agriculture

Here’s Knowing You!

Pork and Belly 2

 

It was a good day yesterday. Pork and Belly, our pigs, are hanging in the garage and the job of butchery begins tomorrow. We have four sides to get through and the process will be a learning situation. The process of raising, slaughtering and butchering your own meat is (as the words used to describe the process) a somewhat violent process towards the end but I choose to broaden my perspective and see the beauty in the cycle of life.

Pork and Belly were happy right up to the end. Sniffing at the barrel of the pistol that was about to end his life, Pork was at ease and full of trust; never stressed and never felt a thing. As I took a minute or two to calm my nerves, holding the pistol and watched as he poked at it innocently. I describe this not to disgust or dismay, but to remind us all (including me) that death is not the important thing: life is.

While it is true that Pork and Belly trusted me and I broke that trust, it is also true that I built that trust by giving them the best life that I could. Their life was full of rutting around, eating acorns, pats and scratches and a warm bed of hay every night. There lives were good by any standard and it is that life that I am proud of.

This is a process that I believe is necessary if we insist upon eating meat. It affords us the understanding that by eating we take something of great value, something that we must come to appreciate as we cannot bring it back: a living, breathing, and thinking entity. I do not thank a god or gods for their lives. I am thankful that I have been given the chance to look at life straight in the eye; all the blood and beauty of it. It only gives me a greater appreciation of the food that I eat, and the animals’ lives that I take in order to do just that.

Raise a glass with me to Pork and Belly
Good pigs they were, and good food they are!

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The Act of Caring

piglets

Pork and Belly: it has been a pleasure!

It is getting close to doing the inevitable for the last time this year: I must “process” the last twenty-five chickens and more difficult, I must say good-bye to Pork and Belly our two pigs. There is no getting around the fact that death is violent, no matter how we choose to express it. Killing is even more violent. But death and killing are ubiquitious and we must come to understand that sometimes the acts are not necesarily wrong if we are to live with peace of mind.

When the decision was made to make self-sufficiency the goal the decision was also made to act philosophically; to be philosophical we must also act philosophical. And the reality of eating brings upon us the reality of killing. I have run into many that have expressed their opinion of the uselessness of philosophy, but in my years of teaching and trying to live philosophy their conclusion seems empty.

To kill an animal, even for food, honestly, we must look it in the eye and put the knife to its throat; this is the honest thing to do and because honesty is important to the act and so the act is philosophical. The question of killing is most certainly a moral question, one which the homesteader needs to ask themself: is it the moral thing that I am doing?

This is all to say that Pork and Belly present a unique opportunity to put philosophy into action, but also present a moral decision. We started with two pigs and they become as much pets as livestock. So, the obvious answer seems to be: more pigs, less pets. In other words, with more animals on the chopping block we don’t get attached. However, this solution is sidestepping the real question; it is a way of making ourselves immune to the inevitable act of killing an animal.

In the end we must choose: to eat meat or not to eat meat, but in making our decision we must also realize that life includes and is not the dichotomy of death: life and death are one in the same, and this idea (again) is philosophical. As humans, we have the ability, the capacity to choose morally, we must choose philosophically; life does not care, but we must because we can.

Sometimes…

bob the rooster

In Memory of “Bob” the rooster and one of his girls.

This last week we have lost a beautiful rooster and hen; one to a hawk, and the rooster to  (what I believe) to be a fox.  These losses were unfortunate, but the fact remains: this is what those animals do.  They are predators and they were acting naturally.  As a farmer, my natural reaction is and was anger: something must pay, and the hawk and fox were prime possible recipients.  As an intelligent person, however, I am capable of understanding justice.

Sometimes we are faced with difficult decisions and in these situations we must make a choice: to react or act.  I could shoot hawks and hunt fox but for what reason?  There is only one answer to this: revenge.  Perhaps killing the fox is necessary for it will return, but the hawk…and at best such a decision is only partially reasonable.

