Pastured Rabbits

We moved to this farm two years ago with the intention of becoming as self-sufficient as possible. To us, the most obvious place to start was with food. We’ve been building our gardens year by year and preserving food as the gardens produce it, but it became apparent pretty quickly that we could never produce enough for our family with plants alone.  It also became apparent that for our farm to be sustainable, animals would need to be eliminated from time to time or we’d be overrun.

Our decades of vegetarianism came to an end when we began processing our chickens (which you can read about here and here), and now with another farm season stretching out ahead of us, we are looking for more ways to produce our own food. We’d like to sustain ourselves through the winter with as much farm food as possible.

Our front yard is covered in lush, green grass that is not really used for much at the moment. When I started thinking about how to turn that space into food, rabbits came to mind. The children had pet rabbits in the past, but I never felt very good about keeping them in a hutch with wire beneath their feet. I want my animals to live as naturally and comfortably and happily as possible, as close to what Nature intended as I can provide. It occurred to me that something similar to our chicken tractors might work well for rabbits – a rabbit tractor!

There were a few things that had to be addressed: could I bring myself to eat a rabbit, and is it possible to kill a rabbit without any undue stress or trauma to the animal? As it turns out, harvesting a rabbit is remarkably quick, easy and painless (you can watch the process in this YouTube video if you so desire). And when my father-in-law gave us a rabbit he had in the freezer, I did indeed bring myself to eat it – and I enjoyed it immensely!

I thought I was pretty original with this rabbit tractor idea, but low and behold, one of the farmers who has inspired me greatly raises pastured rabbits in a tractor system. Joel Salatin and his son have been doing it for years (check it out here), and a quick YouTube search revealed that plenty of other people are doing it too! Awesome!

Jae built the rabbit tractor very quickly with wood and chicken wire that we already had around the farm. I looked around for some inexpensive rabbits – which are in abundance, who knew? – and within a day we had ourselves some pastured rabbits.

We bought ten rabbits from two different farms, for a diversity of genes. Nine of them are 8 weeks old, and the tenth is a seasoned mama who we will breed later in the summer.

The tractor is 8′x4′ with an enclosed nesting box on one end to provide shelter from the elements and a snug place to sleep. The entire tractor is bottomless to allow the rabbits access to fresh grass all day. These bunnies aren’t hopping around in a small, wire enclosure!

Each morning, I move the tractor to a fresh patch of grass. The rabbits spend their days browsing on the greens growing under them – crab grass, plantain, dandelions, clover and much more – and our lawn is “mowed” in the process (you may recall that we don’t mow the grass around here!). By the end of the day, there is a neat rectangle of short lawn and the tractor is ready to be moved on to the next spot.

I love this system because the rabbits are hopping about on soft ground instead of wire, eating plants instead of pellets, and generally acting as rabbits were meant to act. After observing them quietly for several days, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are pretty darned happy in their tractor. They haven’t dug at the edges in attempts to escape, as some folks have suggested they might. The rabbits have shown no signs of stress whatsoever, and I’m pretty pleased with that.

I’m pretty impressed with the even cropping the rabbits give the grass. It’s not patchy as I had expected it might be – instead, it looks like a lawn mower went over it.

On the left of the photo above, you can see grass that has not yet had the tractor on it. On the right, grass that had the tractor on it yesterday (yes, there are dirt patches. Those are not from the rabbits, they were there prior to the tractor).

I’m pretty excited about this new venture in food production and sustainability. I can’t wait to see how it all pans out. I’m sure we’ll revise and tweak our system over the course of the summer as we see what works and what doesn’t, but for now everything is looking good!

Life & Living

Once upon a time, I was waiting for “life’s grand adventure” to begin, something thrilling that would free me from the monotony and boredom of everyday life. I realised, not too long ago, that somewhere along the line “life’s grand adventure” ceased to hold any importance, and I contentedly settled in to the joys and pleasures that everyday life brings. Each new day holds little miracles and wonders! Each new day is a grand adventure!

Every now and then I come across a poem or a photo or a book that sums up my feelings more eloquently and beautifully than I seem able to do. There’s a poem on the very first page of my Encyclopedia of Country Living  (a fantastic resource by Carla Emery) that I return to again and again. It confirms for me that I’m on the right path and reminds me to rejoice in life’s little pleasures.

