Growing Your Own Meat: For the New, Sustainable Omnivore
Interested in producing your own food? How about your own meat? The inspirations for raising animals for consumption range from a desire to ensure that the animals are humanely raised, to feeling more connected to nature, to the continued quest for self-sufficiency, to generously sharing one’s hard work at a table surrounded by friends, to an interest in custom butchery.
As long as it’s for personal consumption (and not an enterprise), Corvallis makes it easy to raise animals for meat. Animal noise is, of course, an issue—city code states that animals who cause “frequent or long continued, loud noise which disturbs the comfort, repose, health, or peace of others,” are not allowed, and all livestock must be registered with the Animal Control Officer if they’re going to be kept within city limits (happily, “domesticated fowl or fur-bearing animals” are not considered livestock). Most people interested in growing their own meat start small—usually with chickens.
“Chickens are easiest to raise on a small scale,” said John Yeo, who raises his own for eggs and meat. “Raising your own meat chickens is approximately half the cost compared to local chicken at the co-op, and is probably on par with factory-farmed meat.”
While some people do break even, economic efficiencies are highly varied depending on circumstances, such as how much startup investment is required, whether one is breeding the animals or buying them, and how much infrastructure is already in place. If you’re concerned about making your investment back, raising your own hard-to-find meat—such as duck or rabbit—is a good option.
“Store-bought duck is very expensive,” continued Yeo, “and it’s much more economical to raise your own if you want to eat duck.”
But most people who raise animals for meat aren’t in it to save money.
“If you’re going to raise your own animals in the city, you’re doing it because you enjoy it—and yeah, you enjoy the eggs, but you have to enjoy the husbandry of the animals,” said Gabe Gurule, whose interests led him to take butchering classes at the Portland Meat Collective.
“I felt it was important to take personal responsibility for the food I was eating,” said animal husbandry devotee Iris Benson. “It connects me to the regular seasons and cycles of life. For me, that’s enjoyable.”
Yeo concurs: “Food is a growing, living thing, and humanity has spent thousands of years perfecting a system of agriculture dedicated to sustenance. An appreciation of the process makes homegrown food so much more satisfying, regardless of if it’s vegetables or meat.”
Many of the animals also earn their keep in other ways, such as contributing to biodynamic gardening methods.
“I incorporate all of my animals into the garden,” shared Benson. “Muscovy [ducks] are really good for fly control and mosquito control, and slug and snail control; rabbit manure is amazing because you can use it immediately without composting it. You can incorporate the chickens to pick weeds and control them in certain areas to make new garden space. So there’s a lot of ways to incorporate your animals into growing gardens and actually helping you do the work.”
Benson raises chickens, ducks, rabbits, and miniature dairy goats on her property outside of city limits. With some duck experience already under her belt, she is excited about the 10 new ducks she is integrating into her gardening endeavors. Wood ducks, like the Muscovy breed she has, “have a lower oil content, so that sort of gamey flavor that people associate with ducks isn’t something that these ducks have in their meat.” Unlike water breeds, Muscovy ducks are “more like a delicate steak than a gamey duck.”
Rabbits are the other popular meat animal. “I think it’s hardest for people to just get over the idea of eating rabbit,” said Benson. But if you can get over the cuteness factor, it’s well worth the payoff. Benson said rabbit is a versatile white meat that can be used in place of chicken in almost any recipe. In addition, “Rabbit meat’s nice because it’s the lowest in fat and the lowest in cholesterol and the highest in protein of any other meat.”
Benson keeps three breeding rabbits—one buck and two does—and breeds the does on rotation. With each slaughter-ready rabbit weighing in at about 3 pounds, Benson brings in approximately 120 pounds of rabbit meat per year. This, despite breeding each of her does only about twice a year instead of the four times a year that they are capable of.
Other animals that are drawing notice from the urban meat movement include goats, lambs, and pigs. Their larger size make them less popular due to space limitations (not just outside, but in the freezer, too), fencing needs, and the increased scale of slaughtering/butchering operations. Often, raising these animals for slaughter requires creativity and investment. For instance, according to Benson, “Goats are notorious escape artists—you have to have good, sturdy fencing.” And slaughtering and butchering a pig is no easy task. Typically weighing in at more than 200 pounds, pigs can be difficult to wrangle, and the butchering process usually takes at least a day.
Even though there is technology easily available that makes slaughtering smaller animals on a grassroots scale a quick and nearly painless process, killing an animal can be difficult at first, at least emotionally.
“The first time I did it, to be honest, I was really nauseous,” said Benson, now a seasoned rabbit slaughterer and butcher. “I think it’s a pretty visceral reaction and people are so disconnected from it.”
Jed Cappellazzi, who raises chickens for eggs, ended up with roosters in his flock. He successfully re-homed two of the birds—their crowing is considered a noise nuisance in the city—but was left with one last rooster.
“When my friend was slaughtering his meat birds, I decided it would be good for me to have my first kill. Seeing as I do eat meat, I figured I should at least be able to see it through,” he said. “It was a long process. I walked around the yard with him in my arms for 20 minutes. My hand was over his eyes to keep him calm and I won’t lie, I teared up a bit. When it was time, I felt like he knew and he was very still; he sort of let it happen.”
Thanks to tools such as the distastefully named “Rabbit Wringer” (a specially shaped bar that, with a firm jerk on the animal’s hindquarters, separates the cervical vertebrae from the skull), death is quick, clean, and almost painless.
Many good resources are available for learning how to slaughter and butcher meat. YouTube has a video series for just about every animal—the Urban Farmer and Camas Davis of the Portland Meat Collective have especially good videos—and a quick stop at the library, First Alternative Co-op, or one of the local bookstores will provide a plethora of reading material on the subject. For skilled practitioners, the butchering process for small animals like rabbits can be as fast as 10 to 20 minutes.
If you are interested in consuming locally and humanely raised meat but don’t want to take on the responsibility of raising (and killing) the animals yourself, there are alternatives. Afton Field Farm and Bald Hill Farm both offer shares of whole animals, such as quarter or half cuts of a whole cow, pig, or lamb. The shares of the animals are more customizable than buying meat that wasn’t processed to order. Buying a share of an animal is also much cheaper than buying individual cuts; you can expect to pay only $3.50 to $5 per pound (hanging weight), depending on the animal. Another option is OSU’s Clark Meat Center, which sells retail cuts of meat in addition to sausages, ground beef, and seasoned chicken.
With options like these, why raise and kill your own animals? Killing animals is hardly a fun activity. However, it offers a reality check that many find important and even fulfilling.
“From a young age I have a memory of my grandfather slaughtering animals, and it was a big deal. I want to remember that,” said Gurule. “Every time I sit for a hamburger or any sort of meat, this isn’t just going to the supermarket and I need a pound of hamburger and that’s where you get it. No, somebody has to take a life, and there’s a process, and it’s not easy.” He added, “I don’t have any profound words to say to make it easy.”