Of Doubt and Inspiration

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Tulsi basil growing at Rootdown, the ever present Mount Currie in the background.

I have been struggling a lot with doubt these days. Doubt about my choices to be pursuing a career in farming when everywhere I turn, farmers and non-farmers alike are more than happy to tell me how hard it will be to make a living this way. Doubt because I wonder if I have what it takes – not only to farm, but also to run a small business. Doubt because I wonder if my body will hold up to this career choice, and I wonder if my mind and emotional state will hold up to the challenges ahead. Doubt because I didn’t make myself rich in another business before I found farming (I probably should have done that), and so I am finding myself in the uncomfortable position of likely needing to take out a loan in order to buy some initial start up equipment, even on the small scale that I want to farm at. Doubt because, simply put, I wonder if I have what it takes to start my own farm.

And so on the brink of getting started on the set up of my own farm, while I mull over ideas and try to remember why I chose this path, it was particularly heartening to listen to episode 108 of the Farmer to Farmer podcast, with guest Michael Phillips of Lost Nation Orchard in Vermont. Not because I am planning on starting an orchard. Not because there was a lot of inspiring information in it on using mycorrhizal fungi in farm and orchard systems to build soil, and therefore plant health – though there was that, and I’d say this episode is worth the listen if you’re interested in such things. And not even because it assured me I would be successful in my farming endeavours – only time will tell on that.

Rather, the reason this podcast struck such a cord with me and left me feeling so inspired was because I was given the impression that here was a man who truly loved what he did, someone humble, who had great respect for the natural world around him, especially the soil beneath his feet. He struck me as a true land steward, someone who is committed to lifelong learning, who is in reverence of the work he does. He also does not claim to have all the answers, but rather encourages and implores the rest of us growing food to keep striving towards something better. He urges us to keep improving our systems, to take better care of our soil by tilling less, to feed our soil with mycorrhizal fungi, to do the best that we can given our situations and set ups, but nevertheless, to strive to learn and grow.

None of that, however, particularly explains why listening to this podcast left me feeling so emotional, with a lump in my throat. Maybe it’s simply that it reminded me that life is a process and a journey, that we never actually arrive at our destination, we simply (if we work at) get closer to our best selves. And for me, farming is the vehicle that I am choosing to help me along that path. Through the act of growing food for myself and my community, through the act of taking on things that feel way too big and hard for me as an individual (be that the mere running of a farm business, or the huge task of trying to find alternatives to the industrial food system), I am hoping I will continue to grow as a person. I am hoping that if I nourish my soil and steward a small patch of earth well enough, it will provide sustenance for myself, and for others. I am hoping that if I commit to observing and learning from a piece of land, that maybe I will also learn more about myself in the process, and get closer to the source of things.

 

Moving, and the Search for Land

Well, it’s been a while, and a lot has happened for this farmer. For starters, I moved from Pemberton, back to beautiful Vancouver Island – the part of the world that this nomad still thinks of as Home, in the ultimate, capital “H” sense. It’s where I hail from. It’s where I want my roots to grow, both in a figurative and literal sense. And while this may not be forever, it’s true for now, which has been confirmed since moving back. Simply put, I love it here.

But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t also grow to love Pemberton, and it doesn’t mean that leaving there wasn’t hard. Because it was. Leaving behind the mountains and the incredible natural beauty of that place, as well as the people there, was difficult. Over the nearly two years that I called Pemberton home, my life got to be filled with a lot of beauty. Beautiful people who became great friends. Beautiful meals cooked with those friends, made from beautiful food that we/they had grown. Beautiful skies, beautiful bike rides, beautiful hikes, beauty that hit me upside the face as soon as I stepped out the door. It’s not everywhere that your days get filled with so much to be grateful for. So thank you to Alyssa, David, Naomi, Lisa, Kate, Teresa, and the many more who made my time there so special.

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Simone, showing off an early bunch of carrots in 2016.
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Sarah and Buster sharing a kale snack in the field.

