Wednesday 22 November 2023

Growing a smallholder

Just finished earbooking Kurt Timmermeister's memoir How To Grow a Farmer. KT started off running a famous Seattle hang out called Cafe Septieme. He took care of his employees and served lattes and brioche. In 1990, although his business was going really well, he wanted to dig deeper into the food business - more pasture and less plate. He contacted a realtor on Vashon Island [R] and fell in love with 4½ acres = 2 ha. of brambly jungle surrounding a dilapidated chicken coop and bought his weekend getaway before property prices went mental.

There is nobody on the planet who is less capable of running a small-holding than me, but we've been pursuing a similar fantasy over more or less the same time-scale; more or less the same distance South of Dublin as Vashon is from Seattle.  I coulda been a contender: I coulda grown baby lettuce and shipped them to City restaurants at dawn. But I was /am a) risk averse b) undriven c) better at computers than carrots. Timmermeister is the opposite on all these axes. His farmlet has more than doubled in size and he's tried all kinds of ways to make it pay. But he's been at the other end of transactions as a restauranteur and is sensitive to what the market will bare. Industrial veg, grown at scale and picked by The Undocumented, is not as healthy or as tasty as his dew-picked sustainable produce. But many retailers will judge that industrial is good enough for at least some of the stuff they purvey. Home grown tarragon is more likely to get a reasonable return on the growers time, potatoes not so much. Honey, hams, and harissa fall in between these extremes.

Chapter 4 documents KT's journey with bees make honey. His version seems quite capital intensive, each Spring he orders up a nuke from a wholesaler in Iowa. The bees go to work, KT provides a place to store the honey, in supers as the original frames get filled. But he has no compunction about taking all the honey at season's end because he has no intention of sustaining the colonies through the wet cold Seattle winter. It is more cost effective to start afresh each year with a new queen and a few handfuls of workers. On the basis of this report on the beekeeper's lived experience I was going to rec the book to The Beloved who has aspirations (and all the kit) to embrace apiculture.

Whoa! A later chapter goes into a similar level of >!TMI!< detail about home-butchery. For sheep and small goats, it is possible to kill, flay and butcher the beast with just yourself, a rifle and a very sharp knife. For 220lb = 100kg hog, let alone an adult cow, you really need help. I'm just too young (and toooo middle-class) to have lived in a culture which fattened, slaughtered, butchered and salted a pig or two each year. KT, likewise; but after one of his milch-cows broke a leg in the pasture and the mobile butcher was about as unavailable as our dentist, he learn on the hoof and had a stab at saving the carcass. It was a lot more trouble to dig a massive hole to bury poor Daisy.

Nowadays, KT and his pals make a meitheal of it. He has built up a network of trusted friends who will rock up on a designated winter Saturday and fall to. Each person owns a subset of the tasks required and the rest of the team trust that feller not to screw up. All the tasks are essential in that failure to do that thing with timely resolution will make everything a lot more difficult for everyone else. One of the team is designated blood-boy, for example, they have to get a bucket under the upended hog to catch the makings of black-pudding. At the other end, bum-boy is required (really sharp knife in skilled hands wanted) to cut  r o u n d  the anus and tie off the gut inside of the sphincter. A mis-nick there and coliforms are everywhere - perhaps irrecoverably. 

There is discussion about whether children should be present at any or all of this process. Nobody asked that question hereabouts in 1954! Killing Betsy was a routine, and relished, part of the farming year. There was no place for passengers. If you wanted bacon on your plate, you had to help put it there. If kids nowadays are too squeamish to see a chicken killed, then it's fine to go vegetarian. Indeed we should all go vegetarian. Shrink-wrapped pink slabs in Tesco hides a world of pain, exploitation and abuse.

I really enjoyed this as audio; reader is Ax Norman.

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