Harvesting Wild Game

At Leafhopper Farm, most of our meat is domestically raised on site, from chicken and ducks, to goat and sheep. In the Fall, there is a special time, for two weeks in mid October, in which I have the privilege to hunt. This ancient practice is very controversial for many today, and I wanted to take a moment to share personal experience to bring perspective to this tradition and its place in our world today.

First, it is clear that here in The United States, we allow people the privilege to hunt. It is not a right, and that’s important to remember. We as states, vote to allow hunting, and the voices in favor of hunting are fading in the face of urbanization and a decline in hunting tradition. I was not raised a hunter in my family, and did not know of any one in my family who hunted. Fishing was shared with me by my father and maternal grandfather, so I received passionate instruction in casting a lure to harvest fish from lakes in the south where I was brought up.

There are pictures of a maternal great-great grandfather who hunted deer, but I never met him. I was also not brought up around firearms, as my mother was not comfortable with them, and certainly not interested in having them in the hands of her children. When I did start learning gun safety, it was with my father, as he did have a modest collection of firearms, and wanted my brother and I to understand safety. This is something I wish all people would do, especially with children. I’m not saying put a high powered rifle into the hands of a five year old, but certainly show it to them, discuss proper handling, and explain why guns are not toys.

As a hunter education instructor for the state of Washington, I see hundreds of people coming to take our required class before getting a hunting permit. Many of our students are taking the class, not because they want to hunt, but because they think firearm safety is important, and want to learn how to be proactive in understanding guns and how to properly handle them. Our number one goal in hunter education is safety, and that’s what we teach.

Here in Washington, there is still a very healthy hunting culture, and it’s led by women! Yes, women are the fastest growing demographic to hunting, across the nation. As a woman, I celebrate this statistic, and greatly encourage my sisters to step into their huntress energy. It’s great to see women out in the woods enjoying the practice of hunting, specifically harvesting wild foods. It is like nothing else, to find food out in the wild and bring in home. There’s a pride there, and a fulfillment I have not matched in any other activity.

This year, I took the time to approach a neighbor about hunting on their land. I’ve next door for over five years, and had been watching lovely looking bucks walk through to the neighboring fields. Finally, I plucked up the courage to ask, and had a wonderful exchange with my neighbors, who are older, but used to hunt. Diana and her husband George have lived in our neighborhood the longest, having moved up Big Rock Rd. when it was still dirt in the 60s. They joke that at the time, they thought themselves sequestered far enough from Seattle to avoid the development that would come. Well, they were wrong, and now seem a little stunned at the growth still popping up around them (last year the lot directly across from them was developed).

The two were very encouraging of my endeavor to harvest a buck, and Diana (what an appropriate name!) Asked that when I was successful, she would like some of the meat and the opportunity to come work the hide of the animal with me. For those wondering, working a hide means to tan it from skin to leather, a process more often done commercially today with heavy chemical treatments. I prefer to tan hides organically, with wood ash and brains, that’s right, brains. You can also use dove soap if you’re short on brains. 😉

For three days I stalked the fields of my neighbors, looking for the right place to sit and wait, watching many does walk through, but never seeing the illusive bucks. In October, deer change their habits and shift into nocturnal activity. It’s hard to “catch” a deer out during the day, and the best time is when its raining. Luckily, this last weekend saw a lot of rain, and I was lucky enough to find my buck.

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clean shot, beautiful animal

The feeling of harvesting this beautiful creature right near my own home was such an honor. Not only had I seen this deer many times, but I knew he had eaten from the land I steward, and most likely been born of does who also feast on the landscape. It’s a beautiful cycle, and one I am proud to be a part of.

This two point buck will feed me and my neighborhood of friends for the winter, allowing us a wild source of protein and rich flavor. The buck was a gift, and I spent time every day as I hunted in gratitude for the deer nation and our sacred relationship with this animal. I asked for support of ancestors, and smudged with sage to clear my spirit for the ritual of each hunt. There is intention in my quest for wild food, it’s about eating, not sport, and I think that’s important to stress in this story. Whatever buck walked out would be harvested. Many people today think hunting is about scoring a trophy, and for some hunters, that is true.

My mentors taught me hunting is a sacred act, not a show of prowess. This buck came to me and offered its self. I asked for the chance to seek wild food, and nature made an offer. It is not easy to find and harvest a deer. It takes time, patience, and a lot of luck to be honest. I happened to walk into a clearing at just the right moment to see the buck step out for a clean shot. It was close, and I was ready. Mindset is so important, to stay calm, slow, and focused. The act of taking life is sacred, weather cutting a crop or shooting a dear, the act of taking life should be intentional and direct, with humble thanks.

