Butchering Muscovy Ducks

Muscovy Ducks can be a valuable part of the homestead in terms of their light impact, heavy yields of meat, and natural proclivity to survive, thrive and naturally brood. One drawback is how difficult they can be to process. Having raised them for eight or so years now, I have some tricks to share.

I am writing this with the assumption that you have some familiarity with the process of butchering chickens humanely and cleanly. If you are new to home butchering poultry, get acquainted with how its done. There is enough information in the world that I do not need to add to it. I recommend Adam Danforth’s excellent book, I think it’s called Butchering, thought no book can replace hand on experience among others who know what they’re doing. Who knows, we may host some butchering workshops in the future, but I have no plans for that at the moment. This article is an attempt to shed light on some of the nuances in butchering big, fat feathery ducks. I will follow up with a post on how I further handle, process, and preserve duck meat later.

Humane Slaughter

For years, I have not found a great way to induce insensibility in muscovy ducks that I’ve found suitable for my own ethics around humane slaughter. Merely cutting the carotid arteries often leaves the duck upside down in the cone, bloodless, staring back at me, blinking. This is unacceptable. Decapitating with a hatchet, while a seemingly sure bet at quickly making it so the duck cannot feel pain, only works if your swing is good, makes a nasty mess (ducks are real spurters), can be inelegant if not dangerous to the person holding the duck, and in my experience makes for a tougher and more difficult to pluck carcass. Unlike chickens, my attempts at pithing ducks through the mouth haven’t been consistently succesful enough to justify the pain that an unsuccesful pithing may cause. Stunning the duck with a club prior to bleeding is also hit or miss with too high a possibility of inflicting pain without insensibility for my taste.

Fear not, gentle reader, for I have finally found an awesome tool that works every time. Whenever possible, I try not to promote DIY folks to buy stuff, but if you intend on raising ducks for meat, get yourself one of these “Finisher” tools from Adrenal Line. I am not being paid to promote this; frankly I’m not being paid to do anything this time of year.

I simply hold my duck upside down until calm, put it in the kill cone, use the tool as directed, touch the eye to make sure the animal is insensitive (it should not blink) and exsanguinate as I would any bird. Your knife must be very sharp, as always, but particularly with densely feathered, thick skinned ducks. I hone the blade frequently. What follows are a few images for the curious:

The “Finisher” pithing tool
My trust Old Timer, kept sharp
Be sure the duck is calm and serene in the cone before pithing. I hold the bill in so I can easily enter the skull with my pithing tool.
Taking the time to line up the tool before inserting and twisting
Slice the carotid arteries on either side of the duck’s throat just below the jawbone, being careful to avoid cutting the trachea and esophagus. Your knife must be sharp!

A Note on Feathers

In my experience, ducks pluck the best and have a cleaner carcass when they’re at the stage of feather development where the flight feathers at the tip of the wing just begin to cross. This is when they have the fewest pin-feathers.

An example of wing feathers just beginning to cross.

Plucking and Scalding

This is perhaps the most difficult thing about raising meat ducks. I know many folks who, frustrated with the plucking process, give up and skin their ducks. The method we’ve found works best is a hot, long scald combined with using a mechanical plucker. For those doing a dozen or so birds a year, I don’t think the investment in a plucker is worth it. We butcher between 50 and 75 a year, and this is our first year running a plucker.

We scald in a large brew kettle with a high power propane burner. This is one of two things we use propane for on the homestead, the other is scalding pigs. We get the scald water hot, quite hot… almost close to 160 fahrenheit, maybe a hair less for smaller ducks or those with less fat. Fat, being an excellent insulator, protects the meat from cooking at these temperatures, and the water does cool a bit when the duck hits it. Using a potato masher to grip the feet behind the ankle bones, the duck is vigorously plunged for almost a minute, and then we pull on the feathers in a few places to see how easily they can be plucked. When the skin on the feet easily peels, it’s ready for the plucker. It can be 90 seconds or more to get it right… just keep the duck moving and encourage the feathers to get saturated with hot water. Duck down is amazingly water repellent material… it should be wet all the way to the skin for the scald to take. Some folks use soap to penetrate the waterproof oils… we typically do not.

After scalding the duck, one person holds the hot steaming bird aloft while another pulls out the tail and wing feathers that seem to slow the the plucker down. Before this year, we hand plucked… after the machine plucking, there’s still a few minutes of detail cleanup work to do, particularly if you are interested in keeping the heads, and kneck skin. A good hot scald not only makes for a cleaner carcass, it makes for clean feet that can be used in stock.

One note for the machine plucker user: these ducks leave a lot of oil on the rubber fingers of the plucker. Regular cleaning of the fingers will help when you’re a few ducks into your butcher day.

Evisceration

Eviscerating a duck is quite similar to chickens and I won’t address it much here other than to point out a extra treats you might come across in the process, namely the tongue and some extra fat inside the cavity. The little fat knobs can add up on a big day… having a good supply of clean duck fat will be helpful down the line in some of the cured duck products I’ll be detailing next week.

In spite of all the tips, ducks are still far more difficult to process when compared with chickens. I hope you find this helpful, because the end product is amazing in spite of the extra work. My next piece on duck meat will be some of my process for curing duck for hams, rillette, and confit. Until then, I wish you happy plucking with good friends, ‘cuz you’ll need some.

Basic Roast Duck

I’ve noticed that some of our eaters have felt intimidated by preparing whole ducks. In this, the first in a series of posts on raising, and eating, muscovy ducks, I offer a few tips on simple preparations for your whole bird.

Howdy y’all. A have a few caveats before we begin… namely that we use woodheat to cook around here, though I have roasted smaller whole birds in our sun oven before. I personally do not “set my oven temp.” For those of y’all who feel a need for numerical accuracy, sorry. I employ a fair bit of intuition and guesstimation in my cooking, not so much with sausage-making and charcuterie.

The “problem” with ducks

Ducks are generally fat creatures. This is a part of their nature, and one of the reasons why we raise them. As I’ve mentioned before, obtaining fat locally is difficult without animal agriculture. Obtaining it sustainably is even harder without the pasture-based management we employ. Duck fat, when well prepared, is a rich, warming, high quality oil. When a duck is not roasted properly, and the fats do not adequately render or become reabsorbed into flesh and vegetables, what we end up with is a dry bird encased in a thick, rubbery skin. Our aim in roasting a duck is to help the fat migrate. The biggest obstacle is the fat itself.

Meat in general, and moreso fat, is a poor conductor of thermal energy. It takes consistent time at temperature to heat up, especially when encased in a thick layer of insulation. Be sure you have enough time to roast your duck before deciding to do so. Your whole bird should be completely thawed if previously frozen on the day of roasting. My oven temp fluctuates a bit, depending on what we feed it. I err on the low and slow side and crisp the skin at the end.

The skin on your muscovy duck is tough when undercooked. There is a balance to hold between keeping the skin crisp and enjoyable and overcooking the whole bird. I’ll describe my technique for this further on.

One other problem some folks have with ducks is the sight of a few stray pinfeathers, particularly on darker ducks. I’ll cover the plucking techniques that have worked best for us in an upcoming post, but in the meantime I will offer two words of advice: fresh thyme. Its a flavor that it well suited to roast muscovy, camouflages the sight of a few dark specks, and if your duck comes out well, you’ll have forgotten all about a couple stubborn feathers. Of course, a person could perform a quick picking if they had the time on their hands, but I’m never one to reject a little extra protein.

Basic Prep

So you’re standing in the kitchen with your dead duck. Now what? One option is to brine it overnight. A quick brine can thoroughly thaw a frozen duck in a matter of hours, imbue it with flavor, and help the meat retain moisture. This may serve you well in the quest for crispy skin, but don’t let brining stand in as a substitute for proper roasting. I typically reserve poultry brining for less fatty birds, like our heritage turkeys and roosters. My go to brine is 1 cup of kosher salt to 1 gallon of water to 3 cups brown sugar and your favorite herbs. (Tarragon, garlic, thyme, bay and black pepper are mine for poultry.) But you try that out some other day. Instead, what I believe works best, and is far simpler, is rubbing salt and seasoning thoroughly inside and outside the duck, and lightly scoring or pricking the skin to allow the fat to render out a bit. A good amount of root vegetables, fruit, and alliums in the bottom of your roasting pan can reabsorb the excess fat and make for a very flavorful side dish. Adding vegetables will of course increase the thermal mass of your roast, and therefore cooking time. But if it’s as cold at your home today as it is here, the extra time spent around a warm oven is a reward in and of itself.

A rack inside your roasting pan can be helpful, but I don’t own one, and that’s what I use pears and potatoes for. Allow me to say that Asian pears and Muscovy duck are a perfect pairing. I don’t typically stuff my duck, and if I do I mostly just use fruit and onion, because they cook quickly.

Roasting Technique

I roast ducks using a three step procedure: Slow roasting, resting time, and finishing. A nice thing about this is that I can perform the first step early on in my day when I have the couple hours it requires, allow the carcass to rest, and then finish it up before our agreed upon dinner time.

I sometimes use a lid, and sometimes not… it depends. Smaller hen ducks are easier to overcook, so I lid them until the second part of my procedure. With drake ducks that may be 5 or 6 pounds, I start off with the lid off until I’m confident that the contents of the pan are becoming “well-heated”, and use the lid to keep the duck from drying out. It is possible to burn poultry and undercook it at the same time. Please don’t. Look at your duck regularly. You can carefully flip your bird over to even out the cooking if need be. In our wood cook stove, I often do this, but not as much in the earthen oven. If you have an instant-read probe thermometer, use it. I plunge it into the thigh and try to get it to 150 or 155 fahrenheit at resting. Another technique is to poke around the thigh with a knife. Liquid will run out… it should be clear, and not pinkish or red. This first round of roasting should achieve three things: meld flavors and render fat, thoroughly cook the meat, and break down tendons and connective tissues in the bird. A good way to make sure your duck will be tender is to manipulate the leg and thigh… do they move freely, does the flesh tear? Or is it stiff and difficult to move? We’re going for the former

Allow the duck to rest at room temp for at least 30 minutes. Now may be a good time to spoon out extra fat and meat juice for making a gravy. After the duck has cooled, kick up your fire or turn a knob, whichever technology suits you, and quickly flash roast it, until the breast crisps up and turns brown. A light application of soy sauce or tamari is a cheater way of getting the color right. It may take another 20 or 30 minutes to get the skin crispy. Just remain observant. After another, shorter 10 minute resting period, carve it, serve it, eat it all.

If you are still unsatisfied with the skin on your duck, no worries. It ain’t for everyone. With this technique we have extracted the most important part of the skin, the fat, and reutilized it in our gravy and vegetables. What remains, along with your finished bones and carcass bits can be worked into a broth. I personally like to paint my duck bones with tomato paste and roast them before splitting and cooking. The acidic paste can help in extracting nutrients in the bone, and unlike vinegar, is not sour. But make sure to scan the back of your duck for the oysters, a couple of real tasty bits near the thighs. Scoop them out and eat them, they’re right up there with the tongues as the best part of the duck.

I will be putting up a few more recipes this month for duck: breast steaks, carnitas, soup, and a quick confit before moving into some instructions for processing, curing and sausage making. Got any questions about preparing duck? Contact me please! Muscovy ducks have been a staple food source for us on our homestead, and I’ve been working on my techniques from hatch out to hatchet for 8 years. I hope they will serve your own nutrition, if not your homestead, as well as they have ours.

Trees and Shrubs for the Chicken Forest Garden

Chickens evolved in the jungle. How can we improve our pasture and poultry well-being by planting trees?

You can take the fowl out of the jungle…

Howdy y’all. I might be writing this in part to feel better about the rather large chunk of change we’re investing in trees this year, but also to hopefully provide some food for thought in regards how you can begin designing a multi-layered forest garden for your flock. As with every how-to on the internet, your mileage may vary, dependent on climate, location, goals, flock size, management, et cetera, but I hope this can get the creative juices flowing in these doldrum days of slush and ice.

If we take the birds’ eye view on this, many of us have learned through experience that chickens love forests. The floors of forests provide a thick, fluffable medium of leafmold to scratch through for bugs and other tidbits. The umbrella like cover can not only offer protection from aerial predators and the elements, but can provide dry, shaded duffy areas for dust-bathing. And as anyone with semi-feral birds might tell you, they appreciate the roost space. I’ll note here and now that allowing your birds to naturally roost outdoors is an invitation to predation without working dogs, so please do not conflate a stand of trees with year round safe shelter. Large combed varieties in particular may not fare well in winter weather if allowed to roost outside on freezing nights.

Still, woodland pasturing of chickens, with attention to the health of soil and vegetation is a valuable practice, with careful observation and management. Here in Northeast Missouri, our climaxed ecosystem is something closer to “prairie oak savanna”, with tree cover accounting for approximately 20 percent of the overall space on healthy landmasses. In many parts of our chicken pasture, I am attempting to land on a similar pattern, with a wider variety of fruiting shrubs and trees for the benefit of chicken and chicken-keeper, though I am also working on denser plantings to create more “jungle” for our birds.

In this post I will evaluate some species we’ve been trying for our poultry forest garden, and offer some advice on implementing your own chicken-centric plantings. My personal evaluations are based on what these plantings can provide in terms of nutrition, shelter, and soil health/erosion mitigation.

The Canopy Layer

The long term overstory of a chicken forest garden is an ideal place for trees which drop their fruits after ripening. Attentive pruning to keep birds from climbing trees can help fruit reach full ripeness. This can be particularly useful with high value crops you intend to share with your poultry. While any fruit or nut trees that grow well in your area might very well be fine, (with the added bonus of having some pest/disease control as a result of pasturing birds with them) I’m focusing on a trees that aren’t fussy or particularly expensive. Many of these can be pruned to maintain a smaller size if desired, as an overly dense canopy can reduce grass growth and therefore the overall nutrition available to your birds. Again, I’ve found that at 20% canopy is about as dense as I think is workable for our system here, and so I admit that “Chicken Prairie Savanna” may be a more accurate, less catchy name for my planting approach.

Mulberry

Mulberry cannot be approached for its vigorous growth, precocious fruit-bearing qualities, and desire to live in spite of the elements. Red and black mulberry fruits are very attractive to chickens and can lend a nice, deep tint to egg yolks. If you’re fond of eating them yourself, the white/lavendar fruited varieties do not stand out so strongly, and you’re more likely to glean a good harvest for yourself. Some mulberry cultivars, such as Illinois Everbearing can produce crops somewhat continuously through the season. Weeping types can also provide shelter and entertainment for your birds. Mulberry trees are dioecious, meaning that only the female plant bear fruit, and they aren’t easy to tell apart. You can graft female scions onto male rootstock. I chose to order some quality mulberry trees from Burnt Ridge Nursery in order to propagate my own scionwood, and typically transplant weed seedlings (wild birds drop the seeds absolutely everywhere) for the purpose of grafting onto. I’m linking to Burnt Ridge because many of the plants in this article can be purchased from them, their trees are well-packed and of superb quality, and they have a wide variety of cultivars. They aren’t paying me, in fact, I’ve been paying them, for years.

I maintain some of our mulberries as large trees, and others are coppiced, pollarded, or otherwise kept smaller so the chickens can get their share before the wild birds.

Crabapple

Crabapples work great as chicken fodder for the opposite reason as mulberries: their fruits stubbornly hang on to the tree, gradually dropping off in the winter time with the freeze and thaw. This makes them a nice off-season treat in the year round pasture. They tend to bear heavily when established, so there’s plenty available for jams, jellies, and pies, well before the chickens get the squishy remains, and they typically fare better in the organic setting than regular apples. The creative orchardist can graft some eating apple branches on in places to diversify their yield. I am happy with the ‘Dolgo’ cultivar for flavor and growth habit.

Honey Locust

Sometimes nothing I do draws more ire than promoting honey locust, but I can’t help but put it in here, because I like to put a little everywhere. Honey Locust, for the uninitiated, is an extremely thorny, pod bearing tree that will grow in the most barren, soil-stripped locations. The small, vetch-like leaves provide an excellent dappled quality in their shade, which does much to allow light through to the grasses beneath. Furthermore, it can fix nitrogen in the soil, and has a gnarly root system that can help with the erosion issues we all know chickens can create.

The sugar and protein rich pods are not particularly attractive to chickens in my experience, though both our turkeys and muscovy ducks have been seen to pick them apart. I’ve ground up the pods as well as sprouted the seeds and have had better luck that way. Honey Locust developed an intense armor of big, nasty thorns as a response to prehistoric megafauna. Chickens are much less destructive, so if I’m planting Honey Locust, I go with the thornless type. While not particularly beneficial to the chicken per se, these are great trees to plant in high traffic, eroded, or slopey spaces in your chicken pasture just to ensure there’s something anchoring the soil. I do absolutely recommend these if you have goats or other ruminant livestock as an alternative feed source. Think of these as support plants, to help you reclaim problem areas for planting more valuable trees later down the line.

