Some of my FB friends may recall a recent post I made:

“Never dreamed this is the kind of thing I’d be doing once I moved to the North Woods…”

11-17-17 Jeff & Angie Carcasses

You can see in this shot, not only the array of deer carcasses from a local processor (two that we were going to use for bird feeders and the remaining that our friends were going to use for pig food), but also a small pumpkin and buttercup squash I would process later and a deer hide that I’d scraped earlier than evening.  I am kind of amazed at the Homesteader I’m becoming.

Jeff and Angie Ness of Split Oak Farm have taught me much, including how to process a deer into venison.  The deer in this video is the one Jeff shot while hunting with Dan in November.  Jeff is a Retired Navy Medical Chief so has ample knowledge of anatomy which helps in the process.  I’m a SLOW but steady learner.  He would start with a section, like a shoulder, and I’d have the opposite section and he’d walk me through how to best utilize all the meat from the bones.  He truly gets as much meat as he can from his kill.  I appreciate that.  I was MUCH slower than him due to my unfamiliarity (I can’t even venture a guess at how many deer Jeff has processed over the years).  But I was also amazed that I could handle the processing when years ago I was barely willing to cut up store-bought chicken breasts for dinner!

Jeff explained how to remove the silverskin and tendons, which are tough,  He advised on removing the fat which gives the a distasteful flavor if too prevalent in the ground meat.  [I had some cabbage rolls Angie made from their deer this past weekend and I believe we did a good job as you’d never know it wasn’t beef.  Well, this untrained palate recognized it as familiar enough anyway!]  He was a thorough instructor as I made my way through the muscle, connective tissue, and bone.  We ended up with 25-30# of sausage, two bags each of tenderloin and backstrap steaks, and several roasts.  It’s a lot of meat and will carry us through this winter well fed.

I have been slowly making my way into these new skills.  Recently Jeff and Angie had a friend looking to downsize his flock of some old layers and so we gathered the seven hens and processed them into food.  These ladies were much smaller than the birds we’d previously processed for Split Oak Farms – running just over half the size.  And, due to age, they were much different physically from birds I’d processed in the past, which were usually chickens that had been raised for meat and were thus only a few months old.

When we’d processed birds a few months earlier, Jeff did the slaughter, while Angie and I cleaned the birds.  Once the process got going, Angie moved to final clean-up while Jeff and I continued with the processing.  She focused on the precision work of cleaning all the last tiny feathers, removing the bits that most people don’t like to see on their store-bought birds.  It’s been eye-opening for me, from the first processing I did at Dancing Rabbit with the Critters, to the processing I continue to do, to learn more and more about what real chickens look like as they go from feathery frolicking creatures to what we put into our ovens and crock pots.  It is tedious work to make a chicken look ready for cooking; removing anything that might remind people of the previous life the chicken lived, of its previous animation.

I was the one to take five of the birds from the cage to the killing station.  I thanked each bird for her life.  I held each gently as I could and tried to make her last walk to the garden a calm one.  I did my best to carefully put each bird head down into the cone.  I watched as Jeff slit the throat of the first bird.  He had asked if I wanted to do the kill but I wasn’t quite ready.  To be honest, I hadn’t considered that taking a bird’s life might be a part of the day for me.  But realized it was probably a hurdle I was ready to try to overcome.  When I brought the next bird to the cone, I knew I’d be the one to take her life.

It was an experience I cannot fully explain.  I was overwhelmed with a feeling of responsibility.  I felt like I was finally being fully accountable for my food.  That was empowering.  But it still chokes me up to think about it.  While I did my best, I don’t think I did as well as I could have.  I was inexperienced but I knew that practice would improve my technique.

I was also the one to take the final hen to her death.  I did it alone.  I pulled her from the cage, talked to her calmly, thanked her for her life, put her gently into the cone, and prepared to make the cut.  I found this second kill to be very poorly executed.  I took what felt like a full minute to break through and reach the carotid artery and jugular veins.  In all likelihood, it was probably more like 3-7 seconds but it felt like a very long time.  I apologized over and again to the hen.  I was visibly crying.  Jeff and Angie were processing birds a dozen feet behind me and didn’t say anything but I felt horrible for the botched job.

I grabbed the chicken from the other cone that Jeff had killed minutes earlier by its feet and took it to the water pot in the garage.  I assured the temperature was adequate (we want it at 145°F or a bit more, but not too hot) and dunked her in the water several times to release the oils and feathers.  I took her to the plucker and Jeff joined me as this was his part of the job.  I headed to the processing table to begin again with that work.  I was pretty introspective as we finished the work.

Earlier this same day, Alex from H&S Meats had come by to slaughter four pigs for Split Oak Farms.  One of the pigs was for Dan and me.  As Jeff and I drove to H&S to discuss the processing for those animals, I told him that I felt I’d done a terrible job on the last bird.  He reassured me by explaining that sometimes, no matter how hard you try to do it well, the knife can get caught on the quill of a feather and can be very hard to break through.  While it helped to know this, I still felt conscience-stricken.

Today I cooked one of the chickens from that day.  It may well be one that I killed.  I felt great reverence for this bird as I added onions to the body cavity that I had cleaned.  I felt love and tenderness for this hen as I tucked garlic between her skin and flesh.  I took care as I salted and arranged her in the crock pot.  I felt lucky to have this good food.  And I felt responsible for bringing this well-processed meat to my family table.

Oh, and those are potatoes Dan and I dug at Merry Gardens Farm!

I’m changing a lot as I become a North Woods Homesteader.  It’s a contemplative process and I know it’s changing who I am as a human being.  I work to be compassionate in my endeavors and I know I’m much more accountable for my sustenance than I have ever been.  I know it is making me more resilient and self-supporting but I also believe it’s making me more considerate.