Archive for January, 2012

Catching Chickens

People who count their chickens before they are hatched act very wisely, because chickens run about so absurdly that it is impossible to count them accurately.

— Oscar Wilde

Craigslist and I have a bit of a love/hate thing goin’ on. I check the farm and garden section daily for deals and opportunities, and while many times the sellers are unreliable and the merchandise crap, sometimes I find a gem. Like last week, when I was the first to answer an ad for a large flock of four-month-old laying hens. Usually free chickens are geriatric; no more prone to lay an egg than knit a sweater, so when I saw their age, I pounced. A wonderful woman named Bridget responded, and explained that the chickens had been a sort of rescue mission. Their original owners apparently hadn’t realized that when you combine a hen and a rooster, you get many, many little chickens. They were planning on leaving the chickies out in the cold to die, so Bridget, who was blessed with a whole human heart, offered to take them in and secure a new home.

On Wednesday I headed out to North Hero, one of the Champlain islands, to pick up my new friends. I brought a few small cardboard boxes and a cat carrier. I had been dubious about the size of the boxes, but Cory’s father assured me it was OK to “cram them in”. When I arrived, Bridget eyed the boxes with suspicion. It had come out during introductions that neither of us had ever chased chickens with the intent of actually catching one, and I think the appearance of my pitiful cardboard cemented her notion that this was not going to be a pleasant experience.

The chickens were housed in a horse stall. They were beautiful but skittish, careening around the stall in a colorful herd. In the center of the stall was the huge dog carrier they had arrived in. Fortunately Bridget was willing to let me borrow the carrier, and we soon abandoned the boxes in favor of this far superior option.

It was chaos. Chickens shrieking, feathers flying, round and round we chased. Our only real hope was to herd them towards a corner where we could snatch them up and fling them, one by one, into the dog crate. I turned out to be quite skilled at the snatchin’ and flingin’ and soon they were all secured. I have no real idea how many chickens there were, but it seemed like thousands. I had been told I would be getting ten, but I ended up leaving one behind (I think it was dead. It was jammed into a corner and not moving. I didn’t investigate further). When I stopped at a gas station on the way home, I counted 12. Whatever.

When I got home It dawned on me for the first time that I had a giant dog crate full of grousing chickens in the back of my car. I had to leave for work in less than three hours and I was the only one home. I had managed to keep them relatively calm on the ride with a rousing rendition of Old MacDonald (I’m not kidding), but now they were fussing. Beginning to panic, I searched through the garage for something helpful. What I found was two long pieces of plywood I could use as a ramp. I leaned one end against the bumper of my Forester, slid out the crate and dragged it over to the chicken yard. The chickens did not find any of this amusing, but they lived. So did I, albeit covered in chicken poo.

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Bacon Tears

A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements are connected by an “and” not by a “but”.
– John Berger
 

Tuesday was the day. Pig day. I was upset to learn that the Slaughter-er (I don’t think that’s actually what he’s called, it just sounds better than Pig Killer) wasn’t able to come until two in the afternoon, an hour after I’d left for work, and three hours before Cory came home. I fretted for days about leaving them alone to their fate, but I had a plan.

On Tuesday, about an hour and a half before PK was due to arrive, I mixed a bottle of apple jack with several handfuls of grain in a five gallon bucket. I let the grain absorb the apple jack and then added a half a bottle of corn syrup, and a few dashes of cinnamon. I had been assured by reputable sources that getting them drunk would be enough to take the edge off any awareness they might have.

I brought the bucket out to the pigs and dumped the contents into a shallow trough near their feeder. They trotted over and shuffled through my offering. At first I thought they were digging in, but I soon realized they were just moving it around, like kids with unwanted broccoli. I scooped up handfuls of the goop and held it under their noses, cooing, trying to tempt them. It didn’t work. I put some into their feeder, but they nosed it out of the way and continued eating their regular grain. I kicked myself, realizing I should have tied up their feeder the night before so that they would have been especially hungry.

I finally gave up, and left for work feeling a little sick.  

So, nothing went quite as planned. I wanted to be there, or at least know that Cory was there, but from what I was told it was very quick, just one bullet each. In the end it was their good natures that made it easy. When PK arrived, they went right up to him, giving him a clean shot. Walter went first. Flo oinked a bit and scurried into the hut, but she soon came out, trotting right back to PK. Cory, in a lachrymose moment, suggested that she may have gone willingly because she decided she couldn’t live without Walter. This sentiment will haunt me.

I told Cory it was extraordinary that I’ve been eating pigs for 29 years without having any idea what that meant; without really knowing where the meat came from. Cory shook his head. “You knew the meat came from a pig,” he said. “You just didn’t know what a pig actually was before now.” 

I’ve decided not to buy pork products in the grocery store anymore. It’s important that I raise the pigs I eat. If I don’t raise a pig, I don’t have to eat a pig. Now that I know what a pig is, I can’t be so careless.

Living with Pigs

Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

-W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve been trying to figure out how best to proceed with the pig slaughter. Cory is convinced that I should be away from home when the deed is done to ensure I don’t hurl myself between pig and bullet, but I’m not so convinced. I’ve spent the last few days researching how to kill a pig. I wouldn’t recommend this as a pleasant pastime, especially if you have access to YouTube, but my overall fear has diminished. As they say, knowledge is power. My favorite account so far has been by Chuck Wooster of Sunrise Farm in White River Junction, Vermont. In his book Living with Pigs, Wooster devotes more than 2 full pages to “emotional preparation” for slaughter day, something no other source of my acquaintance did. He describes how he felt after his first pig slaughter…

“I was tired and dirty and ready for sleep…But I also felt a distinct skip in my step and an enormous sense of competence. It wasn’t just the pride of a job well done, though I certainly felt some of that. It was the pride of tackling a job that most people find too horrifying to even consider, let alone to discuss in polite company, and discovering that it wasn’t so bad after all. Discovering, in fact, that it was a job full of richness and meaning, wonder and learning. An unforgettable experience…”

This description strengthened my resolve to at least be there. I don’t think I’m ready to kill a pig myself. I’m terrified that my lack of experience would somehow result in suffering for Walter and Flo, something I could never forgive myself for, but I think I need to at least be there. I can’t leave the house one morning, scratch Walter behind the ears and then come home that night to find him in the freezer. I don’t need any more disconnect between my food and its source; I’ve had that my whole life. The goal now is to firmly and permanently make the connections, and maybe that means seeing this through to the end.

Meet the Girls!

Here they are! I’ve been researching breeds but if anyone knows for sure what my girls are I’d be appreciative. We’re naming them slowly as we discover personalities.

Stan The Chicken King

We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone – but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy. 
 – Walter Anderson

I love Stan, our rooster. People are always trying to get rid of roosters. Craigslist is littered with ads for free roosters. I guess because they’re noisy and useless, unless you’re going to breed chickens. It’s also sometimes hard to keep more than one because they can be aggressive.

Not so around here. Stan is very quiet; I’ve never heard the slightest cheep, let alone a full crow. While he’s definitely the king, he’s also extremely polite. When I open the door of the coop he stands between me and the hens. After I replace their food or water he struts forward to sample my offerings first. I like to think he’s checking to make sure it’s good enough for his hens.

I admit I have the occasional pastoral fantasy, common enough for the suburbanly raised, in which I hand feed chickens while wearing clogs and a large hat. A few days after the chickens arrived, Stan and I started playing a game. I would hold a few pieces of grain out to him to see if he would take food from me. For weeks he would just eye me cautiously and wait until I gave up and set the grain on top of the water bottle. I tried over and over again; holding out grain and then setting it down. No go.

This morning when I went out to the coop, I knew today was going to be different. Stan seemed almost ready for our game, as if he expected it. I grabbed some grain, squatted down to his level and offered my palm. Stan walked towards me quickly and with only a brief hesitation, pecked the grain from my hand.

It’s a bit of a relief having animals we don’t have to kill. Stan is going to live a long chickeny life if I have anything to say about it. This is one chicken who will never find his pot.

Nobody Here But Us Chickens!

Love and eggs are best when they are fresh.

-Russian Proverb

About a month ago we were finally able to get our hands on a small flock of chickens. Five laying hens plus a gentleman rooster. We were told they were only about a year old and laid well all summer and into the fall. We set them up in an old hunting shed complete with nesting boxes and eagerly awaited the frittata fodder. Every day I would go out to the coop to freshen their food and water and strain to peek into the nesting boxes. Each day I was disappointed, until today! Cory and I found this beautiful green egg nestled in the hay.

Green Eggs and Ham Anyone?

 We think it belongs to the lady on the left. I’ve decided to call her Sophie. She’s pictured below with Edna.

A Day No Pigs Would Die

Procrastination is the key to prolonging life.

– Unknown

I feel like a bit of an ass. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and the pigs are still with us. The man who was supposed to help us with the slaughter never showed. I learned later that he was only ever coming if a particular butcher shop, Rosie’s, was open. I guess it wasn’t. I spent the better part of the morning glancing nervously out the window and imagining the sounds of trucks pulling into the driveway. At noon it was pretty clear he wasn’t coming, so we went out to play with the pigs and take some pictures.

While I’m relieved, I have that awful, bitter taste you get when you prolong the wait before something unpleasant and inevitable. I’m never going to feel “ready” to kill them. The longer we wait the more attached I get. This morning we looked out the window to see Walter wrestle a branch into the pig hut. All I could think was “They have shit to do! They have an agenda just like everybody else. What if Walter and Flo have projects they’re working on and we kill them and they never get to finish?” I realize it sounds crazy but what if he has a plan? He could have hopes, dreams, a Honey-Do list! And we just end it all.

 Of course one could argue that they might not even exist if we hadn’t procured them for food. Ten to one I would still be buying pork products from the super market without a second thought. For the first time in my life I really know where my food comes from. I suppose I could’ve kept my distance; not gotten to know them so intimately, but I sorta felt like that was cheating. I wanted to know exactly what it was I was going to eat. Isn’t that the only way to know if it’s a good idea to eat it?

It’s all terribly uncomfortable.