This led me to consider reason.  As humans we are emotional creatures with the capacity, with the freedom, to act intelligently.  Unfortunately often enough we do not act accordingly.  The loss of my rooster and hen presented a situation in which I was presented a choice: to act reasonably or emotionally.  But I had left out another choice: the middle ground: to act both reasonably and emotionally.

I was saddened to lose my rooster and hen, but I could not get myself to simply kill animals for what they do naturally: they cannot be held accountable and so it would be immoral of me to kill them for acting the way they act.  However, I did not want them to return and kill more livestock.  The logical conclusion, was to accept the losses and try to lessen the chances of the predator’s capability of doing what comes naturally: to give them a chance to learn.

Many farmers would tell me that it is not worth the trouble: to kill the animals, and sometimes they would be correct.  However, I value my farm animals and other animals and their lives in a different way: as living things.  So, according to my values it is “worth” my trouble to find a compromise.  Sometimes a little emotion goes a long way, and sometimes (in order to remain moral creatures) we must learn to value all life rather than simply the life we deem worthwhile.

A Good Day to Die

MeatChickens

Farming sounds romantic: the bucolic environment, the clucking of chickens and the smell of manure and soil.  Certainly, there are aspects of farming that are romantic.  There is the peace and quiet, the honesty of the work, the freedom of the day as well as the rituals of the chores.  But farming, especially when the farm includes animals, is a reality that soon makes itself clear.

This week I will be slaughtering the first set of chickens as well as some roosters.  And while I’ve done this before the act is never comfortable.  Most of us eat meat, but most of us do not slaughter our own meat.  This disconnect is clear for the farmer, and the disconnect soon becomes a cohesive whole as the day for the killing nears.

Killing an animal should never be easy, for any reason, even for food.  But when one sets off to the country to be self-sufficient, killing to eat becomes a reality.  Most hunters make this argument but I doubt that many of them kill simply to eat.  Perhaps the hunt becomes separated from the killing;  I’m not a hunter, and don’t see the point in it with few exceptions.  But I eat meat, and that necessitates the act that I will soon partake in: killing animals.

I believe that there is an honesty in killing your own food, but that honesty comes at a price: we must look our meals in the eye while we put knife to throat.  There is no easy way around this, at least any way that is honest.  But the fact remains: if I cannot kill the animals that I have raised, I should not be eating meat.  Peter Singer goes further with his concept of speciesism.

To raise animals for food is really a balancing act between morality and need, or perhaps desire: that I’ve not figured out yet.  However, if we decide that we cannot kill our food but expect others to do it for us, we really should not be eating meat.  I like bacon, and barbecued chicken and for those reasons I must do the deed and pay the price.  Moral food has a price.

And Then Pigs

piglets

(Meet Pork and Belly, our new pigs)

For some years I’ve wondered where the line was between being a gardener and a farmer.  It began when I made the conscious decision to grow my own food.  I felt like a farmer, but couldn’t really call myself one.  Then, I endeavored beekeeping.  I started with one hive; they unfortunately died.  I got two more and lost them.  I was really hurt.

I thought that this is what a farmer must feel like when he loses livestock or must acquiesce to some sickness and put an animal down.  They were just bees (I said to myself), but they were more than that: they were my livestock, my responsibility.  I was, however, still just a gardener with bees.

Last year when we bought our current property we had to start from the ground up.  I renovated the house over the winter: I was a carpenter.  I plowed a large plot for my garden: I was a gardener.  Early this spring I built a greenhouse: I was a market gardener.  Bees came and I was again (gladly) a beekeeper.  Not long afterwards I built a chicken coop: carpenter again.

Finally, the time had come to get chickens; there were animals coming to a farm.  I felt that finally I could call myself a farmer.  I picked up the small chicks and installed them in the coop.  They had water, they had food, they had straw; I must be a farmer, but alas…still nothing.  I could have chickens in the city.

