Wednesday, May 17, 2017

How we killed 5 chickens and why

Belated news: About three weeks ago we killed five of our hens.

On our little farm this was the most massive killing so far, so it feels like I should mention it here.

It's not easy to write about killing our chickens. It wasn't easy to kill them in the first place. I don't want to be cynical (our chickens deserve better) or moralistic (our readers deserve better.) And I can't write poetry, so there's only one option left: a dry factual account.

So, we killed 5 hens.
This is one of them, just before having her throat cut.

One of our hens just before killing.
This was the first and the last time in her life
she was held by the wings like this.
(Getting ready for the throat-cutting position.)

Within minutes, the hen fainted and bled to death. Fast-forward twenty minutes, and this is what she (and her fellows) turned into:

How living creatures turn into food. Initiating and seeing that process first hand is so, so, so important.
Mysterious transformation.
When exactly does a living creature become food?

Hens were partly grilled, partly made into chicken soup.

Removing tendons from meat before grilling.

Chicken soup (Chicken bones are boiling inside. 
Floating on the top are onions, potatoes and a carrot.)

Meat had been soaked in sake (日本酒) for a few hours before grilling
Thanks to this magic trick it was tender enough and delicious. 
(Meat from a two-year-old chicken is usually too tough for grilling.)

How did we kill the chickens?

By cutting their carotid artery (major blood vessel in the neck).

Our instructor was Mr Hiroyuki Tanaka (田中啓之さん), farmer from a neighboring town of Ishioka who raises about 200 chickens,  sells eggs and sometimes organizes workshops where amateurs like me can learn how to kill, pluck, portion and cook a chicken (utilizing as much of it as possible.) We asked Tanaka-san to come to our place on this occasion.

Five chickens on the death row were separated from the flock the night before killing and their feed was withheld to clear their digestive track. It means they "fasted" for only about 12 hours and missed only one meal (breakfast). This, I believe, caused them almost no extra stress. (Some farmers recommend the no-feed period of 48 hours prior killing, others go for 24 hours. Cleaner intestines mean lower risk of 'spill-out' when butchering, but if you really care about chickens, the minimum of 12 hours should do.)

Why did we kill the chickens?

Born on April 28, 2015, our chickens are already two years old. Their biological lifetime is four or five times longer than that, but their lifetime as "agricultural animals" is normally less than two years.  In Europe, laying hens are usually slaughtered at about 17 months of age, in Japan similarly at 17-18 months or, if forced molting, which is still allowed in Japan, is applied, at around 23-24 months. (There are small differences between farms.)
Pretty short, huh.

If we go by the most common 17-18 month benchmark, chickens on our farm (now 24 months old) are already enjoying extra months of life (without ever experiencing forced molting).

Life of chickens on conventional versus our farm.

Click to enlarge

But by now, the flock as a whole lays fewer eggs, and some hens lay eggs of worse quality. The five hens killed this time were the ones laying less pretty eggs.

Two eggs laid on the same day by two different hens from the same flock.
The brownish egg on the left is okay. The whitish egg on the right 
is not okay (too fragile shell.)

This change in both egg quality and quantity is natural, it comes with age and nothing can be done about it. Of course all hens are as happy-go-fluffy as ever, regardless of their egg productivity. But the economic consequences for the farm are all too clear.

So we had to make a decision: Are we going to keep our chickens as "pets" (and not kill them); or are we going to stick to the original plan and treat them as "farm animals" (and kill them).

Needless to say, these categories are purely arbitrary - the chickens are the same in both cases. My ability to freely switch between "companion animal" and "farm animal" categories is a classic example of doublethink and the amazing human ability to hold two conflicting concepts in mind without feeling inconsistent and contradictory. Except, I do feel inconsistent and contradictory. But I still can beat that feeling with 'rational thinking.'
The 'rational thinking' in this case involved asking myself a question:

Would the chickens be better off if they were treated as "farm animals" from the beginning (so that I could be 'consistent')?

(My) answer: I don't think so. Our chickens definitely benefited from our inconsistent doublethink approach. They enjoyed the "companion animal" privileges all their life. Then they turned into "farm animals" on the very last day. In the ideal world, they could have stayed "companion animals" until they die naturally, but if that is not possible in the real world (not yet in 21st century), then the second best deal for them was the one they got.

Our chickens get Deal B.

