Sunday, 21 October 2012

Adventures in WWOOFing

For the uninitiated, WWOOFing stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It's based around the premise that you go and work on an organic farm in exchange for food and board, getting to learn a lot about organic farming and hopefully having fun and meeting interesting people along the way. You're expected to work for between 25 and 35 hours per week, and the rest is 'free time'. In many farms, during your stay you are treated as a member of the family, eating and socialising alongside your hosts a lot of the time.

I've been meaning to go for years, but never quite got round to it. However, I've been thinking about WWOOFing when travelling at some point, and so I thought it was about time I got round to giving it a go in the UK. Added to that I had a week of holiday left to use this year, and am trying to save money at the moment, so it seemed like a good time.

Earlier in the summer I joined the UK WWOOFing network and set about trying to find a host for a week at the start of October. One of the farms I contacted were Park Mill Farm, based in Gloucestershire and only half an hour from Bristol. This appealed, as it meant I could just come home in the evenings if I didn't enjoy it, or keep in touch if I did. I also liked the fact that they were a small holding that had a veg box scheme as well as keeping rare breed pigs, chickens, ducks and geese. One of the owners, Lara, emailed me back very quickly and suggested we have a chat on the phone. As soon as I spoke to her I knew it was the right place to go, and we ended up chatting for ages.

Uncertain still of quite what to expect, I turned up on a Sunday night armed with warm clothes and wellies, hoping for a week where I would learn a few things and wouldn't miss Bristol too much. Immediately I knew the week was going to be ok - I was shown to the amazing converted cow shed where I was going to be staying - a beautiful building with open plan kitchen, dining table, sofa and bedroom, and separate bathroom. It was beautiful and Lara had put out a welcome pack of food including homemade jam and a packet of Minstrels. I was then promptly introduced to her husband Oli and their dogs Morgan and Milly, offered a glass of wine and made to feel so much at home.

The work itself varied so much over the week. I was given the daily task of looking after the animals (feeding the pigs, chickens, ducks and geese in the morning, and putting them to bed at night), and between that I got to do a bit of everything - from taking pigs to slaughter, weeding the veg beds, moving pigs and electric fencing, planting seeds, putting together veg boxes and meat orders, plucking and gutting a chicken, digging in ditches, spreading manure... On top of that, we also found time to drink a lot of tea, bake bagels and homemade hobnobs, and I also got an afternoon off to go and pootle round the local town.

My hosts Oli and Lara bought the farm (with its 20 acres of land) about 3 years ago, and it was almost completely derelict. None of the outbuildings were usable, and only 3 rooms in the house were even liveable in (and that's being generous with the description of liveable in). On top of that, the land hadn't been farmed in years. So far, the Stables has been converted to a holiday let and the Cow Shed to a multi-purpose venue, but they still live in 3 downstairs rooms of the main house while they slowly work on the rest of the property. It's a bit like Grand Designs but without the people having endless bucketloads of money to throw at the place...

Their passion for renovating the house and setting up a sustainable small holding is truly inspiring and a real labour of love - the veg plot is based around a CSA model and currently supplies veg to 10 local families, which Lara hopes will expand to 30 families next year. They have about 30 chickens, 16 ducks and 3 geese who all contribute to the "egg round". One of their big passions is their rare breed pigs, who they breed for meat and also use to clear land around the farm (they currently have 9 four week old piglets! Whilst they're not organic certified (the certificate is too expensive for a small farm), the meat and veg growing is all done to organic principles (and beyond!)

For me it was a really enlightening experience. I learnt a lot of practical skills, but by far the best thing was getting to know Lara and Oli, and talking to them about their experiences. They made me feel so much a part of their family during my stay - from chatting over cups of tea, to going for a walk with the dogs, to going to the local pub for a couple of drinks. It's really re-enforced with me what I feel about growing and eating vegetables and meat too - the pigs are so well loved and cared for, and the chickens they eat are the cockerels that are a by product of raising more hens too lay eggs (see my separate blog post here), and the veg is all seasonal. Life on the farm was a wonderful experience as well - time seemed to move a lot more slowly, and it didn't really feel like work a lot of the time.