The Understory

The understory of my chicken forest garden is comprised of dwarfed varieties of the above named trees, and a few additional shelter plantings. For the purposes of designing my chicken forest garden I find the understory and canopy to be a bit interchangeable, though I find the following trees are most useful if maintained on the smaller side.

Eastern Red Cedar

This one’s almost as maligned as the Honey Locust, and I can understand why, as a person attempting to grow apples organically. They do harbor Cedar Apple Rust, a very troublesome fungal infection, but by planting resistant varieties of apple and removing many of the existing cedars on our land, I hope that I’ll be able to have some control over the issue. As far chickens go, cedars are great. Other short, squat evergreen trees can have the same benefits as Eastern Red Cedar, but that’s what grows here. I will be attempting to plant some arbor vitae and pine to simulate the growth pattern of cedars, and will dutifully report back on how it went at a later time.

Anyhow, why do I like Eastern Red Cedar? I really don’t, but it seems to be the favored shelter tree for our flock. It provides thick, dense cover from snow, rain, beating sun and hawks, as well as a nearly impenetrable windblock. Beneath the cedars is a microclimate that sucks up and slowly releases warmth on cold sunny days and provides cool earth in the summertime. Our chickens spend so much time under them that some natural dustbaths have formed there. A problem with cedars other than Cedar Apple Rust is that they tend to shade out grass growth. I think no more than one or two per 1/4 acre is ideal. As far as human use, I too have taken shelter on the leeward side of a cedar during a blizzard, and the little berries are a key component in my home-cured pancetta.

Willows

Willows are so happy to exist here, and so quick to establish that they’re a sure way to create some for of shelter in a hurry for your flock. They have the added benefit of growing useful polewood for natural perches in your coops and wagons. A line of willows spaced at 2 to 4 feet will become an excellent windblock for exposed sites in a matter of a couple years. Our main willow planting is located just downslope of our winter chicken housing, where excess nutrient runoff can be reabsorbed into carbonaceous biomass. By employing coppice management, your planting can be harvested annually not only for polewood but easy chipping woody mulch.

The Shrub Layer

The shrub layer is perhaps the best place to locate perennial chicken nutrition: where they can reach it. Every ecosystem has a few shrubs that are happy to exist and provide abundant fruit. This is the perfect place for those not-to-tasty but well-adapted plants.

Siberian Pea Shrub

Ah yes. The classic suggestion from Bill Mollison’s Big Black Permaculture Book. Siberian Pea Shrub is exactly what it sounds like: a shrub from one of the harshest climates on Earth that produces protein rich peas. I’ve been establishing these in every paddock and had my first small crop last year. They are doing very well in our over-exposed clay-rich Missouri sidehill. The peas are small and digestible, but it would take an impossibly large planting to meet the primary protein requirements for our flock. Tough as nails, a good soil anchor, just stick it in the ground and watch it grow.

We’ve had a 100% success rate planting these, even over time as they’ve been abused by goats, deer, drought and flood.

Elderberry

Our farm makes a small but growing portion of our income from selling elderberry tincture. Elder has been very easy for us to start from cuttings, and so naturally we have it everywhere. Similarly to the aforementioned willows, elderberries thrive in rich soil, so our main plantings are downslope of our winter pig yard and chicken range. The thin, flexible branches are too light to support the weight of a chicken, so they must wait patiently to consume whatever drops during harvest. Our chickens love resting in the dappled shade of elder, pecking stray fruits, and subsequently providing some novelty blue chicken shit.

Dogwood/Cornelian Cherry

Dogwoods work well for us because they already exist all over our pasture. Their dense, scrubby growth makes a favorite place for hens with clutches of little chicks. They hold soil in firmly where chicken disturbance is an issue, and the Cornelian Cherry type produce an abundance of bright red late season fruits that our birds love, far more than we do, to be honest. An awesome producer, very responsive to fertility and wet soils.

Serviceberry

A shrubby relative of the apple, serviceberries produce small, soft blueberry-like fruits with a mild taste. They are hardy as all get out and produce well after establishment. We keep a few for our own personal eating (they’re one of the earlier available fruits here) and have a bunch for the chickens. If you can keep the rabbits off of them, they won’t need much more in terms of maintenance.

Various Bramble Fruits

Blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, or whatever does best in your location are an obvious choice for the chicken pasture. Ours are worked into a dense, multi-species hedge that the birds often shelter in. Low-hanging fruits and drops are usually gobbled up, and I get a few handfuls a day from the higher up portions. Extra thorny wild types can provide some barrier or safety from predation, but you know me, I’m pro thorn.

The Herbaceous Layer

Tender, tasty, and healthy greens are an important part of your flock’s overall diet. Some, like comfrey, will keep coming back, though being able to allow time for regrowth will keep your patches in better health. I use white clover in all my pasture mixes, and whenever I have the opportunity to reseed bare soil, such as when digging tree holes, or when the chickens have been in a paddock for longer than is ideal. It generally seems successful in taking year round, but I think my best plantings have occured in late winter during freeze/thaw cycles. (Think maple tapping time). Spread it on a new moon if you’re feeling extra magical.

Good pasture management for chickens requires that we fix any disturbance we create. In terms of grass seeds, asking someone at your local farm supply what people are planting right now is a good way to figure out what you ought to be seeding. I’ve had good luck planting little plugs of tough perennial native grasses in degraded areas… so far Eastern Gama Grass has established best for me, though Indian grass and Little Bluestem also hold some promise.

Medicinal herbs for chickens, such as oregano, thyme, and wormwood may all have a place in your design. While some birds may have a propensity to self-medicate as needed, you may have to harvest these yourself if you wish to include them in their diet.

The Underground Layer

Turnips and beets are a regular part of my pasture seed mix for filling in bare spots, though to be fair, those are annuals, and the pigs find them first. Sunchokes are, as always, a clear choice for utilizing underground growing space on pasture. They can quickly form a thicket of tall, stalky, sunflowers for shelter/windbreak, and subsequently be unearthed late in the year for a treat. Our chickens don’t really get to excited by them unless they resprout, but our ducks do like a nibble.

Establishing and maintaining your plantings

So those are a few exciting plantings for your chicken project. Great. But what observations have you made in regards to your existing pasture? Are there trees already there? Do they serve a function in your project? Have you seen the chickens interact with the space for a full year of seasons? It can be tempting to clear space for something exciting, and even more tempting to order a great bunch of trees that you’ll have to care for. I’m very familiar with the feeling. Still, if this is an idea you’ve only begun to explore, take some time to make appropriate and careful site observations. Notice how water flows over the land in wet weather, which spots are prone to flooding or drying out. What are the chickens’ natural patterns of travel, and what are your own natural patterns of travel when performing chores. Is there enough space for a portable coop? Wagon? Truck or tractor?

In general, it’s probably best to locate your tree plantings away from fencelines. Trees can be a springboard to allow predators in, or chickens out, and over time they can ruin your fence.

When planting trees, its important to remember that chickens are naturally curious about soil disturbance. Overturned soil and the base of a seedling is an invitation to scratching and dustbathing, and therefore root disturbance. I’ve seen hens scratch so vigorously that they’ve kicked particularly shallow rooted seedlings out of the ground. And the only thing more attractive to a chicken besides bare earth is bare earth with some straw on top. Many of my best foragers show up at the plantings site as soon as they see a shovel. As much as I love the relationship between chickens and trees, they suck to plant trees in front of.

What has been most successful in my experience is to create an impenetrable ring around my new seedlings for the first three or four years. A sturdily supported ring of tight wire fencing, all exposed dirt seeded to white clover, thick mulch and some heavy chunks of wood to deter scratching is the baseline, in addition to whatever rodent protection you might need. Our chicken orchard also has pigs in it on occasion, so I use two t-posts per tree guard.

In order to keep low growing fruit on your plants until fully ripe, exclusion by way of rotational pasturing/paddocking is essential. Different cultivars may have different ripening times, so with some creative planning and a good spreadsheet, a chicken orchard can be planned out week by week for some part of the season.

