I spent last weekend at our friend Margiana’s farm, Rosasharn Farm, in Rehoboth, MA. She grows vegetables and runs a CSA. Her mother, Anne, raises Nigerian Dwarf goats and they also raise pigs and poultry. Margiana expanded the poultry efforts this year by caring for 100 meat chickens. Last weekend the birds reached their 8 week mark and it was time for slaughter.
We woke up early on Saturday morning to prepare for the big day. To start we washed coolers and tables, set up killing cones (traffic cones tied upside down to trees) and set up camp stoves to boil water (to scald the dead chickens and expedite the feather removal) We set up the slaughter site outside, overlooking the beautiful corn field and squash patch. Margiana rented a plucker machine for the day. This machine consists of a big round barrel with many rubber “fingers” attached on the inside. It sits on a motor that spins it around very quickly and somehow the rubber fingers do a pretty darn good job of removing most of the feathers. We started working around midday (we had to wait for the rented plucker machine to arrive) and didn’t stop until dark, around 8:30 pm. The day was exquisite, not too hot, a pleasant breeze and warm sunshine that dappled the table and fields with patches of brightness and shadow.
We had about 10 people working together with some folks stepping in and out throughout the day to help. The entire slaughter process was split into different tasks. The first step is catching the birds. The chickens were in a mobile pen out in the field where they had access to fresh pasture and grubs in addition to chicken feed from a feeder bucket. The day before the slaughter the feeder bucket was removed to try and make sure the birds had relatively empty stomachs, gizzards etc. The next job is actually killing the bird. This is difficult. I only did it once. The bird is placed head down, neck sticking out the narrow end of the traffic cone (trimmed at the top so it’s wide enough). The birds’ feed stick up out out the bottom (now the top) of the cone. With a sharp knife and strong pressure you have to cut at angle and slice the jugular vein. Then, there’s a lot of blood ( a bucket hangs on the tree beneath the cone to catch all this). The animal really does convulse for a while and the feet kick. It takes a few minutes for all the neurons to stop firing. This step is certainly the most emotionally challenging. To pull the knife and see the animal die is strange and disconcerting, to say the least. It wasn’t fun, but it challenged me. I thought about all the meat I’ve eaten in my life. I thought about the industrialized meat processing system. As I carried the chicken from the pen to the slaughtering cone, I wondered, does it really matter that this chicken has lived a good life out in the sunlight and fresh air if we’re just going to slice it’s neck anyway?
Once the bird has stopped moving, which usually takes a few minutes, the next step is to dip it in hot water. We followed advice that Margiana learned at a Polyface Farm Intensive workshop (As a side note, click here for an old blog post by my friend Lucy Richards about our visit to Polyface Farm back in 2008 while cycling in Virginia). This method calls for submerging the birds for approximately 1 minute in 140 degree Fahrenheit water. Then, the bird is thrown into the plucker and spins around for about half a minute. Next, the bird is passed on to the processing table. Legs, neck, and oil gland (on the tail) are removed along with any stubborn remaining feathers (usually tail feathers). The feet were all saved and made available to those customers who planned to make chicken stock. Next, the bird is passed down the line to a “gutter”. This person makes two cuts. One at the neck, where the trachea, esophagus and crop are pulled out, and one at the rear end, where pretty much everything else comes out. From the guts, we separated and saved the livers, hearts, and gizzards for cooking and eating. Most of the chickens had been pre-ordered from CSA customers, and other neighbors who had put down $5 deposits, so for those who wanted the associated innards of their birds, they could take them in a separate bag upon pick-up. After being totally eviscerated, the birds are rinsed in cold water and placed in an ice water bath for a few minutes before being transfered into coolers on ice. Many of the customers started arriving around 4 pm to pick up their orders. Some cheerfully rolled up their sleeves and helped out as we continued to slaughter and process. It was clear that this community of people was serious about being connected to the food they eat and how it gets to them.
It took us a while to find a good rhythm and pattern to efficiently and effectively kill the birds, but by the end of the day, we were working much more quickly.
Finally, around dark we finished processing the last bird. Everything was in coolers and on ice for the night. We sprayed down the slaughter site with a hose and washed off pots, knives and tables. Inevitably, during the day, a few chickens had ended up with a broken wing or leg bone from the plucker machine. These birds were set aside and roasted whole in the oven. The CSA members were invited, along with all the slaughter volunteers, for a delicious potluck. The meat tasted wonderful with a very rich, strong flavor. We also had fresh pesto, delicious melon, and an amalgam of other dishes brought to share. After dinner we sat, exhausted, around a bonfire next to the pond. My whole body felt completely fatigued, a truly satisfying feeling.
In the morning we weighed, and bagged all the chickens. They averaged about 5 pounds, some more, some less. We transferred them to a deep chest freezer. We washed out the coolers and dumped the gut buckets for the pigs to feast on.
Some of you must think that this whole experience was a. disgusting, b. weird, or c. both. For me, it was d. none of the above. It was actually really valuable. I feel that over the past few years I’ve been learning and thinking about the global food system, the industrial food system, and alternatives to these realities, such as local, organic agriculture and developing local food systems, without having many opportunities to participate in food production or processing. Clearly, the whole point of this garden blog was to start working towards more hands-on experiences, and this chicken slaughter day was an important component. I am not a vegetarian, I think that meat is a delicious and natural part of sustenance. Thus, this Saturday of gut pulling and feather plucking was meaningful.
I don’t yet have strong feelings that everyone who eats meat should have to spend a day doing what we did. That seems righteous and pretentious and Michal Pollen-esque. Anyway, there are many people (probably a global majority) around the world for whom animal slaughter is a perfectly normal part of life. And of course, there are many people in this country who have never seen a live chicken, let alone killed one. Rather, I feel that thinking about food production and food access in terms of foodsheds,the geographic area from which a population derives its food supply, is a more effective way to combat the harmful impacts (ecological, social, health, economic) of industrialized food.
There are many people and organizations working to strengthen every community’s (urban, suburban, rural, high, middle, low-income) access to healthy, good food grown nearby. Truly much of this work is going on in Providence, around the US, and around the world. It involves organizing more farmers markets, more farm-to-school programs, better nutrition and cooking education, and continually addressing issues of affordability and accessibility. There’s much to learn and much good work yet to be done.
Check out one project going on in Providence right now that Becca and I are involved with. It’s called the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. The Environmental Justice League and the Department of Health of RI are working to address the issue of food deserts and food justice by improving access and availability of fresh, local produce in corner stores on the South Side of Providence. Our friend, Leah Douglas, a prolific and talented food writer, blogged about the initiative over at Serious Eats, check it out! Also, the high school students directly working on this project blogged about their experience here.
Like I said, I’m still wondering why exactly it matters that the chickens we killed last weekend lived good, peaceful, happy lives before we sliced their necks and ate them. On a gut level (pardon the pun), it matters to me, but I’m still working out the complete rationale behind this feeling. Your thoughts are most welcome. P.S. – pictures will be up soon!