Then, I got a call on Friday from a farmer that I had met.  I ordered manure and we talked pigs.  Evidently, I ordered two piglets when they were ready (about 8 weeks old), which would be in about 2 weeks.  He told me that “my” pigs were ready to be picked up.  My wife and myself scrambled to build a house for them, a pen and bought some electric fencing.  We had the whole thing ready within 24 hours.

We picked them up and put them down in their pen.  I was nervous.  The cuffed around in the dirt and ate some food.  They were getting use to their new home.  They were a bit nervous in their new surroundings; they didn’t know what to expect.  They were, in fact, a bit like me: nervous in their new position.  Without knowing it I had fallen into farming, but I think the pigs realized it before I did.

Spring

spring

The snow gave way quickly and just as quickly came the green.  The greenhouse went up just in time; the plants, some of which I thought must have died, buried under several feet of snow for months, poking their green sprouts out of the yet still cold earth.  This is no miracle; it is Spring.

The frogs in the back pond reappeared after a long hiatus, and frog eggs line the shallow pools in the back “roads” on the property.  I’ve seen moose tracks and more deer and turkey tracks than I care to count.  The fox is about and I hear the hawk’s screech almost everyday.  The garden is waking up and the plants stir in their pots anxious to get in the dirt.

As always Spring brings anxiety: some plants got burnt up in the newly built greenhouse (my bad).  But, most are fine and I kick myself for not putting spinach in a month ago.  Every Spring I forget what I remember the previous year.  Perhaps this is part of Spring too.

Small buds appear over night on the Birch, the Maple, the Oak and the Cedar and Spruce trees seem even greener than normal.  The fireplaces are cold and everyone is outside.  The wind blows the glorious warmth around and the leaves, freed from the snowy prison, take flight.

We all feel a bit more free in the Spring.  Perhaps Spring is when happiness gets a chance to shine, just for a little, to fly around with the leaves and rid itself of the heavy weight of winter worries.  A new start for an old, old cycle.

New-Old Lifestyles

Image result for old farm tools

When talking to people, especially older people who sometimes don’t understand why anyone would want to “go back” to raising and slaughtering your own meat, growing your own food and working your own land, they often point out that they are “fine” eating the modern products and processed foods of our current world.  They are right, of course; at least sometimes, or partially.

But the real point is lost on them; the point is not just the healthy aspect, but also the moral aspect.  We humans have somehow lost the necessary respect that life deserves and demands.  It is not just for health reasons that we till our own gardens and raise and slaughter our own meat.  It is healthier and better (lacking the additives and antibiotics) but is most certainly a more moral choice (respect for life and the living): a better choice.

A respect for life is the cornerstone of the agrarian lifestyle.  This does not preclude, but does not necessarily include, a religious adoration of life, but it is a necessary moral choice that does much to define who we are at the end of the day.  People that were raised on farms eighty years ago seem to remember the drudgery and forget the community.  They seem to remember the hardships and forget the rewards.  I’m not sure why and perhaps I will too at some point, but I hope not.

The irony of talking to older people who have had such “lifestyles” is that they seem to look upon the new crop of self-sufficient people as being a bit spoiled, but I would argue that the new farmers of old ideas are not spoiled, but curious and willing to do the work.  Although many people will fail at these new old endeavors (because the physicality and harshness of the work have not changed) there are many who have found solace and education in pursuing  “non-progressive” ways of life.

I think that when an honest lifestyle is dismissed so easily by others that it is because those that dismiss it have never really thought about their own life.  To do so, like the new agrarians will find, is physically and morally demanding; no less than the new- life that they have chosen to lead.

The Community of the Self Sufficient

self_sufficient

To be self sufficient is a personal thing, not unlike so many who just want to “get away” and have everyone leave them alone.  I am, and was one of those.  However, things often must change, and do.  NOFA puts on event up here in New England, and I went to a hog butchering class today.  There I realized that to be self sufficient, there must be a community.

