Aust and K got into homesteading by baby steps — literally. They were living in a third story apartment and eating Taco Bell, minding their own business, when their first baby arrived on the scene. “We wanted to do right by our little baby,” Aust explains. “We wanted to get him better quality food. But we were really broke, had no land and couldn’t afford to buy organic, farm fresh or local.”
So they sat down and asked themselves, “How can we do better by our family?”
K had grown up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania and had a bit of background in livestock. So she decided to make good use of their small patch of grass outside the apartment building, starting a mini garden. And Aust decided to learn to hunt.
“I had never hunted, was new to guns and had never worked with livestock,” he admits. So he began by teaching himself how to use a bow and arrow and a rifle, and soon started hunting deer in the overpopulated woods of Connecticut. Once he got better at hunting, the next logical step was learning to butcher.
“I’ll always remember this day vividly,” Aust laughs. “I was standing outside my apartment building with a dead deer hanging from a ladder, with a tarp over both me and the deer. I had a Field & Stream magazine in one hand and a filet knife in the other, when it started to rain. These were the pre-YouTube days, remember. No smart phone… just me, outside with a magazine. We got soaked. It’s drilled into my brain, my magazine was getting all wet.”
After that first go at butchering, Aust built his confidence. Having had no experience whatsoever with hunting or butchering, he was just thrilled “not to have poisoned his entire family.” With that first deer, his gears started turning. If they had some land, he could hunt more. The call for livestock really began to hit him. Plus, K really wanted chickens.
At the time, Aust and K had bought themselves a tiny chest freezer and a vacuum sealer — which was adequate in the meantime.
Then they found a ten acre property in northern Connecticut that would serve as their first farm. “We turned it slowly into a homestead,” tells Aust, “with chicken and deer hunting and a little garden. Pretty soon I learned to butcher chickens, which went well. Then it was on to the next thing: pigs. Once you learn the deer, the larger animals are all similar. So we got goats, sheep and cows. That’s where we went from a little hobby to a farm and began selling.”
Over the years, Aust and K would butcher and sell pork and chicken. With this, “came more confidence, more knowledge and more of a desire to get better,” tells Aust. They began to share their journey on the Homesteady YouTube Channel and podcast, which allowed Aust to connect with, learn from and document some really good butchers in their area.
Aust got to work alongside one butcher who was “just a total expert.” This man had been butchering his entire life, and Aust interviewed him for one of his YouTube videos — which has consistently been one of the most viewed videos he’s ever posted, getting more views annually each fall as “guys like me [Aust] want to learn and have more resources than a wet magazine.”
The video shows how to butcher a deer with pretty simple tools, and the expert butcher discusses “how much better you can do [butchering] when you can control the environment.” Being able to cool the carcass quickly, keeping it clean and being able to age it in a temperature controlled space will make it easier to butcher the animal, while improving the quality of the meat. Once an animal has had the opportunity to hang for at least 24-48 hours, the rigor mortis will pass and butchering should go much more smoothly.
“At the rate we were going, it would be really nice to have an on-farm butcher facility where we could control the temperature,” Aust says. “Here we are, doing a lot of butchering in the fall, but it would be nice to have the opportunity to butcher year round in a climate controlled area.”
It was around this time that Aust and K decided to move off of their ten acre farm and over to K’s family farm. The farm had been divided up amongst lots of siblings, all of whom were part-owners. There were lots of pieces of the farm being managed by various family members. So Aust and K joined up with them and began to grow their portion of the farm back in Western PA. And now, they’re going on their fifth year there and it’s opened up lots of opportunities for them.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve been growing our variety of livestock,” says Aust. “Pigs, chickens, goats, lambs — now we raise all of our own meat! We never buy meat from the supermarket, ever.” In addition, Aust and K now have six children between the ages of twelve and six months… plus some chickens for both eggs and meat, heritage pigs, dairy cows, beef cows, turkeys and at one point, even camels!