In all, I continue to work on our own chicken/tree program because I’ve come to believe that pasturing chickens in the mainstream way, across broad fields of grass, is severely limiting to what a chicken is, and does. The time, effort, and energy required to move hundreds of chickens multiple times a day (in pastured broiler settings) may be toward a worthy environmental cause, but it comes at the cost of expecting the flock of chickens to behave like something other than a flock of chickens. I do believe that rotational pasturing of chickens is important, in terms of chicken health, soil health, and human health. Unfortunately, pasturing in chicken tractors is a two-dimensional solution for an animal that was meant to exist in three. When the financial bottom line is not the bottomest of lines, as in our project, we have more room for diversity in habitat, full range of chicken expression, a multiplicity of yields, and sue me if I’m wrong, a better tasting product. So please, take the dive, and plant a jungle for your domesticated jungle fowl.

Why we’ve stuck with kunekune pigs

Some folks view kunekune pigs as impractical for meat production. Here’s why we think they make sense in a sustainable, local, decentralized food system.

Kunekune pigs can thrive without imports in a well-designed pasture/orchard system. They are easy to handle, lighter on the land than other breeds of pig, and yield a nice amount of fat that would otherwise be difficult to obtain off the land in a small-scale food project.

I began my pastured pig journey with Esmerelda, a 300 pound Yorkshire/Hereford gilt. We purchased her from a local pastured pork farmer who was downsizing and still saw the value she held for a family looking to get into raising pigs. She came to us with a ringed nostril, and already bred to a very friendly, large, and well put together Red Wattle boar named Mike.

Esmerelda remained gentle and sweet, for most of the time we raised her. After a few months she lost her ring and due to our own ethical, welfare based practices, decided not to apply a new one. Pigs evolved as rooting creatures, gleaning a high proportion of their nutrition from beneath the dirt. We do not choose to engage in animal rearing practices that deprive the beast of its nature. Ringing hogs or raising them in a concrete floored pen take away from a pig its essential behaviors.

However, as Esmerelda and her litter grew, it became apparent that allowing them to gain their entire nutritional needs from the land would leave the place a scarred, ragged, barren mess. While I believe that in some instances, this behavior can be harnessed for preparing large seedbeds for gardens or staple crop plantings, the ecological risks of continuing to raise standard size pigs in this manner were too high for our sloped site and degraded soils. The pigs, in spite of their pasture access, required large amounts of feed. We were selling ourselves and our labor short by paying for it all and trying to keep our product cost reasonable enough for our market. There’s an old adage among swine farmers: “You’re not feeding them to save money, you’re feeding them to make money.” This has never jived with my viewpoint on what makes livestock rearing sustainable.

After two litters, that never lost money, but never quite felt like the work I was trying to accomplish, we finally had Esmerelda slaughtered. While she was a gentle pig, yes, she was a gentle 450 pound sow, and as such was entitled to do what she wanted. And pigs are smart, let me tell you. Esmerelda knew the difference between walking into a trailer for a romantic rendezvous with Mike and walking into a trailer to head to a home butcher. It took nearly two weeks to gain her consent to enter it for her final time. I ultimately gained her trust by lying spread-eagle inside of it. A dozen people could not make her step in. One reason I chose to raise smaller pigs is that I believe transporting pigs to be generally traumatic for all involved. They are social/herd creatures, and fear separation more then death. Smaller pigs are more practical to butcher at home.

I took a season off from raising pigs, almost two year of obtaining infrastructure and investing countless hours and dollars into the pig project. I smoothed and seeded the various craters left by our herd and focused on other projects. It seemed that raising pigs as best I could according to my principles, was not sustainable, emotionally, financially, or emotionally.

Six months later, I purchased two kunekune gilts.

Some pigs are just built different

“Kunekune” is the Maori word for “fat, round”. Kunekune pigs are indeed stocky. Their key physical features are their small stature, flattened facial structure (pug pigs) that make them ill-suited to deep rooting, and hairy bodies. They sometimes have wattles. As a lard type breed, they are metabolically over-efficient, prone to huge fatness, for lack of a better term. This means they can still grow and gain weight with lighter feed requirements. They can thrive on grass alone, under proper conditions, though I believe that their full function as part of a domestic food project should include utilizing food waste such as cull fruits, vegetables, dairy/butchering byproducts and table scraps.

Personality wise, kunekunes are generally docile and good-natured. Three years into my kunekune project I am still working through the ins and outs of my management, pasture designs, and final infrastructure. I hope share my experience with y’all as time goes on, but for now I’d like to outline some reasons why the little pigs have big potential in a sustainable food system.

“You’re not feeding them to make money”

Let’s abandon that old adage, the one about feeding them to make money. In fact, let’s abandon the entire concept that using millions of acres of fertile, arable land to raise livestock feed is long-term solution for how to feed 7 billion (and counting) humans. Let us instead, return to an older concept, one that has been true for the bulk of agricultural history: A pig’s function in human food systems is to convert wasted calories into useful calories. If you consuming are dairy, fruit, vegetables, meat or grain products, there is inevitably some portion of nutrients produced by labor and fertility resources that is under-utilized, or to put it bluntly, wasted. For those of y’all who grow a garden, tend an orchard or work in a brewery, bakery, or restaurant, you know this.

While I do not believe “waste” feeds are appropriate as the whole of our pigs’ diet, it can comprise a large proportion of what they consume. Whey and other dairy byproducts have been a really awesome source of nutrition for our herd. By meeting the majority of our produce needs at home, there is always a supply of cull vegetables like unripe squash and root crops that are too small to bother with, and damaged fruit. We’ve also had success with feeding bean, sweet potato, and squash vines after harvest. By utilizing nutrition this way, the yield of our other food raising efforts is increased, and the pig herd becomes an integrated part of the system, rather than apart from it, their feed imported, grown on vast tracts of land that could serve a higher purpose. Of all the breeds of swine, kunekunes are perhaps the best suited to being maintained in this manner.

Yes, all pigs can eat pumpkins with reckless abandon. Most of them will continue to need imported grain from row crops in order to thrive. Not so for kunekunes. The other feeding behavior that sets these pigs apart is their ability to eat grass effectively, without causing near as much soil disturbance as larger, longer snouted pigs. Too much candy in the form of cull feeds can cause some lack of enthusiasm for grasses, not to mention create overly fat pigs, and so after some early mistakes, I’ve learned to keep them a little on the hungry side. I also feed hay to our pigs in winter when the grasses are dormant and the pastures are fragile. Our kunekunes do an especially good job with Reed’s Canary Grass, a prevalent, low value forage in our parts. Most grazing animals find Reed’s Canary unpalatable much of the year. We’ve had goats straight up refuse to eat the hay in winter, even when nothing else was available. (That was the winter of two-thousand-and-froze-to-death, when my only recourse was to harvest willow saplings and honey locust pods daily to keep the goat herd alive and thriving.) Reed’s Canary takes over wide swaths of land when it’s happy, by spreading runners, suffocating competition from more valuable plants with its thick mats of thatch. We’ve lost many trees in the establishment phase to its creeping, nutrient sapping nature. Our pigs have not only utilized this marginal land for our nutritional benefit, they may be keeping it at bay, hopefully creating the potential to have more succesful plantings in these areas.

Other margins that kunekunes thrive in are along draws and in our wooded areas. At this point I feel it’s important to differentiate between careful, conscientious forest grazing (pannage) and letting some pigs in the woods and hoping for the best. Pigs, in their natural state, are forest creatures. They can derive all their nutrition from fruit, nuts, grubs and bugs, vegetation and roots. While the disturbance they cause can be important in a healthy, climaxed forest, provided their population is balanced and in-check, we have a responsibility as good stewards to manage forest grazing with great care. We allow brief access with careful observation during the heat of summer, when the ground is too dry to harm and the shade has value, and in autumn when the floor is littered with acorns and fresh leaves, so long as the soil is frozen or dry. All pigs cause disturbance. Kunekunes cause far less, and pose a reduced risk to fragile soils.

Speaking of trees, kunekunes have become a major part of our orchard management. The concept of moving pigs through an orchard to clear up fruit drops is nothing new. It is an excellent way to naturally control overwintering pest populations in rotten fruit, and we apply similar principles in our garden spaces by using kunekunes to clear crop residues. Here again, kunekunes have an advantage over other breeds as they are less likely to damage tree roots. Here at Fox Holler Farmstead, we’re taking this tree/pig relationship to its logical next level, by introducing species into our pig pasture that can provide both human and swine nutrition, such as pears, peaches, mulberries, apples, hazel, chestnut, and oak. As time goes on we hope to incorporate a wide range of genotypes that can provide continuous harvests throughout the season. It is important to note that we use principles of rotational grazing to ensure the overall health of our pastures. Our herd generally has grazes 1/4 acre of pasture at a time, typically for up to a week before moving on. When soils are wet or the pigs’ innate need for a waller is triggered by warm weather we are sure to give them access to a central barnyard and sacrifice area, so they can exhibit their full pigness and make some mud. Do not expect to raise pigs humanely without providing a waller.

