Last Sunday, I got back to the farm from my one week off feeling reenergized and excited for the week to come. We definitely had a big week. All of the harvesting, for CSA, orders, and farmers markets, proceeded as usual, but the signs of fall are emerging. We sent the first round of lamb to slaughter, we’re tending to the storage crops, we started sowing fall cover crops, the late season fields are in full swing, and there’s a red blush on the forest edges.
We are continuing to harvest lots and lots of kale, beans, and carrots, but the latest thing to arrive is tomatoes! The last 4 or 5 weeks there have been just enough tomatoes for the CSA but this past week we got an overflow. We have a colorful mix of grape and cherry tomatoes, at least 6 different varieties of pastes– orange-red stripe, green-orange stripe, red-yellow stripe, orange with red blush, black with pink blush, etc– and also a whole slew of full size varieties. My favorite are the large orange tomatoes and the Cherokee purples.
On Monday afternoon, we went up to the pasture and pulled out 6 sheep to bring to the slaughterhouse. We took 3 of the oldest ones that are having trouble walking- Grandma, Rasta Mama, and the Cryer, the two biggest ram lambs- Boots and Oreo, and also a small ewe lamb who was injured. The injured lamb had been limping last week and then Monday morning Ken found her dragging her back legs as if they were paralyzed. She doesn’t have any visible wounds and doesn’t behave as if her legs are sore to the touch, so the most plausible cause of injury we can come up with is that there are coyotes circling the pen at night. This would cause the sheep to be frightened and run around the pen, trying to stay away from the coyotes, and the little lamb may have been trampled by the other sheep. Regardless, she wasn’t going to make it, so she went with the group.
At the slaughterhouse, Ken discovered that per USDA regulations, an animal that can’t walk off of the trailer unassisted cannot enter the facility. Many animals that can’t walk are sick and could spread disease. As a result of this sweeping rule, we did the slaughter at the farm Wednesday evening. We set out all of the necessary items in the shade behind the trailer and talked about the process of killing and skinning. Ken read a Wendell Berry poem about killing animals that brought us into the moment and then we took her out and lay her on her back with her head slightly downhill so that she would be calm. Ken used a very sharp knife and, in one quick motion, he drove it straight into her throat and then sideways towards the ear. This motion cuts through the trachea and shuts off oxygen supply to the brain. Over the next 30 seconds or so, her lungs continued sucking in air and her nervous system reacted to her heart stopping by a leg kicking motion, and then she was still. We tied twine around her back ankles and hung her up in the door of the trailer. We started skinning by cutting around the ankle and then down the leg, moving down each leg toward the base of the ribs in a V and then joining the 2 cuts down her chest. We slowly pulled the skin off around her back and I could see the beauty of muscle and bone in front of me. I felt the heat leave her body, and as the sun set we could see light shining through the translucent skin, illuminating the blood vessels. Once the rib cage was sawed through, we pulled all of the organs out and I was surprised to feel how fleshy the lungs are and see how the ribs are just like a cage to hold all of these bags inside. After the organs were out, I held a tuft of wool on top of her head as Ken sawed through the spinal cord, leaving me, suddenly, with a lamb’s head in my hand, dripping with beautiful crimson blood. I felt strange to be holding a severed head, but also very grateful to the young lamb for giving us the experience of seeing the inside of her body. Ken then took her carcass to hang in the cooler and left the head, organs, and feet in the woods.
For the Hog Killing
Let them stand still for the bullet, and stare the shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air, let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife, let freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into people, not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.
All this week we have been working on weeding the nearly 4000 feet of storage carrots that are growing next to the flowers and tomatoes. On Friday, Mica and I finished the task and then spread winter rye and hairy vetch in all of the pathways. Ken and I used Jewel to cultivate through the pathways so that the seed would be under soil, and then Mica and Ken set up the irrigation to water it in. The rye and vetch will stay dormant all winter and then continue to grow in the spring. Ken has also seeded down cover crops on nearly all of their resting fields, and we spread rye and clover in the winter squash field.
Cover crops have been used in agriculture for nearly as long as humans have cultivated crops, but now most agriculture neglects to use them. They are used in different situations for different purposes, among those are keeping roots in the soil (which invites biological activity, prevents flooding, erosion, and compaction, and creates air channels), decrease nutrient runoff, attract beneficial insects and microbes, add nitrogen to the soil, improve soil microbe quality, and increase soil organic matter. Many of these are intertwined and support each other, but there is a great deal of science that goes into figuring out which crops are best for using as a cover in specific climate, nutrient, and management situations. (Magdoff 2010) In the soil management class I took last year, we spent nearly 2 months on cover crops alone, and went into the exact time and place that a farmer might choose to sow daikon radish vs crimson clover and in what ratio and at what date. Ken’s opinion is that most farmers are happy just to get any roots in the soil through the winter. At Natural Roots Farm in Conway, Ma, cover crops are very thoughtfully crafted into the equation. They cover cropped the whole farm for 3 years before beginning their fourth season with vegetable crops and now they divide each acre in half, and each season one half is in vegetables and the other in cover. For Natural Roots, cover cropping is important not only because they seek to increase nutrient availability and soil organic matter, but because they sit right beside a river that could totally wash away the topsoil in a big storm. If there weren’t consistent roots holding it down, their whole farm would have washed downstream in Hurricane Irene.
Building Soil for Better Crops:
Natural Roots Farm: