Friday, 30 December 2016

2016 - still moving forward

2016 - still moving forward

Each year I like to look back and compare the past to see if we are still moving in the right direction. Our lifestyle is all about living a simpler and more healthy life, less reliant on money and avoiding the rat race. 

One measure of this is the place we spend most time, the garden, our little field. Having started out with a wet, flat, and blank field, the question is are we moving toward a place that gives us plenty of fruit, veg and a nice environment to just live in. Pictures and numbers seem to show this best and since 2015 I have been recording all the food that we have grown. Since we only moved in in December 2012 we didn't manage to grow much in 2013 and the trees were all too young to produce anything. 2014 saw a lot more being grown but it wasn't until 2015 that all the beds were dug and trees started to produce anything worth weighing.

December is probably the worst month for looking at photos of the field but it is a good time to compare with what we started with.

December 2008
Click on Photos to see larger versions.

December 2015

December 2016

2015 saw us harvest nearly 500kg of food. 2016 has seen this increase to over 800kg with a lot of it being sold and although it is a lot of food it is still nowhere near enough to be anywhere near self sufficient, not that being self sufficient is a goal, but it does show just how much hard work and how much food is required for a family of 5. 

What we have learnt, for our situation at least, is being 100% organic and not using chemicals is simply not possible. Most of the potatoes, parsnips, beans were destroyed by slugs. Carrots and beetroot were destroyed by moles. The bean problem we recovered from after using slug pellets but it was too late for the others. Several hundred Kilograms of food were lost, or simply not grown. Potatoes and parsnip would have accounted for a large amount of food that could have been spread over months. We won't be suffering from slugs again, it is simply a waste of many hours work and loss of valuable food.

Sprouts, Cabbage, Broccoli and Cauliflower were also a total loss due to caterpillars. The loss of sprouts and cabbage was the worst since they are easily stored either on the plant or a freezer but this can be rectified without chemicals. Our netting failed. 

Had we avoided the big failures it would have made a huge difference in the amount of food available and this years total would have been around 1200kgs. Next years goal is to get around this total. This year we managed a 79% increase in harvested food, next year we need the same increase. This is easily possible and as the fruit trees get older I can see 1300 to 1500kg will be possible within a few years.

A bonus this year was the number of eggs we had from the 20 chickens. Enough to eat, make cakes and sell but unfortunately the chickens stopped laying somewhere around August when they started to moult. By the time they got their feathers back the number of hours daylight started to drop and they never started to lay again. Spending money feeding unproductive chickens opened up a new opportunity - meat. Slaughtering birds was a difficult job but one that we over came. By the time they were killed the meat had become tough, only good for casseroles cooked for a long time but the freezer has 8kg of chicken breast meat. This has shown that next year we can have chickens for eggs, then eat them before spending money feeding them through the autumn and winter. The chickens stopping laying also highlighted the fact that they may have become stressed with the heat of the summer, then by the mud as things got wetter. I have dozens of nut trees and more willow to plant around their pen to keep wind off, provide more shade and give them more of a woodland area. All these extra trees will hopefully keep more areas drier in the future as well as provide food for us in the form of nuts.

The field is filling up, becoming more of a garden but is still a wildlife garden. Plenty of messy untidy areas which is good for wildlife.

July 2013

July 2014

July 2015

July 2016

The summer time photos from each year certainly show the field filling up and trees growing. The Willow is particularly noticeable.

This year also saw us create our own jobs. We now have a market stall selling plants, fruit and veg and home made crafts. We also sell home made crafts that friends have made. This year was a test, we started late, in June, and didn't have much to sell but as the summer progressed and we had more crafts, jams and veg the sales went up but by the time we had a full market stall the weather had changed, summer had gone and the footfall in the market had plummeted. We have to stand there each week to keep our place on the market but also to keep regular customers coming back but there is very little money to be made when it is cold. All the earnings will need to come from late spring to late summer but next year we will start with a full stall to take better advantage of the busy period.

Living as we do, in a modern society, is a struggle, more of a fight, but we are moving forward. The struggles are for another post because society and the way it is set up is designed to stop our way of life and make every one conform and be consumers... 

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Slaughtering Chickens - not a nice subject. Don't view if squeamish!

Slaughtering Chickens - not a nice subject

You can't be self sufficient in a modern world, not without space and money, but we're well on our way to at least partly doing that. Most of of vegetables, some fruit, most of our eggs and now some of our meat.

Some jobs in the garden are enjoyable, some just plain tedious, others are hard work and some jobs just spring up from nowhere and are down right horrible. Killing chickens has just become one of those jobs.

The idea was simple enough, feed chickens, get eggs, repeat and the jobs a good one. Chickens stop laying when it's cold and dark, ours stopped laying early due to a moult and became expensive, then came winter. What do you do? Keep them for 5 months or so not laying and then carry on in the spring? The chicken area has become muddy, it's not nice, a lot of heavy chickens pacing around all day in mud and the grass goes. Just feeding them is a horrible job, drinking containers get muddy, their house gets muddy and it's impossible to get rid of 20 chickens mid winter.

Bird flu comes along, it's in the news, and even small chicken holders are expected to keep chickens indoors for 30 days at least. That just isn't possible, our chicken house is just for them to sleep in. If they all sat still happily there is enough room but with big birds constantly pecking each other trying to get out it seems cruel.

Killing 20 chickens is a lot of meat, and a lot of work. Disposal is also a problem and the amount of hours needed doesn't exist in our life just to drop everything and process in quantity like this. Plucking a bird is messy with feathers going everywhere, time consuming and these birds are tough meat. They are too old for normal chicken meat.