By the way, there are over 130 million laying hens in Japan at this moment (Japan Poultry Association 日本養鶏協会 → click 成鶏羽数の推移). After spending their life in a cage, they are transported and killed en masse in a slaughter house. Maybe a farm like ours is an important alternative to those. So I decided that I'm not going to feel bad about killing our chickens. At least I will try.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Recent farm in pictures (chickens, goats, and sparrow droppings)

Here are a few recent pictures of the farms' permanent residents: the chickens, the goats, and the sparrows. Just in case you wondered how everyone was doing.

Portrait of a Lady
Chicken sifting through "mulch" (Compost-like thing made of
nicely decomposed autumn leaves and straw. Chickens love it.)

Chickens eating salad (overgrown Chinese cabbage from a neighborhood farmer).
Chickens would be great vegetarians if only they didn't like bugs so much.

Getting ready to bed
At work
After work

Nap time (Goats take their nap very seriously
and look very dead while napping.)

Nap time, interrupted.

Sparrows were here. (They left behind their trademark sh*t.)

Except for the sparrows and their annoying habit of eating chickens' meals and sh*tting on the panels, the farm is doing well.
I'll write more about the sparrow curse next time. THAT will be a rant.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Oh no, baby goats again! :)

It's because of the International Women's Day. Baby goats in Natchan's belly were bored and thought:

"Oh, it's Women's Day today, our mum deserves a present. Let's give her ourselves so she has something to celebrate!"

And they started to politely present themselves right before lunch on March 8.

The first one out.
Hi mom!

The second one out.
Where's the food?

All three out!
Hello world!

Natchan's first reaction: Wow, I feel so much lighter now.

Triplets' first reaction: Ugh, it's cold here, we should have stayed inside for another month.

After a mild cold shock, triplets got used to it, and they also discovered a cozy windproof bedroom full of straw inside their Great Goat Shed, and they started drinking mom's milk, which is the best energy drink ever.
Now all three are busy strategically splitting their time between three Major Life Activities: eating, sleeping and exploring.

Here's the family one day later, March 9:

Two boys and a girl. 
Goat smile. 100% natural.

Now the goats very successfully keep us distracted from actual work. Not that I'd be complaining. Being distracted by a baby goat is not at all that unpleasant.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

School visit, balloon belly and free spirits

I realized I haven't updated our blog for more than a month.

This is inexcusable because I know that there are huge crowds of our fans out there in different countries, planets and galaxies, and they all anxiously wait for the latest news from the farm.
The universal law (the one that rules the universe) says that if you wait for something long enough, you deserve to get it. (※ The universal law doesn't guarantee you actually get anything. It just says you deserve it.)

So here are the news of the month for our deserving intergalactic fans.

1. Visitors

Third graders at the Tsukuba International School are learning about renewable energy, so they dropped by to see how it works on our farm. We talked about: how the solar panels work; how the electricity is made and where it goes; why solar sharing is such a smart design; why our chickens are so special; why there are chickens strolling outside of the farm; and other exciting topics.

Tsukuba International School visiting our solar sharing chicken farm
First we talked in the back of the farm (no solar panels in sight).
Then we moved to the chickens' area.

Chickens and goats did their best to entertain the guests :D

2. Natchan  has a balloon belly

Natchan has a belly of impressive proportions. The important question is: Will they be twins or triplets?

Very pregnant goat with a balloon belly
Please, be it just twins!

Very pregnant goat with a balloon belly.
Two is enough, please!

3. Number of free spirits on the farm is increasing

More and more chickens learn how to fly over the fence. My verbal warnings are useless.
Last Saturday I went to the farm in the morning to serve chickens their breakfast, and I was welcomed not by one, but by 3 (three) free-spirited border crossers. (One of them was goat.) (Kuri-chan.)

Solar sharing chicken farm, Tsukuba, Japan.

Escaped chickens and a goat. Circled red.

Basically there is a chicken or two strolling around near the road or in the rice field at any time of the day. I just really hope the passers-by don't hate us (I think that some do.)

That's was the news of the month.

I will conclude with a moving picture: chickens in the wind with unbuttoned coats.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Solar monitor

I'll start with the obvious: Our farm is a "solar sharing" farm, so it consists of two parts:
1. power generation (solar panels) and 2. food production (free range chickens).

Solar sharing definition: Ground floor - chickens; First floor: solar panels.

But for the past year, almost all posts on this blog were about chickens - the food production part. Apparently chickens are more interesting to write about because they move and fly and sing and do all the funny things that a bunch of cute mini-dinosaurs should do. The well of chicken topics will never be exhausted.

