Lard in the Larder & Meat on the Mind

A couple of weeks ago the first over-wintering trumpeter swans began flying overhead in small groups of four or five. Their ethereal trumpeting, along with a few storms and the quickly dipping mercury, are a sure sign that Old Man Winter is slowly wrapping his gnarled hands around the farm. As I sit here typing the wind is gusting wildly, rocking the tiny house on its tractor-trailer foundation. While Andrew and our part time farm hand William run around taking apart now-empty animal enclosures and gathering loose items that are blowing about, I sit here in the warm house with the excuse of fire-tender; we have many pounds of hog lard to render and keeping the fire alight is a very important task!

Speaking of hogs, all eighteen of our wonderful pig friends have been slaughtered over the past few weeks. The hogs are a huge part of our farm and bring a lot of character, so when they are first gone I feel their absence acutely. Someday soon we would like to breed our own hogs, and at that point we would have permanent pig residents to amuse us. For now the cycle of pig life on the farm is relatively short, but ends in a year’s supply of healthy, delicious pork. Many of our customers do not claim the leaf fat from their pigs once at the butcher, and so Andrew and I are happily collecting the leftovers for our own use and for gifts. Hog lard is making a comeback people: mark my words!

Today also marks the first goat slaughter of the season. Andrew performed this task himself, and I am so proud of how efficiently and humanely he accomplished this. This man I married never ceases to amaze me. He continues to learn new skills every day, and is constantly pushing himself to be better. If I only had half the drive he has we could conquer the world! Fortunately we’re happy just plodding along on our fertile little patch of borrowed land in this gorgeous valley. Who needs the world when you have everything you need just steps away from your front door?

As winter approaches we are trying to get things ready, doing what we can to prepare for the cold. We need to cut more hardwood for heat, and insulate the pipes coming out of the new well. We need to dig up and store our carrots, beets, and dahlia tubers in sawdust to protect them from freezing. On the back burner are plans to filter our water system and get the hot water heater back up and running. In the meantime we’re still hauling in our drinking water and taking showers at the neighbor’s. I started washing dishes part time at a nearby winery (the chefs were CSA members this season and are so fun to work with!), and I’ve gotten into the habit of brining my own dirty dishes with me. Having copious amounts of hot running water right out of the tap is a luxury I am still struggling to get used to.

In my last post I mentioned I was going on vacation to visit my sister and her new baby, along with some other family members. We had a great time in beautiful Autumnal Maine, enjoying the newest addition to the family and eating our way around Portland. Little Juniper is adorable, a perfect mash-up between my twin and her husband. It was surreal and amazing to watch the girl I grew up with mothering her child. I wish we lived closer so that I could watch Juniper grow, but photos and video chats will have to do for now. Despite kind of living as if we’re still in the 19th century, Andrew and I suffer that great dilemma most modern American families face: dispersion. We’d love to have everyone all living together on one big bustling farm, but for now we’re thankful for the technology that allows us to stay connected.

Typically wintertime on the farm is spent planning and plotting our next moves. Things are going to be a little bit different for us next year, and we have a lot of work to do in order to get ready. Our passions lie in humane animal husbandry, and we’re looking forward to making that our main mission at Bright Ide Acres. While vegetables will always be a part of our own homestead, the availability of healthy, organically grown produce is widespread in this part of the world. Ethically raised meats are harder to find, and the demand for this niche product is increasing. With the rise in consumer awareness about the factory meat industry and how much more nutritious and environmentally friendly pastured meats are, we feel there is a good marketplace for us.

One big challenge for selling meat products is that the regulations required for selling cuts are proving prohibitive for us. I am adamant about having animals slaughtered on the farm rather than subjecting them to stressful transport and slaughterhouse conditions. Right now all of the large animals that are slaughtered for customers are done so under a custom arrangement, which is great for people who have the freezer space to take a half hog or quarter cow. Our mobile butchers are not USDA certified, which means we can’t take back the meat and resell it as bacon or pork chops at farmers markets or to restaurants. While some neighboring counties have USDA certified mobile slaughter units, our county currently does not.

Unfortunately many potential customers in Seattle and surrounding areas, (who have both the desire to support ethical meat and the means to do so), don’t have big freezers in their apartments and townhouses. Our goal is to find a way to create a meat CSA or cooperative whereby we can provide monthly (or so) boxes with various cuts of different animals, eggs, and honey. Another difficulty will lie in advanced funding, since most of the revenue made from animal products don’t come until after slaughter, which is later in the season. I have been mulling the idea of a Kickstarter campaign or something similar, since I know a lot of you might be interested in supporting us in our endeavors. Please let me know if a comment if you have any ideas or suggestions for farm fund-raising!