Kunekune or not, all pigs will create disturbance when raised in a natural, humane manner. It is important that the grower takes a serious commitment to ameliorating all damage to soils and vegetation. I view this as an opportunity to increase my pasture diversity. After the pigs move to a new paddock, I smooth out these areas and rake in a seasonally appropriate seed or seed mix. I also typically follow up with a scythe and use the resultant mulch to retain moisture at freshly seeded areas. We often use poultry to follow up our pig grazing to break up and spread out manure and interrupt fly and parasite cycles. I don’t do this if an area has been recently reseeded, or otherwise needs rest immediately, such as in drought or dormancy.

All pigs can gain benefits both nutritionally and welfare wise from these practices, and I believe all pigs should. Kunekunes, in my opinion, get a lot more mileage from these practices, with the added benefit of causing less damage and leaving a smaller resource hoofprint. As a caveat, pigs need essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other nutrients. I have not entirely ended my reliance on feeding grain yet. I offer some barley and wheat along with hay, milk and squash in the wintertime, and thus far have not found an elegant way to feed nursing sows and little weanlings without some grains and legumes. It is my intention to share with y’all when I do. That said, I especially recommend trying out a few pigs if you are already raising dairy animals and making cheese at home, because the relationship between dairying and hog-rearing is obvious. I also recommend that you get a few milk goats if you’ve already got some pigs and more room for trouble in your life.

Effective, responsible woodland grazing requires careful observation.

Quality nutrition on a sustainable, local scale

So, I’ve laid out an overview on how kunekune pigs can provide a sensible, lighter impact alternative to standard pork breeds, in terms of how we can accommodate their feed requirements in a closed loop system. The flip side is how, at least in our climate and environment (heavy clay sidehill, zone 5b) pork from kunekunes can fill an important niche in our own diets.

Kunekunes are a lard breed. In our recent past, before intercontinental travel became the norm for how our food came to our table, lard has been the most important, prevalent source of fat for a large proportion of the human population. In the our temperate climate, the most likely sources for a different form of cooking oil come from corn, soy, canola, peanuts and sunflower: all crops that require vast spaces, regular tillage, and are typically raised as monocultures requiring heavy imports of fertilizer, pesticides, etc… If you are reading this from the coasts or tropics, feel free to obtain your essential fats from coconuts, olives, fish, avocados, or what have you. As of this moment, my area is something of an icy hell-scape, so those options aren’t realistic. I won’t even approach the problematic nature of monoculture palm oil production. In terms of plant based oils in my climate, I think only tree nuts such as hazel come even close to the potential for sustainable local fat production as lard. There are other animal based fats that can be raised in sustainable manner, but pigs create prodigious amounts of it, and kunekunes were bred to pack it on extremely well.

Lard from pasture-raised pigs is nutritionally superior to confinement lard, or any fat associated with confinement animals. It is rich in vitamin D, one of a few natural sources besides mushrooms, pasture raised eggs, and the sun.

The meat of kunekunes itself is richly laced with flavorful fat. I’m always sure to talk this aspect up to our potential customers. Some people choose to avoid fat in their meat and make up for it with highly processed cooking oils with heavy embodied energy. But if you know, you know. Excess fat within our meat is saved in jars during the cooking process and reused for cooking vegetables, in addition to the glorious, delicately flavored leaf lard we keep on hand for pastries and the savory backfat that we use rendered, cured, or to fill out our leaner goat and chicken sausages. When well rendered, lard is shelf stable, and a preservative in and of itself. On our homestead we use clean rendered lard to exclude air from our jars of cured pork confit and duck rillettes.

While these pigs are plenty chubby, there beneath the blubber they contain some of the most deeply flavored, rich meat you can find on a pig. Between their clean, varied, grass-based diet and their slow maturity rate (We typically begin butchering our pigs at 18 months, 3 times older than standard butcher hogs) the flavor of kunekune is exquisite, the color of the flesh being a deep red. The complex, grassy flavor of the meat combined with the high ratio of creamy fat makes kunekune pork an excellent medium for home charcuterie. While the tiny chops and roasts are as cute as they are delicious, its how well our pork takes to salt, smoke, and age that sets it above anything else I’ve tasted.

Some of our home-cured, 90 day aged kunekune pancetta.

For the home butcher, the small stature of a kunekune makes them much easier to process. We avoid the stress caused to ourselves and our pigs by forgoing the traumatic trailer loading, not to mention the risk of not getting what we want from the professional butcher by offering the pig a calm, dignified death at home. At 18 months, our pigs yield about 80 pound of meat on average. We can pick them up without a tractor, transport them in a wheelbarrow, scald them in a bathtub, and handle the smaller amounts of meat quickly and cleanly with minimal refrigeration and infrastructure, if well-planned. I will explore the intricacies of home butchering kunekune pigs in later posts. The smaller hams and bellies make it much easier to succesfully dry-cure for the beginning home butcher. We typically bone out our hams and stitch them inside a casing made from the stomach to ensure a quality homestead cured product.

Kunekune pork is pleasing to both the utilitarian grower and the foodie. While the market for this unique pork is still untapped and unexplored, I hope and expect that it gains momentum as more folks turn to humane and sustainable alternatives to mainstream animal products.

Personality goes a long way.

An aspect to raising kunekunes both technical and emotional is that they are extremely agreeable in nature. They are not just docile, they’re downright sweet. They’ve been much less obstinate than our red wattle crosses, and even when they’re being rude or pushy, they can easily be managed by gentle physical pressure. I’m talking nudging, not even pushing. Most pigs enjoy some amount of belly-rubbing, but kunekunes relish it. They’re even open to cuddles.

While managing and maintaining a boar can be challenging with standard sized breeds of pig, kunekune boars are typically laid back, friendly, and affordable to feed. In fact, their propensity to gain weight is so advanced that our boar really doesn’t require much feed at all. The mothering instinct in the sows is excellent, and so long as a healthy weight is maintained they are less likely to rollover on piglets. I have not found any special farrowing infrastructure necessary beyond a good shelter and a fluffy nest of hay. I sincerely doubt there are many instances of kunekune sows harming their piglets as there are in industrial settings. In fact, we’ve had difficulty keeping our sows from nursing each other’s litters.

Keeping breeding stock is so much cheaper with kunekunes that it really puts it in the hands of small scale growers and homesteaders. I hope that this results in advancing the breed toward purposes of increased sustainabilty, a direction that conventional industrial breeders have little intention to go.

These are just some charming pigs.

End times swine

In my likely unpopular view, I am preparing for two futures: One in which humanity realigns with its deepest values of caring for the earth and everything on it, including itself, or some form of total breakdown of our existing order. And either way, providing food that is light on resources and can be raised with minimal imports of grain and fuel. that can be managed and implemented on the local and community scale, in concert with other practices of equal importance and ecological vigor is a necessity. In the eyes of many, these fine little pigs may not stack up to a big honkin’ hawg. I think that in a global food system confronted with resource depletion, supply chain failures, environmental catastrophe and malnutrition, “feeding ’em to make money” just won’t cut it for much longer. I’m sticking with kunekunes.

2020 in review

Hey y’all. I am fully aware that for lots of folks, 2020 was not a great year, from toilet paper shortages to overstuffed morgues, fascism on the rise to certain economic ruin for the working class. I can’t begin to reflect on our own year here on the farmstead without first acknowledging the considerable pain folks are going through. Make no mistake that the coronavirus pandemic is, in essence, an environmental disaster, the result of a global human culture gradually infiltrating corners of our planet’s wilderness in search of food.

