Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

Don't Look Away

This week at Maggie’s Farm, we looked.

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As we edge toward both Thanksgiving and winter, our crew of learners and aspiring farmers had what amounted to Animal Death Week. The vegetable harvest is over, the pastures are frozen, feed prices are about to go up, our customers are excited to put a delicious roast in the middle of the table. An unavoidable part of raising livestock was upon us.

We loaded animals into trailers and drove them off to be killed. We watched animals be killed. We learned how to kill animals ourselves. We killed animals ourselves.

There were tears, there were hugs, there were difficult conversations and lots of soul-searching. There was bravery and compassion and empathy. There was reckoning with what it means to be a farmer, to be an omnivore, to be a human.

It was pretty intense and emotional. But it was also pretty great. It felt real, it felt meaningful, it felt life-changing. It was the best week I’ve had here, without a doubt.

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It feels obvious and uncontroversial (and cliche, but whatever) to say that our industrialized, globalized economy runs on ignorance. For so many products that we buy everyday, the company’s business model is predicated on obscuring how those things are made. For so many consumers, yours truly included, it is easier to not think about it, to not look. Even if we know, we don’t let ourselves really “know” all the time. It’s exhausting, and what’s the point? There are seven billion of us, and we’re busy, after all.

This is true for many things, of course. It’s true for fuel, for clothing, for smartphones.

But it feels more elemental, more basic, when it comes to meat. By not seeing how meat comes to be, it feels like we’re not only missing something important, but that we’ve lost something at the core of our collective being that we need to recapture.

I don’t know what that is, exactly. Reverence, maybe. Gratitude, probably.

Eating meat is cooked into our social and physiological beings. Even if some folks are happily and healthily vegetarians (or vegans) these days, meat eating is more than mere preference. The proteins and fats of a smartly-raised animal nourishes our body in ways nothing else really can. The bounty and allure of a cooked animal on a table (or in a backyard) encourages us to sit down together and converse and build human connection.

Meat is awesome. I love the taste, the way it makes me feel, the ceremony often involved.

But there’s a moment when a live creature - one with impulses and desires not impossible for a human mind to comprehend - is transformed into the building blocks of a civilized human meal, into meat. It’s a wild moment, a powerful moment, one that is rarely witnessed these days.

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I'm a firm believer that if more people saw on a regular basis how most animals are raised and slaughtered in this country, meat production would change overnight. It is so inhumane, so callous, so absolutely horrible, that we could not let it be. Most feedlots are located far from human population centers, however, and most slaughterhouses are fortresses of secrecy. So it continues on, out of sight and out of mind.

But while raising livestock in a different way often matches (or exceeds) the romanticized ideal of farming - a joyous variety of pasture rotation and veggie scrap feeding and egg collection - the ethical and humane slaughter of those animals is anything but that. It feels cruel, it feels gruesome and gross, it feels like a violation of the nurturing instinct we’ve used to take care of these animals, to give them healthy and happy lives.

It ain’t easy, and it ain’t pretty. It’s real. We’re killing an animal, so that we can eat it.

That’s where the gratitude and reverence come in. That’s why it’s important to look. Not so that we can take down an evil system (though that’d be nice). But rather, so that we can fully appreciate the miraculous systems - photosynthesis, ruminants, domestication, etc. - upon which we rely. So that we can better give thanks when the time comes, and have our hearts and minds grow larger along the way.

But yeah, it ain’t easy.

On Tuesday morning, we culled our old laying hens, their egg production tapering off. The mood was somber, as many of us hadn’t done anything like this before. We grabbed them from their coop, placed them upside down in a cone, put the knife to their neck, and cut. We tossed the head in the bucket, stepped back to watch the bird’s nervous system freak out, and waited for them to stop bleeding. We carried them to the scalding pot, loosened their feathers, then put them in the plucker. We took their naked, headless bodies - now looking distinctly like meat - to the table set up by the barn, where we cut off their feet, and pulled out their guts, heart, lungs, liver, kidney, gall bladder, gizzard, and any unformed eggs.

And then we made stock, and chicken nachos.

On Sunday morning, we killed and processed forty turkeys for Thanksgiving. This was a job, not a somber ritual. It was serious, it was hard, but there was laughter and conversation and bluegrass in the background. I ended up working at the killing cones most of the time, because I wanted to push past my discomfort, and because I didn’t seem to mind as much as some other folks.

I grabbed turkeys from the trailer, and quickly discovered that they are much bigger birds. I was whacked in the face by their wings and scratched on the hand by their talons, before improving my technique. I sharpened knives. I cut their heads off at the neck. I held their thrashing legs so that they wouldn’t flop out of the cone and spray blood everywhere, a consequence we learned of pretty early on. I carried their bodies into our thrown-together hoop house, where a team of folks was protected from the wind as they turned those bodies into something you’d recognize in a grocery store, or at a farmers market.

And then I went back to the trailer, and got another one.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

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To see the rest of this week’s pictures, some of which are a bit graphic, but all of which are (I think) tasteful and beautiful, click here...

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