Eating homegrown foods invokes images of luscious tomatoes grown on the vine, of gardens brimming with lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, onions, potatoes, peas and beans. Homegrown foods are fresh and loaded with the macronutrients—proteins, fats and carbohydrates—and micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—that our bodies need to function properly. But what this idyllic backyard image often lacks is protein. Where’s the meat?
The meat component of homegrown food is often intimidating, not only because animal husbandry seems more complex than growing a garden but also because slaughtering and butchering an animal is more physically and emotionally challenging than picking a red-ripe tomato from the vine and sinking your teeth into a flavor-packed, juice-filled fruit. But gardening has its own challenges that often require years of practice to overcome. Yet you continue because you know the culinary, health, and environmental benefits are worth the effort. The same is true for processing your own meat.
Adding meat to your array of homegrown food has wonderful benefits. As with homegrown produce, many find homegrown meat to have much more flavor. When you process animals at home, you’ll obtain the ingredients to make excellent soup stock. Years ago, it was common to find a large stockpot on the kitchen stove, containing bones, cartilage, connective tissue, and any other meat or vegetable trimmings. These ingredients were slowly cooked to create a flavorful stock rich in calcium, from the bones, and collagen, from the cartilage and connective tissue—two micronutrients that are important for the good health of our bones and joints. Another component of the animal that is more readily available when you process animals at home is the organ meats, which are full of vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients. When we eat only the prime cuts from an animal, we miss out on the prime parts—bones, cartilage, connective tissues, organs—that have more far reaching benefits than the meat alone provides.
To start processing your meat at home, gear up—the investment in equipment is surprisingly small. The primary piece of equipment you’ll need to for processing a medium sized animal is simply a good quality knife. A good quality knife with a 4½- to 5-inch blade will perform quite satisfactorily for the entire process, slaughtering, skinning, eviscerating, quartering, and butchering. A rope and gambrel-stick are helpful to hang the carcass for processing. A few buckets will be used to keep the meat, organs and bones clean and to transport them to the kitchen for butchering. And of course you will need a clean work space, which is often satisfied by a basic home kitchen.
The next step is to obtain an animal. You don’t necessarily have to raise the animal yourself, especially if your city’s zoning ordinance prohibits it. Fortunately, plenty of local small farms are raising healthy meat. And the more we support these farms the more these farms will be available. In supporting a farm, first take a look around the farm and ask yourself a few questions. Does the farmer care for the animals? Is the drinking water clean, fresh, and adequate? Is the feed healthy and stored well? Do the animals have pasture for grazing and a corral for the night? Basically, are the animals living a healthy and happy life? If they look unhappy and miserable, find another farm.
The next step of obtaining a locally raised animal for your meat is to select the animal. Often the farmer will have reasons for culling an animal. Ask for these reasons. Observe the animal the farmer has selected. Is it active and alert or is it lethargic and dull? Healthy animals are active and alert, without limps, without sores, and without fluids coming from the eyes, nose, mouth, or ears. A good farmer has nothing to hide and will not intentionally sell you an unhealthy animal; doing so is just bad business. So, ask the farmer to help you with an inspection.
Now that you have an animal selected, what do you do? Treat the animal with respect and compassion. A large and secure dog crate is often strong enough to transport a sheep or goat. These crates are so much better for the animal than hog-tying it and transporting in the back of a pickup. If you put a bit of straw in the bottom of the crate it will make the animal more comfortable.
The biggest challenge in putting homegrown meat on the table is the acquisition of the skills necessary to slaughter and butcher the animal. Although there are many books that can guide you through this process, the best way to learn this skill is to work with someone who has done it before. Find a mentor. Back when many people processed their own meat, fathers, mothers, aunts, or uncles passed this skill down to children. Today, many adults do not possess animal-processing skills.
When processing an animal, there is only one critical event that you really want to get correct. This event is the actual slaughter. You want the slaughter to be humane, quick, and clean. Done properly, the slaughter is a calm passage of life. After the slaughter is complete, what exists is a carcass. If something is cut improperly, it will not be a critical error; it will be a learning opportunity.
Learning to process an animal is a life-long journey. Once you have processed your first animal under mentorship, it will be beneficial to process another animal with less guidance from your mentor. And then do it again without guidance. As with most new skills, with practice, you will improve and be able to process an animal with efficiency and fluidity. Soon you will have friends asking you to mentor them in the process, and you will join the ranks of those who are preserving and passing on the valuable skill of processing homegrown meat.
Join Jeff Sanders at Bean Tree Farm this January and February for a weekend-long animal processing workshop. Visit BeanTreeFarm.com for dates and registration.