I lay no blame at folks who eat bats and pangolins, just like I lay no blame at folks who eat Oscar Mayer bologna. The vast majority of “consumers” in this time are victims of an extractive economic system. It was made worse, particularly in the US, by the politicization of all things, for the gain of a select few. It has revealed shortcomings and vulnerabilities in our social and material systems. I don’t have the answers for how to shift that, at least not the answers anybody is going to like, but I did see some promising signs that slow and small solutions exist. We’re going to need them, for the systemic effects of this pandemic will pale in comparison to a future of climate instability. If folks started 2020 by hoarding toilet paper, imagine 2035…

When I imagine 2035, from where I’m standing now, I see outcroppings of hazel and elder along the borders of verdant silvopasture orchards, pigs lazing beneath chestnuts and heartnuts… ducks, turkeys and chickens waddling, strutting and pecking through the oakleaf duff. Contented cows and goats ruminate in the shade after a morning spent grazing native grasses and forbs. Fatter and lazier, I inspect the gardens, because the kids are running the show now. I’ve run out of places to plant trees, maintenance to perform… neighbors are welcome to grab a bushel of apples. We have abundance to offer to many, and this is normal now, as our culture values resilience over the quick fix.

I can’t speak for the rest of our culture, but if I had 15 more 2020s, I’m pretty sure there’d be a lot of chestnuts available around here. In 2020, we had a lot of success in planting trees, improving pastures, raising new types of livestock, honing our homestead skills, and winnowing away some practices and ideas that weren’t serving the project. I had the opportunity to make new friends, meet new eaters, and expand infrastructure. Being a person who enjoys my space, social distancing and isolation has me looking forward the first half of 2021. I’ve had the chance to share our bounty with some new folks, and almost none of them have had the chance to see my face without a mask, which probably helped sales. We’ve always worked hard to grow what we can, but 2020 was the first year that it felt like we did more than break even… at least it appears that way now on day 3 of my year end book-keeping. Also, I’m heavily pro-rating or straight up ignoring some infrastructure upgrades, for my personal emotional health. Here’s a few examples of the lessons, observations and gradual steps forward we’ve made this year.

Our pig program has actually profited financially and dare I say, ecologically, for the first time since we began. I started the year off by acquiring bulk waste food products from an industrial recycling facility, in hopes that turning food waste into swine feed would be a viable and sustainable alternative to using arable land to grow grains for livestock. While I maintain that there is still some potential in this practice, particularly for those raising more typical breeds of pigs, the high calorie, low fiber, low nutrition base of our western diet proved to unhealthy for our kunekune pigs. After two months of witnessing our breeding stock grow too fat to breed, I fazed out the “candy” as we called it, and returned to a mixed diet of grass, hay, vegetables, organic barley and some sprouted wheat as a treat.

Come grazing season, inserting the pigs into our pasture rotation sort of fell into place. We gradually learned to move goats and cows into the paddock first, to bring the grass back into a regrowth pattern. After adequate rest, the pigs were moved in to graze and stimulate growth once again, keeping the grasses in a state of vegetative stasis. We learned that given enough time, the pigs will eat the entire paddock down very nicely, seldom testing the fence. A bit more time for rest and regrowth and a poultry flock was allowed to glean what they could from the same paddock, kicking and spreading dung and removing potential parasites and their invertebrate hosts.

While we have no signs of pregnancy in our sows yet, I can formally state that I have witnessed acts of consumation by our breeding stock, and the new diet seems to have promoted the desired effect.

At year’s end we commenced to home butcher a few pigs… more than we had initially set out to handle. While I’d always been holding that we’d do at least a couple of them on our own because of all the unique products that can be made, not to mention being able to perform a true zero waste slaughter, and how much more humane it is to slaughter a pig without transporting it away from the only world it knows, it soon became a necessity, as Covid 19 put serious strain on our local butcher shops. I am so thankful for the opportunity this problem afforded us.

We had a lot more eaters for our pork this year, many of them from outside the bubble of our local-er community, which has been very encouraging. I love working with folks that share similar passions about food, and being able to customize a whole side of pork to meet their household needs and culinary fantasies is rewarding in and of itself. I feel like I’ve really managed to hone my butcher craft this year, and have no intention of putting a pig into someone else’s hands for the purpose of slaughter ever again. I don’t care what the law is.

A final note on feeding our pigs: I’ve always known that pumpkins and squash make excellent nutrition for our pigs part of the year. This year I learned how valuable field beets, like mangelwurzel, can be to fill in the gaps when squash is unavailable. I hope to do a better job of growing beets for pig fodder in succession in 2021. Also, I am beginning to work on transitioning the pigs to an almost entirely hay-based diet for the winter and am still working through the ins and outs of doing this. They seem to be enjoying the reed’s canary grass hay, which is widely available and much maligned in our region, as the grass isn’t considered palatable to most livestock and it spreads like the dickens. Feeding bales of reed’s canary is working for our pigs, and my hope is that by keeping our chickens and pigs together for the winter, most of the seedbank leftover in the hay chaff will be thoroughly consumed by the birds, so that we don’t end up spreading it through mulching and manuring.

This was the first year that we raised turkeys, after being asked to by eaters for years. I discovered that I love doing it. I truly enjoy being around turkeys, like the impact they make on our land, like their ability to forage… just really like their personalities. It didn’t fetch a huge profit, mostly due to the high cost of poults, but if we are able to get them to breed naturally, I foresee turkeys as having a lot of potential for us in the future. Smaller turkeys were in demand this year, which was potentially good for us, because that’s what we’re doing.
Other than breeding, one limiting factor for us is what a customer base for turkeys looks like. Most of the folks who got turkeys from us this year expressed high satisfaction… but then there were the handful of folks that contacted us from mostly urban areas to seek our birds out… stop me if I’m ranting. Nevermind, you can’t stop me.

I know that there are a lot of folks living in urban areas who are conscientious eaters, willing to put their money where their mouth is. And I’d like to be hand feeding them. There are people out there who want to have a relationship with their farmer. Not anything weird, but, you know. If that’s you, and you’re local to us, please, let’s talk. But if I’m the last option because Whole Foods is sold out, don’t bug me. The worst is when I receive a dozen email thread from one person who ultimately decides that they’d rather not have a heritage breed turkey. Well, sorry, I only want to raise animals that can replicate themselves. I’m not quite sure that I’m able to express this very well in words right now, but there’s something about the allure of that big city money that inevitably hollows me out, because, speaking generally, urban people have a lot of options when they have money. It’s hard to stand out when there’s no way to build a relationship with them, or if they don’t care about our methods of growing. Organic, pasture-raised, I think some folks choose to buy a turkey with these labels for the status, there I said it. The other 364 days a year, they don’t give a good god damn how their food was raised. We’re seeking eaters who want to take stock of their impact on the planet and support something different, a food/soil/climate/human relationship that is not extractive. I prefer a grower/eater relationship that is beyond transactional. All of y’all who ate with us this year, or who’ve supported other non-mainstream avenues for nutrition, thank you so much. Growing food is something I’m passionate about, capitalism, not so much, so you gotta make it fun for me.

Ducks did well for us as they always do. I must admit I was too busy to harvest duckweed as regularly as I’d like, so stepping up my alternative fodder game is a focus for 2021. I’d also like to improve on our pasturing set up for ducks… they have a high potential for intensive management, but I’ve always been lazy about it and just let them free range, which creates an incomplete, unfocused graze. We started feeling overwhelmed by the amount of ducks hatched this season as there’s never really been a huge market for them, even though we really like eating them ourselves. Fortunately, we tapped into a new market up in Fairfield, Iowa, and between that and creating some value added products like duck sausage, rillette, and ham, I’m sure we’ll continue to raise ducks into the future, hopefully with more focus on directing their grazing effectively.

Other than how we grazed our chickens in 2020, which I’m very proud of, I feel like we had a lot of lessons to learn this year, primarily in managing our flock population. Our layer flock is aging, and between having fewer clutches brooded, some predation, and somehow neglecting to order any replacement hens, we have quite a few changes to make in our flock this year. Egg production was uneven, with a major glut of eggs and no way to sell them this spring. Our portable chicken wagon has no tires anymore… we need to fix that problem soon, because it limits how frequently the birds can be moved when the pastures are wet. In the long run, I’d love to dispense with our fossil fuel based mobile coops altogether and design a system where the chickens can be rotated through permanently fenced areas, or with animal traction, but I haven’t gotten my head around it yet. Still, I am very happy with how we ran our birds behind the cows this year for fertility distribution (shit-kicking), and they seemed to get more from the pastures once they’ve been eaten down. The chickens created few if any pasture dead-zones, also good news. After years of being unintentional about our breeding and overall flock composition, I’m excited to have just put in an order for 50 new birds arriving in April.