Mama’s Mama

Mama’s Mama, on a winter’s day,
Milked the cows and fed them hay,
Slopped the hogs, saddled the mule,
Got the children off to school.
She did a washing, mopped the floors,
Washed the windows and did some chores.
Cooked a dish of home-dried fruit,
Pressed her husband’s Sunday suit,
Swept the parlour, made the beds,
Baked a dozen loaves of bread.
She split some wood and lugged it in,
Enough to fill the kitchen bin,
Cleaned the lamps and put in oil,
Stewed some apples she thought might spoil,
Churned the butter, baked a cake,
Then exclaimed, “For Mercy’s sake,
The calves have got out of the pen!”
Went out and chased them in again,
Gathered the eggs and locked the stable,
Returned to the house and set the table,
Cooked a supper that was delicious,
And afterwards washed all the dishes,
Fed the cat, sprinkled the clothes,
Mended a basket full of hose,
Then opened the organ and began to play,
“When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day”.

- Anna Rees Henton, age 85, 1953

 

Of course, my life is not nearly so chore-filled as our poem mama’s is, and I have a few modern appliances that simplify things for me quite a bit. The sentiment, however, touches me deeply – life is a series of days, each day a series of fairly predictable events, and each day perfect with its chores, child rearing and meal preparation.

Chicken Dinner

You may recall that some time ago, our long-time vegetarian family made the decision to eat some of our chickens. We love our birds, and are so grateful for the eggs they provide our family, but the truth is that sometimes some of the birds have to go. It’s not possible to maintain a closed-loop system without eliminating some of your animals from time to time, and after a lot of discussion we concluded that it would be easier on our consciences to slaughter our chickens here at home as humanely as possible than to sell them and have no idea what their fates would be.

I will admit it was hard for me to come to terms with slaughtering our chickens, at first. Equally hard to come to terms with was how much I loved that first chicken dinner we had. I was not expecting to enjoy chicken so much! Now that chicken has become a somewhat regular part of our diet, I decided it was time for me to help Jae with the slaughtering process, to take responsibility for the birds I raised and the food on my plate. Until now, Jae has done the “dirty work” without me, often with a friend lending a hand. This was weighing heavily on my conscience.

So, with rations dwindling in the kitchen and a rather tight budget for the week, it became apparent that it was time for another chicken dinner – and it was time for me to help Jae with the slaughter.

When I first stepped outside and saw the chosen hen sitting calmly on the porch, I nearly lost my nerve. A panicky feeling settled in on me and I thought, “I can’t do this! I’ll have to go back to being veg!” I took a deep breath and held the chicken in my arms. She looked at me, calm as can be, and I stroked her feathers. I thanked her for the eggs she’s given, spoke words of gratitude to her, and as I looked into her eyes I felt myself calming down. The hen wasn’t panicking, why was I?

I held the hen out in front of me, her head resting lightly on the chopping block. Still she was calm; I could feel her heart beating steadily, not racing, not alarmed. A split second later, Jae’s axe came down on her neck and it was done. No squawking, no panic, no distress. Just a calm bird who was with us one moment and gone the next.

Jae told me he’d be alright to finish the job if I felt I needed to go back into the house, but I wanted to see the whole process through from start to finish. I was surprised by how very OK I felt about what had just happened (truthfully, I had thought I’d be a mess of tears). It felt good to take responsibility for my dinner, and I was so relieved to see first-hand that the hen had not had one moment of distress or suffering.

So now I know how to slaughter, clean, gut and butcher a chicken – and if you have the stomach for it, you can see the process for yourself.  If you’re a staunch vegetarian or someone who hasn’t faced the reality of what it means to eat animals, you might want to skip past the following photos.

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Morning Oatmeal

What better breakfast to enjoy on a cold Winter’s morning than a hot bowl of oatmeal? We certainly do enjoy our oatmeal around here, and with Spring on her way, I know our oatmeal mornings are numbered – my kids prefer cooler breakfasts when the weather turns warm. So, we’ve been gobbling up plenty of oatmeal lately, savouring it while the weather is still somewhat cold.

The thing with oatmeal is that is can be totally BLAH, or it can be completely awesome. Anybody can throw some oats in boiling water and have a plain and boring bowl of oatmeal within a few minutes. But with a little extra effort, that boring bowl becomes a delicious way to start the day.

We soak our oats overnight. I originally started doing this in an attempt to neutralise the phytic acid in the oats, to make them more nutritious and digestible. Several sources had recommended this. Then I read an article from the Weston A Price Foundation that enlightened me – oats are relatively low in phytic acid to begin with, compared to other grains, and soaking them does little to reduce the phytic acid that is present. Still, we continue to soak our oats. Why? Soaked oats cook MUCH faster and have a nuttier flavour to them. The resulting oatmeal is smoother. Also, we add kefir (cultured/fermented milk) to the soaking jar to infuse the oats with probiotic cultures that our bellies and immune systems just love.

