Monday, September 15th
This week I was assigned to work with Joel Salatin as he does his morning chores, namely moving the Eggmobile and checking on the cows. To refresh your memory, we have two mobile laying hen shelters here at the farm; the Feathernet and the Eggmobile. The Eggmobile birds are entirely free range and sleep in their coop at night while the Feathernet birds are enclosed using an electrified netting system. Due to this extra protection against predators, the Feathernet girls can sleep wherever they want, thank you very much, provided it is inside their net.
After breakfast, I worked with Eric, our apprentice manager, and fellow intern Chris on installing some PVC gutter systems on the Carbon Shed. At one point, the Carbon Shed was basically a roof to cover Polyface’s fresh wood chips and compost piles, but over time, walls have been added to it. We recently installed some metal siding and Eric wanted a gutter system to direct rainfall. I have never really done anything gutter related, so it was interesting to me to see how quickly all the pieces came together and how versatile the PVC components were. I hear they are relatively inexpensive as well, but I’ll have to do my own research when I get back to New Hampshire.
Tuesday, September 16th
Tuesday involved several projects, one of which was pouring a concrete pad for the sawmill. Prior to this point, the farm’s sawmill had sat on the ground, but its ideal placement is on a level concrete surface. This was fun as all the interns were there, even if there wasn’t something for each of us to do. (All I did was watch and take pictures.)
Once everyone was rolling on this project, intern Greer and I went with apprentice Jonathan to move the pigs into one of Polyface’s acorn glens. In the fall, Polyface makes sure to move all the pastured pigs into these glens as the pigs LOVE acorns. The move was pretty straightforward. The paddocks were pretty near each other so all we had to do was create an alleyway between the two using a strand of poly wire and some metal stakes and open the gates. Greer called the pigs in using some grain as a reward and Jonathan and I followed behind to make sure nobody was left behind.
That afternoon, our apprentice manager let us know that there was a catchment pond being dug at one of the farms Polyface is renting if we’d like to go see. Where Dan and I are planning to add some farm ponds to our farm back in New Hampshire, I really wanted to watch. There is a spring on the property that the Salatins thought would be good to capture and between them and the excavator they hired, they worked out a dam location and a spot to dig the actual pond. I have been saying all summer how I have a newfound love and adoration for machinery and all it does for us, and this was another time. The pond was started Tuesday morning and was completed the following morning. I can’t imagine having to dig a pond by hand.
That evening, we went to catch stewing hens and roosters from one of the other properties Polyface is renting. The birds are much easier to catch at night, so we went after dinner and waited until it was dark before beginning our covert mission. I had mentioned in past posts that catching stewers can be difficult because they are speedy, but they are like tortoises compared to the roosters. Those roosters were fast!!! And wiley. And big. Good thing there were several of us, so we were able to get them all together but if it had been just me, it would have taken a while.
Wednesday, September 17th
So, those birds we caught last night… We processed them today. We had a big processing day, 240 stewing hens, 124 broilers and 57 roosters, and it ended up taking us until the early afternoon to get all the birds processed and in the chill tanks. After a quick lunch, we regrouped and got them all packaged.
I spent my afternoon chore time replenishing the hay in the nest boxes for my laying hen friends and washed eggs. I also checked on my acorn eating pigs from Monday’s move and one was out of the pen! Naughty! Since I was by myself, I had to take a minute and think about how to get him back in. He didn’t want to jump over the electric wire and herding him might send him deeper into the woods. I decided instead to try and play to the naturally curious nature of pigs in general. I stood still for a few minutes against the fence talking to him and soon enough, all his pig friends who were well behaved and stayed where they were supposed to came up and stood near me. He then came over to see what was going on and I used one of the stakes to lift the wire and he scooted right under. Hurray! Objective met in a quick and drama free fashion! I felt pretty validated by how it all went. It was one of those times when you can see the results of your training, research and hard work actually manifesting. There is no set way to handle getting a loose animal back where it is supposed to be, so I’m pleased that I now know enough that I can assess a situation like this and am able to control it in a way I am comfortable with.
Thursday, September 18th
Thursday started out with chipping and firewood collecting at that pasture we have been working on for the past month or so. It is really starting to take shape and I think the cows will enjoy it next season.
