It’s salmon spawning season here in the Pacific Northwest. Every November, after a few years at sea, zillions of salmon return to the inland waterways of their birth. They wiggle their massive silvery bodies up think creeks and brooks, loitering on shiny rock patches to spread their eggs for the next generation. In the brook on our farm, you can actually hear them going splishy-splishy up the river, their top fins sticking out into the air because the fish are so much bigger than the water. “You think there are a lot of ’em now?” Farmer Ned asked me as I was taking a break from digging next year’s beds. “Twenty years ago they were so thick you could almost walk across the creek on them. If you did walk across, you’d get bumped into a lot around the ankles, that’s for sure. When the cows crossed the creek, they’d get bumped into, and jump back like this.” And then he made a funny face that reminded me of startled cows (and the funny farmers that keep them).
My dad likes salmon fishing a lot, and we spend many a fine fall doing it in upper Michigan, so I sent him a picture of them. His reply was that I should use the dead ones to fertilize the garden. What a great idea! You see, this spawning trip is a one-way ticket for the big guys, and they expire naturally a week or two after they arrive, having completed their purpose in life.
The very next day, I took a wheelbarrow and shovel and went down to the creek. By now, it’s late enough that many of them have died, their rotting bodes littering the banks of the river. The seagulls know about this yearly cycle, and come across the mountains to squabble over these tasty nuggets. But there are so many fish that there are plenty for scavengers and hippie farmers. I loaded a dozen into the wheelbarrow, and hauled them across the property to our fields.
“Fish emulsion” is a pretty expensive organic fertilizer, and Emily was excited about getting it for free. But as smelly as these rotting fish were, I couldn’t imagine making it worse by grinding them up into a slurry. If they weren’t liquified, though, it would be hard to evenly spread them in a garden bed. What to do? I settled for the experimental approach of cutting them in half (ugh) and planting them with the blueberries. I only fertilized half of the plants this way, leaving the other half as a control to compare their effectiveness over time.
Speaking of stinky jobs, I finished processing the deer I harvested a few weeks back. When I first brought it out of the field, Farmer Ned and José helped me string it upside down in the barn. The next day I went out to butcher it, and as luck would have it, Sturm was there. He’s the berry farmer that is leasing some of Ned’s farmland next to us, and he’s an accomplished hunter- he apparently has taken an elk every season for the last 17 years, with a bow.
“Do you know much about butchering deer?” I asked him. I had removed about half of the meat by that point, but was unsure how to go about the shoulder and forearm area.
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I’ve done about 200. What have you got?” He smiled and pointed out the best way to cut and sort the remaining meat, and said I’d already done a pretty good job with the loins and hindquarters. By the time I was finished, I had about 30 or 40 pounds of steaks and burger neatly packaged into white paper bundles, as well as a pair of antlers that will likely be made into knife handles, and several gallon zip locks filled with gristle and gross stuff, to be frozen into crab bait (Sturm’s suggestion).
One other experiment the came out of the deer is the hide. I emailed my friend Mark to ask him if he had any advice on home tanning of buckskin. “Besides don’t do it?” he replied. “Make sure if you do, you do it outdoors, well away from your house.” I’ve done some pretty stinky jobs with Mark, so that made me a little concerned. But it turns out that tanning leather, though a somewhat icky process, isn’t any stinkier than pulling guts out of dead deer or chopping up rotting salmon.