If saying goodbye to Pemberton as a whole was hard, saying goodbye to Rootdown, and Simone and Sarah – the hard working, kick ass women who put their hearts and souls into that farm, who breathe life into that place – was especially hard. Because that farm and the people surrounding it, gave me so much. After a couple of very challenging years farming, spending time at Rootdown helped restore my faith in farming as a livelihood. And working for Sarah and Simone helped me to realise (or remember?) that women could be at the helm of a farm, and they could do it incredibly well, despite not being 6 1/2 feet tall and weighing some 240 lbs. Working at Rootdown showed me a workable example for the scale of farm that I want – something I had a sense of, but had never experienced. I learned so much about the craft of farming from them, but of equal importance, I also learned a lot about communicating, and bettering myself as a person from two people who are very committed to all of those things. I feel incredibly lucky to now call Simone and Sarah friends and farming mentors. Thank you.

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Rootdown pigs napping in their forested home in early summer.

However, despite the hard good byes, move I did. And now I am in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island and am searching for land to lease in order to start my own small farm in 2018. I am seeking land, and am also working on a farm plan, a business plan, and spending a lot of time researching and thinking about the type of farm I want. My days are surprisingly full. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. These things take time and effort.

There is unused farmland out there, for sure. It is more a case of finding the right fit between myself and a landowner. I am looking for somewhere I can lease 1-5 acres, ideally, for 2-3 years to start, with the likely chance of extending that lease for a much longer term so that my efforts in building the soil and managing weeds will not be wasted. I am looking for a piece of land that I can cultivate and steward, a piece of land where I can build a sustainable farm business, and support myself while feeding the community around me. I am looking for a piece of land where I can get some of these ideas that are bouncing around my head out of there, and into the soil. Where I can see if they will work, or if I need to revise them – there will be a lot of that, I’m sure. That is a part of what makes farming so interesting, after all!

Right now my options range from a plot of land under an acre, mostly deer-fenced and with some other positives; to a four acre piece of raw pasture with all the infrastructure set up to do; to a co-op community farm model seeking a farmer or farmers to set up shop; and a few other options in between.

Which means, in short, that I have a lot to think on and mull over these days. You can expect to hear more from me in the weeks and months to come, as all this transpires – so stay tuned!

 

 

 

Learning Something New

When I decided to grow medicinal herbs, as Wild Health Herbals, for Namasthé Tea this year, I knew I would be getting into new territory, as growing and drying medicinal herbs on a large-ish scale was not something I had experience with. And while the growing has had a few challenges so far (namely in the seeding stage, as some of these herbs are tricky to start from seed), the herbs I am growing are all fairly low maintenance and easy to grow. The part I was slightly, shall we say, unsure of from the beginning has been the drying process. It turns out that drying high quality herbs is not as easy as you might think. Especially in quantity. When you are making do with the space and materials at hand, and it is not really enough space.

And since I am planning on growing high quality medicinal herbs, I also want the finished product to be of the highest quality. So when the calendula really started to pump out the blossoms last week, and I also noticed my tulsi had, seemingly overnight nearly reached the prime time for harvesting it, I suddenly realised I needed to turn my attention to getting my drying shed in order.

For drying the herbs I am using the germination area in the greenhouse at Rootdown. At this time of year the majority of transplants are in the ground, and the remaining ones are outside, no longer needing the additional heat of the greenhouse. So using quarter inch wire screen, a staple gun, some baling twine, and some shade cloth kindly given to me by a neighbour of Rootdown’s, I turned the former germination room into a drying shed of sorts. The screen is obviously to support the herbs while still allowing air flow, and the shade cloth is actually to keep it from getting too hot in there, as many herbs, especially leafy ones, don’t dry to a high quality if they are dried at too high a temperature (or so I have read).

Once I had finished creating the drying shed, I couldn’t help myself – I harvested sweet-smelling tulsi amongst the plethora of bees (they have also been harvesting it!) until the drying racks were full, only harvesting just over half the tulsi! While I could have waited a few more days, I figured I may as well start using the shed, as the spearmint and then lemonbalm are coming on strong, and space will be my limiting factor for drying herbs.

While this is definitely a learning curve for me, that is the beauty of farming – there is always something new to learn, new crops to grow, new ways of doing things – and I’m enjoying this incredibly aromatic learning process to far.