There is a compromise, as there always is, don't pluck them, and simply take the breast meat and freeze it.

I've done a few chickens like this over the last month but the act of killing them is hard, especially as a dead chicken carries on flapping away for a few minutes and the inexperienced person doesn't know if they have done it right. I've had a chat with a few experienced people....

You have to deal with it in a very matter of fact way, quickly and very organised.

Step 1. Feed the birds. Their heads go down and they are easy to approach and pick up.
Step 2. Pick one up, put it under the arm.
Step 3. Walk out of the pen, close the gate and walk to a killing area somewhere else in the garden.
Step 4. As you walk grab the neck of the calm bird and break it's neck by pulling and twisting. Keep the pressure on. There is no movement. Quickly and firmly with no real thought.
Step 5. In the killing / bloody area, put birds neck on a chopping block and with one blow take it's head off while holding it's feet. It should already be dead before the axe falls. Doing this demonstrates the bird is dead and now any flapping of the wings and legs is purely muscle spasms. Mentally it helps.
Step 6. Hold the bird firmly on the ground until it stops flapping. 1 or 2 minutes. 
Step 7. Walk away or get another bird and repeat. Leave them for 10 minutes and get you're head into the right place ready for the next step.
Step 8. Take the bird to a table and pluck just down the breast bone. 30 second job to expose the skin.
Step 9. Sharpe knife and cut the skin down the breast bone, pull skin away to expose the breast.
Step 10. Follow breast bone with knife and remove breast meat without damaging the organs. 2 minutes and both breasts are off.
Step 11. Bird in bin bag, then in bin.
Step 12. Take breast meat and rinse with cold water to remove any dirt or feathers.
Step 13. Put in a plastic bag and freeze.
Step 14. Clean all surfaces.

Life is real, this is where chicken meat comes, from and although this meat will be a bit tough from old birds compared to shop bought it isn't that tough and will soften up very nicely if cooked slowly in a pot or sliced up in small chucks. It's good value for money, doesn't waste all those birds and gets over a bird flu problem. Not to mention no need to feed unproductive birds. 

Dead chickens. Head removed.

Remove feathers to see and access breast.

2 birds, 4 breasts.

I know where my meat has come from!

A lot of people like the idea of having chickens for eggs and possibly for meat but the reality of having animals as part of a life style is that you need a way of dealing with them. You have to deal with death and any problems that arise such as bird flu and you need to just get on with it quickly.

Clearly by the look of the meat I'm no expert but that's another mile stone reached and practice will make perfect. So far 5 birds done in a couple of hours for 2.3kg of chicken breasts.

The last few chickens I will remove legs and perhaps pluck a whole bird to get much more meat but that involves more skills to be learnt.

What would you do with 20 chickens no one wants in winter? Keep them as pets?

Next spring we'll get a new flock and I think repeat the process, have the eggs until they stop laying, then have the meat. At £5 a bird plus feed the eggs pay for the birds and feed and the meat then turns a profit allowing us to get the chicken area re-grassed and turned back into a nice home for the next lot. 

Buying your chicken from Tescos or KFC is all well and good but is it good meat? Were the birds looked after and were they killed by someone who cared for them? How were they treated and what chemicals were they pumped full of? Living in a town or city and getting all your food prepacked in a very expensive way really does hide the reality of real food and where it comes from. Doing everything yourself teaches you an awful lot very very quickly and I think teaches you to appreciate your food more. 

Our birds were well looked after and died calmly while having a cuddle under my arm and they will be appreciated on the table.

Anyone else interested in keeping chickens for eggs and meat and doesn't know how or what to do just ask. I'm no expert but I have been there done that.  

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Muntjac wild deer

Muntjac wild deer

We have had the odd bit of shop bought venison before, even road kill, but the other day a friend had been hunting and had 4 wild deer. Normally he sells them to butchers and restaurants but this time he couldn't fit them all in his car in one go and so one was going begging, and fairly cheap. The deer had come from one of our local woods and had been properly gutted in the woods and hung for 2 days.

£30 delivered, although I was all for trying to attach it to the push bike, but he was going my way anyway.

We left it hanging for another couple of days as we tried to find the time to process it.

The first job is to skin it and with the River Cottage Game On DVD to hand we set to it. It was a lot more time consuming than I remember having last done a road kill deer some years ago.  We started early afternoon as a joint effort taking turns to remove the skin until the point came when the wife and kids had to go out leaving me to finish skinning and cutting the animal into quarters.

We made plenty of mistakes, cutting into the meat, but eventually the skin, feet and head were removed.

Almost Skinned
Once in quarters, plus 2 breasts, I had a table full of meat that could now be converted into cuts and sausage meat as well as stock and casserole meat.

The bottom of the photo shows the back legs / rump. The right is the forequarter with neck and legs. The top shows the back and in the middle are the 2 breasts.

The best meat is in the rump but the tender loin and loins looked good.

Having started around 1pm the clock showed 7pm and I still hadn't finished and something became obvious, namely that to make the most of a deer you really need a sausage making machine because the breast, ribs and forequarter and very sinewy and need mincing. We also made a couple of batches of stock.

It's now all in the freezer, although the rump steaks turned out to be mini rump steaks because when boning the meant I was left with a fair few small joints of meat. All in all we ended up with about 10 freezer bags of cuts.

Next job is to locate a sausage maker and buy some pig fat to wrap the joints in before cooking.

An experience!