Fluffy chicken bottom
Birds survived dinosaur extinction because of their fluffy bottoms. 

Solar panels don't fly or sing so they easily get overlooked, but in economic terms they are essential because they financially support the whole farm. And (sadly) economic terms matter. Because revenue from electricity sales subsidizes our chicken business, it's safe to say that without panels, there would be no chickens at all.
(For the chicken business to be self-sustaining [= able to pay the labor costs], we would either have to increase the number of chickens fivefold, or increase the price of an egg five times. The first option would produce many unhappy overcrowded chickens. The second would produce outrageously expensive, unsellable eggs. If there is a third way other than subsidizing, we haven't discovered it yet.)

All this means that panels deserve some attention too! Especially as this blog has "solar sharing" in its title. So here's a yesterday screenshot of Solar monitor, the online monitoring service that we use to check our farm's power generation status.

Solar power generation, real time monitoring. Tsukuba, Japan.
 Power generation status on Jan. 15, 2017, 10:44 am.

For explanation of the categories, check this older screenshot with English notes.

Solar monitor with English description
Click to enlarge

Solar monitor is not cheap (3250 jpy monthy fee) but it is quite useful. Frequent checking of the generation status helped us notice suspiciously low performance more than a year ago which led to the "discovery" that 10% of panels were malfunctioning. (Now fixed.) 
Despite Solar monitor's importance I only mentioned it once on this blog, and that was already two years ago.

Yesterday was a perfect weather day for solar power  - sunny, cold and windy. Icy wind does not make the day too pleasant for humans, but solar panels are happy - the wind cools the panel surface and performance goes up. Thanks to these conditions we recorded the best daily performance in more than a year: 224.5 kWh of electricity/day.

Solar monitor, total daily performance. Solar sharing farm in Tsukuba, Japan.

What's funny is that Solar monitor also makes performance predictions for the next and the next-next day, based on the weather information, but yesterday, the prediction went amusingly wrong.
We were supposed to have clouds and even snow in the afternoon ...

Solar monitors are fallible.

... but a picture taken at the farm just at that supposedly cloudy-snowy time, was this:

Solar sharing with solar panels and a chicken and blue sky. Japan.
Jan. 15, 2017, cca 3:30 pm

Well, I was not disappointed. We'll  happily wait for the snow until next winter :D

Monday, January 9, 2017

Our farm on Texas Instruments' Instagram!

Our farm had another little moment of fame: Our solar sharing farm was introduced on Nobuo's company's Instagram account.

Texas Instruments' Instagram

Below is the text next to the photo - our explanation of the farm and why we started it.

“The Fukushima nuclear meltdowns occurred in March 2011 – an involuntary turning point for Japan. Suddenly everyone got interested in renewables. Japan's energy policy changed, making it mandatory for electric power companies to buy electricity from renewable sources for fixed (and quite high) prices. My wife and I thought this was a good opportunity to start our own chicken farm and ‘solar sharing system’ – utilizing land for solar power generation and farming. We had no experience. We make a little extra money selling eggs from our chickens. The goats are for fun. Now there are hundreds of solar sharing farms around Japan. We believe solar sharing could be applied in other regions as well.”
---End of quote---

Texas Instruments is a U.S. based company but our farm is in Japan, which means we got attention from as far as another continent. (Last year, we had visitors from Thailand and other countries.) The more people know about solar sharing, the higher the chance that the right person will see it - the right person would be someone with a pioneering spirit, keen on starting a solar sharing project of their own, in their own country.  In any country other than Japan, this would still be something new and groundbreaking - as it was in Japan 5 years ago.

I hope someone will notice the opportunity soon!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What is a "food story."

Happy New Year!

2017 is Year of the Rooster, so here's our Justin, completely oblivious to his newfound fame.

free range chickens under solar panels, Tsukuba, Japan
Justin the Rooster (the white one) today morning, watching his girlfriends
play the ice game and probably wishing he was a girl too.

Now to the topic.
A few days ago I read the New York Times article "The Most-Read Food Stories of 2016."  

It's a summary of twelve N.Y. Times articles "that Food section readers found most compelling in 2016."

Like most people who prefer to eat every day, I'm inherently interested in food. I was genuinely curious what the most popular "food stories" of 2016 were.

I clicked on the article, read it, and ended up a little disappointed. So I'm going to write about my disappointment here.