For me, WWOOFing is definitely something I'm going to do again, and I'll definitely be back at Park Mill Farm in the not too distant future!

I blog therefore I am?

So it's all been a bit quiet on the blogging front over the last couple of months. It's been a combination of being busy, being ill and being away.

Things have been trundling along though. Have a little summary of a few things:
- My car share is up and running, and working well.
- I went WWOOFing for a week. It was awesome. More to follow about that...
- Today I cooked a meal almost completely (apart from the flour and stock in the gravy!) sourced from free range/organic and local ingredients.The veg came from the organic veg box, and the belly of pork was from the farm where I was wwoofing. It was amazing.
- I went on holiday to Scotland for a week. Not exactly exotic, but much more sustainable and affordable!
- I've switched to an 'eco' deodorant. Nobody's told me I smell yet, so that's probably a good thing. I'm trying a more natural toothpaste but remain unconvinced...
- I've been trying to fix my clothes when they start falling apart, rather than throw them away. So far, there's been a pretty good success!
- My housemates and I are trialling a lovefilm dvd rental subscription as a house as a legal way to watch more films.

Hopefully I'll be less slack with the blogging over the coming months.

The other distraction is that I've been working on my next project, which really feels like a natural continuation of this project. It's a bit early to spill the beans on it yet, but more to follow...

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Chickens and pigs...

For years I've wanted to find out more about animal slaughter and have an opportunity to be more involved in the process. That might sound really sinister, but I feel that if I'm going to eat the meat, I should be willing to get my hands dirty and be prepared to do some of the work. I know that's not true for everyone, but it's how I've felt for a while.

When I came WWOOFing, I didn't think that was something I was going to get the chance to be part of (especially given that I'm only hear for a week). But chance has it that my visit to Park Mill Farm coincided with two pigs being booked in at the abattoir, and d-day for one of the cockerels.

Caution - the rest of the post goes into more detail about the animal slaughter - don't say I didn't warn you.

The Pigs

When I arrived on Sunday evening, my hosts Lara and Oli told me that two of their pigs were booked in at the abattoir early the next morning. They told me I didn't have to go (a bit of a leap in at the wwoofing deep end) but I was keen to go. Early the next morning we loaded the pigs (affectionately named "the escapees" due to their ability to get through even the most comprehensive electric fencing) into the trailer and drove them about half an hour to the abattoir. The one we went to is a small local abattoir (slaughtering only 80 animals a day). Lara told me she'd been to visit a couple when they started keeping pigs, and was really impressed with this one as it's so small and independent - it also happens that it's the most local to the farm, minimising the transportation required.

I was impressed by the abattoir (well, as impressed as you can be) - the person who runs it was out in the yard to greet us, and you could see he cared about the animals by his manner with them. It was really fast to unload them and they are slaughtered immediately after being unloaded. The animals weren't in any distress when they arrived or were unloaded, and the whole process was very quick. Unfortunately this kind of small local abattoir is getting increasingly rare, as most are now large operations that deal in huge numbers of animals daily, and likely involve significantly more distress and less care for the animals involved.

The pigs are then collected by a local butcher, and tomorrow we go early in the morning to collect it from him. From there, some is packaged up for the orders which are collected either tomorrow or the next, and the remainder is frozen for future orders.

I've sampled some of the meat, and it's fantastic (Good Housekeeping Award winning!) - the pigs are truly free range (the Christmas pigs are currently roaming round a couple of acres of land including an orchard) and people say they can taste the apples in the meat!