A Few Words On Transplanting

There is a lot of transplanting that happens on organic veggie farms in spring and early summer. There are two main reasons for this. The first, which is more the case in more northern climates with cool and/or short growing seasons, is to get a head start on the season, having veggies readier to sell earlier. Sometimes, if your season is shorter or the crop a heat loving one, seeding into cell trays in a heated or unheated greenhouse and then transplanting out into the field can make the difference between having a crop, or not having one at all.

The second main reason is to beat the weeds. I have written about the struggles and pleasures (yes, pleasures!) of weeding on organic farms before, and I will likely do so again. But just because I do get enjoyment out of weeding doesn’t mean there isn’t good reason to do all we can to minimise weeds, because in all reality you’ll still have lots of them. Weeds are simply amazing plants, and their vitality and ability to propagate themselves is truly astounding. Which is why organic farmers who wish to have a marketable crop (especially in the case of annuals), need to spend a lot of time weeding, or at least managing weeds. And so when seeds are started in cell trays and then transplanted into weed free or mulched beds, they get a jump on weeds, which is beneficial to both plant and farmer.

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Happy cucumber transplants in the ground in the greenhouse.

At Rootdown we have been doing a lot of transplanting these past few weeks. My first three days in May were almost 100% transplanting, and there has been significant chunks periodically since then. And while transplanting by hand (as all of Rootdown’s transplanting is) is somewhat hard on the body – think sore shoulders and back, and sometimes sore knees – it is also an activity I thoroughly enjoy. If you are transplanting with other people, it is a good chance to for conversation, and if you are transplanting alone it is meditative, contemplative work. I also love pressing the young plants into the soil, watching the inevitable wilt of transplant shock (plants in the brassica family suffer from transplant shock particularly hard, especially if it is a hot day), and then seeing them recover and take off as a result of having access to more nutrients, more space for their roots to grow, and ample water.

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Healthy tulsi starts, ready to go into the fields.

On a Wild Health Herbals front, I transplanted tulsi basil this morning, 250 bed feet of it. Tulsi is the biggest crop I am growing for Namasthé this year, and in the last week or so the plants grew a huge amount and were looking green and beautiful and ready to go in the ground. Since the danger of frost has (I think) passed in Pemberton, I decided to take this slightly overcast morning to get them in the ground. I had a great time of it, spending a few hours listening to the birds and the breeze in the trees, and ruminating on life. I might have taken the time to catch up on a podcast or two (another great activity for solo transplanting), but I forgot my iPod at home. In the end, I was glad to have a chance to work in silence in the fresh air on the farm.

 

Let The Games Begin

I think it is safe to say that the farming season has arrived in Pemberton in full force, and it felt like it happened fast this year. While I know there was a period of change over, a period of slow ramping up, I still feel like I blinked and then it was summer.

This last week marks my first week back working at Rootdown full time, which I suppose makes the change feel especially defined. I know that things were already well under way for small veggie farmers in the valley, and while before this week I had been seeding my herbs for Wild Health Herbals, and wondering anxiously if any of these minuscule seeds would actually indeed germinate (turns out many medicinal herbs have unusual germination requirements, incredibly small seeds, and/or slow or low germination rates); this past week was chock full of a myriad of tasks that reminded me strongly, once again, why it is that I love farming the way that I do.

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Medicinal white sage beginning its slow germination. There has been up to a 6 week lag time in germination between these seeds so far!
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Lemon balm and spearmint seeded and on the heat table at Rootdown. While they have begun germinating here, you can’t see them, as both these plants start out as the smallest seedlings imaginable.

The farm work this week past included transplanting like crazy (the fields were ready, and many transplants eager to get in the ground), weeding, seeding, flame weeding, prepping more beds for future plantings of veggies, and other general farm busy-ness. I enjoy the work immensely, and am so happy to be back spending my days outside, having my mind and muscles engaged in the good work of growing nourishing food for people. I was also, however, reminded of the pure joy that it is to work alongside Rootdown co-owners, Simone and Sarah. They are simply great people to work for and with, as well as people I genuinely enjoy spending time around. And for that – for the trust, the guidance, the camaraderie, and the engaging conversation that takes place in the fields – I am so grateful.

And so the days are hot, the veggies and herbs are growing (those finicky seeds that gave me cause to fret earlier in the spring are all showing decent germination after all), Wild Health Herbals is in the process of getting a more official logo (more on that later), and another farming season is well under way.

What’s in a Name?

I mentioned in an earlier blog post my desire to name my upcoming medicinal herb growing venture – but at the time all I could come up with was the rather uninspired Ariella’s Herbals. Since then I’ve been doing some thinking, some sketching, some brainstorming, and have come up with another name I like much more, and which seems to suit my fledgling business in a way that I like.

And so Wild Health Herbals has been born.

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Some of the brainstorming process.
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The final (for now), and still very hand done, copy of the logo.

Why Wild Health Herbals? Well, there are a few reasons. One is that the herbs I will be growing are health giving herbs, and will be used by Namasthé Tea Company in their delicious and medicinal tea blends.

Another reason is that many medicinal herbs tend to be either outright weeds in most contexts, or at least much less refined, and  closer to their wild relatives than many of our more common cultivated crops, with the tendency to revert back to their wild and weed-like state given half the chance. Just think about it – many people will be familiar with the tendency of plants in the mint family to take over a growing area if not actively kept in check – and I will be growing three plants in that family (spearmint, skullcap, and lemon balm). And gardeners or farmers who have grown calendula or borage – two more herbs I will be growing – will be quite familiar with those plants ability to to self seed and come up year after year with no further help from us humans.

And a final reason I like the name Wild Health Herbals is that it would work quite well if I decided, in the future, I might like to go the route of producing more value added medicinal products myself – such as tinctures, teas, or salves. Which is a definite possibility.

Not to mention – all those thoughtful, heady reasons aside – I simply like the way it sounds and rolls off the tongue.

And while Wild Health Herbals is still mostly an idea in my head right now, still very much in the planning stages with very little happening concretely in the world of soil and plants growing, it feels good to just go this one step further, and give it a serious name. Because names, and the intention they bring to things, have power.

 

 

The Bittersweetness of Late Winter (or Early Spring)

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The beginnings of one of my earliest attempts at growing my own food – a home garden, several years ago.

Spring. A word that inspires hope and excitement in almost any farmer, especially if you are feeling rested from winter. A word that, for the annual veggie farmer entails starting those earliest of seeds, and getting ready for another rewarding, albeit hectic, season of hard work and bountiful growth. Maybe it means organising what didn’t get organised at the tail end of last fall. Maybe it means recovering greenhouses with plastic that were uncovered for winter. Maybe it means just anxiously waiting because spring isn’t actually quite here yet.

Because, I’ll be honest – spring has not yet arrived in Pemberton. While I have received reports from my family on Vancouver Island of snowdrops in full bloom, and while I am used to seasons of farming on the island when I would be starting the first seeds right now, the truth of the matter is, Pemberton still has about a foot of snow on the ground. And the chance of frost is much later here, meaning, that most of those tender little seedlings can’t be planted out until much later anyway, so getting them started now would serve no real purpose (unless we were going to employ the services of a heated greenhouse, which Rootdown does not – instead Rootdown aims to transplant seedlings straight out into the field).

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Rootdown’s fields in early spring in 2015 – still many months away this year!

And so, while spring is on the way, it is not actually here yet. Even though I am feeling ready and excited for it. I know I should be enjoying my down time, enjoying the restful winter season – and I am. It’s just that I am also beginning to feel that itch – that almost uncontrollable, primal urge – to dig my hands into the soil again, to be doing physical labour outside, to be contributing to the good and satisfying work of growing healthful, nourishing food for people. Hence the bittersweet feelings – it is still winter, the days are still short and dark, I am enjoying resting and relaxing, and yet, and yet – there is a stirring of life, more of a feeling than any actual earthly signs yet, and it is stirring something inside of me too.

What a Farmer Does in Winter

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Mount Currie is even more breathtaking in winter – I still haven’t tired of this view.

The days are cold (at least by some people’s standards) and short. Darkness comes early, and a favourite activity is to read by the wood stove while drinking endless cups of tea. That’s right, it’s wintertime.

