One of the less commonly talked about aspects of raising your own meat animals is how much the process changes your relationship with food. This change is from casual to honoring the food. It’s not uncommon for many of the people around us who still eat meat to ask “How can you do it?” Quickly followed by “I couldn’t.” My answer usually falls under some variation of “It’s incredibly difficult and it never gets easier. But we know they had a good life as close to natural as they could and that their death was fast and humane.”
The Philosophy Component
I’m a meat-eater, always have been. Rimakej has cycled through various diets since she was 16: vegetarian, vegan, then pescetarian with only sustainable seafood. In the last year, she has begun eating meat from our animals only. I want to clarify for those of you who might find this strange. She never thought of eating animals as inherently wrong, she is opposed to the horrific conditions conventional animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) put their animals through. Be warned if you research this, it will be difficult to handle if you have never thought about where your food comes from. A good read that touches on this is the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
We raise our animals to have the best lives they can. Our sheep forage in managed pastures. The chickens and turkeys free range nearly every day. They all get healthy snacks from the kitchen, usually things that would wind up in the compost otherwise. The birds especially love watermelon rinds!
We also name them, respect their autonomy, and their place in the web of life. Most homesteaders do not name their animals, because they tend to get attached. Others use names to remind themselves that the animals are eventually food, like naming a cow Hamburger. We disagree with that convention, so we have chosen to name all of our birds after crystals and gemstones, whereas we name the sheep after herbs and spices.
Culling Time and Honoring Our Food
On a culling day, it is a sobering event. I must mentally prepare myself to take a life to feed my family. If those seem like harsh words, I assure you they are not. The reality is that eating requires the death of something else, whether it be a plant or animal. When we face this, our eating habits often change radically and we move towards honoring our food.
The day before I pray for guidance on if it is time to cull or not. If it is not, I postpone it. On the day of, I have a ritual of setting up the culling space and sharpening my knives and axe to prepare myself for the task ahead. It is critical to get into the proper mindset, to protect myself from injury and to ensure the kill is quick and humane.
Once I am satisfied the animal is dead, I can move into processing. Here I shift into a slow and methodical pace, examining the animal itself and internal organs for signs of health and disease. If everything checks out I use simple cuts through joints and handle the meat as whole muscles if possible. I am careful to not cut into internal organs.
We are not wasteful. I try to use everything I can, for the honoring of the animal that gave its life for our food. We use collected blood for food or fertilizer. I dry pluck birds, to recover and use the feathers. I use the sheepskin for a pelt, wool, or leather. The sheep horns become tools. We eat the internal organs that we can, feeding the barn cats the ones we cannot. I use the fat to cook with, and eventually make candles and soap. Some bones become tools and the rest boil down the rest for bone broth. We boil again for a weaker stock and then powder them for fertilizer as well. I boil down the hooves for glue or the chicken feet for a gelatin-rich broth. I use the tendons for sewing leather or to make a bowstring.
Even with all that, there are things I don’t know how to use yet. It is a process of learning every time. Each time I am powerfully reminded how disconnected most humans are from their food sources, and how un-sacred the act of eating has become.