The afternoon was spent with Gabe and Tim, two fellow interns (both of which will be apprentices next year, along with Chris, another intern) moving a herd of cattle at one of the rental properties, feeding round bales and moving the shade structures. We had to feed about six bales, so this whole trip took a few hours. The cattle in this herd are really pretty, so I did take a few minutes to take some pictures.
Friday, September 19th
Friday was another big processing day, 200 broilers and 120 turkeys. It took a lot longer than usual because of some problems with the pluckers, which left the turkeys more feathery than one would like. We can pluck the wayward feathers with these little pliers we have just for the occasion, but it takes a while. We were done with processing and packaging with enough time to finish afternoon chores without being late for dinner.
Saturday, September 20th
I worked this weekend, which was fun because I got to sort cows! We needed to sort out some cows we believed to be pregnant to bring back to Polyface (We were at another rental farm.) and pick some finishers to send to slaughter.
I spent the afternoon deboning turkeys for grinding, which I actually enjoy, and gathering eggs. We then had dinner with Joel and his wife Teresa and I got to try her famous honey baked chicken. It is definitely worth the hype.
Sunday, September 21st
Normally I wouldn’t write about Sunday because it is usually chores only, but this Sunday was different. Polyface had a client who ordered 1,000 live birds that they elected to have processed at a different facility. This meant we needed to catch said 1,000 birds. We had all hands on deck and were able to get this done in about an hour and a half but it was a lot of birds! I personally worked with interns Brandon and Alicia, with Alicia and I catching and Brandon carrying the full chicken crates (Those can be upwards of 75lbs each. I’ve got to give the man his due.) to the flatbed trailer we had just for the occasion. Our apprentice manager and his wife were nice enough to have ice cream ready for us after and we all sat on the front porch of the sales building to watch the sun set.
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Monday, September 8th
This week, I was assigned to move broiler shelters. As I write these blogs, I feel like I’m always writing about moving the broilers, so if that seems to be the case and I’m being boring, I apologize. I like moving broilers though. The birds are comical and they love getting new grass, so now that I can actually move their living quarters without needing a Gatorade after, the process is pretty painless.
I spent most of the rest of the day with Eric, our apprentice manager, and fellow intern Brandon. First, we took a trailer load of piglets to one of Polyface’s rental farms to put them out into their first pig pasture. One of the fun parts about this assignment is that part of fulfilling your job responsibilities involves sticking around for a bit to watch the piglets to make sure they are settling in and are learning where the fences are. It was pretty gratifying (and amusing) to watch 50 piglets sprint around their new paddock through the tall grass. After lunch, we did the not so glamorous job of taking the Polyface trash and recycling to the town transfer station. Watching people throw out fully recyclable items into the trash bugs me... but such is life. We made up for those wasted recycling opportunities by stopping at an organ factory (the instrument, not body parts) and a local woodworking shop to pick up wood shavings they were looking to get rid of. We use the sawdust in the brooder and under some of the rabbit cages and these businesses are happy to have someone come and take it away.
Tuesday, September 9th
After moving birds, I managed to get myself placed back on the Buying Club load up crew. I love Buying Club load up. It’s so fun. It has been really helpful for me to focus on it, as I’m now able to discern different cuts of meat based on what they look like (not all of them all the time, but I’m getting there) and am learning which items seem to be the most popular. The most memorable order from this Tuesday was someone who bought thirty-five bags of chicken wings, which came to about 56lbs. We were all wondering what one would need that many wings for, but we figured it was a football party or something like that.
We spent the afternoon working on the new portable irrigation system with Eric, mainly moving it to a different spot out in the field as you first enter Polyface’s driveway and hooking it up to a pump. We then went to one of the farm’s pig pastures and cleaned up the fence line with weed whackers and a chain saw. If the fence line gets too overgrown, the spark can be deadened or the wire can be dragged down and then there will be pigs everywhere. We haven’t had a mass breakout yet this season (knock on wood) and it would be nice to finish with a perfect record.
Wednesday, September 10th
I will not tell a lie. I badgered Daniel to let me go on the Buying Club run. Usually Richard, our intelligent and wonderful driver, does Buying Club runs by himself, but I really wanted to see how the drop offs went. Selling things is a strength of mine and I really enjoy it, and Buying Club has been the last remaining mystery of Polyface that I wanted to unlock.
The way Buying Club works is that people place their orders online with the farm. There are several set drop off locations and dates people can sign up for to pick up their food. Buying Club runs are done on Wednesday and Saturday, with Thursdays being the restaurant delivery day. On Tuesdays, whoever is assigned to Buying Club loadup works with the staff at the farm to assemble orders in coolers based on the online submittals. The clients are responsible for bringing their own cooler to the drop off, gathering their food and they then pay for their items with cash or check.
Richard and I went to three different stops and it was interesting for me to see how much organization goes into the setting out of the coolers, eggs, folders with invoices and even where Richard parks the truck. I also enjoyed talking with the different customers as they picked up their orders. As an aside, the guy who bought all the chicken wings that we had packed the day before explained that his beagle gets two raw chicken wings a day and he was stocking up. How cute is that! He must have one happy dog.
Thursday, September 11th
Morning chores were a bit different this morning, as we were joined by a film and camera crew working with the Virginia Tourism Board. They were really nice and filmed/photographed us during chores and throughout the day as we worked on putting corrugated metal siding on one of the farm buildings. I was struck by how the chores and animals I am so used to were so interesting to them. It was good to be reminded of how all this was such a novelty when I first got here. I’m not saying I’m jaded, but I realized I take for granted the beautiful surroundings and the purposeful work. I have a cool job and it is nice to be reminded of that.
Friday, September 12th
We had another film crew with us on Friday. The creator of American Meat, a food/farming documentary, was back and is working on a new project about young farmers. He came with us while we did chores and prepped and reconfigured some of the pig pastures. I think he caught me on film stumbling over a root and am hoping that doesn’t make it to prime time. I can envision it now, a voiceover solemnly states “The future of American farming is bleak.” as I suddenly trip while striding through a field of tall grass. Just kidding.
The rest of the afternoon, we fed some round bales at one of the rental properties to buy some time to let some of the fields grow in before putting the cows out on them. There has been very little rain this summer and Daniel Salatin believes it is a better use of our grass and hay resources to rest these areas for a bit to encourage further growth while the weather is still hospitable. After feeding the cows, we went to the sale barn for my first cattle auction. Daniel suggested we pay attention to the prices along with who bought what. There is some strategy to buying at an auction that I was unaware of and am sure this lesson will save me thousands once Dan (fiancé Dan) and I delve into the beef business.
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It’s happened - first once, then twice this week alone: a killing frost. The weatherman was helpful on these counts, and the advance advisory let me spend the hours prior harvesting. Tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans, pumpkins, and winter & summer squash were all brought in before any damage was done to the produce themselves.
Now, root crops and hardier brassica vegetables are still holding their own, sturdy and strong. But the other garden beds, including the empty plots where a cover crop of oats is replacing potatoes, onions, garlic, and dry beans suggest a sort of vacancy to the garden. As Ryan noted with a chuckle, “Well...it looks a bit tidier with nothing in it!”
True, and an observation I’ve made myself at times. There is an order created by emptiness. Instead, though, we spend the warmer months finding the winsome beauty and energetic bounty in the lush chaos of a verdant garden. The weeds, the stump sprouts, the unruly herbs, the unstoppable raspberries, the preening cleome, and the dominating squash vines, not to mention the over-achieving beans and chest-high broccoli.
The mint continues to hold its ground, and the raspberries can’t believe they’ll have to be pruned. Still, things are changing. The clover is no longer growing by the hour, and the weeds, ever pushy and persistent in over-extending their reach are, nonetheless, slowly settling into contented retirement around the edges I’ve worked to maintain. Paths and contours are re-defined, beginnings and endings are readily visible. “Crazy” isn’t the first word called to mind by a glance out the window.
The squash vines are now crumpled and condensed within the wooden confines of our kitchen compost bin, though they still, somehow, spill beyond its borders, but without the authoritative vigor of the summer. Walkways are now serving their purpose, and the days of jumping plants that had grown too big for their beds are behind us. Until next year.
Which is already in sight, despite the fact that this very season is not yet concluded. But the weeding, cover cropping, and applying of compost during these weeks are what unites the present with the approaching future. No season exists distinct from its predecessors, and the health of future vegetable generations depend on the care given to the garden at the conclusion of each preceding season. As summer officially transitions to fall, and all too quickly into winter, the fate of past, present, and future gardens continue to be woven together in a tangle of weeds, compost, and exceedingly delicious harvests.
Time for fall clean-up of your garden and landscaped areas! Weeding, mulching and pruning services available, plus edible landscapes and garden designs. Contact Beth via firstname.lastname@example.org for your annual, perennial, herbal, or ornamental garden needs (see Business Directory listing under ‘Garden Design & Services’).
Cows have cloven hooves (i.e. hooves split into two toes) and toenails. In nature, cows wear down their toenails naturally by walking. Unfortunately, many cows today don’t do much walking around. Instead, they are confined to barns and feedlots where they spend most of the day standing, often in manure. In these conditions, the cow's toenails are rarely trimmed and can grow too long, which can cause crippling. Many farmers with large dairy operations trim their cows’ feet annually. They put the cows onto a mechanical table that lifts them up and tips them on their sides so their feet can easily be trimmed. It is the opposite of natural.
During the past eight years running the Bob-White Systems micro-dairy, I have never trimmed my cows’ nails. In the spring, summer and fall my cows—currently Ruby, Malbec and Paneer—are on pasture and do a lot of walking. Their toes stay neatly trimmed. My way; the natural way. My cows rarely stand in manure. And when it rains, they get a foot bath. In the winter, my cows spend more time than not inside in the tie-stall barn that I've set up with nice, soft mattresses. These are great for their legs and comfort but not ideal for their toenails. When I let them out to walk in the snow (during nice weather and or while I clean the barn), their toenails get enough of a trim. As soon as they go back out to pasture in the spring, their hooves get worn down again.
All of this doesn’t mean that I am some kind of expert farm manager. What it means is that I follow a philosophy of farming that dictates that I intervene as little as possible in the lives of my cows and their land. Often, the cows know how to take care of themselves. They walk around when they need exercise — and a pedicure. They find shade when they are hot, water when they are thirsty, pasture when they are hungry, etc. Of course, I have only four cows. I run a small operation, so it is easy to work naturally. I suspect it is not so on a larger-scale dairy.
Occasionally, one of my cows’ toenails will break off a little too far up on its toe. Of course, this is painful, just like a torn nail on a human is painful. Still, with time, I know that the nail will heal and the broken portion will slough off. I prefer this to lifting the cow up, laying her down on her side in a cage and trimming her feet with a grinder or hoof knife. I once had a cow at a friends’ farm that had her hooves trimmed using the lift and hoof knife. When the trimmer went to put the cow down, he broke her leg. It was sad and, in my mind, preventable.
When I had a bigger farm and milked 70 or so Jerseys, I had my cows' feet trimmed as they stood upright in a stall. This was years ago. The trimmer — a trained expert who came down from Maine to trim hooves for several farms — used a sharp chisel and wooden mallet. If I had to trim my cows feet now, that's how I would do it. But, I don't do it, and you now know why. In my mind, this is one in a list of benefits for man and beast of the Micro Dairy life.
To learn more about raising cows on a micro-dairy, visit Bob-White Systems on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/FarmsteadDairy.
It's like a slow-coming tsunami that's now crashing in over my kitchen, as if the Earth trembled under the garden and lifted beans, cucumbers, cabbages and squash to flood the counters. Between now and say, late October, hundreds of empty jars will be brought out from storage and filled with pickles, sauerkraut, apple sauce and salsa, and tucked away for winter. From then on we'll bring those jars from our root cellar back up onto the counters and feast on the stored garden bounty long into next summer.
It's a task, to bring the harvest from our gardens in and put it up in ways that will preserve it. Pretty much every day for the next couple of months I'll spend part of the day filling our cellar back up, one way or another, whether it's chopping cabbage for kraut, picking apples, sorting storing pears, drying herbs, packing carrots or canning tomatoes. I know what it takes, but I also know what I get. Last year Dennis and I went through several months in the depth of winter and spent less than $50 on food. Still, we had unlimited access to better, fresher and more food than ever before in our lives.