I hear some sizzling from the lard pot, so it’s time to go stoke the fire and add more fat. I hope all of you across the country stay warm during the brutal week that’s predicted ahead. If you’re feeling down about the weather I can recommend some homegrown beans simmered in a dollop of trotter gear, (gelatinous pork stock made from pig’s feet!), to keep those winter blues in check. There’s really nothing better than a steaming mug of homemade chili on a cold blustery day!

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The Golden Hour

There is a time of day I like to call the “Golden Hour.” I started noticing it a month or so ago, when the weather shifted towards winter and the trumpeter swans began flying low overhead.  Just before sunset, (at 4:15!), on days when the sun is shining and the frost lingers in the shadowy areas, the light hits the trees across the river and a brilliant golden glow radiates. Golden Hour is actually a misnomer, because the moment is brief; maybe five minutes lapse before the sun’s rays weaken and twilight sets in, turning everything to muted shades of grey. But in that short time I look around, take a deep breath, and absorb the last gasp of energy from the sun while I can. This is a moment that I believe only happens in climates where the seasons are distinct and change rapidly. I have seen it before, while going to school in Ohio or when I lived in the Eastern Sierras of California, but here on the farm it is different. Maybe it’s because I’m outside most of the time it occurs, but I think it is because I am in tune with my environment like never before. I can feel the seasons switching over, and the Golden Hour is like a beautiful warning. Take heed: winter is coming.

I suppose, (since everyone keeps telling me), that we have been lucky with weather this year. Having never lived in the Pacific Northwest I have to take their word for it. Though the mercury has dropped dramatically, with night temperatures in the twenties this week, the sun has made frequent appearances. Don’t get me wrong; there have been some blustery, grey, misty, and torrential days. But they are mixed in with marvelously clear, cold, brilliant days where the snow-capped peaks in the distance pull my gaze, reminding me of their quiet splendor.

Tuesday was one of those days, and it also happened to be the day we slaughtered our five pigs. I was worried most about this day, despite having witnessed the slaughter of cows, and having taken part in the slaughter of chickens and turkeys. We raised the pigs from little weaners, and they were an integral part of our life on the farm. Daily they frolicked, squealed, played, ate, scratched, escaped, ate, grew, nuzzled, snorted, ate, ate, and ate some more. I was worried that I had become too emotionally invested in the pigs, (I did name them after all), but throughout the process I understood that the pigs had gone from friend to food in the most humane way, and I now feel a sense of peace about the totality of the process. It doesn’t hurt that as pigs get older and bigger they get a lot less cute and cuddly! It also doesn’t hurt that I watched the birthing of a calf after all the pigs were slaughtered. In death there is life and in life there is death, and to me this is the essence of farming.

Last week we spent Thanksgiving with my father and stepmother in Sacramento. We took a road trip down there, and brought with us the dog, fresh eggs, a sack full of potatoes, and one half of a 30lb turkey. We have been eating our own chickens and beef since the spring and so I am used to the tangible difference between fresh, naturally raised meat and the kind you buy shrink-wrapped at Safeway.  Even with elevated expectations, this turkey blew my mind. The juice, flavor, texture…it was absurdly divine. If you have access to a nearby farm that produces Thanksgiving turkeys, I urge you to take advantage. Sure, you pay a lot more than you would for a Butterball, but you really are buying a different product. That’s true for all sustainably-raised meat, but if you consider it a splurge, do yourself a favor and splurge on the turkey!

In addition to our Thanksgiving getaway, I have recently traveled away from the farm quite a bit. My mom came in from Australia and I spent time with her and my brother and sister-in-law in Seattle. Then I flew to Portland, Maine with my mom and spent time with my sister, her husband and some more of my extended family. I had a great time visiting with everyone, and relished the easy access to a hot shower. I found myself getting “comfortable” living the city life to which I was formerly accustomed. I worried that it would be a hard transition back to farm living, that the cold would get to me and I would regret our lack of running water and dependable electricity. Fortunately coming back to Andrew’s warm arms made all of my doubts fall away, and I am happy to be back in my little house, sitting in the glow of the lantern as the fire rumbles nearby. As long as the Golden Hour keeps the “Big Wet” at bay, you won’t find me complaining!