Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Eating Your Animals

The message of the recently published book Prosperous Homesteading raises very few objections with most people. Some elements initially surprise, especially those that haven’t received much thought. These include the motto “No farming!”: farming is a business that feeds strangers in exchange for money; a homestead is a family that feeds itself; these concerns are orthogonal. Another element that may be hard to grasp is the entire financial scheme that allows homesteaders to prosper: no debt; no monthly bills; no insurance; only the bare essentials as far as unproductive assets such as a house or a car; few assets at risk. The suggestion that young people should work, save, buy land and start families instead of going to keg parties and cramming for tests while hung over may seem radical to some; but then what about the radical notion that young people should be pushed into the higher education racket, from which a majority of them emerges with few practical skills, uncertain job prospects and a mountain of debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy?

Yes, such practical considerations take a while to wrap one’s head around. But another point of confusion comes from an image, apparently held by many, that a homestead is a house with a garden. Homesteading is not gardening. You should certainly eat your vegetables and, since you won’t be shopping for food any more, you should certainly grow plenty of them. Fancy horticultural experiments are not out of the question once the homestead has achieved prosperity—defined as not needing an external source of money—but the basic ingredients for success are water (from rainwater capture), energy (in the form of deadfall harvested from the woodlot) and hay (from hayfields and pasture). These are all free—which is why you shouldn’t pay for them. Energy grows on trees, water falls from the sky, and grass keeps growing… provided you spread manure on the hayfields, and for that you need livestock. Hence, Jeffers concludes, “No livestock—no homestead!”

Here is another common image: providing for yourself involves much backbreaking labor. Scratching a living out of the ground using a fork, a hoe and a spade is indeed difficult. Jeffers prefers to skip most of that, and let the animals—and the children—do much of the work. This isn’t possible without the right equipment—tools and attachments—but once the homestead has all it needs the amount of physical labor becomes quite manageable. Weeding a huge garden by hand is sheer drudgery; on the other hand, having a horse trot along between your crop rows dragging a cultivator looks like almost pure fun. And once you have a huge garden, what will you do with all the produce that you won’t eat? Why, feed it to the pigs and the goats, of course!

Yes, taking care of a lot of animals is work, but it’s easy work. Lots of people somehow manage to feed and water their cats and dogs; feeding livestock is the same thing multiplied by a hundred. But milking cows is real work: do a little too much milking, and you develop carpal tunnel syndrome. And the homestead needs two cows, not one, because they stop lactating for a time before they calve. By staggering the breeding of two cows, a homesteading family can keep itself in dairy year-round. But what about all that milking? The solution is to get feeder calves who will suckle most of the day but spend the night in a pen by themselves, so that there is fresh milk available every the morning. And if that’s still too much milk, the excess can be used to quickly fatten up pigs.

And so it goes: the land provides for the animals, the animals provide for each other and for the homesteaders, and the homesteaders mostly just orchestrate. But here comes a big psychological issue: all of this livestock is, in the final analysis, food. There is no elderly animal hospice care on the homestead; livestock is there for three main reasons: as a source of food for the homesteaders; as a source of capital (unlike the sale of meat, the sale of livestock is largely unregulated); and, in the case of horses, as a source of traction for pulling farm implements. No sane homesteader would feed an animal just for its poop. In the end every animal defaults to a source of food: elderly laying hens go into the stew pot; elderly horses get ground up for dog food and so on. This is very much at odds with the “animals as pets” theory, and requires quite a different mindset. People who did at least some of their growing up in a rural setting tend to be more habituated to the way of nature, where everything gets eaten, and understand how wasteful and disrespectful it is to feed a tasty animal to the worms or the vultures. But it does require some psychological adjustment from the rest.

But this is just a matter of reacquainting oneself with what’s normal and natural. It was certainly part of my upbringing: the Russian equivalent of “lost the shirt” on some unsuccessful endeavor is “ate the dog” (собаку съел). (Not out of any ill feelings for the poor dog, but eating your family pet is preferable to starvation.) How various body parts of various animals tasted was part of the experience, and the education. I was particularly fond of lamb’s brains, beef tongue was considered a delicacy, and we always fought over the bone marrow in soup bones. Humanity’s position atop the food chain was never questioned.

No doubt, certain virtue-signaling bicoastals would label such practices “inhumane” and consider them the hallmark of the rural poor—those who refer to armadillos as “possums on the half shell.” (Armadillos are ugly and a real pain to slaughter, but slaughter them we must, and I’ve been told that they taste a lot like pork.) But really what is most humane is to kill an animal swiftly instead of letting it suffer or cause damage, and then to make good, respectful use of the body. If you like, you can call your piglet “Delicious,” and then when you are eating it you can exclaim “It’s Delicious!” and be correct in more ways than one.

There are a lot of changes and adjustments a family must make in order to embrace homesteading. Some are cultural and financial, some have to do with physical habits, but this particular one is visceral. You don’t have to eat every part of every animal on day one, but perhaps you should at least think about it.


Unknown said...

I would think killing and eating an animal you raised in a semi-natural setting would sit better on the conscience of the animal lover than eating factory-farmed meat that had a miserable life. But I suppose that like many things, it's "out of sight, out of mind." Animals in general are almost totally absent from the urban environment except for pets, zoos, and shrink-wrapped meat chunks. It's easy to forget that they were always part of life.

Glenn in Maine said...

Hi Dimtry, we’re urban homesteading to the maximal extent possible in the city (10,000SF lot) which includes chickens, beehives, a greenhouse, vegetable beds, rain barrels, berry patches, and fruit trees, but have opted for self-reliance as opposed to self-sufficiency. We grow and put up as much as we can (freezer, root cellar, canning) and supplement the remainder from our local farmer’s market. My wife took a course in butchering fowl, which culminated in her slaughtering a duck and processing it, as we intended to convert the hens into stew meat when they finished laying, but ended up sending them to our pig farmer for the slop bucket. We did get them back in the pork, albeit by a more circuitous route than had we simply eaten them straight. We have no debt, cycle or take the bus to work, and have ready access to local sources of seafood, dairy, cheese, and grains. The one major flaw that I can’t seem to sort is property taxes. I hold the job to maintain health insurance and pay the assessor, but when that eventually ends, how does the government expect me to pay the ever rising assessment? I think the answer is they don’t care, and I’ll be forced to sell, or lose everything I’ve striven to create (and all the attendant security it represents), leaving me no better off than my peers who are oblivious to our predicament and are spending their time/money on frivolity. I lay awake at night wondering if I should have embraced the fatalist approach and opted for the Grateful Dead attitude: ‘we may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride’. So the question I have is, what is the work-around for property taxes, short of total collapse/anarchy, where I defend my homestead with my guns (unappealing to say the least)?

Helix said...

Dmitry: Re "farming is a business that feeds strangers in exchange for money; a homestead is a family that feeds itself; these concerns are orthogonal."

Orthogonal, yes, but not mutually exclusive. Like it or not, even homesteaders will benefit from a source of cash income to buy tools, shoes, fabric for clothes, pots and pans, etc. A cash crop is one way to bring in this income. Especially if it's a crop that requires (or can benefit from the use of) specialized equipment -- planting, harvesting, and threshing wheat comes to mind -- it makes sense to adopt a "division of labor" strategy among the various homesteads in an area.

onething said...

Wow, you've touched on a pet (he he) peeve of mine and do I ever agree. I live out here in the country with hippie homesteaders (quote unquote)and even when they are not vegetarian, they are wimps, as well as disrespectful and wasteful and cruel. My brother in law had a dying cat that had a thyroid problem and she was acutely hungry and scrawny for a year before she died. I began to at least beg my sister to have the cat put down. Ditto a neighbor who had a very old cat she didn't even like who was obviously suffering and obviously dying for something like 2 years while I kept offering to get my shotgun and she couldn't let me do it. Never mind livestock, put your animals down whey they are decrepit and suffering! If you haven't the guts, you don't deserve even a cat.