And while farming has ceased for me in the typical sense of the word, it is not as though there is nothing to do. With about a foot of snow on the ground, fruit and veggie farmers are relieved of regular farm duties, but there is always next year to plan for – and for many farmers, the planning stage of the game is a critical part of things, giving a farmer time to think about things that went right (or wrong) and how to improve upon the year before. Things like timings of plantings, as well as varieties and amounts of veggies planted is reviewed and changed if needed or desired. Research may be done, and different farm management strategies put into place for the season to come. Seed catalogues are poured over, and after much deliberation, seeds are ordered. Such is the stuff of a farmers’ winter.

It is really quite a lovely time of year, and this year, I am also doing some planning for my medicinal herb growing venture, which, for lack of a better name but with a desire to name it nonetheless, I have called Ariella’s Herbals. And so I have perused seed catalogues looking for such unusual seeds as skullcap, or white sage – they are not quite as easy to come by as carrots or zucchini seeds, for example. I have also poured over the fantastic book I bought last summer when I started considering this opportunity, a book that has, in a way, become my guide for all things herb farming called The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer by Jeff and Melanie Carpenter, who run the successful Zack Woods Herb Farm in Vermont.

Using that book as well as my own ideas, I have been coming up with ways to keep records on the seven medicinal herbs I will be growing next year. I have charts for the planting and growing of each, as well as spreadsheets which will, hopefully, tell me how profitable each is in the end. I have been thinking about timing and amounts, both of which are, admittedly, a bit of a shot in the dark for me this year, having never grown any of these plants on a large scale before.

What winter also allows a farmer, in addition to a possible non-farming winter job, is more time to pursue other interests. In my case this year, I’ve been trying to enjoy the great snowy outdoors somewhat, despite the fact that I do not downhill ski or snowboard, and have no real intention of starting any time soon (the result of a somewhat serious knee injury several years before). Luckily, I did manage to buy a pair of snowshoes, as well as some used vintage skates that fit me perfectly. I also live with two dogs who are always keen to go for a walk and who love the snow.

And so, in between drinking tea and reading novels, researching soil health and planning for next year; in between baking and eating tourtière, drinking wine and eating chocolate; in between working at the local coffee shop and watching movies, I have also gotten outside in the frosty, snowy, sometimes sun-filled days, to engage in my first “real” winter in almost two decades!

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Skating on Gates Lake with roommates and friends.

 

Putting a Farm to Sleep a.k.a. Season’s End

Next year's garlic in the ground and tucked in for winter.
Next year’s garlic in the ground and tucked in for winter.

This is the time of year when a farm gets put to bed. The last of many crops get harvested, while some carry forward, weather permitting, a little longer into the winter. When a crop has been harvested what remains gets mowed down and/or tilled into the soil. Cover crops get spread over bare soil and around remaining crop residues to protect the soil from erosion, suppress weeds, and build organic matter. Irrigation and plant row covers get pulled from the fields and stowed away. Garlic is planted so it can go through the cold temperatures of winter that unlock the magic inside each clove. All in all, things get cleaned up, stashed away, and organised for the harsh weather of winter, and the year to come, and it is a good, satisfying way to end a season.

The north field in a cover crop of winter rye.
The north field in a cover crop of winter rye.
Rootdown's oldest kale bed, planted in April and still producing like a champ in late October!
Rootdown’s oldest kale bed, planted in April and still producing like a champ in late October!

Last Tuesday was also Aurélie and I’s last day of work at Rootdown for the season of 2015. It was a little bit shy of our original planned end date, but these things are hard to predict for a farm and for farmers. What can seem like a huge and endless to do list can actually be made up of small jobs that don’t take as long as you think they will to accomplish. Such was the case for Rootdown this year. Once the CSA wrapped up in the first week of October and harvesting dropped down to a minimum the list of farm tasks remaining was completed rather quickly.

And while, on some level I am sad, because I love my job and the work of farming, on another level I am very okay with it, and maybe even glad. That is because a large part of what I love about farming is the seasonal and cyclical nature of it. Seeds sprout and grow, are harvested, and die. Animals grow, and animals die. The seasons change, and as they change, the work, and my desire to do it, changes too.

