Posts Tagged ‘backyard farming’

I’ve spent the past month wondering how to write about slaughtering my pigs. I’ve not only been wondering, but I’ve actually been afraid to write. Rabbit meat/slaughter has been getting a lot of press lately and the reaction to it has been, to me, mostly horrifying. (The New York Times article is titled “Don’t Tell The Kids”). Much of the response to the rabbit-slaughter seminar has been one of outrage: “what’s next, eating dogs?” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because most of the people that find my blog via search engine are entering ‘woman slaughter rabbit,’ and the only negative comments I’ve received have been about my rabbits. But, this post today is actually about the slaughter of my pigs, and while pigs aren’t as sentimental an animal for most people, they are smarter and much bigger than rabbits.

There’s a reason why animals raised for meat are kept in inhumane conditions. A pig in a cramped pen with a concrete floor isn’t going to get a chance to develop a personality, or at least express it. And it’s much easier to kill a pig with no personality than the one that chews on the cuff of your jeans and rolls over to be scratched with a rake. It’s also much easier to send an animal to the butcher than to organize a humane slaughter in your backyard, with guns, gambrel hooks, stainless steel tables and a small army of people early in the morning willing to help with some very dirty work.

For the whole week leading up to Easter Sunday, I had nightmares. I woke up several times in the middle of the night, sweating, my ears ringing with the imagined sound of screaming pigs and blood. Had I given my pigs enough of a life? Were they ever afraid, or uncomfortable? As far as I can tell, they enjoyed food more than anything else in the world and I gave them way more than they actually needed. They also had a good time rooting and flopping in the mud, and I made those activities available to them almost every evening. I gave them the ability to just be pigs, which is, I think what every animal wants: the freedom to express the traits of their species and their personalities. And, in the end, these pigs never even would have existed if there wasn’t a demand for their meat. So, you have to eat them to save them. Again.

Everyone I talked to told me that I wouldn’t be able to slaughter a pig without it screaming, or that a .22 wouldn’t be able to do the job, and there would definitely be a lot of blood. But, after weeks of planning and worry and interrupted sleep, I couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer–everything was in order.

It’s 7:30 in the morning, and everyone’s nerves are on edge. Our next door neighbor, Mr. George, appears at the chain link fence on the street in front of our house and yells, “They still alive?!” So much for discretion.

Luckily, the neighborhood is still ‘up-and-coming’ (still partially vacant since Katrina) so no one is really suspicious about what we’re doing, just why we’re here in the first place. Once the stainless steel tables were cleaned, the knives laid out, and the chainsaw running (to cover up the noise of the gunshot), there were no more distractions to keep us from the task at hand. Albert revved the chainsaw, Andy loaded the gun, and I grabbed some grain.

Butcher knives

As soon as we approached, the first pig raised his head at the sound of the grain shaking in the can and that was the last thing he saw. The bullet from the .22 hit him point blank between the eyes. The pig convulsed for about fifteen seconds, then was still. The chickens (dirty birds) ran straight to the blood that dripped on the ground and started drinking it. Then we dragged the carcass to a cleaner spot and Andy stuck a knife between the collarbone and the neck and cut the aorta, sending a final gush of blood out onto the grass.

Pig about to bleed out

The cloud of worry that had been weighing me down all week had been lifted, but now it was time to get to work, before the day got hot enough to spoil the meat. We laid the carcass on a stainless steel table, and cut through the tendons on the hocks to hang the hog carcass on the gambrel hook. Once the carcass was hooked, three strong men grabbed the other end of the rope and pulled the carcass upward through the pulley system rigged up. They dipped the pig into a large vat of nearly boiling water, let it sit for several minutes, then hoisted it out onto the table. The rest of us got to work scraping the bristly hair. It was hot, smelly work, and the skin never quite got as clean as I hoped, but we had to move on and get this pig gutted, then packed on ice so we could move on to the next pig.

Scraping the hair off the hog carcass

Half a pig, getting broken down for the freezer

The next pig was the bigger pig and he was harder to slaughter. But, by 11 o’clock, we had two pigs scraped, gutted and cut in half, sitting on ice, and I had a leg of meat in the oven for dinner. There was still a lot of work to do, cutting up the meat in manageable-sized pieces for the freezer. In fact, it took weeks to continue to render the fat, make sausage, and break the larger cuts down. But, for now, it was time to celebrate, because the hardest part, psychologically at least, was over. I broke out the mimosas.

Ham and leg ready for the oven - so much fat!