“We’re willing to try pretty much anything,” Aust laughs.
So now that they possessed the knowledge, skills and tools, Aust and K wanted to be able to do it all themselves. They’d been outsourcing butchers to do the bulk of their work, but as Covid came along and they witnessed first hand the breaking down of the food chain, they wanted to be more independent.
Aust and K had heard about CoolBot on a podcast, and they had the perfect little space for this “cool little machine that would trick your A/C unit and cost pennies on the dollar to build [their own] walk-in cooler.” K’s father had tried to start an apple orchard on the property at some point and had built an “apple barn” to house the apples. While the orchard was “kind of a failure” (soil rust had killed the trees and the deer got the rest!), the “apple barn” provided an ideal unused and insulated space in which to build their new on-site butchering station and cooler.
(Meanwhile, Aust “took care of the deer problem.”)
K’s father is a metal fabricator and helped Aust and K to build a big metal door for the “apple barn,” which is also where they mounted the A/C unit. This space was essentially already a windowless root cellar, but they added a bit of extra insulation to prevent heat loss and fired up the CoolBot.
Now they are proud owners of a “beautiful on-farm butcher facility,” where they can hang anything they process for 48 hours before butchering. “When you try to cut up a freshly killed animal before rigor mortis without it having been chilled, the texture is very flimsy and it’s hard to work with.” But now, with the CoolBot, Aust can achieve the proper stiffness necessary to easily cut up each animal.
With their new CoolBot, Aust and K will have a slaughter day and then allow time to hang, dress and quarter the meat. Once the rigor mortis passes and the tension is released, the meat softens again but remains cold and firm and therefore easy to work with.
Aust has come a long way from learning to butcher in the rain with that magazine. Now he’s able to “take a couple of days to turn the animals that we’ve worked so hard to raise and turn them into quality meat, all year long.” They “literally know every step of the way what happened with the animal. From pasture to plate, we make sure it’s perfect. And CoolBot has been a huge part of that.”
In regards to butchering, Aust admits he’s no professional, as “it takes a lifetime to become a craftsman.” While he can make roasts and steaks, “it’s really hard work.” He loves to visit different butchers to watch and learn from them and make videos “of the masters doing it,” but he sticks to butchering as a hobby.
“When you’re a homesteader, you start early. You’re out in the field moving sheep and cows, operating chicken tractors, pumping and hauling water, etc. It’s hours and hours or hard work. So whenever our harvest day comes and I’m doing some butchering, and I get to go into my cool, climate controlled butcher space and teach my kids how to break down a big carcass or trim a steak, it’s a treat.” The kids are honing their knife skills, in addition to helping with the packaging, weighing, labeling and vacuum sealing.
“Homestead life is a celebration. It’s a harvest. It’s something we enjoy, having a freezer of awesome quality meat.”
Wait, but back to the camels. That’s right, at one point they even had a couple of camels.
Aust and K’s fifth baby had some serious food allergies, so in an attempt to figure out the root of the problem, they cut out dairy first. Camel milk is hypoallergenic. “Hey, if it’s the one thing he can have, we’ll do it,” says Aust. “Camel milk is an interesting product. If you get it fresh in the middle of lactation, it’s actually pretty good. If you were to have it and didn’t know what you were drinking and it was chilled, you might not notice the difference from 2% off the shelf. It’s a product that can change a lot, and the quality depends on the [camel’s] diet and climate. We weren’t successful in breeding camels, so she ultimately dried up… and no more camel milk!”
The camel milk actually helped both their son and K a lot during this time, and CoolBot further helped with their experiments with special diets. Having the ability to grow food and animals from beginning to end was major in dealing with food allergies. Lots of people struggle with food allergies, specifically with corn and soy, which are both used a lot in processing and packaging and food becomes cross contaminated. Being able to eliminate all of these variables was helpful in the Aust and K’s journey to relieve their son’s allergy issues. You can do all the research in the world, but knowing exactly where your food comes from is priceless.