The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

World by Hand

July 19th, 2015 by Ed Bruske


Originally I was going to title this post “Going Amish.” But then I thought it would be even more appropriate to salute our friend Jim Kunstler and his series of novels, “World Made By Hand,” describing a not-too-distant world right here in Upstate New York struggling to cope after the world runs out of fossil fuels and civilization collapses. In either direction–back tot the Amish, or forward to Kunstlerville–you end up in very much the same spot: working without power tools.

Jim’s theme has been on my mind a lot lately as we harvested our Freedom Ranger chickens–more than 50 of them–without the aid of the electric plucker we bought just two years ago. One day the motor just upped and quit on us for no apparent reason. And whereas there used to be guys on almost every corner who worked on small electric motors, finding one now seems nigh on impossible. When I called the manufacturer of the EZ Plucker, I was told these motors sometimes die after practically no use at all. It needs to be replaced.

So much for craftsmanship.

This was not long after the hard drive in my computer died, launching me on a weeks-long repair adventure. And not long after the chicken plucker pooped out, our dishwasher gave up the ghost as well. I’m guessing it’s not more than six years old, left to us by the previous owner.

As far as the chickens were concerned, there was nothing to do but pluck them by hand, something I had never attempted before. First they go into scalding water (thankfully, the electric scalder has held up–so far) at a temperature around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Hold the (dead) bird by the legs and swish it around in the hot water for about a minute. Test by pulling on a couple of feathers. Then lay the chicken out on a flat surface and go to work.

After plucking more than 70 chickens by hand over the last month, I’ve gotten pretty good. Like Edward Scissorshands, my fingers fly and so do the feathers. Takes me about 10 minutes to get to a clean bird ready to be gutted–my wife’s job. And you know what? Those birds look ever so much better–fewer bruises and tears–than the ones that used to get the electric plucker treatment. I’ve gotten to where I can tell by how much resistance I feel tugging on the feathers just how much scalding is required. Yes, I’d hold my plucking up to just about anybody’s.

Likewise, the broken dishwasher has taken us back (or is it forward?) to a time when people actually stood at the sink, washed and dried as a team. Anybody remember that? One person did the washing, handing plates to a second–even a third–team member, who toweled the dishes dry and put them away.

Well, you won’t convince my wife the dishwasher doesn’t need replacing. And that seems to be the curse of our modern, mechanized lifestyle. Sure, electric appliances can make work lots easier. But they inevitably become an incredible annoyance–when they break down, that is. And don’t they always seem to break down eventually? And at the worst possible time?

It makes me think the Amish got it right: self-contained communities working mostly by hand with lots of kids to help with the labor.

At our age, we can’t do anything about the kids part. But we can do some things by hand. And take a little pride in the results.


The Thing About Boys and Girls

July 12th, 2015 by Ed Bruske


It’s around this time of year–beginning of July–that we separate the male animals from the females. All of the pregnancies on Spy Dog Farm are planned–meaning we do our best to avoid accidents and time our births for spring, sometime in April.

That entails a bit of fancy footwork, inasmuch as we have to find a place to put our two rams–Tucker and Buddy–and our buck Tigger where they can graze for the four intervening months until November, when everyone is re-united to perform acts of conjugal bliss. It also means we have to continuously rotate the rest of the herd–the female sheep and goats–to fresh pasture so they have plenty to eat while the grass is green.

You might well wonder why a small farm such as ours would do such a crazy thing. Can’t we just rent male goats and sheep when they’re needed? In fact, we do know other farmers who travel fairly long distances with their animals for mating services. I don’t happen to own a trailer. And finding stud service isn’t necessarily easy. With all the different diseases lurking around, many farmers are reluctant to entertain outside stock for “bio security” reasons. Having experienced my share of sick livestock, I wouldn’t really welcome interloping animals either.

That being the case, the only way to reproduce is to have both sexes readily at hand. And breed they will, even when you aren’t looking. We aren’t trying to grow our flocks. Other than replacing animals that have died or found their way into the chest freezer, I have to remind myself occasionally that mostly what we’re about is making our own food. For that we only need but a few animals. Any extras we try to sell to our friends and neighbors to support the commercial side of the farm.

But do I really need two rams to take care of seven ewes? Actually, the number is smaller than that, as two of our Friesian ladies have failed to give successful births. One hasn’t even gotten pregnant in the two years she’s been on the farm. Truth is, whether you want to or not, no matter how professional you try to approach things, you do become attached to your animals. They’re not pets, exactly, but you do form a bond. If anybody’s expendable, it would be Buddy. But I’d have to know he was going to a good home.

As for our Kiko buck–Tigger–well, he’s just turned into the finest looking specimen. Big and muscular, with an elegant set of horns, he was sold to us when just a boy with the admonition we shouldn’t expect him to become a pet. In fact, for all his fearsome looks, he’s a total pussycat. And just look at the kids he’s sired. Baby goats may be the cutest thing in creation.

So, for months on end we work on this puzzle, keeping the different sexes separated and moving them from place to place so they can forage and thrive without mating. Part of me looks forward to winter. I know it sounds crazy, considering how harsh winters can be around our neck of the woods. But in many ways it’s a whole lot simpler.

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