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Baguette for a pillow

Spring is here, and the pigs are beginning to smell. Which means: the pigs are running out of time. I’ve never dispatched a pig before and all week I’ve been feeling a little sick with worry at the thought of it. But my friend, and pig project partner, who is from Alabama, seems to think that hog butchering and eating isn’t anything out of the ordinary. In fact, everyone from the South seems to think that hog butchering is just about as American as the Fourth of July. In the last few months alone, there was a free hog roast on the river by Audubon Park, and next week there’s a benefit for the Hollygrove Market simply called “Roast Beast: A History of Animal Husbandry from Snout to Tail,” a fundraiser for the non-profit where they serve a whole pig.

Hog Roast

Southerners aren’t afraid of a whole hog, laid out on a table in the open, to be eaten by hand. But let me tell you, I had never experienced such a thing in my life. I got to eat the jowl.


These pigs aren’t going to get cooked whole as I had previously planned. I want to try every different part of them, and I just can’t eat that much all at once. I still hope to share the meat as much as possible, and have lots of bbqs, but I want to be able to know how the chops, hams, ribs, bacon, belly, jowl, feet and tail all taste. And I don’t have the energy for all of that in one day. A pig raised on fine cheese and baguette leftovers isn’t something to be squandered; I want to savor it as much as possible.

So, I’ve got all that sorted out, but now I just have to arrange the killing and butchering. I know these animals, and so the prospect of things not going smoothly or quickly makes me queasy. A good farmer should provide everything an animal needs to live a life free from fear, and I think I have done that. I have given them excellent food, an adequate shelter, and a chance to forage and run around. They have provided me with entertainment value, and soon, sustenance.

Food Trough Pillow

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I think of this time of year, once Mardi Gras is over and Lent begins, as New Orleans’ New Year – the time to start anew, repent for the sins of revelry from the holidays, work hard, and make resolutions for the coming year. In my case, I make gardening resolutions for the coming season, and I have to get started quickly. By the end of February, I have to have all my garden beds prepared and corn and potatoes in the ground if I hope to get a harvest before the bugs descend in April and May. So, for the next few weeks, I’m planning a giant garden in my mind, sorting out where the corn goes, so that is doesn’t shade the tomatoes, and getting the soil tested and deciding how to save money on organic soil amendments.

At my new house, I’m lucky to have the use of a vacant lot next door. The owner has given me permission to use it as long as we maintain it, so to me that means feeding myself and hopefully many neighbors. The land itself isn’t much, (30′ by 150′) and only the back half gets good, full sunlight, because my very tall house looms over it to the East. So, I won’t be gardening the entire thing, just maintaining it, and maybe someday I can start a pasture for a goat or a sheep. But, I’m getting ahead of myself – first I need to go back to the land.

Since this area was flooded during Katrina, I’m carefully testing the soil for toxicity and heavy metals. But, while digging around in the dirt, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover a rich, dark brown soil that has a fairly crumbly texture and even several earthworms (in addition to bits of plastic and debris from someone’s old life). I’m eagerly awaiting the results of the soil test because I’m hoping that the jungle weeds that thrived on this lot for the last five years actually helped extract the toxins from the soil and contributed significant amounts of organic matter in the form of dead leaves and vines.

Here’s a picture of the lot and my backyard in October 2009:

And my backyard now:

And the bare lot now:

Over the course of the last four months, we have attacked the lot with lawnmower, chainsaw, machete and mulch, and now it is beginning to look more civilized. As you can see, it has come a long way, but now it’s a blank slate that still contains trash, compacted soil that has been driven over, or had a giant dumpster sitting on top of it, and many, many roots crisscrossing underground competing for nutrients.

This season, my garden resolutions are: to produce more food than I ever have before, and to focus mostly on the things I’m good at growing, with a few glamor fruits and vegetables thrown in for experimentation. I’m not going to start any tomatoes from seed because that has been a colossal failure the last two years, and I’m not going to try to coerce the plants that don’t do well. More laissez farming so that I have time to enjoy the garden and its rewards. All the animals around here are steadfastly holding up their end of that bargain – the pigs are turning waste food into valuable meat, the rabbits are doing the same, but they’re also turning my weeds into valuable garden fertilizer, and the chickens are laying eggs daily. So now it’s my turn to get to work and be as productive as possible.

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The pigs have moved in, and they have chickens for housemates. I set up a corral made out of used pallets in the backyard, so that it also functions as a chicken run. The chickens have been taken down a peg; they have to sneak good food (cheese and bread) when the pigs will let them. At first they seemed puzzled by these weird creatures, but now I think the chickens are enjoying their farm company. They’ve actually been laying eggs more regularly, and have stopped their early morning screeching. They sometimes eat food off the pigs’ backs – maybe one day they’ll ride around on the pigs’ backs like the birds that travel on the back of hippos. Well, probably not, but it’s funny to visualize.

Anyway, the pigs are growing and eating at an alarming rate. They’re getting about a five gallon bucket of food waste every day and I think I’m going to have to find a way to increase their rations. Nearly everyone I know in the food service industry here in New Orleans is helping me save food scraps for them, but I’m going to have to ramp up the scraping. The whole goal in raising these pigs for my own consumption is to take a waste product (leftover or unusable food from restaurants) and turn it into a high-end, consumable product (meat for me and friends).

These pigs are moving beyond the cute phase and moving quickly into the smelly and gluttonous phase. They are quite entertaining to watch rooting around, making snorting/squealing noises, or just sleeping after a rigorous morning of eating. But, I have to say that these are the first animals I’ve raised that I (so far) don’t have reservations about eating. At this point, they may be putting on almost a pound of weight a day, and all I can think about are the chops, ham and bacon that is effortlessly being produced. I can’t help but notice, every time I look at the pigs, that they’re getting nice shoulders, rumps and bellies. They are so stout that they remind me of giant sausages with four legs poking out. I look at the pigs and I see meat.

Now I know that may sound callous to the animal-lover (I do count myself among that group, even though it may be hard to see beyond the the fact that I’m going to eat my pigs). I respect their personalities too, and I’m glad that they have some space to root around in the dirt, nap in the sun, and just in general, be pigs.

They like to be scratched a lot and they like to rub up on anything coarse to scratch themselves on, and they come straight at me with their dirty noses every time I enter their pen. But I had no idea that seriously, the way to truly let a pig just be a pig is simply to give it as much as it possibly wants to eat.

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Pigs love cheese!

I have to apologize for my absence from the blog world, but I have several confessions to make. First of all, I moved to a different house in another neighborhood. The idea of starting over seemed exhausting, and I have to admit that in some ways, I thought of retiring. And then I received a death threat as a comment on one of my blog postings about killing rabbits. And then I lost two entire litters of baby rabbits. So, I have to say that I have had enough black moments in my urban farming adventures lately to seriously shake me, but I now feel bold enough to start over, to proclaim that I will not be silenced by anyone who values rabbit-life over human. And now that there’s a new litter of baby rabbits, and I’m cautiously optimistic that maybe this litter is stronger, and maybe the weather will be kinder.

So, instead of retiring, I got pigs. Yes, pigs. They’re not at my house yet, but this week they will be moving into my backyard, with the chickens, rabbits, new citrus trees and vegetables.

And sometime in late March or early April, we will be having a very big barbecue.

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Dwarf nigerian Goat

Dwarf nigerian Goat

I would love to have a goat. Making goat cheese and goat milk soap holds a certain pastoral charm for me. But I also love having a yard full of edibles, and I don’t want everything in it grazed down to nubs by greedy ruminants (I don’t think goats ever feel full). I was thinking about starting a goat co-op, where the goats are kept on someone else’s lot, and all interested people would share the work and the milk. That still means I would have to find some other people interested in such an endeavor. Having the farm animals I want in a city setting has to have compromises.

But, while traveling on the west coast, I got a new idea to mull over.

Novella Carpenter is an urban farmer in Oakland. She lives in the upstairs unit of a double, next-door to a vacant lot that she has turned into a garden. Over the course of the last six years, she’s raised bees, rabbits, ducks, turkeys, and two pigs, chronicling most of her lessons learned in a recent memoir, Farm City, the education of an urban farmer.

After I read her book, I went to her blog and discovered that she has started raising goats since the book was written. So, I contacted her when I was in the Bay Area and she was ridiculously pleasant about letting a total stranger visiting from New Orleans come tour through her garden lot, her backyard, and take notes on her backyard goat management.

She’s found the perfect goats for a small-scale setting; they’re dual purpose for meat and milk and they are small – Nigerian dwarf goats. Okay, hold on. I know what thoughts immediately spring to mind – I thought it too before I saw the goats myself. Anytime you put the word “dwarf” in the title of an animal breed, images of pot-bellied pigs and miniature horses comes to mind – totally useless animals that have no purpose besides companionship (oh, and they look ridiculous). But the dwarf Nigerian goats were specifically bred to produce lots of milk, and survive on less food than a standard size goat that could eat me out of house and home – they are very efficient creatures that can provide milk and meat, and don’t need ample pasture to roam or graze.

Novella's goats on staircase.

Novella's goats on staircase.

And as an added bonus, the goats themselves are quite personable, and are hilarious to watch. Novella’s goats spend their days running up and down the staircase in her tiny backyard, climbing up onto anything that is taller than them, then jumping off.
Goat on shed

Goat on shed

So, on the long drive back to New Orleans, I’ll be busy planning ways to make my yard more efficient, maybe planning fencing for the possible addition of some efficient little goats.

