Personal perspective: When worlds collide

01/30/2006 @ 8:49am

Sometimes I'm not sure if it's the twenty-first century or 1850 on our Iowa farm. We can swing through the centuries in minutes.

One Saturday night my husband, Bob, decided our family should butcher four market lambs. The sun had gone down, cold had set in, and we needed to fill the freezer. Wouldn't it be fun to do the butchering ourselves, just like in the pioneering days?

Our 15-year-old son, Warren, was in the basement playing World of Warcraft on the Internet with his friends. This online role-playing game is extremely popular with teenage boys. It involves taking characters through realms such as Illidan and Ursin, fighting battles toward The Frozen Throne and visiting the war-torn world of Azeroth. Warcraft gamers discover new lands and take on epic quests.

There's nothing about butchering sheep in there.

"Haven't you saved the world yet?" Bob asked Warren when he walked out to the barn.

"Hmmfp," was the reply.

Some quests you choose and others your dad makes you do.

Soon we had four carcasses hanging from the loader of the tractor, and Bob was busy with a sharp knife cutting away the hides. He's a veterinarian, so knife work comes easy. Warren and Caroline, our 11-year-old daughter, took turns aiming the spotlight and steadying the swinging carcasses.

It was a good biology lesson for the kids. Bob showed them the body organs and explained how they function in the respiratory and digestive systems. (If you find this offensive, you don't want to be a vet or livestock producer.) The kids saw by the amount of fat on the carcasses that they were feeding their sheep well.

By midnight, the hanging meat was ready to spend the night cooling down.

Early the next morning, Bob whistled the kids out of bed, and we got prepared for the next step: cutting up the frozen lamb carcasses.

I had plenty of freezer paper, tape, and freezer bags ready. We placed a clean plastic board on a table outside in front of the garage. Caroline and I took our positions.

Warren and Bob swung the carcasses off the hooks and onto the board. Bob did the cutting. He kept it simple: Legs, shoulders, ribs, and loins. All the scraps went in a bag for our neighbor to grind for lamb burger.

Caroline and I wrapped and bagged, wrapped and bagged. Warren carried the meat to the freezer. We had an efficient assembly line going.

Quite a few people beeped their horns at us as they drove by the house. I imagine they were saying, "What is that crazy Freese family up to now?"

As we spent that interesting (and cold) Saturday night and Sunday morning working on the lambs, Bob and I reminisced about years gone by in the world of on-farm butchering.

He recalled how his family butchered hogs each fall. Grandma Frieda and Aunt Mildred would turn the small intestines inside out and scrape them clean, then use them as casings for link sausage. They also collected the blood, mixed it with whole wheat flour, and made patties of blood sausage.

"We would eat that sausage every morning for months," says Bob. "I got so sick of that stuff."

On my family's farm in Maryland, we often butchered cull sows and made delicious whole-hog sausage. My sister and I had to pull the hides off the sows once they were hanging from the tractor loader. Not an easy job!

In those days we didn't think about offending anyone by home butchering. I doubt the pioneers worried about animal rightists. They butchered to have something to eat through the winter.

Today, it's quite possible that someone will be offended by my discussion of butchering sheep or the fact that we required our children to be involved in the process. I can't worry about that. We are meat producers. This is a part of that agricultural job. Sometimes we lose sight of that.

It's a good learning experience for the kids. You birth the lambs, feed the lambs, butcher the lambs, eat the meat.

In the quest of life on a farm, butchering is just one more level. When you reach The Frozen Throne you get to eat the results of your hard work.

Betsy Freese can be reached at betsy.freese (at)

Sometimes I'm not sure if it's the twenty-first century or 1850 on our Iowa farm. We can swing through the centuries in minutes.