The goats have had a really good year, I think. We’ve yielded some quality cheeses and found a solid market for yogurt, they’re healthy looking, better nourished than ever I think, and the mixed silvopasture areas we’ve been managing them are coming into their own with lush growth, valuable shade, and varied nutrition. Cooperatively sharing labor has really come into a good place this year. When comparing goats to cows, which we’re still relatively new to, it’s sometimes difficult to see the benefits in terms of yield, not to mention how stubborn and naughty they can be, but I’m still happy with their postitive impact on the landscape, ability to utilize marginal areas like slopes and hedgerows, and overall resilience as a homestead animal. I’m personally content with the scale we’re currently at and value goats for their grazing/browsing flexibility and light hoofprint.

On a similar note, we now have three cows… Sugar, the matriarch, Bessie, who we’ll begin milking sometime next year, and Frankie, who, cute as he is, will be our first beef raised here. I’m excited about the prospect of having two cows to milk, because that means extra cream, and that means ice cream and butter. I’m also excited to raise our first grass-only beef cow, and hope we can pull that off. This year the grazing program for the cows went pretty well I think. Rotations were quick, the average paddock lasting two days or so, and being able to provide gravity feed automatic water most of the year was a game changer. The cows have seemed healthy and content, and most importantly, they provide ample, much needed fertility. I think cow grazing has left us with some well-maintained pastures, but I recognize the fine line we walk in using animals in a way that is beneficial to our soil and climate and using them in a destructive manner… I hope that I can tell which side of the line I’m on in the future by investing more in soil carbon testing and keeping better records, so there you have it, those are my resolutions for 2021. And of course, mastering the art of ice cream.

Gardening was a mixed bag. I made one major improvement, a really big one in fact, which was setting up drip irrigation. Had I not, I don’t think I’d have kept up on things. Definitely one of the highest uses of plastic. Okra, greens, garlic and peppers all did very well for me, and we had an exciting first ever harvest of watermelons, which I’m keen to do again. Sweet potatoes had a lot of rodent damage, but I think the yield would have been really good, and our squash got hammered by pests. We yielded less than half on our squash, which was still a lot, and we also ran into some issues with disease in our tomatoes, not to mention some stunted growth due to a difficult transplanting season. I think a lesson I’ve learned, and hopefully I’m correct here, is to stick with what I know works. I got overly ambitious and tried raising too many varieties… inevitably, many of them weren’t resistant to pests and disease the way I’d have preferred. Some diamonds in the rough: Chad’s improved Amish Paste tomato, Leuchtauer paprika pepper, Burmese okra, Thai lettuce, and green striped cushaw, which while bland and bad at keeping sure doesn’t mind squash bugs and makes some lovely pork. My record keeping was poor this year, but intuitively I feel like my yields could have been better, despite probably growing the most vegetables overall that I ever have.

Gardening, for some reason, left me feeling very depleted emotionally this year, I’m not sure why. I mean, mostly it was the squash bugs. I think I learned a lot of lessons in the garden this year, about timing, seed selection, and prioritizing certain crops. We expanded our garden space significantly this year, and I think some combination of strategy and perhaps the perfect Mary Poppins-esque intern could set things straight. Also, there was a one-eyed rabbit living in the hoop house and lower garden area for like two months who I could never catch that decimated our cowpeas… I have no idea where its other eye went, but the dogs finally caught it and I’m glad.

We had a very ambitious and ultimately succesful year in tree planting, with what seems to have been a high survival rate. While a fair amount of the chestnuts I planted in fall of 2019 failed, about half of them didn’t, which feels encouraging enough to keep at it. We yielded our first hazelnuts and cornelian cherries ever, and successfully established lots of pear rootstock as well as thornless honeylocust, and some high quality hazelnut cultivars. Black currants and elderberries all took well, but we had significant losses in our willow plantings, which I can live with. I’ve got plans and most of the parts to build a portable irrigation system for establishing our trees. Between that and breaking my planting into two seasons this year, I hope that I’ll increase how many trees I can successfully get in the ground, hopefully without feeling burnt out. In 2021 I’ll be focusing on apples, heartnut, more hazelnuts, and more chestnuts, in addition to some grafting on the pears and mulberries.

On a final note, and again, recognizing this was a challenging year for many, 2020 was really pretty ok for me, personally. I gained some skills, some perspective, enough of a market to keep me in the game, and maybe even some serotonin, I dunno. My brain is working better, and my heart is keeping up for the most part, even though I do feel like my body is weary and worn out. I was able to prove something that I wasn’t confident about at the beginning of the year, that growing food sustainably is valued, and even perhaps a viable occupation if I keep at it. I feel that our need to improve infrastructure, improve design, measure our impact and record our results is more important than expanding my market this year, so I’m letting the chips fall where they may on that one, and hope to retain our friends and fellow eaters, hopefully gain some word of mouth in that arena. Here’s to another damn year, let’s hope it’s a year of healing, learning, and way fewer squash bugs.

Fattening and the Burden of Abundance

Howdy y’all.

As the limbs of osage hang low under the weight of great lime-green hedgeballs (monkey brains we used to call ’em) and pears advance to the apex of sweetness, I am doing all I can to fill our larder for the winter. Except for right now, because I’m too burnt out from canning, fermenting, dehydrating and harvesting to accomplish much more for the morning. We’ve begun to harvest our ducks, and as soon as the weather allows, the next stage of preserving the harvest begins… curing, smoking, and sausage making.

Which brings me to fat. I would argue that fat is a far higher form of stored caloric energy than fossil fuels. It has greater value to the human physiology, can be more efficiently manufactured, and is itself a preservative when used properly. The old-timey term I used above, larder, indicating a pantry specific to the preservation of one’s own harvest, has a very clear and obvious rooting in the word ‘lard’.

Before lard became out of fashion according to the dictates of our seemingly arbitrary, bottom-lined to death food system which has been concocted in the boardrooms of corporations and marketing firms, not to mention their subservient politicians, it was a staple food, relatively accessible, straightforward to use… a byproduct of other byproducts like culled vegetables, dairy and slaughter wastes, and those forms of caloric energy which are generally unavailable to human digestion: grasses, weeds, and acorns.

Well rendered lard itself is a shelf stable, vitamin and energy rich foodstuff, and can be incorporated into almost anything. The French peasantry refined the use of animal fats into a preservative, alongside salt, with products like confit and rillete, wherein meat is salt-cured and poached in its own fat, then put away, sealed off from oxygen and light. This is well before mechanical refrigeration.

Of course, in working with natural cycles, fat is not available on demand. There is a season in which it is gleaned, time and conditions associated with its development. Luckily, many of these fall in line with other natural cycles. Oil rich nuts begin to drop from the canopy as the summer concludes, giving both our pigs and turkeys a boost. This coincides with the approaching cool season, when these animals can be harvested in a food safe manner. Alongside this, corn begins to ripen… in an alternate reality without commodity grains and massive propane-powered grain dryers, grain corn is itself more highly cherished as a source of calories. Even a small plot can be put up in a corncrib for shared consumption throughout year, but the glut and the gleaning occurs immediately after harvest, when poultry can be fattened out in the field.

There is also “meat on the hoof” the storage technique whereby an animal being raised for meat is grazed well enough throughout the season to be able to remain fat and healthy through the winter and eaten when necessary. I have been running a parallel program with my own body as my metabolism slows down in my mid-30’s. I tend to have a noticeable weight gain, like many others, in the winter time, though I naturally shed it by swimsuit season. I use it up when I need it, but it remains alive if not somewhat in the way before then. Though the changes are subtle and not unhealthy, they’re pretty noticeable being slight of frame as I am. My above the waist broadening is unfortunately underrepresented alongside media-marketed standards of beauty. Next time you get the chance to go to a feed store, take a gander if you will. Farmers are an assless lot. Have you ever seen a frog standing up? That’s called farmer ass. 

Of course, it would be remiss of me to acknowledge the non meat sources of fat. Dairy fat, which is in my experience more difficult, infrastructure wise, to preserve for long periods of time is a clear one, and produces, again, a byproduct, whey, that continues to yield when fattening other animals or even used as garden fertilizer. 

Nut crops have a very clear potential as an efficient source of dietary fats, as well as fuel energy. They are not as widely planted and maintained here in the midwest as they once were, due partly to disease, but mostly due to the demands of commodity markets, again. However, tree nuts can not only serve as a relatively shelf-stable source of fat and protein, but integrate clearly with livestock such as pigs, whereby a pig’s staggering efficiency to develop fat is powered by merely the culled nuts left on the orchard floor. 150 years ago, a hog lot not outlined with chestnuts was considered absurd by most commercial growers.

