Fields, with Geese
Written onFebruary 21 , 2014
In an email sent just before our first date, in February of 2013, Wesley Bascom posed a multiple-choice question. “Are you interested in serving goose...?” he asked. The choices he provided for my response were: a) “Totally down to pluck!” b) “Maybe. I will take a gander at it.” c) “Foie gras? More like foie naw.” As a restaurateur (at Salt Café in Montpelier), I was intrigued by the idea of pasture-raised local goose—also by the prospective gooseherd—and enthusiastically responded that I was “totally down to pluck.” I didn’t mean it literally.
On a frigid, late evening that December, inside an uninsulated room at our farm in Cabot, I recalled this lighthearted exchange as I cupped my left hand around the inside of a goose’s body cavity to loosen its organs, being careful not to rupture the bile gland and taint the meat with a spill of forestgreen liquid. In the corner, a scalder billowed feather-scented steam into the air. It was our final slaughter of the season, and the last 60 members of our 130-bird herd were migrating from their home into vacuum-sealed freezer bags. There were six of us. Our toes were frozen and our clothes greasy with schmaltz. But after nearly 12 hours of scalding, plucking, eviscerating, and bagging, the day’s grim work was drawing to a close.
The time-consuming arduousness of tugging a waterfowl’s oily, clinging feathers from its resistant flesh is one of the main reasons that very few people engage in the commercial production of goose meat. Chickens and turkeys, with their drier, softer plumage, are pieces of cake by comparison. But Wesley—who grew up on a farm and makes the majority of his living as a design-build contractor—felt an affinity with geese from a young age. “Geese were mysterious birds glimpsed through the scrub at the edge of Metcalf’s Pond,” he recalls. “They were fierce and independent, but would join up in the fall to make the migratory journey together.”
In addition to a personal fondness for avians of all stripes, Wesley had a vision for a “goose project” that would fit his vision of a resilient, diversified farm. When considering ways to improve the land on which he lives—a 160-acre property that was already home to a vegetable farm, a wood-fired pizza business, a team of oxen and some pigs, and an heirloom apple orchard—Wesley and housemate David Huck considered ways to create additional farm systems fueled primarily by grass. With several areas of marginal, damp pasture available, and no existing flock of meat birds on the property, they realized that geese could be a valuable addition.
This is partly because geese, unlike most other domesticated fowl, can convert juices from the plants that grow in pastures into a majority of their sustenance. In fact, if the mix of grass, clover, and other tender greens is rich and diverse enough, they can spend their days ranging and feeding themselves, with little or no need for supplemental grain. Pastured geese are smaller than their grain-fed counterparts—all of that wandering burns calories—but their meat is more flavorful, and they are less expensive to raise. Their droppings are rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, which improve the soil. And because geese are adapted to water and marshlands, with their leathery feet and relatively light bodies, they can hang out on ground that is too swampy for ruminants or other farm animals. “They’re hardy,” Wesley notes. “They were once kept on small farms throughout Europe and the U.S.…Perhaps they will again find a secure niche in our diversified farming practices.”
In April 2013, Wesley and David purchased 96 fluffy, yellow, Embden goslings. Then, in June, excited by the progress of the initial batch, they added a second one. The young birds charmed us with their cuteness, their babbling peeps and chirps, and the way they waddled over to nibble on our jeans. As they grew older, putting on layers of thick, white feathers, their noises changed, becoming more insistent and less sweet. “Do geese ever sleep?” I wondered—noise is one reason the birds fell out of favor. I eventually grew used to the sounds they made while striding around after dark, but in the wee hours, I would wake up sweating during moments of strident honking, fearful of lurking coyotes and foxes.
But for every drawback, we discovered another reason why geese are useful farm animals. For instance, their herding instinct keeps members of the flock from wandering too far afield, rendering them safer from predators. And Wesley’s whistle was all it took to get the goslings to follow him blithely around the farm, toward new pastures filled with timothy, buttercups, and vetch. As they grew older, the Pied Piper’s tunes lost their power, and we had to shoo them, calculate exactly how far behind to walk, and know when to start encouraging them to turn corners. We learned that they dislike patches of tall grass, narrow passageways, and walking beneath things.
One evening, as the sun began to dip down over the mountains and the trees glowed in the light, we walked up to the field intending to coax the birds into their pen, only to find that they’d herded themselves back home, and were ready to be tucked in for the night with some grain and ample water. They did so for most of the remainder of their lives.
No matter how amused he was by the antics of his flock, Wesley was aware that for a commercial farming enterprise, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Luckily, meat from our birds proved entirely delicious. The flesh is richly dark in color, with a thick layer of fat beneath the skin, and even more piled just inside the opening of the rear cavity. Pulled out, chopped up, and rendered over the lowest possible flame, these gobs delivered decadent cracklings and cups of golden grease, perfect for frying potatoes or for making goose confit (in which the legs are seasoned, then cooked slowly in fat until the meat is melting off the bone).
Once we had sampled enough of the meat to be confident of its quality—whether seared, roasted, or turned into goose prosciutto—we began hawking the goods, hoping to find a market for our unusual product. After dubbing the business Gozzard City—from an old-fashioned variant of the word gooseherd—we sold birds ranging in weight from 8 to 15 pounds to Claire’s in Hardwick, Pistou and Juniper in Burlington, and Cafe Shelburne. By the end of January, between restaurants and those hungry for Christmas geese, only a handful of birds were left. This year, we plan to expand the operation and raise 300 or so.
For the several months when we had goose on Salt’s menu, it was our best seller. Customers were curious, asking many questions. “Aren’t geese mean?” was a common one. “They hardly hissed until after we began slaughtering them,” I would respond, noting that the Embden is a calmer breed than the notorious Toulouse. Certain diners recalled their mother or grandmother roasting hefty birds back in the homeland. As I served plates of goose braised with sauerkraut and prunes, or bowls of crispy French fries topped with goose gravy and cheese curds, I took great pride in talking about the role I’d grown into at the farm. “This dish took me seven months to make,” I would jest.
But my joke had more than a grain of truth. Over the course of the season, Wesley, David, and I moved electric fences, cut brush, built shelters, swung scythes, and piled grain sacks on our shoulders and carried them around the farm.
Before this year, I thought I was incapable of killing animals. I argued that there are plenty of farmers out there willing to ethically raise and kill the meat that I buy, so why would I need to do it, too? Doesn’t specialization create economic viability? But when I saw my partner preparing to slaughter creatures that he loved, I knew I couldn’t justifiably hang out in the background. I stood next to Wesley, both of us marked with blood, and I didn’t allow myself to look away as he taught me what needed to be done. We shared the work, and the sadness, and later, we also shared bites of sautéed goose liver. From then on, my participation in slaughter was a foregone conclusion.
As the farming season ended, we pulled together a group of friends to help slaughter. Standing with my comrades, our hands cramped from plucking, utterly drained, we surveyed the pile of neatly packaged geese. Birds that a mere day before had been squonking and flapping by the snowy creek were now ready to be rubbed with rosemary, popped into the oven, and roasted to a deep golden brown. As I looked, feeling my toes numb in my farm boots, I reflected that my life had changed, simply because I had said that I was “down to pluck.” And unbeknownst even to me, I’d meant it.