Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When Meat is Deer

I'm the community butcher.

Tough most years this is a busy time for that, there are currently no deer hanging in our walk-in cooler, and it's unclear whether I'll sharpen the knives this month or not. Even though we're four days into the rifle hunting season for deer, none of our three hunters have been successful yet. Northeast Missouri is about 10% wooded, and has a low human population, which combines to make excellent habitat for deer. Over the course of our 34 years here, the deer population has steadily increased—despite increasingly liberal regulations about hunting limits. (In fact, there are farmers in the county who net more annual income from renting their land to out-of-state hunters for the 11 days of deer season than they do from growing crops.)

While almost all of the omnivorous members of Sandhill have helped take part in processing our meat over the years, one of my homestead niches has been to take the lead on working up the meat from our homegrown animals when their time has come.

While I don't have a taste for killing, and I generally leave that part for others, I am drawn to the role of overseeing the transformation from carcass to food. I view it as part of a sacred trust between myself and what I eat, and I try to honor the spirit of the animal whose life I (and others) have taken by using the carcass as fully and as respectfully as possible. In addition to having the flexibility of cutting up the meat to suit our preferences (getting the right ratio of roasts to ground meat, for example), we make our own sausage, boil the bones to make soup stock, and preserve the scraps as a prized supplement to store-bought dog food.

Among other things, butchering is one of the bonding rituals I have with my children, and both Jo (21) & Ceilee (27) already have plans to be back on the farm for the 2009 deer season. We're looking forward to a fortnight of family time, culminating in Thanksgiving—which I consider the perfect homestead holiday. The larders will full and the agricultural cycle will be ended; it's a great time to kick back and celebrate the bounty of life with friends and loved ones.

In our first quarter century on the land, no one here had interest in hunting and we relied on the animals we raised domestically for our meat (culled chickens, males born to our milk cows, and sometimes goats, pigs, and turkeys). Steers comprised the lion's share of our domestic meat. However, that shifted when we let go of our dairy program back in the late '90s. Our lead cow contracted Johne's Disease—the bovine equivalent of Crohn's Disease in humans—and we needed to eliminate all cattle from our land for at least a year to kill off the contamination in our soil. After a year of not milking twice a day, people rather enjoyed the increased flexibility in their daily routine. When a neighbor switched his Holstien dairy to an organic operation, we started buying our milk from him and we didn't revive our own herd.

Without milk cows, there were no steers. Ceilee, then a teenager, developed an interest in hunting, and we made the transition from beef to deer as our primary meat source. As an organic farm, it was a somewhat tricky issue. On the one hand, we saved all the grain and pain of domestic care. On the other, we knew what our steers were eating, and we had no control over what the deer were eating. That is, the steer meat was organic, but the deer wasn't. While there are several of plusses to eating deer—the meat is local, lean, and sustainably raised & harvested—all meat is a known sink for environmental poisons and we're taking a risk.

Several years into incoporating deer into our regular diet (at Sandhill we tend to eat a low-meat diet; on average it shows up on our menus only once or twice a week) we haven't noticed any detrimental health consequences. Still, we're keeping an eye on it.

This fall, three different friends had approached me about helping with the butchering so that they could learn the craft. I enjoy teaching and was pleased that folks thought well enough of both my skill and my attitude to apprentice with me. However, there will be no lessons without successful hunting. As there's still another week of the firearm season, the carcasses may yet appear. We'll see.

Meanwhile, it's amusing to realize that as a proess consultant and experienced communitarian, I consider the opportunity to meet to be dear. As a homesteader in northeast Missouri, I also have the opportunity for my meat to be deer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought you might find this article in the Guardian interesting: