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].
This week marked the last poultry slaughter of the year with the batch of 20 turkeys we raised. It feels good to be done with that aspect of the farm, slowly moving through the steps of the season and preparing for the days of winter. Putting meat in the freezer is one of the core components of our lives here on the farm, and it’s important to me to see the process through to the finish. Killing is also the hardest thing I do on the farm, and I hold space for deep reflection and the mental-physical-emotional processing that is necessary to find acceptance within myself.
Over the years we’ve gathered the equipment to manage batches of meat chickens and the turkeys through the late spring and well into the summer. Now that we’re wrapped up, the collection of feeding tubs, waterers and slaughtering equipment get cleaned and put away in the storage barn to await next year. There is a feeling of closure that comes with gathering up the gear that I appreciate, a moment for reflection in the headlong rush of summer.
We raised 4 batches of meat chickens this year; one bigger batch of 74 birds and three smaller ones that started out at 50 each with a few losses along the way. The bigger batch of chickens was a little too much, more of a logistical challenge with feed consumption and a bigger effort on slaughter day than I am comfortable with. I do the killing, removing the birds from crates and placing them upside down in the kill cones. I slit the throat on either side, severing the jugular vein and carotid artery while being careful not to cut the windpipe. The birds bleed out as I move down the line, and after all six are killed I move back to the beginning and pull two carcasses to scald.
Scalding loosens the feathers so that the plucker can remove them. We do two chickens or one turkey at a time in the plucker, and then the carcass goes onto the evisceration table where the head and feet are removed, neck skin is cut, crop disconnected and then the bird is disemboweled and placed into the cooling tub. Feet and necks are kept for making stock and liver and heart are kept for making paté.
Chickens are much easier than turkeys in part because of the size difference, but also because the rapid process means a less intense focus on the individual taking of life. The work moves fast, but even so it adds up so that by the end I’m physically and emotionally exhausted. I’ve found that my max capacity is around 70, and I’m thinking that for next year we’ll do batches of 60 or 65 and expect a few losses along the way.
When we slaughter larger animals like sheep or pigs, we are intensely present for the death, holding the animal as life expires. Killing is one of the hardest tasks on the farm, and there’s a tendency to harden myself to it so that I don’t feel the depth of feeling that it engenders, but I try to avoid this because I don’t want to become calloused. Looking at death head-on by my own hand is like staring into the abyss at a place beyond this world, and I try to hold space for that moment.
With large animals we only kill one or two in a day, and we use a tractor to hoist them so there isn’t much heavy lifting. Chickens are more like an assembly line, and they don’t weigh as much, but the process still leaves me exhausted. Turkeys are the heaviest animals that we slaughter without using the tractor to lift them, and the multiple lifts of each bird add up to a hefty physical strain.
After I slit the vein and artery, I hold the head to stop the bird from flopping out of the cone and making a dusty, chaotic mess. Being present for each death in the way I would with a larger animal makes for a longer slaughtering process that is more emotionally draining, and means that it takes us almost as long to do 20 turkeys as it does to do 60 or 70 meat birds.
After 48 hours in coolers on ice to allow for rigor mortis to pass, we gather at Pops’ to cut up, de-bone and grind about half of the birds. Pops will use the ground turkey for team lunches over the course of the year and we’ll use the bones and carcasses to make stock and we save some of the breasts for grilling. The familial nature of the shared effort brings me great joy and a sense of accomplishment as the packages of ground meat accumulate.
I like raising turkeys, I enjoy them as creatures on the farm, and I love the many meals they provide for our family and friends. I accept the difficult nature of slaughter and the many feelings it engenders as a necessary part of our life journey, but it’s never easy. I suppose that if it becomes easy then I will have become hardened to it, losing an emotional sense that I value, so I’m glad that it remains the hardest thing that I do. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!