Looking after the pigs and piglets on the farm this week, it has made me realise what a big deal it is to kill and animal and eat it. But it hasn't changed the fact that I don't think there's anything wrong with it, as long as it's done well and the animals are well cared for. The animals here are loved, and every step of their life from birth to death is thought through to ensure they are cared for as well as possible. It has made more sure that I want to limit the meat I eat to free range meat from smaller producers - I can't imagine large farms take the effort to collect crates of windfall apples from an orchard, lug them across the farm, and then feed them to a couple of the pigs just because they love them...

The chicken

Every morning on the farm I've been woken up by the cockerels. This year, Lara and Oli decided they wanted some more egg laying hens, and so incubated and hatched some of the eggs. However, unluckily, 9 of the hatchlings were cockerels. They kept them and raised them, but it's costly to feed them and so they've been slowly eating them over the months. When I arrived, there were 5, and feeding and letting them in/out of their house has been one of my jobs this week.

It was decided that we'd have a roast chicken this week, and so yesterday was the chosen day to do the deed. I went with Oli and Lara as they caught one of the cockerels (they are completely calm and stay still if you hold them in the right way). I stayed to watch it be killed - the kindest and quickest way is to break its neck, and so it was laid on the ground, a bar put across its neck, then by putting a foot either side of its neck and pulling upwards and forwards, it is killed instantly.

For me, the actual death was not distressing, but I was surprised by how long it carried on twitching for (the chicken is very much dead at this point - it's just the nerves twitching). We then took the bird to the shed and hung it up by its feet so we could pluck it (much easier when it's warm). I was really shocked by how tricky this was - there's a lot of different types of feathers on a chicken, and some are very hard or awkward to pluck (when this is done at factory farming scale, they dip the birds in wax and rip it off to pluck them). The bird was then left overnight for the blood to drain into its neck.

Back we went today. Here comes the gruesome bit. First we beheaded the chicken (complete with congealed blood). There are tendons running through the legs of the chicken, and so to remove them, you have to cut around the foot joint and pull. The tendons pull out of the legs and you're left with two feet with dangling tendons, and one chicken with no leg tendons. This sounds simple, but really isn't and is stupidly hard work. At one point I was pretty much dangling off the chicken foot and they were still holding on. However, this was eventually done and we got onto the gutting. I won't go into all the detail, but it was trickier than I thought - both in terms of the steps in the process, but also in terms of logistics - I have large hands and the neck and pelvis are small! However, it was really interesting too, especially to see how different a naturally raised chicken is to a supermarket one (much scrawnier in terms of muscle, but with much more fat!).

I didn't find the process upsetting at all really. If you're going to raise egg laying chickens, cockerels are going to be born, and I'd far rather they have a good life then be killed, than killed as chicks (which is what happens in the factory farming industry). The death was done efficiently and quickly, and I found the process afterwards really fascinating, but much more time consuming than I thought it'd be. One thing's to be sure, I'll never complain about paying what I used to think was a lot of money for a free range chicken...

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The reality of eating meat

This week I'm wwoofing on a small farm in Gloucestershire (more to come in another blog). The farm rears rare breed pigs, as well as having ducks, geese and chickens, and a CSA based veg plot. The pigs are reared for their meat and for me (especially after all my thoughts on meat eating this year), this is proving really interesting (especially given that my responsibilities this week involve looking after these animals).

It's been a bit of a baptism of fire. The first thing I did on Monday morning was help take two pigs to the abattoir (I was given the option of not going by my hosts, but decided I wanted to go) - it was a small local abattoir and actually a lot less distressing than I expected. On Friday we pick the meat up from the butchers and prepare it for collection by customers on Saturday.

On top of that, tomorrow I also get to learn how to kill a chicken (one of the cockerels they raised after hatching some eggs), then pluck, hang and gut it. Again, this isn't a mandatory part of the wwoofing experience, but something I've chosen to participate in.

I've thought for a long while that if you want to eat meat, you should be prepared to at least be fully aware of what that means. And so this week is a real test for me. I'll report back :)