With the decline of small family farms in the past 50-60 years, there is a gap between what happens on a farm and the kitchen. My grandparents, and probably many of yours, grew up on farms. If you wanted to eat chicken for dinner you went out to the barnyard and rung a chicken’s neck. You butchered it and plucked it yourself, and then you brought it into the kitchen to cook. The majority of Americans now have no idea what that process looks like, and many do not want to know. But I think it is a really important part of eating meat – understanding how an animal dies to nourish you. Without this vital step in the “circle of life” (forgive me), we are prone to stop caring about the animal’s life itself. And so, industrial agriculture steps in and raises the animals inside, behind closed doors, with no hint of a natural life left. All that seems to matter is how much money a company can make and how quickly, completely disregarding the fact that animals are ALIVE and deserve to be raised humanely. (We, as a small family farm, are not immune to the idea of making money quickly either. Any farm is a business and must make money to survive. But, above money, we tend to the animal’s well-being and quality of life while we are husbands to them.)
Our animals are treated with respect and allowed to do what they want to naturally do – this means chickens and turkeys get to scratch and peck, pigs get to root and dig mud-pits, cows get to eat grass only. Many of you know this already and that is partially why you have become our supporters.
But I wanted to introduce you to a step in the process of raising animals that many of us (even me, sometimes) pretend does not exist. And that is death. In thinking about death, we like to paraphrase Joel Salatin and say that our animals have wonderful lives and just one bad day.
So if you don’t want to see the images below, I can understand that. But I hope that you will view them and remember that your grandmother was probably very familiar with these processes. I truly feel that if you choose to eat meat you should at least see the way an animal or animals leave this world – because death is a part of our life. We take these animals lives to nourish our own bodies.
I present these images to you with nothing but utter respect for the animals depicted. I am posting these images because I want Americans to be closer to their food, and to the animal that becomes their food. What is on your plate is not just a faceless turkey breast, it was once an animal that lived and breathed and walked. And I believe that if we have respect for these animals in their lives (through how we raise them and butcher them), that we should also have respect for them in their death – which means trying to eat every part of the animal that we can. Because, after all, they’ve given us the ultimate sacrifice – their lives.
The process, as depicted from upper left (the collage reads as a book):
1) The butchering set up
2) Turkeys ranging on pasture
3) and 4) Live turkeys being put into the kill cone
5) The turkey’s main neck arteries are slit and the blood pours out. They are held tight upside down to bleed fast and prevent bruising. They are dead very quickly.
6) The deceased turkeys go into a vat of 149 degree water with a tiny amount of soap. This mixture helps to loosen their feathers by penetrating the natural oil on their skin. This step must be exact. If too hot the skin is scalded. If too cold the feathers do not come out.
7) The turkeys tumble around in a homemade “Whiz Bang” Chicken Plucker, which has rubber fingers to pluck the feathers. The bottom spins to ensure all the turkey’s feathers are pulled.
8) A plucked turkey ready for the next step
9) The birds head and feet are removed, and then it is gutted by cutting a slit just below the breastbone. The organs can be pulled out in one swift handful. The crop (a birds temporary food storage sack) and windpipe are also removed, as well as the bird’s scent gland, which is just above their tail. This is the organ which emits pheromones to attract mates, and also oils for skin and feather health.
10) After chilling in water for a few minutes, the bird is looked over. Any extra pin feathers are removed, and the cavity is double-checked.
11) The birds chill in a cooling tank.
12) After a final inspection, turkeys are bagged, tied and ready for sale.
Each bird probably takes an average of about 7 minutes for our crew and with our setup. We are lucky that during Thanksgiving week we had a great group to help us get an assembly line going. However, with poultry slaughtering about once a month through the warm months that is usually not the case. Generally it is Marc and one, maybe two, helpers. They’ve gotten faster and can process about 100 birds in 10 hours. It is Marc’s least favorite day on the farm, and you can probably tell that if you’ve ever spoken to him on that day. Butchering is not a fun or pleasant job, but it is a part of life. I personally am thankful that Marc is willing to do this for our family (and for all of our CSA families), because I certainly don’t want to be doing it frequently.
We hope that you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and now have a better appreciation of the food on your plate.
Thanks to Mike S., Randy W., Larry L., Mike V., Mike M., Stephen D. and Joy K. for all of your help on the most stressful days of the year!