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bringing home honored food

The deer had an honorable death to feed us. I am grateful for the chance to eat this venison, to have the experience of hunting in my own backyard. This is a freedom many will never know. Most of the rest of the world has very restrictive hunting laws, if hunting is even allowed. Public land is not often available, even here in America. The U.S. has more public land and hunting access then anywhere else in the world, and most of us never realize this fact. It’s such a blessing! This is another reason hunting is so important to me; it gives me access to land, time in the wild, and eyes in the woods. I’ve grown closer to the land and built on the relationship with my neighbors. I have a close relationship with the deer too. All of these relationships hold me in good stead.

I hope that by talking about why hunting is important, I can encourage others to take up this privilege and harvest more wild food. Another aspect of hunting is conservation. When you buy guns and ammunition, a portion of the proceeds go to the state to support conservation of land for future hunting. Hunting is the only recreational activity which funds stewardship of place on a state and national level. The money goes to buying more land for public use, restoration projects to improve habitat for the animals (not just the ones being hunted), and education to further safe hunting practices. It also funds the biologists in the field studying habitat and animal welfare. What other recreational sport can claim the same? By investing in hunting, we invest in the land, animals, and each other’s future. This is conservation, and it’s having a lasting good effect on wilderness around the country. Please join me in learning more about the benefits of hunting, and how to engage in wild food harvesting for your own larder.

 

Hypha Happenings

This is a post about mushrooms, and there’s a lot of learning so dig in for a nice read.

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shad cloth covered inoculated log pile

Hypha are the thin threads of filament which make up the structure of mycelium. Is it still a mouth full? Well, that’s the tip of a very large iceberg called mushrooms. The toadstools we’re all used to seeing popping up out of soil are only the fruiting body of our well loved fungi. To get the fruit, you have to plant seeds and grow an organism, just like any crop, butt the soil is replaced by logs, and the seed is a mycelium colonized dowel of compressed inoculated sawdust. Still hearing a cricket in the background? Well, I recommend a few hours of reading a few extra sources to ground yourself in mycology:

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets

Paul is the best mycologist I could ever encourage you to get to know. His cutting edge studies and ground breaking work on mushrooms has changed the world. Fungi Perfecti, Stamets’ company, has products ranging from non-toxic carpenter ant deterrents to mushroom supplements which help prevent certain types of cancer. All these products are backed by intense University research funded by Paul and his patents. Trust me, a non-toxic way to keep carpenter ants out of wooden structures is a BIG money maker in The Pacific Northwest.

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hypha on the butt of an inoculated alder log

At Leafhopper Farm, we’re not making ant repellents, but we are growing culinary and medicinal mushrooms on log piles. We bought inoculated (meaning “sewn” with mushroom matter) sawdust to plug in our blow down red alder. These logs were cut from trees that fell in a heavy snow last winter. The wood was drilled with holes, and then those holes were plugged with the spawn (inoculated sawdust). It’s like planting mushroom seeds in the wood. They are then sealed in with a dab of soy wax to keep out other mushroom spores, which float freely in the air of our temperate rain forest.

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new inoculated maple logs adding to the pile

Inoculating logs is pretty easy, but the devil is in the details, and there are a lot of those. In a breakdown:

-each mushroom type has a preferred wood it likes to grow on; note what host log you are using to help pick which spawn to use

-logs must be recently harvested, old wood will already have fungi colonizing it and mushrooms don’t like to share space, it’s a first come first served king of thing

-mushrooms are very sensitive to the environment, specifically humidity and temperature, so match the species with your growing zone, just like crops

-fungi may take years to establish, as mycelium has to successfully colonize the logs before it blooms fruit to harvest

-colonized logs need to stay wet and get “shocked” (soaked in water right before the flush) to encourage fruiting “flushing”

-fungi is fickle, and not a beginner crop for people to try on a whim, it takes patience, initial high maintenance to get spawn established in your log pile, and continued monitoring to keep the right fungus dominate in the rotting wood

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these maple are hosting Lion’s Mane Hericium erinaceus mycelium

At Leafhopper, we’ve been inoculating logs for three years now, and still have no solid flush. This is partially because we’ve been lazy about inoculating, and mostly because summers here have been record breaking hot and dry for the past few years, which sets back the mycelium establishing a foot hold in the logs.

This year, we made sure to use wood recently downed to prevent contamination from other spores. We also covered the piles with shade cloth, and kept the log piles wet through the summer with bucket soakings. The hypha is showing up on the log butts, which is a sign that inoculation was successful. Now we wait, and watch, and soak, and wait some more. The Pacific Northwest Mushroom Spring has started, and we hope to see fruit on our logs this fall, or next spring, depending on the extent of colonization within each log.

