvious damage on them, some from a lawn mower.  I'll send them on with our early drop apples to my farming friend who raises hogs.  The appearance of the pears makes it obvious that they haven't been sprayed with anything, so I'm sure she'll feel comfortable giving them to her animals.  The fruit we kept for ourselves came nearly to the top of our bushel basket.

I mentioned that pears are best picked before they ripen on the branch.  It turns out that pears are rather tricky to bring to what humans consider a nice state for eating.  They need to be picked before maturity and then chilled.  The chilling time depends on the variety, but fortunately the Bartlett only requires a couple of days.  So these will be in our refrigerator for a little while and then I'll spread them back out to ripen up on cardboard in the front room.  That way I can keep an eye on each one and no fruit gets crushed by the weight of fruit above. It's certainly a lot of fruit.  I don't mind though.  In fact, getting this much fruit free for the picking was a great mood booster.  I've been frustrated with several things that are happening or not happening around the homestead lately.  Free pears go a long way towards cheering me up.  And this is a nice time of year to make jam and do the hot work of canning.  Temperatures are definitely dropping off.  I put aside a small amount of elderberry juice last month and stashed it in our freezer.  I know what a surreal and gorgeous color even a little bit of juice makes when I combine it with a pale fruit like pears.  So when the pears ripen up, I'll make more elderberry-pear jam.  Needless to say, when it's done some will go to our benefactors around the corner.

I'm also planning to revisit an amazingly yummy cake recipe I found over at 101 Cookbooks.  Heidi's salt-kissed buttermilk cake recipe is easily adapted to many different seasonal fruits.  I tried it once with pears from the farmer's market and simply could. not. stop. eating. it.  The nice thing about that is that for a cake, this one is surprisingly non-naughty: only half a cup of sugar and 4 tablespoons of butter.  Buttermilk does the rest in terms of adding flavor and body to a very light-textured cake.  I switched from Heidi's raspberry and lemon zest flavorings to sliced pear, minced crystallized ginger and almond extract.  The salty-sweet topping for the fruit made the flavors really pop.  This one went directly into my printed out recipe binder.

My husband is shocked that I don't count gleaned fruit as part of our harvest tally.  I explained that my project is to demonstrate how much food can be produced by perfect nobodies on an average residential lot in our area.  Since we didn't grow it ourselves and it didn't come from our property, I don't see that we should get "credit" for it as part of our harvest.  I'd certainly count any weeds we foraged off our own property for consumption, but gleaning elsewhere is another thing entirely.  Still, gleaning what we can is part and parcel of our overall drive for frugality, and I hate to see food go to waste.  So I see his point.  Maybe from now on I'll keep a separate gleaning tally for things we gather off-property.  It could be an interesting adjunct figure to go with our harvest tally.

Any good gleaning going on in your neck of the woods?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Slaughter Day

We sent our two largest broilers to ice camp on Sunday.  We didn't have any spare clean hands to hold a camera once we got started.  So I don't have any footage or even still pictures of the slaughtering process itself.  We're still in the market for someone to hold a camera while our hands are occupied.  But I did take some pictures just before we got under way.  I thought I'd share these and also some of the videos I've turned to for help figuring it out on my own.

Obviously, if this subject is going to upset you, stop reading now.  I think most readers here will be comfortable with this topic, and I think the methods we use are pretty humane.  But this is a post about killing animals for food.  If you're categorically opposed to such things, here's your notice.  

Our setup

A place to work - This is our solar cooking station equipped with a cutting board, knives, latex gloves, and containers to receive various parts of the chickens.  We save or use just about every part of the chicken except the intestines, gall bladder, oil gland and the head.  What doesn't come into the kitchen gets used or buried somewhere in the garden.

Slip knotted cords - these will hold each bird by the feet.  We have sometimes used a killing cone in the past, which takes care of the movement problem.  With the birds hanging freely like this you need two people to stabilize the chicken; one to hold the wings against the body, and another to hold the head as they bleed out.  The wings should be held closed because otherwise the bird can flap so hard that it bruises its own wings.  In a commercial operation the resulting discoloration would make the bird unsalable.  Stabilizing the head ensures that the movements of the bird (either voluntary or involuntary) don't send blood flying everywhere.  Holding the head at an angle away from the cut also speeds the bleeding out, thus hastening death and limiting the suffering of the animal.

Wheelbarrow with mulch - We situate this directly under the cords or the killing cone that holds the bird.  It will collect the blood from the chickens and be used around our fruit trees.  This saves on cleanup and preserves the value of the blood as a fertilizer.  For the number of birds we slaughter at any one time, even a small amount of mulch will suffice to soak up the blood; there just isn't that much of it.

Knives - A well-sharpened boning knife, paring knife and a cleaver.  The boning knife is used both for cutting the chicken's jugular and for the small amount of cutting needed during evisceration.  The paring knife is sometimes not used at all; it's there as a just in case alternative to the boning knife.  The cleaver is useful for decapitation and for cutting through the neck, which I've always had trouble doing with a boning knife.  If you don't have a cleaver, a good strong pair of kitchen shears might work for the neck.  Whichever knife is used for the killing cut needs to be very sharp in order to spare the bird as much suffering as possible, and working with a sharp knife during evisceration always makes things much easier.  We devote time to getting the knives ready the day before slaughter.  But as you'll see in the Joel Salatin video below, there's really very little cutting necessary in the whole process.

