Friday, October 8, 2010

Chicken Weekend Approaches

I've been having an internal debate on how to start this post. I considered including a "Please Note" (but definitely not a "warning") that the post would include blunt talk about processing chickens and some readers might want to skip it. But I really think that all eaters (all consumers, really) should have an awareness of where their products come from. So, there is no disclaimer - I'm not giving you an easy excuse to ignore this post. If choose not to read any further, it's got to be your decision.

Perhaps a more appropriate warning would be that this post is a bit preachy. While it strongly conveys my views, I don't want it mistaken for a lecture or condemnation of anyone who disagrees with me. As I hope you understand after reading the post - it takes pretty strong feelings about food and the environment to raise your own meat. I just want to explain why we've decided to follow through with a seemingly radical food choice.

This weekend is Chicken Weekend. I'm not going to lie - I've been dreading it for months. We've got 20 chickens (mostly Dark Cornish) to butcher, which is twice as many as we did on our last Chicken Day.

It is a crappy, crappy day, and knowing that it will be twice as long as last year is not adding to my enthusiasm. But at the end of the weekend, we'll have one less flock to feed and worry about becoming hawk food (we've caught a Cooper’s Hawk feasting on our chickens three times in the last month).

More importantly, and the real reason we do this is the satisfaction of living our convictions of supporting sustainable, natural food and relieving some of the burden of outsourcing crappy jobs to other people.

These are the two biggies of why we endure Chicken Day. And for me, it’s "barely endure." Last year, I was on the verge of tears. My job is plucking, which compared to Bill's work is easy. But it's still hard work combined with the emotional toil of partaking in the direct killing of an animal…multiple animals. I've made a personal commitment to be present for the killing of all our livestock. Though I don't actually *do* anything, I don't want Bill to do it alone, and I think it's important to fully appreciate the sacrifice.

There was recently an article in the NY Times by Michael Pollan. He participated in a 36-Hour meal based heavily on a single goat, a cob oven, and a good community.

Ten days ago, Mike and I drove to the ranch to choose our animal and watch an itinerant butcher slaughter and dress it; Mike says the experience made him want to honor our goat by wasting as little of it as possible.
I don't know if it's possible to overemphasize that point. When you are involved in butchering, waste becomes intolerable.

As much as I am still dreading it, my resolve for Chicken Weekend has been bolstered by that article and blog posts, which were kind enough to have the excellent timing of being published this week.

One is from Sharon Astyk who farms and writes in upstate NY. Her post "On Sentiment...And Against Sentimentality" is about many aspects of farming and the attitude needed to be successful. She believes there is a difference between sentiment - "the logical emotions of love and attachment that emerge from knowing something well" - and sentimentality - "cheap emotion, the substitution of a weak thing for something deeper.”

Sentiment, Astyk argues, is essential for good farmers. You need to pay very close attention to your animals in order to care for them well. This attention naturally leads to feelings of love, appreciation and attachment. I understand this completely. I am jarred by the heartbreak that accompanies the inevitable loss of an animal to a predator or illness. It sucks. And not just for the loss of time, money and energy that went into growing something that is now gone. It is a feeling of failure (no matter how unjustified) in not protecting an animal who depends on me - an animal I care for physically and emotionally.

Sentiment - love, anger, attachment, affection - real emotions - these derive from knowledge, and they can't be faked.
Sentimentality, on the other hand, is the “cheap” emotion based on…well, nothing really. I think of it as manufactured – the stuff of Hallmark commercials and reality TV. This, here, is the bit of Astyk’s post that will be helping me get through Chicken Weekend:

I do want to stand up for sentiment in agriculture because I would argue that our industrial society discourages real sentiment, the emotion that emerges from knowing things, and exchanges it for sentimentality. This is an exchange that runs deeply to our detriment, in part because it enables us not to know things.

Sentimentality creates the CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) farm - the sentimentality that says we are too weak to bear the pain of knowing animals and watching them die. This is what turns our food into styrofoam packages and allows CAFO agriculture, where animals are carefully hidden from our view, and the relationship of our purchases carefully concealed.
In this instance, giving in to sentimentality and not wanting to know things (or read this blog post) creates the real evil. How evil?

something on the order of 98% of our meat in America comes from factory farms that raise thousands upon thousands of animals at a time. To satisfy our ever-increasing demand for cheap meat, the places where animals are raised for slaughter have changed so radically that it’s not even really fair to call them farms. (The Unappetizing Realities of Factory-Farmed Meat)

Since 1935, consolidation and industrialization have seen the number of U.S. farms decline from 6.8 million to fewer than 2 million — with the average farmer now feeding 129 Americans, compared with 19 people in 1940.

In CAFOs, large numbers of animals — 1,000 or more in the case of cattle and tens of thousands for chicken and pigs — are kept in close, concentrated conditions and fattened up for slaughter as fast as possible, contributing to efficiencies of scale and thus lower prices. … To stay alive and grow in such conditions, farm animals need pharmaceutical help, which can have further damaging consequences for humans. (Time)
You know these places. They give you salmonella. They are the target of news reports and documentaries. They are really gross. Horrible for the animals and the people that work there. Horrible for the farmers. Great for the big company and the bottom line.

According to the USDA, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966. (Time)
This weekend, as much as I won't like the work, I am satisfied knowing that I am not supporting a system with which I disagree and believe is unduly harmful to the environment, the "farm" animals, the workers, and ultimately the people who eat the product.