Disclaimer: The end of this blog post contains photos of dead caribou. Whether wild harvested or grown on the farm, killing and then processing the animals is how we provide our family with protein.
The past three weeks have been full on winter with mornings of as cold as -27°F, snow, and ice on the lake that has now frozen thick enough to walk and ski on. The lake froze over on the night of October 22.
The pace of life in our household has slowed down from hectic, exhausting frenzy to more manageable school and chore filled days.
Hauling water to the pigs is my least favorite chore these days. We do not usually keep pigs into the time of year of subzero temps. It is on the to do list to butcher them but we have been waiting for a warm weather window for the process. I have been piling up large mounds of straw for them to burrow under and bringing them warm water twice a day. I used the 4 wheeler and trailer until it became too cold for the machine to start. A few days into hand sledding buckets of water through fresh snow all the way to the pigs, my husband got out my tundra snow machine for me to use.
They seem happy especially when eating pumpkin guts.
I finally had the time to get 20 pounds of frozen whole tomatoes from the freezer. I processed them into pizza sauce for our homemade pizzas, which we make on Friday movie nights. (Anyone else watching the Mandalorian every Friday?)
I baked some pumpkins for pie because when it is cold having the oven on is a really good thing!
I peeled and fermented a quart of garlic cloves to use when the fresh supply runs out. The fresh cloves start to grow, which degrades the eating quality, by January or February. I usually ferment, freeze, and dry cloves so that we have garden garlic to use year round but I have not made time to processing the majority of the harvest yet.
Fall/early winter butchering season has begun in earnest. While processing meat can happen any time of year (trout from winter ice fishing, spring black bear, midsummer meat chickens, late summer grouse etc…), the majority of our protein comes from the meat we grow on the farm and wild harvest during the state hunting seasons in the fall. I started eating meat again the winter before I moved to Alaska. For over 5 years, starting in my late teens, I first gave up factory farmed red meat, then ate a vegetarian diet and then tried out over a year of consuming only vegan foods. I had tried to align my beliefs of anti animal cruelty with my diet. I was living in Bozeman, Montana in 2001 working temp construction jobs in below freezing temperatures to make the rent and save enough money to get back home to New England, when I was invited through friends of friends to the home of a rancher’s son. He cooked up the largest platter of steaks I had ever seen and somehow after all those meat free years, it felt like time. I still remember how that steak tasted with its perfectly grilled outside, tender pink center, and the crisp fat of the grass fed open range beef. My mouth waters just thinking about it. Over the next several years I learned more about farmers who ethically raise animals in humane conditions, homesteaders who raise their own animals for consumption, and subsistence fishing and hunts for rural Alaskans who provide part (or most) of their diet with harvests of animals from the land and sea. 18 years in Alaska now, I have supported small farmers who ethically raise meat animals as well as hunted small game, processed big game harvested at hunting camp and by my family, and butchered our own farm raised pigs and chickens. Consuming meat again benefited my physical health and increased my mental clarity. It is emotionally difficult for me to harvest animals but I think it should be difficult, taking a life should hold weight. Our children have been raised knowing where their food comes from and that to feed ourselves, to thrive physically with a healthy diet, plants and animals have lost their lives. I think this connection, this understanding, is important too.
The subsistence Nelchina herd caribou hunt opened on October 21 and C, S and T tried but were not successful on their first attempt. C and T headed back up a week later and connected with two young bulls, perfect for eating. It was allowable this year to harvest cows without calves but we do not like to take future breeders from the herd even though the cow meat is the most delicious. It was really cold so they loaded them up in the truck gutted but whole. We spent all of Halloween day with caribou in the house while T and C and S first skinned, then separated the carcasses into tenderloins and backstops, leg quarters and ribs while I cleaned, cubed, and made burger with the neck and scrap meats. Butchering days are long because you can not stop until the job is done especially when it is sub zero outside. But it is worthwhile work breaking carcasses down and being part of the transformation from whole animal to frozen packets of meats that will make delicious meals all winter and spring.
I aged the meat under the house for several days before we froze the whole quarters to cut with our meat band saw. It is much easier to cut frozen meat into nice steaks and roasts with the saw. The next step is to butcher our pigs so we can make caribou/pork fresh sausages. Yum! Homemade sausages and sauerkraut are our “fast food” dinners when I have neglected to make a dinner plan and we need something quick at the end of a long day. I miss that meal option on the years we do not raise pigs.
This winter I have set a goal to get out and walk or ski everyday regardless of weather and cold temps. I do not make it everyday, especially on long butchering days, but I keep trying! I went for my first ski on the lake November 4th and was treated to an incredible viewing of a sundog. It looked like this when I was half way around the lake.
And then it looked like this when I got back to the house when the sun slipped behind the Chugach. Sundogs are a sign of a change in weather. Our short window of sunlight on winter days is even shorter when the sun spends its last hour behind the mountains. Only 6 weeks left until the shortest day and then we will be gaining daylight again!
Best wishes from my farm to yours.