It does sound strange, but it is, and always has been, true.  In the cities we often forget this fact of independence.  Often we can live around millions of people and be completely alone.  This is sad, true, but it is only because there are communities of self sufficient communities of people that support such lifestyles.

Aloneness is important.  Being alone we can often find our “true self”, and what we find is often a bit disconcerting.  But the self sufficient ought to be able look that self in the eye every morning and meet it head to head on those nights when we wake up feeling so alone and vulnerable.  One way to do this, is to realize our dependence on healthy communities.

Unfortunately, self sufficiency is often correlated with those who have opted out and see survival as a pile of rations and guns.  This is a misconstrued view of self sufficiency.  Self sufficiency is an education and there are many great teachers out there that are willing and often able to teach those willing to learn.  To realize that the community of the self sufficient are not these radical outliers one only has to reach out to learn, well, to be self sufficient.

At the class, there were seven of us, we each took turns learning to cut the 1/2 hog in such a way that would do justice to the animal, and to those who had, and will continue to create a community of the self sufficient.

An Update on the Experiment

experiment

This particular post is two things: an apology and and explanation.

First, an apology.  I realize that blogs are particularly important to those who write them, and less so to those who read them.  That being the case, I must still apologize for not being consistent, if only to myself.

Secondly, an explanation.  I have embarked upon an experiment in self-sustainability that involves moving from one side of this country to the other.  Such a move takes time and effort which explains my apology above.  This experiment involves buying a small (22 acre) plot of land with a house, a barn foundation, and a full woodworking shop.  This is the result of several years of contemplation and contrary thinking that has cost comfort and security, I hope, to a good end: to see just how self-sustaining an individual can be.

To this end I would like to invite anyone interested to visit two new sites that will be up and running this fall.  First, I will have a podcast called “The Philosophy of Gardening” and at some point and time a youtube channel called Trollcastle Works.  These endeavors will simply be a video/audio blog of ongoings around the property that will include forestry work, woodworking and of course gardening.

I hope to have several projects going that include: a small fruit orchard, vegetable garden, furniture making and carpentry, hops and grain fields, and brewing beer.  The podcast and videos, I hope, will be of interest to anyone that might consider self-sustainability as a way of life.

I call this an experiment, because I see 100% self-sustainability as being the speed of light, and the experiment’s goal itself being to see how close to this ideal that I can get.  There will be failures and there will be accomplishments, and I hope to share both.

The reason for this experiment is, of course, personal, but it stems from a belief that self-sustainability for individuals and families is the only moral option.  What better way to test this belief than putting it in practice!

I hope that some of you consider following me on this adventure!

The Foundation of Life

soil

Soil is the foundation of life, and so in my quest for self-sustainability I have chosen to start at that foundational point this year. On my quest to be self-sustaining, this year started with building my own seed starting soil. With $8 worth of vermiculite I have about three wheelbarrows full of starter soil, and the vermiculite was optional. I think a little sand would have done the trick. Nevertheless, the path is clear.

Self-sustainability is becoming more and more important as the industrial agriculture machine slowly chews up its gears and we are left with fewer and fewer moral options. But why stop at not buying industrial food products? This is just a beginning, and a beginning that ironically ends at the very soil that all of our food eventually comes from.

I started with well composted manure, grass and food scraps collected all last year and turned regularly until winter set in. Before putting the soil in my homemade boxes, I ran it through the chipper/shredder. This fluffed up the soil and chewed up some of the bigger chunks. I then filtered it through my homemade soil colander (four 4×4’s with ¼ wire stapled to the bottom) into a wheelbarrow and added vermiculite.

I have started my leek, onion, cabbage, and peppers in this mix and have watered (so far) about four times with no sign of compaction. I have yet to see if my little seedlings, after sprouting, like their new home. Tomatoes go in this weekend.

It is difficult to explain the satisfaction of not buying products in order to be self-sustaining. Although I have a long way to go, this new starter soil is a further new beginning on the road to independence.