01 July 2012

From Beginning to End

The first rooster

Before I moved to the country to embark on our homesteading adventures, a very good friend of mine gave me Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which, in my opinion, is a cornerstone of the real food canon. It is beautifully and poignantly written and brilliantly reveals the illusion of the American food system. Although I read it a few years back, there are several lines that have stuck with me throughout our adventure. One of them is in the chapter regarding harvesting turkeys entitled, You Can't Run Away On Harvest Day.  And we didn't. For over a week we have been harvesting (ie, slaughtering and butchering) our chickens.

This has, of course, received mixed reviews. I welcome you into our logic. First, we eat meat, culturally and philosophically.  The philosophical part is accurately and concisely said in this New Tork Times Ethics of Eating Meat Essay. After living a vegetarian lifestyle for several combined years, I concluded that my vegetarianism was not a result of the if we should eat meat, but the how we should eat meat. I'm not making a novel statement in saying that the commercial meat industry is unhealthy for both consumer and consumed or that the standard raising and processing operations are inhumane and furthermore, unsustainable. If this is news to you, go pick up The Omnivore's Dilemma, a masterpiece of our time and required reading for any American that eats.

a small portion of the large area our chickens have to run, peck, and scratch

In order to have healthy meat for our family, seek a sustainable system, and take full responsibility for our food, we decided to start raising chickens, a manageable first step in livestock. This allows us to determine the manner in which our food is raised, but that's only the first part. Regardless of how meat is raised, it all goes to a slaughterhouse.  It would have been much easier to do that than slaughter and butcher the chickens on our own; it's a huge undertaking. But how could I do it in good conscience? How do I say I want to humanely raise animals knowing that they will be processed at $2 a head? I pay more than $2 for a latte for crying out loud. I won't get into the details because it's graphic, but slaughterhouses are not happy places. There are errors made, as in any industry, except making an error on a widget is different from making an error on a living creature. Not only do I not want to ultimately take responsibility for that error, but I don't want to ingest it either.

We learned how to slaughter the chickens on our own, which also is not happy. Death isn't happy. And while there is an ugliness to killing our chickens, it is a part of earthly living.  Living organisms feed on living organisms.  Regardless, that ugliness has a spectrum.  Our backyard practice pales in comparison to what our chickens would experience elsewhere. Believe me, I'm far from an animal activist.  I don't even like having pets.  It's about the food:  good food comes from good practices.  Processing animals is a crucial part of eating animal products from eggs and dairy to flesh. 

cutting the membranes around the crop

Scalding, defeathering, eviscerating, wrapping, freezing, and all the clean-up involved left much time to ponder the many angles of eating meat.  If everyone had to eat meat with both eyes open, would we eat as much? Would we waste as much?  I understand the thought process behind slaughterhouses--efficiency, profit-margins, etc, but has it truly benefitted our overall food system: quality, nutrition, sustainability?     

The truth is, you can run away on harvest day, but as a society we can only run for so long. It is often said that it is important to vote because it will determine the country we leave for our lineage. The same logic applies to our food. We can further entrench the existing food system by handing more money to huge companies that lobby our government to help industry instead of people. We can support cheap food instead of healthy food. We can patronize fast food instead of good food. Our money and our practices shape the future of American food. I like to think that if my husband picks up an ax and I'm willing to be wrist-deep in chicken entrails for several days a year, that one day my baby will have better real food options, that I won't have to bring her abroad to show her good cuisine, that she'll understand that cheap chicken isn't good chicken, and that she'll accept that having an animal properly processed may cost a little more than a latte.

photo break while defeathering


  1. That's a great summary. I understand how some people would not agree or even be afraid to learn about harvesting your own meat. It has mostly to do with our lack of connection to anything we own.
    I mean who knows what a cotton seed looks like or how to grow it? And how much cotton clothing are you wearing? Also the guy who grows probably can't make anything with it. One example from many of how humanity is disconected and wasteful.
    How can you save an environment when you know nothing of how your impact or interaction effects it? You end up with a population that asks what does it matter. What does it matter to know where it comes from. Why should I even care what direction my house faces or what plant grows 1 foot from my front door.
    The answer is beyond words. Its a feeling you get. A feeling of connection. The difference between a meal made by your grandma and the same meal made at a restaraunt. You can't just say look at the food, it just feels different.

  2. I have several comments:
    1. Happy birthday!!!
    2. Why do you still look beautiful even in the midst of slaughtering chickens? I am very jealous of this.
    3. Kingsolver's book is a favorite of mine. For a long while after reading it, I wanted to buy a farm and do something similar, but then I remembered that I have a strong aversion to physical labor. I have a lot of admiration for you and Nick and the physical efforts you go to every single day to feed your family in a healthy way.

  3. Way to go!!! I started processing my extra duel purpose roosters this year. I had such interest in clean meat from my egg customers that I built 3 chicken tractors housing now about 65 Cornish X. We start butchering in 3 weeks!

    It's great to see other people out there wanting to get connected to their food source. Our inductrial system is unhealthy for all involved, the animal, the consumer, the land and it's neighbors.

  4. Great essay, Geej! You are very brave to do the "harvesting". I love the picture of you and Viv. You look like you're 15!

  5. Beautifully written! I agree wholeheartedly. Our society is very disconnected from where our food comes from, which is sad. I personally am a vegetarian, but I have great respect for meat-eaters who truly respect the animal they are eating and are willing to do the "dirty work" in a humane way. (I am a vegetarian mostly due to the current treatment of our livestock in this country - from birth until death of the animals). I enjoy reading your blogs! Please keep them coming!