In this house, I almost always add freshly-ground flax seeds to a nearly-finished pot of oats (always use flax freshly-ground; it rapidly loses nutritional quality and becomes rancid soon after being ground. We use a coffee grinder). I also add several heaping tablespoons of hemp seeds after I have turned off the heat. In addition to these things, I will sometimes add chopped apple & cinnamon; sliced peaches; mashed banana; raisins and pre-soaked cashew pieces; some mulberry preserve from the summer; or other yummy things as they are available. Each bowl gets a swirl of raw honey on top before being served, which the kids delight in mixing in themselves.

On mornings when we are in a hurry, I stick to the basics – flax & hemp seeds with raw honey on top. Basic, yes, but still deliciously yummy.

Oh, and I’m sure you’re admiring the beautiful wooden bowl in the photo. Our oatmeal bowls are from The Wood Garden, a local family who creates beautiful wooden toys and dishes. Check out their Etsy shop!

Goat Stew

The other day, our billy goat (“Billy”, aptly enough) passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Not wanting to let a perfectly good goat go to waste, Jae decided he’d take the opportunity to learn how to butcher a fairly large animal. Billy was hung up in the garage and Jae got to work, coming out on the other side with a good 20lbs or more of great-looking meat.

Now, everything I have read has said that an intact (not neutered, that is) billy goat will give meat that has an unpleasant “billy goat” taste to it. If you’ve ever smelled a billy goat, you know how putrid they are, and apparently this aroma carries over into the flavour of the meat. After Jae’s butchering job, I figured Billy would be fed to the dogs.

Jae had other plans. He got online and found a recipe for goat stew, then spent last evening in the kitchen. When he placed the steaming pot of stew in the centre of the dinner table, I served myself a bowl and took a big bite before I could think twice about it.

Oh, dear readers, I cannot tell you how disgusting the stew was. It had potential, to be sure, but the aroma of Billy certainly did lend flavour to the meat – a flavour I would have been happy to go my whole life without ever tasting. My stomach heaves even now, just at the thought of it.

Jae tried to be stoic and brave. He tried to choke down his stew. Alas, the taste of Billy overwhelmed him quickly, and he agreed that the rest of the meat was fit for the dogs. I spent a while taking the remaining chunks of meat out of the stew to toss to the dogs for dinner, and the rest of the pot was added to the compost pile.

I suppose when every goat source you have at your disposal warns against the nasty flavour of billy goat meat, it might be wise to take heed. Live and learn!

Uncooperative Weather

My garlic desperately needs to get in the ground before things freeze. There’s a problem, though – we have had the wettest Autumn that I can remember. There’s been so much rain that the ground is totally saturated. Each time that I think we’ve had a enough dry days to actually get the garlic planted, it rains again. It’s getting rather ridiculous!

Today is a perfect case in point. Two days ago, I went out and turned the soil a bit in the would-be garlic bed, hoping that exposing the soil would help it dry out faster. It was pretty wet, but not so wet that another day or two wouldn’t make for perfect planting conditions. Fast-forward to today: RAIN. Heavy, heavy rain. It was raining when I woke up, and after a slight mid-morning break, it is raining again now. The wind is whipping, leaves are flying, and the ground is soaking wet.

Oh, dear readers, I fear that I will not get the garlic planted in time. I’ve never experienced an Autumn like this before! I thought this past Spring was horribly wet, but now this Autumn is rivaling for the title. My sheep and goats are ankle-deep in mud, the fields around us are perpetually water-logged, and the garden is a soggy mess. What to do, what to do? Farm-fresh garlic is near the top of my list of things to look forward to for next season. I need the ground to dry out! I need the sky to stop pouring on us!

A Favour, Please?

Dear Soil, Dear Sun,

Please, if it isn’t too much to ask, PLEASE could you do your best to dry up a bit so I can get the garlic planted?  I worry that if the beds are still so saturated from all this crazy Autumn rain, I will be too late getting the garlic into the ground.  And if that happens, I will be one very unhappy farm mama.

Just a little bit drier, that’s all I ask.

Love!!

 

Circle of Life

Some time ago, I mentioned that our vegetarian family was making some big decisions about eating more sustainably and providing for ourselves in an effort to reduce our dependency on the grocery store.  Our goal is to become self-sufficient, and let’s face it: eating grocery store food is not self-sufficient. It’s not Earth-friendly, it’s not wallet-friendly, and it’s not sustainable in the long term.

So we had to make some choices. Remain vegetarian and rely on the grocery store when the garden is out of season, or eat some of our birds & locally-caught fish and put a huge dent in the number of grocery trips we need to make.