It is not that I want to stop farming when winter draws near, but there is something about working with plants and doing work of a seasonal nature that has put me more in touch with what my body wants to do at different times of year, on more of an instinctual, animalistic level. As daylight hours decrease, it is harder to get up when it is still pitch black out, and less work feels more tiring. The cold and damp weather can also take it’s toll, as can the heavy rain gear that must usually be worn (although don’t get me wrong – I love my industrial Helly Hansen rain gear!). My body wants to sleep more and go into a hibernation of sorts. Emotions seem to run high at this time of year too, and getting teary-eyed for little reason in the middle of the fall field is not as uncommon as you might think. That probably has do with everyone being more tired than they may even realise; or maybe it is just because fall and winter are the seasons of moving inward into the deeper, more emotional parts of ourselves.

Whatever the reason, the end of the season seemed to come at just the right time this year. While I felt I could have kept going, I wasn’t raring to go, and am appreciating being able to sleep in a bit longer in the mornings, and shift gears a bit. Any farmers reading this probably know what I mean.

As for my next move, I was offered a job at Rootdown next year, and have accepted it gratefully and with excitement. As well as simply getting another chance to work with and learn from the lovely Rootdown ladies (minus Aurélie, sadly, as she is going back to Québec to be closer to friends and family there), I will also be growing a few medicinal herbs for the Whistler-based Namasthé Tea Company using Rootdown land but my own time and muscle power. While there are a lot of details still be to be worked out on how exactly that will play out, I am excited to be in the planning stages of this mini herb farming adventure.

I will say once again how extremely grateful I am for my season at Rootdown. It has taught me so much about farming, communication, and myself. It has taught me a lot about what I want, has helped me to clarify my vision surrounding farming, has shown me that a work/life balance is possible for farmers, and has shown me how much fun it can be to work with an awesome, small crew of positive farm women! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

The 2015 Rootdown Farm crew, happy if a bit tired, sporting our work rain gear.
The 2015 Rootdown Farm crew, happy, if a bit tired, sporting our work rain gear. From left: Aurélie, Simone, Sarah, Marisol (Simone’s daughter), and myself.

A Fond Farewell to Our Turkeys

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The turkeys, much younger and smaller than they were at slaughter, enjoying the sun and the grass in their run.

The whole point of raising turkeys this year was to have healthy, free-range turkeys for eating at the end of it all. And to get to that point, or course, also means doing the inevitable butcher and slaughter that must come first when raising meat on a small scale for home consumption.

I will be honest. I was not looking forward to this. Not because I had gotten too attached to the turkeys – it’s true I was fond of them in all their awkward glory, but they had definitely not crossed over the line into pets of any kind – but rather because they were big and I was a little concerned about catching them, and also because the process of beheading, scalding, plucking, and gutting poultry is just not a very pleasant one. I’d done it a couple of times before, but was still not feeling overly confident in my abilities. And never with turkeys, which, may I remind you, are quite a bit bigger than their chicken cousins. About 12-22 lbs bigger. Yes, that’s right. In the end the smallest of our turkeys weighed in at 16 lbs, and the largest at a whopping 25 lbs, and at only 18 weeks of age, when most turkeys are butchered at 20-24 weeks!

And so it was with slightly heavy hearts that Aurélie and I set out to do the deed last Sunday morning. All in all, the slaughtering and butchering went very well, thanks, in large part, to Simone. She was a great help through it all, and is also, it turns out, an excellent turkey wrangler, being the one to catch all of the turkeys in the end. We had a only a few minor mishaps – some scraped knuckles and a couple of escaped turkeys that were quickly herded back into their pen (poor things). And while it was still challenging in many ways, by the end of the second turkey I was feeling much more confident and less squeamish about what I was doing. I will feel good about eating the meat in the end too, as I know the turkeys had good lives and we gave them the most humane deaths we could, which is a lot more than can be said about the meat of questionable origin that comes from most grocery stores in North America.

So thank you, awkward little turkeys, for entertaining us at times, helping us connect with where our food comes from, and for, ultimately, nourishing us. Your lives and deaths are hugely appreciated. I am grateful.