This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
When I teach, I learn. Articulating a job or task makes me work through it in my brain, turning it over and clarifying the hows and whys of the effort. We slaughtered 39 meat birds this past week, working with friends to put food in the freezers for the months to come. This time was different because we had a small helper. My 4-year old nephew joined us with his morning face, tousled blond hair and Spiderman costume.
Slaughtering is no easy task because of the taking of life that it involves. The physical mechanics of the effort are not difficult because we have the correct tools for the job, but the killing adds a psychological weight that it is important to be aware of and prepared for. Before commencing, we gather in circle to thank the birds for their lives, and to reflect on the transition from living creature to meat in the freezer.
I do not enjoy killing, but it is a necessary part of the journey for our families to eat in the way we want. I don’t want to buy meat raised in factory conditions, and I don’t want to outsource the taking of life. If I am to eat meat, it will be in connection to land and life, raising and husbanding the animals and providing for them as best as I am able.
These birds walked on and ate rich, abundant pasture forage. The chicken tractors are moved each morning so that they get fresh clover and grass every day, open to the sun and air but sheltered from the rain. It is a big effort during the busy spring season, but there is a deep sense of consonance that comes with it, and it has brought together a small community of people I love to share in the work.
We gather first thing in the morning, bringing the birds down from the ranch in crates and setting up the tables, sharpening the knives and readying the plucker. I get up early to start the scalder heating, filling the 40 gallon tank with 5 gallon buckets of hot water that I bring from the water heater in the house to hasten the process.
I take a bird from the crate and place it upside down into the metal killing cone so that the head comes out the bottom and the feet stick up in the air. I slit the throat on each side of the neck just under the chin, making sure to sever both the carotid artery and jugular vein. I do my best to avoid the windpipe so that the birds bleed out while still being able to breathe to ease the process of death.
My nephew stood back for a bit, taking in the process. I explained the mechanics of slaughter, showing him how I slit the throat and how after the birds have bled they go into the scalder to loosen the feathers and the skin on the feet. I showed him the plucker, and then Amber explained the process of evisceration to him. He took it all in, and then we began a conversation that continued as I worked.
“Why do they shake like that?” he asked as the one of the birds went through the death rattle in the killing cone. “That’s the spirit leaving the body, as the bird dies the nerves in the body convulse and shake like that.” He nodded and thought for a moment, his little brow crinkled.
I said “you remember your Ava?” (my mother). He nodded and said “she died,” in a matter-of-fact tone. I agreed, “Yes, she did, and her body remained after her spirit went. But we carry her with us in our memory so she is still here with us. This is a little different, the spirit of these chickens leaves their body and then we will eat them in the winter.”
“My Dada makes chicken and we eat it” he said and I nodded in agreement. “But these birds don’t want to die?” he asked. “No, they don’t. It’s a hard thing, which is why we thank them for their lives and do our best to honor them, so that we know where our food comes from.” He was quiet, thinking it through. I added “if people eat meat, it means that animals are killed for that to happen. Some people choose not to eat meat because they don’t want to be part of killing. That’s a choice everyone gets to make for themselves.” He nodded again, still deep in thought, and then walked over to watch everyone working on evisceration.
Children raised on farms often encounter life and death in ways that other children do not. Explaining to a 4-year old about slaughter made me think about it from a new light and perspective. It deepens my resolve to be responsible for the lives of the meat that I eat, to look without flinching. It also reminds me of a softness, a vulnerable place inside me that I want to protect and nurture, so that I don’t become hardened and callous about killing. I am grateful for the lesson. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!