My sister, whom you've met Dmitry, says that she does not eat her laying hens because after giving her eggs for a few years "they deserve retirement." Say what? I mean, a 6 year life for an animal like a hen must seem almost eternal to them. Sure they give eggs, but she gives them security and supplemental feed, and they live a fabulous life. My friend found a French recipe for soup from a chicken and when she translated the name of it, it meant "old hen soup." Oh, and that one and her husband, who wouldn't let me do away with their cat, they keep chickens in miserable confinement called a chicken tractor, 6 or 8 hens within about 14 square feet and call them organic, when they get old, which is less than 3 and usually half have died by then, they "give them back to the universe" which means they let them out for the hawks or whatever to get them. But we were taking care of their hens while they were on vacation and when the poor hens huddled near their old coop and it was snowy, we simply ate them.

On another note, is Greer alright? He has not responded to his blog for two days.

AlaBikeDr said...

Small "farming" and homesteading are done far away from my cozy suburb. Can you turn a suburb into a self reliant community? We each have 1/2 acre. Our neighborhood has about a thousand homes. We have jobs-we are after all upper middle class-but as conditions tighten in the long emergency, what are the chances of making a village out of a suburb? I think it possible. Not likely, but possible. Could cities encourage more neighborhood sustainability? A political question. If I get hungry I can learn to slop hogs but as a professional that is not going to be my strength as an "old guy". When there is no internet, gasoline, open banks, or electricity, perhaps my neighbors will be looking for some alternatives to migrating or pillaging.....

Thomas Lunde said...

Hi Dimitri:

Love your last two posts and will probably be buying the book soon. I'm an old geezer, 77 and fading but after walking in the woods for exercise for two years, I decided to do something rather than veg into the grave.

I rented a little land, bought 6 Large Black Heritage piglets, learned how to put up electric fences and away I went. Four years later, I have 30 growers eating up my pension money and 10 sows and two boars. I have had to relocate 4 times moving my growing herd. Sold some piglets, butchered 5 large boars - very difficult decision, met a young man with country skills, and made him a partner. weathered 3 tough winters, have watched animals grow, killed them, etc. Big learning curve.

Benefits are mostly intangible. Lots of practical knowledge, high degree of humbleness, love my animals and had to learn that they had to die. Has been great for my health, doing chores twice a day is a challenging exercise program, like today the weather is 5 below and the ground is icy from day melt and night freezing. Lots of carpentry work to built sheds, etc.

Wish I had known the distinction between farming and homesteading. Would choose homesteading as marketing is a pain in the ass.

Well, I leave this story, it's been a great life and I will probably do it till I croak. Have become quite integrated into this rural community and gained lot of respect which is nice but not sought.

Rob Rhodes said...

I have long believed that the life we arrange for an animal is much more important than that we eventually kill and eat it. Any attempt to live sustainably must be guided by nature and that will include animals as part of the cycle. I keep six chickens in a mobile coop on my large lot. They provide eggs, rich 'hot' manure which mixed with my kitchen compost seems to make it rat proof, and every couple of years some stew. As a bonus they are endlessly entertaining to us and to passing families, especially those with little kids. The most valuable eggs I get are those I take from the egg box on a cool morning and place, still warm, into the hand of a delighted and wondrous child.

moflora said...

Raising and butchering animals on the homestead, if done well, is certainly the most humane and efficient way to obtain meat. Today we killed a sheep. He was eating hay with his buddies up until the last minute of his life. Very quick and out of sight of the other sheep. In my opinion this is far gentler than buying factory meat or trucking your critters off to the slaughterhouse.

Nothing goes to waste. What the humans don't want or need the dogs, casts and chickens will consume with gusto. Blood, brains, tongues, gut, it's all good for something. However, my wife balks at giving the empty heads to the dogs and poultry - so they go out for the coyotes.

Dmitry - As far as beasts of burden are concerned, many people - especially those without experience with horses - should consider oxen. If you have helpful, knowledgeable neighbors and an access to good gear and the money to buy trained horses then that is probably your option. The old saying about training horses is "you don't put green on green."

However, starting with young untrained calves is an excellent way to begin training oxen. Our ox is cheaper to keep than a horse, easier to feed. He is slower than a horse which at my age working in the woods is a good thing. A team of oxen can work with just a yoke and a chain. A single ox requires more complex gear. A horse is better in deep snow and better in real heat. If a particular ox doesn't work out - there is the beef. Some good books and videos are available regarding the use of oxen.