Questions About a Self-Sufficient Lifestyle
One of the most frequent questions we get on this self-sufficient lifestyle is if it's not a lot of work. Often it comes as a comment “This must be so much work.” Many have admitted to me that they once canned and stored put food away for the winter but found it to be too much work, so they stopped and now rely on stores for their grocery needs.
When I first came to Maine, Dennis and I also depended on the store for our food and the lumber yard for most of our building materials. Throughout the summer and fall we ate from our garden but the rest of the year we stopped at the grocery store about once a week and usually bought one head of cabbage, one bag of carrots, a rutabega, potatoes and a weekly splurge, like celery or a squash. The rest of our diet was rice, beans and oats that we bought in bulk through a buying club. On Sundays we usually went to visit Dennis' family and treated ourselves with a to-go coffee from the gas station.
This was our way, a strategy, to get to where we are now. By turning every dime we could afford not to have a paying job and instead stay at home and work to achieve the Hostel and our viable homestead. By also staying away from debt and instead having the patience and prevalence to go through years of scraping by, we eventually we came ahead, and now we still can work at home and have all the rewards that money could, or couldn't buy.
And me, I no longer talk about how much work it is – I'd like to talk about the rewards, that far outweighs the labor. Faced with the task of harvesting food, milling lumber, cutting firewood or any other chore we do, we do it with our gaze set on the outcome. For each passing year we're working out systems that allow tasks to be executed with as little work as possible, for example how to process food in a time efficient manner, prevent weeds before they start to grow, how to plant the garden in the spring and put it to bed in the fall. That too is a thresh hold we've climbed, Dennis and I. With patience and prevalence we've overcome some of the homesteading hurdles and can now take on the year to year tasks knowing that we can get it done in a quick and satisfying way.
As homesteaders, all the rewards are directly ours to keep and compared with the time and labor invested the return is very high, and for every year, increasing. Our work provides most of our necessities but the multiple returns we get from our homestead also give us what money couldn't buy, such as the self reliance, sense of security, dignity, the beautiful place where we spend our days and the choice to set our own schedule. Since we have no debt, we can navigate outside a system where, due to how general finances, mortgages, credits and corporations function, most people will never break even or come ahead.
To talk about the rewards when others talk about the workload is also a way for me to say that living of the land, doing physical work, growing food and pursuing a path of simplicity is possible and positive. It's a way to look beyond the hurdles and the issues and to see the beauty of the garden, the gratitude from our Hostel guests, the year round abundance of food and the viable and righteous lifestyle it offers.
Monday, September 1st: Labor Day
Monday’s work day was somewhat abbreviated due to Labor Day, which was a nice surprise. This week, my morning chore was to work with the turkeys and the hens at the Feathernet, which I enjoy doing. To refresh your memory, the turkeys get moved every two days and the Feathernet gets moved every three. On days where the birds do not get moved, we usually set up nets for the next day’s move along with feeding and giving the birds their grit.
After breakfast, we split up to do different projects and interns Greer, Will and I went with Daniel Salatin to one of the rental farms to modify their water system. Our objective was to dig a trench into one of the farm ponds, making it deep enough where we could pump out clean water (If the area is to shallow, you get dirt and muck in your water.) and close enough where the pump hose could reach it. Polyface has a digging attachment they can stick on one of the tractors, which was fun to watch. We ended up getting the afternoon off and while most people went to shoot skeet, I went to a coffee shop to upload my blog. :)
Tuesday, September 2nd
Tuesday morning, we fed the turkeys and moved the Feathernet. We were moving them across a farm road, which was a slightly longer distance than the birds are used to, so the move took a little bit longer than I’m sure they’re used to.
After a quick breakfast, intern Josh and I did buying club load up, which you may remember from other blog posts that I enjoy. Polyface had run a sale on turkeys and with it being back to school, a lot of people tend to start stocking up on food for the year. This weeks load up was pretty big and took us until lunch to assemble and put away in the freezers. We spent the rest of the day at one of Polyface’s rental farms sorting cows and moving them to different pasture. We needed to assemble ten cows to send to slaughter and check on the calves and their mothers, which we were able to do all at once. My job in the sort was to man the gate and Daniel would call out if he wanted a certain cow or not as he directed parts of the herd to this corral I was managing. You have to be alert when sorting cows because when one that you don’t want squeaks in through the gate, it is a pain for Daniel to have to go in and sort it out. The move and sort went really well and we had a lot of nice looking animals to choose from.