The benefits of establishing mushroom logs on your land are many, but here’s the short list:

-mycelium moves nutrients between plants in it’s established habitat; mushrooms strengthen ecology!

-old logs are great biomass in a garden or forest, the rotting wood will enrich soil and nurture healthier crops

-you can eat mushrooms, and the healthy crops they support in your garden

-depleted soils can build back healthy chemistry much faster using mycelium remediation; including the treatment of toxins like heavy metals, which the mushrooms will suck up, then just remove the fruiting body of the mushroom from the soil and you’ll remove the toxins

-mushrooms are self reseeding; as long as there are fresh logs added, the mycelium will grow into the new wood and continue fruiting

If you’re still reading and excited about mushroom cultivation, try these more advanced titles to support your venture:

The Mushroom Cultivator: A Practical Guide to Growing Mushrooms at Home by Paul Stamets

Again, Paul is at the head of his field, and a great ambassador for our fungal friends. His website <Fungi.com> is a great place to find more starter info, including which spawn to purchase for your bio-region, how to do it, and other products to consider, including “grow your own” kits with simple instructions.

Leafhopper Farm will continue to feature our log piles as an inoculated system in our permaculture plan. We’re hoping to make mushrooms a “cash crop”, and offer a “you pick” harvesting set up within the next five years. Mushrooms grow in forests with no problem, in fact, most species need shade to thrive, making them a perfect gateway species for our agro-forestry plan. As our farm advances, we’ll continue to add postings on our successes and failures as we attempt to inoculate and grow these amazing fruits.

Natural Patterns

 

Leafhopper Farm is a mosaic of fractal beauty. Every day the richness of nature offers a never ending train of splendor in her working imperfection. This tapestry of life s scattered throughout a living world outside.

I heard a recent statistic about industrialized people now spending over 90% of their lives indoors. This statistic makes it clear to me how disconnected from reality many now are. What’s real is outside, alive, and thriving as it has for millions of years. Human beings are a part of it, even when they shut themselves inside; but how can they appreciate it and value nature if they never experience it? Perhaps that’s the point.

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The beautiful repetitive shapes of nature are such rich inspiration here at Leafhopper Farm. The petaled flower in it’s umbels of bright color call to dance the circling bee. Insects swarm in pollination splendor, golden treasures carried on glinting wing.

What makes the flowers bloom in all their beauty is pollination, and without the insects, like bees, to move that pollen around, the vivid colors and unique shapes of all the plants would never happen, and our food systems would crash. We’re spraying our food with harsh chemicals to keep insects from taking our fragile crops. The pesticides that kill the bugs are also killing us, just more slowly. It is in our food, the soil, and our genes now.

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Golden treasure can also be locked within calcium rich shell of every color. Hen’s gallant journey to lay her gift in soft straw again and again and again. This circle reflected each time, pure protein enshrined in oval design makes a journey from one world to the next. Which came first? If you ask the lizard, they have an answer, and it’s not feathered.

Chicken is the most common meat sold globally now, but goat meat is still the most consumed meat. Chicken is the perfect meat source for industrialized farming, and the industry is working hard to turn that bird into a meat sack which can be grown in a lab. Eggs are also well integrated into this mass production, and it’s showing up in the diluted quality of commercialization. The bright white conventional egg is brittle, thin shelled, and watery inside. The yolk falls apart upon cracking, and the white membrane is drippy, like water, but often cloudy. It’s nutritional value has been compromised, and the flavor non-existent. This works well for making egg powder and other industrial products, but for the consumer, there is no sustenance. The egg also concentrated all the chemicals fed to the chicken, and leeches hormones, pesticides on the grain, and polluted conditions the hen is made to endure. Is that healthy of us?

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Apple, the first fruit in some stories. Round apple of my eye, the sweetest gift mother nature gave to taste. Once an East Asian secret, locked away in Kazakhstan forests. Wild apple trees tower like looking legends, each tree a unique being with it’s own definition of taste. The apple can be any flavor, and natural fruit is not the sweet friend we know in stores today.

Leafhopper Farm has an orchard of variety heirloom apples. They took hundreds of years in selective growing to produce. You won’t find these in a grocery store, and most people don’t know there are thousands of apple verities in the world outside Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Golden Delicious. There are apples for eating, but also for cider, baking, over winter storing, and more. Apples are so diverse, and every seed in the fruit will produce a completely new variety. Most commercial orchards only grow a few different apples for market, and the list is shrinking, not growing.

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Fungi, like an alien, but blooming from soil like other foods, confuses and even frightens the imagination. Our fear based learning teaches us to stay away, but the mushroom has more to offer than we know. Medicine, food, and material all come from this often misunderstood taxonomy. It’s a good day to join a mycology club near you! These wild friends are abundant, diverse, and a never ending learning journey. There patterns are some of the wildest, and their gifts are many. From feeding the body, to freeing the mind, mushrooms show us how little we really understand in nature’s algorithm.

The more time spent outside, the more familiar the world becomes. It is through that engagement with the natural world that we better understand ourselves, and how we fit into the beautiful fractals of life. The senses are meant to sense, by interaction with environment. Fresh air and sunlight, breezes and rain, these are elements of energy that cannot be synthesized with real success. What nature has already been working on in her lab of earth for millions of years is no small feat, and it would better us to know her.

 

Capitol Clearing

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Boer goats Capra aegagrus hircus are big animals with a lot of good appetite. This is a meat breed, so they are bred for fast growth and size. They put down a lot of food, and if it was grain, I’d be bankrupt in a month, but luckily, here in The Pacific Northwest, we’ve got literal tones of forage all over the landscape, and these ungulates take it in stride.

I’ve written about the success of Leafhopper Farm goats clearing the bramble and opening up the land a few times, but wanted to show more pictures of just how efficient they are.

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This is an area of bramble just below the outflow pipe of our pond. It’s also on an old fence line scheduled to be replaced this winter. The goats have eaten back this portion of blackberry several times through the years and will continue to defoliate as part of the slow removal plan. It is important to note that the goats do not eradicate the bramble completely, but they do weaken it’s structure and make it easy to find the root stalk for digging out. If I fenced them here for a long time, they would eradicate the bramble, but also tear up the land and potentially pick up parasites from the concentrated fecal matter piling up under hoof.

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The newest member of the herd, Brock, is the future of our goat operation here at Leafhopper. In the 5 years we’ve been putting large Boer’s on the land, the bramble has been knocked down and trampled enough to make it accessible to shorter legged animals. Brock is not a Boer, but a dwarf Nigerian milking goat. He’s sired a lot of large udder does, and I hope his genes mixed with those of Brownie will produce smaller, more handelable animals with the potential to put out extra milk for use on the farm.

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I can not imagine the land without these wonderful animals doing their work. With their diligent eating, we’ve kept the bramble from spreading without the use of a mower. In the second year at Leafhopper I did have a tractor come in to cut the fields once, but that was the only time. The goats have done the majority of clearing and brush management around the land. In many areas, complete brows down is unwanted. Certain more sensitive pants are encouraged, like the bitter cherry pictured below.

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A year ago this spot was browsed back, and then the cherry came in to replace the bramble. There is still some blackberry in the mix, but the cherry is getting a chance to establish. When I pleacher the older cherries nearby later this winter, the hedge will begin taking shape. In future, this spot will become a diverse hedge for the goats to brows, but not take out. It will also shelter the area behind, which is a slope with alders and other more established native ground covers. I also know from the trail cams, that this area is popular with wildlife, and want to preserve the corridor for them.

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Above is an example of goat brows done by Brock. He’s short enough to keep to the low stuff, which protects young shrubs from being decimated. The Boers will knock it all down to get to the tops of the young trees and shrubs. This is another reason we’re downsizing the herd. What blackberry remains will be compartmentalized in areas we don’t mind having a little bramble and berries. Remember, blackberries produce fruit, and nesting habitat for many bird species. It’s not all bad. But, preventing it from spreading is crucial, especially across fence lines from neighbors.

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Brock bred Brownie and Branwin this Fall, so we’ll have two kiddings in early Spring! I’m betting Brownie will have two kids, and Branwin will have one, as it is her first kidding. A goat can have 4 kids in one birth, but the usual number is two. A goat’s first kidding is one to allow the body a chance to grow into birthing a little more gently. Since Branwin is over a year old, she’s mature enough to breed. If you breed a goat too young, she’ll end up stunted (like most any young mother) because the energy that would have matures her own body goes into growing the baby instead.

We’ll breed consistently for the next three years if everyone stays healthy and happy. Hopefully at the end of those three years, we’ll have the pick of fine milking goats and a herd fit for managing the bramble while offering their invaluable biomass in the form of manure, meat, and milk. The three Ms. 😉

Predator, Prey, and Pathogens

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Lucia has come into her own as a magnificent hunter. Yesterday, while I was weeding the garden, she brought me a rather unusual present. This young opossum was mortally wounded by a firm bite to the neck, the classic predation mark of a feline. It’s a bit of a mystery to me why cats bring their prey to people, but not unusual. The size of this particular gift was impressive. It demonstrates something about cats we don’t always remember; size. Cats are not limited by size like other animals. They will take on anything graspable and wiggly, twitching or darting. Lucia has brought a snake, vole, mouse, and a young rat. The opossum was a first, but perhaps not the last. Once a cat is confidant in her abilities, she’ll strike without hesitation. This is the consequence for introducing them into the environment. I am glad she’s sticking to ground animals, though the snake was a tragic loss.