Nuts are relatively simple to harvest on the homestead / subsistence scale and require no special tools outside of a couple rocks to process. Coconuts and palm kernels are high in fat, but there are some major environmental and social issues in how they are grown, and besides, I can’t grow a coconut here, not yet. Seed based vegetable fats are more difficult to process on the human scale… most of them are annual in nature and require frequent tilling and hence soil loss, though the Land Institute is developing sylphium (cup plant) as a perennial, temperate oilseed crop. It is similar to sunflower. Very excited about that. Sunflower and pumpkin seed oils themselves are complicated to process, but as a whole product can also stack up to a lot of stored fats, pumpkins having the obvious bonus of yielding extra nutrition.

Well, I suppose that’s all what I gotta say about fat right now. Outside the temperature is rising, and the breeze is steady. Another good day to use the solar dehydrator for the abundance of peppers, tomatoes, pears, okra and beans. It still feels like endless summer. Stashing a batch of tomato sauce here and a few cans of cushaw pie filling there, not to mention some duck confit when the next cold front rolls in, might be the only way to ensure I do not literally work my ass off.

A Crescendo of Photosynthetic Activity

Well folks, here I am, googling when turkeys are old enough to get rained on, in my underwear, ‘cuz all my appropriate pants are wet. It seemed like about time to offer y’all an update on happenings here at the holler, and so here goes…

I’m about dead exhausted from the amount of work needed to not only maintain our gardens, plantings, and livestock, but also give a hoot about the impact of our activities. To put it selfishly, we can’t feed ourselves into the future if our agricultural activities lead to further depletion and degradation of our soils. Or, to frame it as part of a bigger picture, none of us are making it out of this century if we can’t create systems that capture and store carbon. Luckily, the process of doing this has been really tasty.

We are still at height of photosynthetic crescendo here north of the equator. Between ample rainfall and (mostly) ideal temperatures, vegetative growth has been easy to observe on a daily basis. With near weekly precipitation events, pastures have been recovering back to grazing height in as little as a week. Our native warm season grasses are shooting up an inch a day or more. Sun, rain, appropriately timed mowing and grazing, and of course a bit of fertility go a long ways towards the process of generating more soil carbon, via photosynthesis and vegetative growth, but there’s an invisible but necessary component in the “farm ecosystem” that I have plans to address this year.

 Fungi and microbes are key for soil health… and healthy soil encourages more growth, therefore more photosynthesis and more sequestration. We’ve assumed for long enough that our fungal and microbial networks, our subterranean livestock, if you will, are naturally present and in balance… though there are places here and there on the land that do not seems to support healthy growth. Most of our pasture areas have had years of fertility enhancement at this point, so what’s the problem? It may be that they lack diversity on the microscopic level. 

It may be that our pasture soils need microbial inoculation. With bioreactive composting, spreading, and proper rest periods, I hope we may begin to see some changes. I’m not a soil scientist, and so measuring changes will have to be based on observation, though I’m open to hearing from anyone out there how else I might go about this.

Now I hate to get too technical about things… that’s sort of how we might’ve lost our way as a species in a world where larger and larger inaccessible technological “solutions” are proposed to solve issues caused largely by technology. I’m not some rich weirdo like Elon Musk, ready to rocket off and leaves the plebes behind on a dying planet in some spin off series of human conquest and imperialism gone galactic. No, I’m a much poorer weirdo, and I think the solution is in the top few inches of the earth we walk on and our ability to grow more plants in a tighter space. Now if you don’t mind me, I’ll be walking in my underpants cranking my seed spreader (really, that’s not a euphemism), sending good vibes to all the mycelium out there. But probably I oughta pick okra and herd the turkeys first. Google says they’ll be ok. 

Can we please evaluate our food resilience now?

Greedy pigs at the trough have me thinking about scarcity.

Y’all, I hate to be the first person you hear this from, but it might be time to ask some questions about the resilience of our food systems. And here is where I’d like to offer a couple of distinct measurements we as a culture might want to explore. At this time I have little to offer in terms of economic measurements, as I’m not all that well-suited to give anybody the what-for on money. Global food systems are inseparable from commodity markets, arcane and intangible as they are to some of us. While I know that commodity markets have real life impacts, I do not see that whatever is beneficial to Cargill in the stock market as being mutually beneficial for the 7 billion of us who gotta eat. So, in full transparency, I am not taking propping up global corporate hegemony as a given in any evaluation I make.

When it comes down to it, and it probably will, the value of food systems will depend more on their potential ability to sustain production (soil and fertility resources) and their ability to meet complete nutritional needs locally. I differentiate ability to sustain production from current production. Yes, with enough fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers, farmers can crank out a lot of corn or beans. In a good weather year. It takes a long while for those calories to end up on anyone’s plate, if at all. Many of these fields would require years of regeneration to transition to more diverse crops, as the soil resources are depleted without a steady supply of synthetic fertilizers. Really, I am not dogmatic. If applying conventional agricultural chemicals is the difference between famine or none, I’m for it. But it’s just an attempt to triage a collapsing system. 

One of our better government programs (I state hesitantly as a responsible, non-dogmatic anarchist) over the years has been the Conservation Reserve Program which incentivizes farmers to rest and restore degraded land for use in times of great need. At least in our region, CRP agreements are being slowly phased out. Much of our current land here is set to expire out of the program in the next few years, and while it’s been managed with burning, planting, and reseeding, centuries of soil resources that took only decades to erode are still gone forever. For many farmers, the only way to receive income on these lands once they’re expired out of the program is to plow them under and squeeze out the fertility. Better uses for the land might include management intensive grazing, any type of silviculture, or, my favorite, both. If you’ve only got a few years left on your CRP, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with planting that walnut grove right now, but that’s not legal advice. I believe that the current CRP should be extended and improved, and not phased out.

The question I want to ask here is, how much food can X plot of land produce with limited imports and fossil fuels? Soil that’s been harmed cannot support sustained production without imports. Sometimes it cannot sustain life at all.

Then there’s distribution. Living in the rural midwest, where it’s common to see vast tracts of land devoted to producing food I’m never going to eat, the functioning of our food system is equally as obscure as in the inner city.  Upon closer inspection, both here and in urban areas, there are many folks, more and more of them, who do produce significant nutrition for local consumption, but by and large, most of the food easily available for purchase in a grocery store is from “somewhere else”, like pretty much between California’s Central Valley and Argentina. 

This may become more obvious a liability in the current social atmosphere of scarcity. Personally, I think being able to distribute our food locally is pretty bad ass, compared to hoarding tater tots or whatever. It’s clear to me that relying on local food networks can ease the chaos of living through an emergency, or successive emergencies, or the end times unless we decide to call it off.

Looking at our own food system here at Fox Holler, I see plenty to improve upon. About 1/3 of our marketing income is unavailable for the unstated future, due to the closing of a reliable farmer’s market. The market is 45 miles from here, and we’ve relied on it, partly, because it’s affluent, and we have some fancy foods for affluent people. I’m less altruistic when I have debt, just like anyone else. But it’s clear to me that 45 miles is too far to go, in uncertain times. Selling locally would require me to compete with local groceries, many of whom sell at nearly wholesale in our area. 

Not to disparage my area, but not too many folks outside of the clustered sustainable communities movement here care about pasture-raised, organically fed, or rotationally grazed enough to pay what our food costs us to produce. I get it. A large part of why I grow food is so that I can spend as little money as possible obtaining nourishment. 

The flipside, of course, are urban areas where local, sustainable food resources go for a high enough price to be exclusive to only the prosperous few. Here again, I’m not offering a solution right now, sorry. I’d just like to point out how worthy it is to consider how to re-evaluate our network of distributing food, to specifically insure that it’s equitable in every direction.

Another way in which we still fall short on resilience is our reliance on grain and feed importations. While a major part of our project encompasses providing perennial alternatives, this is a life long undertaking for us. We would likely need to radically downsize, change management, and/or plant field crops to survive into the long term, if our current feed sources dried up. In lieu of taking on more deep responsibilities, cooperation with our neighbors and an organized diversification of local land use seems a more enduring way forward. Many of our field crop farmers will also be in need of more local markets, and so the possibility of mutual collaboration may seem more practical now than ever. Looking into the future, it is not hard to imagine a day when selling commodities globally is impossible.

It seems like quite a lot of y’all may just have the time on their hands to ask similar questions, and, I don’t know, even come up a few answers. Me, I gotta go freshen the barn and watch how the rain flows. If you’re in the area, come on by for some produce. We’re all about local food, just keep a few feet away from me, please.