We went with the latter.

Jae and I had many reasons for being vegetarian and raising vegetarian children, including a concern for the welfare of farm animals. We weren’t interested in sending our birds to the local abattoir, knowing that they’d be stressed out the entire drive there, stressed out moments before death, and killed by a stranger.  The only way to ensure that our birds were treated with respect and given a stress-free death was to do the killing here at home.

And so, with a sharpened ax and a friend to lend a hand, Jae slaughtered several of our birds.  He feathered them, gutted them, and put them in the freezer.  The kids and I said words of gratitude and respect to the birds, talked about the Circle of Life, and had a very lengthy discussion about why we had chosen to kill & eat some of our chickens.  Each time we have a chicken dinner, we say a few words of thanks for the life that was given to sustain our own lives.  We eat with consciousness and awareness.  We take nothing for granted.

I don’t really know what to say when people ask me why we’ve started eating our birds – the answer is too complex and emotional to sum up in a short conversation.  Our reasons for NOT eating meat were very long, and our reasons for eating our birds are just as many.  There are the issues of food security, animal rights, environmental degradation, industrial agriculture, economic freedom, health and well-being… and how each of those things ties into the next. The world we live in is so complicated and corrupted, and we’re trying to do the best we can for our family and our planet. A few years ago I wouldn’t have thought that would mean eating meat, but now I’m in a place where it just makes sense to do so. Life is funny like that – nothing is absolute, nothing is certain.

It was not easy to make the choice. It wasn’t easy to confront death, to become the bringers of death.  But once we made the leap, we knew we had made the right choice for our family.  In every ecosystem, there is a predator.  Our farm is an ecosystem in itself, and we are at the top of the chain.  That’s just life – everything in balance, everything a circle of birth and death.  The great Circle moves us all.

Giving Thanks

Tonight we enjoyed our most local Thanksgiving dinner to date – a stuffed chicken from our flock, mashed potatoes from the neighbour, wild peas foraged by Jae, and grilled zucchini from our garden.  Our absolutely delicious meal was followed by an even more delicious pumpkin bread made by my mother-in-law (thanks!!). We couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Our list of gratitudes is very long this year. We have been so blessed, in so many ways, and I’m overwhelmed just thinking about everything we have to be grateful for:

~ New life. This year we’ve been blessed with another pregnancy and the anticipation of a new child joining our family. No matter how many times I go through this wild experience of growing a fetus, I never cease to be amazed by the miracle of life.

~ Garden bounty. Despite the craziest growing season I’ve ever experienced – flood-worthy rains late into the spring making it impossible to plant “on time”; a mega heat wave sweeping through in July (with not enough rain); a record-breaking wet and cold September causing the last of the garden not to ripen – we still got quite a lot of food from our garden.  We enjoyed tomatoes throughout the season, mountains of cucumbers, watermelon, zucchini, salad greens, dry beans, peas, garlic, several varieties of chives, basil, and so much more. Mother Earth is amazing and we are so thankful for every bite of food She has provided.

~ Healthy children. ‘Nough said.

~ A strong roof over our heads.

~ Sheep and goats. We love our livestock. We enjoyed delicious, rich, raw goat’s milk in the Spring and I’ve carded up some delightful locks of wool for spinning. These lovable ruminants keep our grass (somewhat) in check, provide great company, and always give us a laugh.

~ Family togetherness. I never could have imagined how much I’d come to appreciate having Jae home every day. Quitting the rat race has been the best thing for our family, and I am so grateful for everything that comes with having two parents at home. With my horrible pregnancy sickness (which seems to be passing, hooray!), I’ve come to rely on Jae more than ever before, and I am eternally thankful for everything he’s done over the past two months. I can see how much the kids love having him home, too, and it fills my soul.

~ Abundance. Despite living on less money, our cupboards are filled with healthy, wholesome food. Our freezer is full of free-range, organically-fed chickens. I have a closet full of yarn for knitting winter wear. I have a sewing machine for creating new clothes. We have everything that we need, and everything that we want. Life is very good.

~ Loving and supportive family, on both sides. We are blessed.

~ Loyal egg customers. We’ve had so many steady & supportive customers purchasing our eggs, that our chickens now pay for themselves and bring in a some pocket change each month, in addition to feeding our family. We’re SO grateful for the folks who buy our eggs week after week, who send emails with awesome feedback, who spread the word to friends, and who support local & organic food. Thanks, guys! You add such an element of awesomeness to this life we’re living!

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers. I hope you are just as overwhelmed by the blessings in your lives. May the Earth always provide well for you!