Scalding water - A large pot is required.  I use a water bath canning pot.  The water should be roughly 145-150F/63-66C.  I  heat the water above that temperature before hauling it outside, so that it's just right when we've gotten through the first few steps in the slaughtering process.  When slaughtering more than a couple of birds, I leave a kettle simmering inside so that we can top off the pot with hot water, keeping the water at the right temperature for all the birds.  The birds displace a lot of water, so the pot should not be completely full.  When it's chilly outside I set the pot on cardboard so that heat is conducted away a little more slowly.

DIY Chicken plucker - This works well for the very small number of birds we process at any one time.  It probably wouldn't be workable for anyone slaughtering more than a dozen birds at once.  A day ahead of time we make sure to have the batteries for the drill charged up.  When we're processing only one or two birds at a time, we sometimes don't even bother with the plucker as it's quick and easy enough to pluck a bird by hand if you get the scalding right.  We try to pluck the feathers into a garden bed that is ready for lasagna mulching.  Feathers are high in nitrogen and break down quite slowly.  So they'll feed the soil very gradually while adding a bit of structure for soil microorganisms.  Strangely enough, yellow jackets will steal the small feathers, for the protein content I suppose, if you don't cover them with mulch right away.  An older post of mine details the DIY plucker.

By the way, if you like your chicken skinless, you can skip the plucking entirely and just peel the skin off the entire bird.  This isn't a great idea if you plan to roast the bird whole, since the skin keeps the bird from drying out.  But if your birds are destined for other preparation methods, and you don't want the fat from the skin, you can save some time and effort.

Chilling bath - We use a cooler, filled with all the ice we have on hand and water from the garden hose.  This brings the temperature of the eviscerated bird down very quickly, and can hold 4-5 broilers, but really only one turkey at a time.  It's wiped down with a bleach solution before and after use.

Bags, scale, permanent marker, freezer - Once the birds are nicely chilled, I drain them as well as possible, weigh them, bag them up, and write the weight of the bird on the bag.  We let our broilers live a little longer and get a little bigger than many farmers so I use 2-gallon freezer bags, which I'll sanitize and re-use just for our own chickens.  I wouldn't like to count on our larger birds fitting into the 1-gallon bags.  The two birds we slaughtered on Sunday averaged just over 6 pounds (2.7 kg).  I put the giblets from all birds into one container, to be used when it's time to make gravy for the Thanksgiving turkey.  (We grill our turkey so we don't get pan drippings to work with.)  Then the birds and giblets all go off to ice camp. 


I've learned all I know about slaughtering and eviscerating chickens by watching videos and doing it myself.  I've never come across a text description or even still photos that have helped me as much as video has.  Here's a sampling of videos that show the process in detail.  These first two videos don't show the exact method I use, and there's a lot of extra material covered, but they're definitely useful for amateurs and novices who don't have expert help on hand.

Respectful chicken slaughter - Part 1

I think it's an especially good tip to locate the chicken's jugular by feeling for the jaw.  I've never been able to precisely identify where a chicken's ears are, so that point of reference hasn't been useful to me.  The jaw can be easily felt.  You may not make a perfect cut the first time you do it.  When you get it right, you'll know by the steady stream of blood that the cut produces.  Practice makes perfect, though the obvious difficulty is that homesteaders work at such a small scale that getting enough practice on a regular basis isn't easy.  That's why I watch critical parts of these videos a few times over the day before slaughter.  

Respectful chicken slaughter - Part 2

Good tips in this video on how to use legs and other parts of the chicken.

Joel Salatin - chicken evisceration

If you're contemplating your first poultry slaughter yourself, you might want to study other homesteaders' take on the process.  Paula recently posted about her own chicken slaughter.  And Kristeva had a post quite a while back with good pictures.  If these videos and posts don't answer your chicken slaughtering and processing questions, I'd be happy to try despite my meagre experience.  On the other hand, if you have any tips that you'd like to share, please sound off in the comments.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Update on the Comfrey Experiments

I posted earlier this year about two related projects to do with the comfrey plants.  The first goal was to get rid of the comfrey in the garden proper, because since it was planted the garden has expanded and the comfrey is no longer holding down the corners, but mucking up what I'd like to have as a pathway.  The second goal was to create a comfrey hedge along the northern edge of the garden with some of the rootstock I was trying to get rid of.

I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the hedge is a success.  The tiny pieces of comfrey root that were transplanted in late February got very little help, and yet they've grown into a row of thriving plants.  I did use a hand scythe a few times to cut back weeds and grass that grew up alongside the comfrey in spring and early summer.  By mid-summer the comfrey clearly had the edge and was able to hold its own.  I don't anticipate that it will require any further care.  From now on, and for years to come, the comfrey hedge should hold the line on any grass or weeds that would otherwise encroach on that garden border.  I've run the lawn mower right up to that edge of the garden several times, shredding large comfrey leaves that hang down.  As expected, the comfrey shrugs off such incidental abuse.  I'm definitely thinking about where else a comfrey hedge would be of use.