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Thanksgiving Duck Feast

Thanksgiving Duck Feast

Thanksgiving day was full of victories and losses. First of all, the biggest victory was that the food was a huge success! I’ll admit that I was very nervous when I took the ducks out of the refrigerator and unwrapped them to release a very gamey scent that filled the entire house. Gamey may be a polite description, but I dove into the preparation anyway, rubbing salt and herbs all over and then pricking the skin with a knife.

We roasted three ducks until the skin was crispy with rosemary, sage and sweet potatoes from the yard. I’ve never been a big fan of the candied sweet potato dish, so I took the savory route and just tucked the sweet potatoes around the ducks as they roasted – which led to the discovery that duck fat on anything is an absolute delicacy (I had to force myself to keep it off the pie, with some reluctance, for the sake of the guests).

Roasting in liquid gold duck fat.

Roasting in delicious duck fat.

I tried to use as much of the duck as possible. I made a rich stock with the necks and saved as much duck fat as possible for future cooking. I also made a gravy from the neck stock, and threw in a few giblets for flavor. Then I made corn bread stuffing that had duck heart, liver and gizzards mixed in.

Chopped gizzards, hearts, and livers for the stuffing.

Chopped gizzards, hearts, and livers for the stuffing.

The gizzard is a very unique organ (delicious sliced and fried) that helps birds digest their food, and in the case of these ducks, it was full of sand and little pebbles from between the bricks in the backyard. The first thing the ducks tended to do in the mornings was to run to the brick walk in front of the shed and shovel the grit down their throats while waiting for me to get their real food. I laughed seeing the sand now in the deep red gizzard since I knew exactly where it came from. I washed the grit out of the organ, collected it, then gave it back to the bricks in the backyard for the next generation of ducks.

Speaking of the next generation of ducks, that leads me to the Thanksgiving losses. Just when I was beginning to feel comfortable with the safety of the ducks in my backyard and marvel at the fact that there are no raccoons or possums here to harass them at night, a massacre occurred in the daylight. On Thanksgiving day, in the time it took me to shower, a seemingly innocent-looking animal that I knew snuck into my backyard and managed to kill the three ducks I had left. This urban wolf (or my neighbor’s dog) crawled under the house and the porch to get to them, chased them around the yard and cornered them, then sank her teeth into their bodies, breaking their backs. Each duck had bloody puncture wounds on its back, ribcage and under the wing – I don’t think they were even salvageable for eating. It looks like the yellow duck got the worst of it – there was a cloud of gray feathers surrounding him on the lawn and his wings were splayed out awkwardly on the ground. I like to think that he put up a fight or tried to distract the dog away from his lady ducks (over the last few days he had acted very pleased with himself that there were no more males to compete with at the food bowl and he was the undisputed leader of the two females). Maybe I’m giving him too much credit, but he was the duck who could reason. I came outside just in time to see the dog finishing off the last duck, and watch her flap her wings and wriggle in pain before she died. It was extremely upsetting for so many reasons: these were my favorites, the ducks I chose to keep and be my pets, and I’d just bought a 50 pound bag of feed. The ducks were completely defenseless – if they’d had just a few more weeks they may have been able to fly, giving them a much better chance to escape. And I was completely robbed of future duck generations from my select strain of New Orleans Muscovy ducks.

The yellow duck and his ladies, looking very pleased with themselves.

The yellow duck and his ladies, looking very pleased with themselves.

So, on Thanksgiving day I felt like good cook but a bad farmer. I failed the ducks that trusted me and felt so content in their home that they never even crossed the walkway past the lawn. For all the care I took to protect the ducks I was going to eat – shielding them from pain, killing them swiftly and humanely and blindfolding them – the fact that the ducks I liked best were terrified and in pain before they died is sort of heartbreaking to me. So, the immediate solution is to try again. I’ll fence underneath the house to keep the wolves at bay and get back on the duck bandwagon, although it may not be until after the New Year. For now, I’ll just have to focus on all the other things I can grow in the front and back yard. There are always losses in farming and Thursday was just a sharp reminder that those losses can occur at any time, without warning, and it can be especially shocking when you’re lulled into a false sense of security buoyed by a feeling of success.

But that reminds me of more of the high points to come: leftovers. So far the leftovers of the duck feast have been more enjoyable than the first meal. All the cooking is done, so there’s no stress involved and a few days have passed so that I’m not reminded about the Thanksgiving Day Massacre constantly anymore. Today was a day of duck and stuffing sandwiches and tomorrow will see a new local food/culinary adventure: duck gumbo.

Duck and stuffing sandwiches with cilantro.

Duck and stuffing sandwiches with cilantro.

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