Chapter 7 – bird meat

That following spring, my egg plans came into fruition. Having 30 eggs coming in each day from the ducks added up in quantity very quickly. The other thing was the fact that feeding these 30+ ducks a day was expensive! I had started a tiny CSA with 7 customers, but that didn’t use all of the eggs I was getting from my ladies. I needed to get these eggs sold and continually selling, so I got in touch with the places I had dropped off samples and told them I was ready to begin delivery. I was still working my job, so my regular duck egg delivery day was set up on my weekend. Coming from the natural foods retail world, I knew being consistent and reliable with deliveries was important. I proudly walked into the backrooms of the stores with my little duck egg deliveries- wearing the other shoes, I was a farmer! I wasn’t making a living or anything close to it, but it was a great feeling.

I kept a small breeding group of the Khaki Campbells, so I could collect fertile eggs and begin hatching out my own ducklings. Being a heritage breed, I felt it would be valuable to the world to propagate the Khaki, and I also hoped it would be cheaper than buying in the ducklings. What I hadn’t really thought through was that I was going to be hatching out both girl and boy ducks. Just like my conundrum about the baby boy goats, I was faced with the eternal question of what do you do with the boys? It was time to think about embracing meat eating as a sustainable thing to do, in terms of completely embracing egg and milk production on my little farm. Heritage breeds generally had been bred to be dual purpose animals on the farm for this very reason. The Khaki Campbell is said to have been selectively bred by a woman in England for females with a good laying ability, and males who would be nice roasting ducks for the table.

I didn’t have incubators yet though, and they are expensive. Luckily, a local farm specializing in heritage breeds contacted me through localharvest.org to see if they could provide incubation service in trade for half of the hatch, and I excitedly agreed. They had good results with the first egg set and decided to give me all the ducklings that had hatched from that one, planning to keep the second group for themselves. Sadly, they had a power outage on their farm during the second set, the eggs’ potential for hatching was destroyed. I offered to give them more fertile eggs, but I think they may have felt it was too small potatoes for their effort at that point. I found some used incubators and started doing it on my own.

A month later, the first ducklings from my flock, that the other farm had hatched out, were nearly all grown up and I could tell half of them were boys. I then happened to meet a nice older couple, Mary Jo and Ron, while stocking groceries at my day job. They were reminiscing about the supreme taste of real, homegrown chicken and about how their families used to do all the processing together on “chicken day.” I saw this as a unique opportunity, so I offered to raise their chickens if I could learn how to harvest poultry from them, as long as they also paid the feed expenses? They were thrilled. I was terrified- what had I gotten myself into?

The 25 broiler chicks I ordered arrived at my local farm store, and I just loved them from the first day. They ate like champions and grew like weeds. I put them outside after the first 2 weeks in a separate paddock by the ducks, and had none of the problems with mortality or leg weakness that I’d read about being so common with broiler chickens. I just loved raising them and watching their healthy giant bodies running across the grass, snapping up grasshoppers and eating the lambsquarters. As the 8 week old mark approached, I nervously called my new friends and told them I thought the chickens were pretty big and ready to harvest. They asked if I could provide a stump, a big pot of hot water, a table, a cleaver, knives and a way to hang the birds up for singeing off the little feather hairs left after plucking. We set a date, they agreed to bring along all that they could think of needing, and secretly I hoped it would rain. I wasn’t sure if I could do this.

We had quite a day harvesting those beautiful chickens, and I was so glad my friend John came out to learn with me and provide moral support. I was horrified, but simultaneously awestruck to watch these chickens I had raised with care and respect turn into meat. Ron would pick up a bird, lay the neck on the stump, and with the other arm holding the cleaver, chop off the head. Instantly dead. The bird bled out, then we quickly scalded the body and plucked the feathers out. The little tiny hair feathers were singed off, the chicken was eviscerated and into the cooler it went. Each chicken had an instant death with no dread and no fear. I saw with my own eyes and felt with my own heart that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. This whole experience was very different than when blue jay and the falcon struggled together in my front yard. These chickens would be carried off alive, either by a coyote, a dog, a hawk, and not be killed instantly if they were preyed upon by a predator from nature. That does not mean nature is wrong or evil, and now I could see, neither was what we were doing here. I was ready to participate in the full cycle of life and death, as a compassionate predator. I was ready to harvest my first male ducks.

I didn’t do the actual beheading that first time, worrying I’d fail half way through, but I held and thanked my ducks for their lives, and then my friend John chopped the head off. Plucking the ducks was much harder than with the chickens, as we discovered ducks not only have two layers of feathers, but the outer ones are extremely waterproof. As we finished for the day, and cleaned up the mess, I felt really good, really grateful and energized in a strange way. John and I cracked some beers open and I tried to take it all in. I had entered a whole new world.

The cleaned and dressed ducks we’d placed in my cooler, surrounded by ice, were freaking me out though, and this is going to really sound weird, but, I was extremely aware of their “deadness.” In the morning, as I opened the cooler to see if they were still in there, I saw how the skin had grown rigid with the chill of the ice. These ducks were just -well- dead. They were meat, and I raised them, and I was going to eat them. I picked one of the ducks up out of the cooler and literally shuddered as I felt the cold body in my hands.

This was the first meat I ate in 14 years- heritage duck. I slow roasted the first bird, stuffed with leeks and garlic, and several hours later I had the most luscious smelling kitchen. The duck’s meat was falling off the bones. Not having eaten meat for so many years, I took it easy and only ate a little bit, in case my stomach would freak out, but it didn’t. It was a whole new thing for me to eat meat after so long, and to be aware of the life that made it. As a vegan transitioning, meat was disgusting in theory, but this duck….oh this duck, was so succulent and savory and incredibly delicious in reality. As an aspiring new farmer, this was potentially a whole new element to my farm beginnings, to taste meat from a humanely raised and slaughtered being. Was I biased, being so close to the source, and so new to eating meat? John told me I wasn’t, he and his girlfriend had prepared theirs with a creamy peppercorn sauce and reported it was the best duck they had ever tried.

Some of my CSA customers heard about this experience and let me know they were very interested in this uniquely raised meat, if I had it available. I had more ducklings hatching out, meaning yes, I would have more male ducks to harvest. I rounded up a group of friends later that year who either wanted to learn, or who had harvested poultry before and we had a duck harvesting day together. It was quite the scene, feathers and down covered the trunk and hood of my car, where we’d been doing the plucking. A wheelbarrow filled with blood-sprayed hay sat next to the chopping block, where we let the ducks’ bodies bleed out. It was a cold day and it was emotionally exhausting. I gave a duck to each friend that had helped that day, kept a couple for myself, and sold out of the rest at $20 a piece, which I guiltily felt was highway robbery. I had not done my research on duck prices

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