The possible downside that I worried about - that rodents would make themselves at home under the protection of the comfrey foliage - has come to pass.  A few times I've seen rodents darting between the comfrey hedge and the raspberry canes.  But I haven't noticed any significant crop damage that I can attribute to them, and we have a prodigiously talented hunter-cat.  I know he's keeping all sorts of rodent populations in check (when he's not stoned, of course).  So I'm content to let that ride.

As for the eradication part of the project, that's going about as I expected it would.  I have cut back lush growth in the original locations at least five or six times this year.   It keeps sending up leaves, just a bit slower and less abundant each time.  I didn't expect to get rid of the comfrey in a single year, and clearly I haven't.  I'm perfectly fine with that.  I'll keep on with the reaping next year.  If it manages to hang on to sprout after that, it surely won't have much oomph in the third year of the eradication project.  I'll keep you posted.

If you need more information about why I'm growing comfrey in the first place, read about its wonders.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Incidental Potato Harvest

Here's a picture of most of the potatoes that came from "volunteer" plants that came from potatoes I missed during harvest last year.  They're laid out to dry in the garage for a few days, and then they'll go into crates and stay down in the basement where it's quite dark, if not yet all that cool.  There are still a few more volunteers to bring in, but this prodigious bounty weighed in just around 34 pounds (15.4 kg).  I'm rather amazed at what we got for doing basically nothing, and from one of the smaller garden beds.  It certainly brightened what was looking like a day of weeding drudgery.

Last year after this potato bed was harvested we lasagna mulched heavily.  The lasagna mulch wasn't for the potatoes of course, because we never guessed we'd overlooked so many.  The intention was just to improve the soil there and hold the weeds down.  My surprise at the number of potatoes that poked up there this spring had as much to do with the plants (apparently effortlessly) punching through heavy layers of cardboard and a generous amount of wood chips as it did with having missed so many spuds at harvest last year.  Obviously the lasagna mulch treatment meant that those potatoes that escaped harvest had some primo soil to grow in and a nice cozy layer of protection above them.  Many of these harvested spuds were surprisingly deep in the soil.  Which convinces me that I probably missed some this time around too.  And we just lasagna mulched there again.  Which suggests there might be a repeat of this event around this time next year.  That would be fine by me.  It's wonderful to have potatoes this early in the year.

The main crop of potatoes from those I planted deliberately this year remains to be harvested.  They need another three to four weeks, I'd say.  I like to keep them in the ground until the weather has cooled a bit so that they store for a longer time.  We'll see if the stuff I deliberately planted produces as well as the inadvertent spuds.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Rainy Days and Stalled Plans

It seems we're getting all the rain we missed in June and July in August and September.  It's been overcast and rainy here for what seems like weeks.  We have hurricane Lee, way down in the Gulf of Mexico, to thank for this particular storm.  It strains credulity that a hurricane half a continent away could send us this much rain - six inches or so over the last few days.  Given the thorough soaking that Irene left us with not so very long ago, the standing water in the low spots, soggy turf in the high spots, and road closures all over aren't surprising.  The hens and broiler chickens don't seem too happy with the wet ground, though they have enough shelter to keep their feathers dry.  Apparently the Cuckoo Marans hens have the benefit of being bred for fairly wet conditions.  I do my best to situate all of them on what high ground we have, but it's tough when I need to move them every day.  We could use a let up in the rain now.

It's all so frustrating on the one hand - this should be the tail end of the massive summer harvest, and I'm holed up inside instead.  And there's our hoop house project which has been stalled by one thing after another this year.  We've made a start on it, laid out the footprint, built some raised beds, and gotten them mostly planted.  But if we don't actually build the structure around those beds very soon, it'll all be for naught.  The plants won't survive the winter unprotected.  And winter is coming.  On the other hand, I have to admit, it's refreshing to have a weather related excuse for indolence and moping.  There was certainly a dearth of those earlier in the summer.

To top it off, the rain check excuse coincides with a much more serious reason why the hoop house project is stalled: my husband broke his thumb a week ago.  He took a tumble on his bicycle while coming home from work on wet roads.  It could have been much worse; he wasn't hit by a car and he was wearing a helmet and biking gloves.  But he's very sore and his left hand is out of commission for at least the next few weeks.  There's still no firm timeline on when he'll have full use of his hand again.  At least he's right-handed. 

The rest of the hoop house construction really needs two people to complete.  It's far from ideal that we put the beds in before the hoops were in place, but the plants had to be planted at a certain time in order to mature before winter sets in.  That seems to be the way projects go around here - everything done at the last possible moment, and therefore done imperfectly.  We'll see what we can accomplish with three hands once the weather clears up, and then see if we can corral some friends to pitch in with what we can't do by ourselves.  This would be a nice time to have WWOOF volunteers beating down our doors, but I haven't had so much as a nibble in quite a few weeks.

I'll quit moping now, even though it's raining again.  And I'll try to have a more upbeat, more useful post out soon.