This opossum would have matured into a chicken killer, though most of them stick to our compost pile. Most of the chickens lost at Leafhopper Farm fell to the jaws of an opossum, so I have little compassion for the strange omnivores. Lucia seemed a little overwhelmed by this hunt, perhaps that’s why she brought her prey to the bigger predator (me). Humans are predator animals, not prey animals, hence our success at world domination, and having thumbs with big brains to use them. The cats know this, and buddy up to us for support. That’s my theory anyhow, and for this cat, it pays well.

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Muir is also hunting, but I rarely see his trophies. I think he eats most of them on the spot. What they drag to the door and leave as mementos can carry a lot of disease, so be aware of cleaning up after your pets to prevent contamination. Unlike his sister, our tom is very cuddly and social, though Lucia is learning to snuggle more as she matures. The personality of our cats is undeniable, and a pleasure to watch as they come into themselves. What they are sharing with us during snuggle time is something to monitor. Many feline diseases are transmittable to people.

Recently, we began letting the cats have complete freedom day and night. They can crawl through a raised cat door into the grain room for shelter and safety, but the door is open 24/7. Since introducing the cats there has been a noticeable drop in rodent activity around the farm. I have not put any bait out this season, and am relived to sleep soundly at night. Previously to the feline introduction, I would often wake at night to the sound of chewing under the house. The rat holes are caving in down by the chicken coop, another sign of successful extermination. The grain room is totally free of rodents, and I feel good about not putting out poison around the farm anymore.

I’m sure there will continue to be many small scurrying things around the landscape, as hugaculture beds create good habitat and shelter for small rodents. Leafhopper Farm does not want to completely eradicate mice and voles, though the rats are not welcome at all. Owls and hawks also need to eat, so the cats manage the populations, rather than pressing them out completely. Also, our cats stay near the barn and house, they are not wandering down to the creek or into the back field (yet). The plan is to encourage them to stay out of the wildlife areas of the farm, to allow nature her space too.

When you have grain on your property (including birdseed), you’re going to have a rodent issue. With smart planning, it’s a manageable issue, as long as you stay on top of it. Through 5 years of experimentation, Leafhopper Farm has chosen cats as the answer to our rodent challenges, but that does not mean it’s a cure all for everyone. One problem with cats, besides their indiscriminate killing, is their poop. Many laws are now being passed about keeping cats around agricultural land. Cats bury poop wherever they can, and that includes fields where crops are grown. Pathogens in that poop can contaminate food crops, making consumers sick.

 

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At Leafhopper Farm, I’m training the cats to stay out of the gardens, but I can not control larger acreages. My domestic felines also have routine vet visits to make sure they are not carrying disease. Feral cats cannot be managed in the same way, and people growing food in places where there are lots of feral cats should be aware of the risks. This goes double in urban areas, as open soil is rare, and feline fecal counts are much higher. Find out the laws in your area and be diligent about your food. Know the risks of introducing any livestock or pets on your land. We’re a far cry from “the good old days” of the simple life, and ignorance is no defense.

Savoring Seasonal Eating

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It’s October and the garden is at peak performance for the year. Many of the mature plants are leafed out to the max and I think I’ll have to blanch and freeze a lot of greens to maximize my harvest. Chard is especially lush, as this flamingo verity shows off hot pink and pale pink stems, just like the long legged bird!

Squash are continuing to fruit out, and some low maintenance pruning ensures the maturity of the fleshy food by plucking late blossoms and baby fruit which will never make it to maturity before the frost. That way, all the energy goes to the growing of what’s already on the vine. In the wild, animals would brows the plant, but in the garden, we’re the stewards. In return, we receive the bounty in healthy fruit. The young squash are so delicate and delicious, it’s also a great way to enjoy as a single meal, rather than chopping into a larger fruit and having to salvage the leftover. When I find slightly rotted fruit, the chickens get a great meal too.

In my enjoyment of the garden bounty, it is amazing to see how quickly all this lush growth will disappear as winter approaches. As the wildlife around us packs down calories for the lean times, it helps to see my own kitchen larder filling for the dark winter months ahead. Gratitude to all the wonderful food, the methods of preservation passed down by our ancestors, and the modern conveniences which allow us to preserve so much nutrition.