To be clear, I often read the N. Y. Times and I usually find it both informative and enjoyable (like this piece about the chemistry behind champagne bubbles), definitely worth the subscription.  But the Food Stories summary was disappointing. The reason was that its definition of a "food story" was so much different from what I expected.

NYT: This is a food story.  Me: Are you sure?

The article started promisingly: "In a year dominated by the presidential election, the readers of the Food section flocked to articles about the basics."

That's exactly what I expected! Article about the basics.
Except that it turned out to be something else: mostly a collection of recipes and celebrity chefs' career updates, with titles like "How to Roast Cauliflower (the Whole Thing)"  and "Three Steps to Brewing a Better Cup of Coffee," or "Alton Brown, Showman of Food TV, Pulls Back the Curtain."

I naively expected that at least some of the twelve stories would be about where the food we eat comes from - which is what I understand as the basics. There could be perhaps an article about a farm where that roasted cauliflower was grown, or what kind of place those coffee beans brewed in three steps were produced. Introducing the producer (a farmer, a rancher, a fisherman) - without whom there would be no food on the table in the first place - sounds to me like a nice start when talking about the basics.

From farm to warehouse to processing and packaging to supermarket or restaurant to final consumer
Just in case the pictures are too incomprehensible:
Farm → Warehouse → Processing/Packaging → Supermarket or Restaurant → Final Consumer
(What's missing are trucks/ships/trains that transport the stuff around. )

Of course, all twelve stories had something to do with food, and some dealt with objectively important issues, often connecting food (or drinks) with culture ("The American Thanksgiving") or history ("Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave"). And really, any talk about recipes and home-cooking is a good thing. (I admit that and I don't even like cooking.)

So I don't deny the importance and the fun of reading the stories.  Even the one restaurant review that made it to the top of the list was a delightful reading (thanks to the author Pete Wells' writing skills, rather than my interest in the overpriced restaurant).

But if a newspaper's Food section is so concerned about where, by whom and how the food was cooked, doesn't it sound reasonable to be also concerned about where, by whom and how the food was produced in the first place? Having one - just one - story tracing the featured food back to the source would give the selection a bit more balance (if we want to insist that we're talking about the basics.)

(There occasionally are articles in the N.Y.T. Food section about farms or other issues at the start of the food supply chain, normally invisible to the us the food-eaters, such as this story about sheep farms making prize-winning cheeses but not making enough profit to make ends meet, or this story about an animal research center in Nebraska mistreating animals. But these are very, very few.)

So! Here's my suggestion.
The N. Y. T. has a nice 4-star system used for reviewing restaurants. It works like this: "Ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor, fair or satisfactory. One star, good. Two stars, very good. Three stars, excellent. Four stars, extraordinary."

What if the N.Y.T.  had a similar system for reviewing farms?

Proposal: applying NYT restaurant review system (four stars) to farms
The red things are stars.

The rating would, of course, include quality of the product (fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk, cheese, meat) relative to its price, but also the quality and integrity of the production process - producer's philosophy, environmental sustainability (e.g. pesticide use), workers' treatment, animal treatment.
Inevitably, such a review would not be as rigorous and objective as various official certificates aspire to be, and also, like with the restaurant reviews, the reviewer would probably focus on farms producing high-end products, but that's fine. Any informed glimpse into a farm would be revealing, especially for the many city dwellers who often treat food like air - it's always there in sufficient quantity and quality, so we don't have to give it a f**k.

Thank you for reading this rant until the end. Chickens would give you a friendly poke if they knew you care. Here are at least some recent pictures.

Chickens at work. Eggs on their way.
Office occupancy 90%. (2016/12/30)

Chickens inside the coop, checking new carpet for hidden treasures.
New carpet in the house! (腐葉土) (2016/12/30)
Chickens under solar panels on our solar sharing farm, Tsukuba, Japan
Happy Rooster Year! (2017/1/1)

Monday, December 5, 2016

How feathers grow (beautiful)

This is how a molting chicken regrew her feathers. It's amazing transformation.
(I recommend to click on the photos and watch them as a full screen slide show.)

Day 1

Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
November 13, 2016
Day 3
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 15
 Day 5
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 17
 Day 8
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 20
 Day 9
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 21
Day 10
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 22
Day 11
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 23
Day 12
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 24
 Day 13
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 25
Day 14
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 26
 Day 15
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 27
Day 16
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 28
Day 17
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 29

Day 18

Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 30
Day 19
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec 1. 
Day 20
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 2
Day 21
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 3
Day 22
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 4
Day 23
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 5

Just a little more to go and a new coat is complete :D