Wednesday, September 3rd
After chores, we interns assembled for the long anticipated slaughterhouse (or abattoir if you prefer) tour. I had never been to a slaughterhouse, so I was a little nervous about what to expect. We interns had all been wanting to go, as we’ve assembled many a trailer of animals to send to this plant and we knew that once things started to slow down a bit at the farm, we would get the chance to go. I would like to report that I was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting to feel grossed out or at the very least overstimulated, but I felt neither. The facility was incredibly clean and organized with an emphasis on creating a low stress environment for the animals. On the day we went, the staff was processing some of the Polyface cows, which was very impactful for me. This was my first chance to see the whole cycle as it relates to the cattle. I had sorted these cows with Daniel and intern Brandon the day before and here they were for all of us to see.
If you had asked me even a year ago if I ever thought going to a slaughterhouse wouldn’t be an entirely unpleasant experience for me, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. Until this summer, my impression of such enterprises had been influenced by the media and pro-vegetarian documentaries, where I thought of slaughterhouses as dirty, foul, dark places where animals suffer and are brutally killed, which is part of the reason why Polyface’s outdoor poultry processing operation was so intriguing to me initially, but this is not what this slaughterhouse was like. I know from first hand observation that that the owners and the staff of this abattoir want a low stress environment for the animals. If I may, I’d like to explain why I now think more favorably of other smaller slaughterhouses without having seen them. In my own extrapolation, having worked with livestock this summer, stressed out animals are harder to handle, work with and be around. It only makes sense to me that other slaughterhouses follow similar humane handling practices. Besides the emotional benefits for all involved, humane handling is more efficient, thus more profitable. I’m sure there are outliers, but for the most part, I’d like to give small to mid-size slaughterhouses the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they need an inspector present for USDA certification and you can be sure avoiding the wrath of the USDA is a priority for these businesses. It would be for me. But I digress.
That night, some of the interns and Eric, our apprentice manager, collected stewing hens for chicken processing tomorrow. Stewing hens make delicious broth and we had recently sold out of our stewer inventory. These hens are fast and are much easier to gather when they’re bedding down for the night. We were able to round them up fairly quickly and get them settled for the evening.
Thursday, September 4th
Since our usual processing day, Wednesday, as occupied with mind expansion and new life experiences, we processed chickens on Thursday. After tending to the turkeys and Feathernet hens, intern Josh and I collected about 200 broilers with Jonathan, one of our apprentices.
I was on the legging station and I can assure you that working on stewing hens is much more intensive than working on a broiler. The broilers are between seven and nine weeks old by the time they are processed and the stewing hens are usually two to three years old. This gives the stewers time to grow very strong cartilage at their joints, making legging harder on you and your knife. I had gutted stewers before coming here when helping with processing on the farm that Dan (my Dan back in New Hampshire, not Daniel Salatin, just to be clear) had worked at previously, and it is a much different experience than gutting a broiler. Basically, it takes longer and is messier. But that is okay. They are different builds and different organs are more fully developed, so it takes a while to get used to the transition. I am, however, looking forward to some lovely chicken soup.
Friday, September 5th
Friday was a bit of an odds and ends day as we were preparing for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s annual fundraiser, which was to take place this weekend. After taking care of the turkeys and laying hens, intern Tim and I set out three pens of broiler chicks (the last batch of this year!), helped repair some gates and fencing at one of the pig pastures and cleared brush for a fence line Joel was cutting back.
After lunch, we set out trash cans and the like for the fundraiser, built a log wall in one of the barns (Think lincoln logs but with actual trees) and did evening chores. That evening, as part of the fundraiser, we were able to go to a street fair and dinner put on by Farm to Consumer. There were some different vendors and organizations there supporting local food and Joel was given an award by the mayor of Staunton, VA (the town the fair was held) honoring him for his significant contributions to the local food movement. It was fun to see so many enthusiastic people and see Joel get his award. And there were brownies. Yay.
Saturday, September 6th
I was on the schedule to work this weekend, which ended up being fortuitous for me. I like when there are events at Polyface, so it was fun to be able to participate. After morning chores, we interns were invited to partake in Farm to Consumer’s welcome breakfast, which was generous of them. There was a farm tour, which I got to attend even though I was technically working (I can work and be inspired by Joel at the same time… multitasking!), followed by lunch and some speakers. I ended up joining the organization and suggest that those of you who haven’t yet do so. This organization has done a lot to educate farmers of their rights when it comes to food laws, illegal search and seizure and all kinds of other complicated legalese. It also gives consumers a way to help farmers and keep our local small farms out of legal trouble. They are also nice folks and were a pleasure to have around the farm.
We are down to three weeks left… I’m getting excited to head home, see the people and pets that I miss, and apply what I’ve learned here to my own farm business, but it will be weird not seeing all my intern, staff and animal friends that I’ve become accustomed to. Good thing for the internet. For most people, they’re never more than a few keystrokes away.
I've brain-tanned my fair share of deer, squirrels, groundhogs, foxes and sundry other creatures unfortunate enough to cross Route 9 near our farm and school in West Virginia; but the farmers market seemed nervous about the prospect of giving us the skin when they slaughtered the next in their herd. Either way, we spent months calling, negotiating, anticipating and mostly, waiting.
American Natives weren't the only early people to practice brain-tanning; it was a wide-spread practice whereby the brain of the animal provides the lecithin needed to naturally tan the hide. Today, modern tanneries use awful chemicals like chromium sulfate, but primitive humans used any source of tannins whether from lecithin in brains, or from certain barks or vegetables. Many American natives revered the buffalo and tanned its hide in a highly ritualistic manner. Buffalo skins provided homes, clothes and food for the Lakota and other people of the American interior.
As a kid, I remember traveling across the country with a plastic buffalo super glued to the dash board, anxiously peering out the window of the Dodge Caravan, waiting for my first glance of a real live buffalo. The feeling was exactly the same waiting for the call from the farmer's market that we would be getting a hide.
Brain-Tanning is a Big Job
We knew it would be a big job. Brain-tanning a big deer can take 3 to 4 days for one person, so we definitely wanted help. We sent out an alert on the Facebook page letting our students and neighbors know that we would be trading brain-soaked, 25-degree-Fahrenheit, stooped-over labor for ... well, apple cider.
When we picked up the hide at the butcher's, we found out that the sow had been almost full-term with two calves. We dolefully loaded the 55-gallon barrel holding the bloody pelt along with the two unborn buffalo whom we wanted to honor. We weren't quite sure what to do once we got the two perfectly formed little buffalo home, so we took them to the western end of the school, towards the setting sun and the land of the buffalo and buried them in a patch of lamb's quarter. Maybe it was a silly gesture, but a part of me felt responsible for those two calves and the realities of our effects on other creatures is something I try to lean into instead of turning away. But now the hard work started. We decided to dry scrape the hide, which means building a rack. This was a big animal, so we got 16 foot 2-by-4s and built a square to stretch the hide out in. We sent out the alert. "Everybody who wants to tan a buffalo, be here tomorrow by 9 am, and stay all weekend!"
Tanning a Buffalo Hide in Winter
Sure it was 25 degrees and there was snow on the ground, but folks showed up and we scraped and scraped and scraped and scraped and warmed by the fire and then scraped some more. We scraped using traditional stone tools as well as ulu knives and plain old butter knives. The turkeys helped out too, picking scraps out of the grass.
Later we heated the brains with water and started rubbing them into the giant skin. Over 4 weeks, we brained the hide 6 or 7 times. We could tell the snow accumulation by how high up the buffalo rack the drifts were. Slowly, she dried and tightened, straining the wooden rack. I rendered the fat we pulled off of the hide into wonderful bison tallow, gifts back to our helpers on that first weekend.
We now have the bison hung in our main pavilion, and the 20 or so people who were a part of the hard work show her off to other students and stop by to touch the fur and admire their work. A huge part of what we do is build community that strives to live an authentic life, and this wonderful animal helped us along the way.