Can no longer justify feeding all these dead ends. While we’ve meant to get to this butchering business several times already this year, it’s finally getting to the point where pure necessity is forcing my hand. I have to start saving for Christmas, I have a Halloween costume to make (in spite of being handmade it always sets me back at least a hundred dollars) and in the wake of my new employment, ironically it’s costing me a lot more just to keep the two of us fed, as food stamps have been cut by more than a half as a result of the new income. At this point we could truly use those birds in our freezer and not in the coop. Our three year old hens, while they’ve survived many raccoon attacks and have been with us through nearly our entire journey of chicken-raising, must finally go. They lay only intermittently, yet they continue to eat. And poop. And I am done. Even Shirley Nelson, our lone Araucana and occasional mint-green egg layer, is doomed to the freezer.
In the past we’ve taken our birds to Ben Shaw, a local Amish guy who butchers chickens (‘process’ is the world he chooses to describe the task), and he charges four bucks a bird – plus he charges extra to quarter them or reserve the giblets. That’s a lot of money when you add in the gas and factor in all that feed through the years. I know I’m not coming out ahead here, but I want to mitigate my losses at the very least, and paying upwards of $4 a bird feels a bit much. And we’ve come so far at this point; we need to make it to the ultimate end product here. There can be no denying it: we need to butcher our own. But exactly how? I know what it involves, I’ve been there at the butchering of our flocks in the past, but it takes a good bit of infrastructure to get the job done, and certainly I’ll need another adult present who’s had some experience in the matter. But who? I do some asking around at Waldorf and come up with a couple of options.
One is a guy some thirty miles away who has a real chicken farm. Just so happens he’s butchering this Friday. And if I’ll help him on the line for the day, he’ll let me use his setup to do my own birds. Only catch is, he’s in business to actually make a living; he won’t be able to help me with my twenty-something birds. He warns me that we’ll start in around eight in the morning and won’t be done with his birds till around two. He doesn’t say so exactly, but I can read his message. I should be ready. I’ve got a lot of birds, and while he’ll make his gear available to me, it’s a lot of work for one person. Plus I’ll need to bring my own knives. ! I’m not quite sure about this. Looks like a great opportunity for learning, but not so sure it’ll help me with my goal. I thank him, tell him I may or may not see him on Friday, and I hang up hoping for another solution. I contact a local farm that endeavors to help new farmers learn the art of butchering. But they’re a seasonal operation, and they’re not up and running now. I’m beginning to despair, so I rack my brain just a little bit more.
Then I remember Chuckie Arnold, the local farmer here in Greenfield. He’s a real-life hero in my son’s eyes, and I believe that Chuck himself is fond of Elihu. I have a memory of Elihu when he was a tiny five year old, his arms full of Mr. Roosevelt, our very large New Hampshire red rooster – literally half his own size – walking across the field to show him off to Chuck who was in the middle of haying. Chuck stopped the tractor, turned off the motor and stepped down off the machine to see the bird. Elihu was thrilled to have the audience of a real farmer. Chuck is not one for showing emotion, he speaks very little and his face is a hard read. But instantly I could see him soften as he put a hand out to pat the top of Elihu’s head. In that moment, I swear that he recognized a kindred soul in my son. From then on we’ve run into him at the feed store and around town, and he’s always been kind. At least as kind as an anti-social farm type might hope to be. So this morning, fed up with my prospects, I drove to his farm. I tried not to overwhelm him with my questions, I tried not to talk too fast, too excitedly, I tried to be as much the farmer peer as I could. But I felt him begin to withdraw under the interview, and I noticed that he never once met my eyes. He fiddled with a scratch on his truck, he shuffled his boots in the gravel. He didn’t look very encouraging, yet out of nowhere he just said “I’ll help you out.” ?? Wait, did he just offer to help? What did he mean exactly? I asked him. And not to push things, but just when was it that he thought he could? “Gotta get the corn in first.” he said, still looking at the ground. “It’s supposed to rain.” Wow, this guy really meant it. He was going to help me butcher my chickens! A thankless, messy job that required an investment of honest-to-goodness labor; a true gift of this busy man’s time. But how to proceed from here? I wasn’t sure how he’d contact me – did he even know my last name? He knew where I lived – it’s a small town, one knows these things – but was I to expect him to call? Just show up one day after he’d gotten his corn in? He probably knew me well enough by now to figure I’d get back to him. So I simply thanked him, as he’d already turned to head back to the barn, and I said no more.
On the way home I imagined the scene… Our lone traffic cone nailed upside down on the giant beech. Would the blood permanently stain our beloved tree? Would the blood also stain my favorite yellow marine-turned-farm boots? Just what would I wear? Did I need an apron? And what about knives? I wasn’t sure I had anything near sharp enough. I tried to imagine the act itself, the birds themselves. It’s one thing to hand off your bird and turn away as the deed is done, it’s another to take the knife to the throat. And I must be swift and effective – good Lord the last thing I want is a half-dead bird. I love these girls – our whole goal is to give them happy lives and a humane and quick dispatch. I had to have some technique! And it’s one thing to practice giving your kid a haircut – it’ll grow out – but to make a mistake here… it was unthinkable. ‘Get a hold of yourself – don’t anthropomorphize these stupid birds’, I remind myself. But still, the image of bearded Shirley Nelson, upside down in a cone is hard on me. I try to imagine that place from which I must act; the economic necessity and compassion I must keep firm in my heart. I try to recall that feeling I’d had once at the Amish farmer’s – I’d once begun to visualize doing it myself; I’d watched each and every one of our birds as their heads were pulled back and their throats were slit – I’d watched as their legs kicked and the blood drained from their small bodies. I remembered the smell, that irony smell of the blood, that strange and specific sort of smell to the whole operation…. As difficult as it was to face the process, I was strengthened by my resolve – assisted energetically by my small son’s own conviction – to honor their lives by seeing to it that they died quickly, efficiently. Plus I’ve always just felt that if I am to eat, I should I take responsibility, as I’m able, for what it is that I eat. If I can’t truly earn it, at the very least I can participate to the best of my ability in a respectful way. Same goes for vegetables, for milk, for eggs… I need to acknowledge where it is my food comes from. I cannot turn a blind eye, pretending that it all comes magically, without labor, sweat… and death. It’s been my goal and that of my son’s to participate in the witness of our food. If we can’t make it ourselves, we both feel that we need to be mindful of the process. It’s the very least we can do for the bounty this world provides us. Most folks are not lucky enough to be given this honor. But we’re lucky enough to have this rare opportunity, so we feel we must avail ourselves of it.
But after mulling it over a bit, I just can’t accept his offer. I’m not sure he was even considering it through to its completion. Propane stoves, huge buckets of water, gutting tables and knives, time and mess… I wonder what inspired him to offer his help, and I wonder how I can turn it down but still show my sincerest appreciation? And if I do turn him down, what then? I remember a Facebook message from my neighbor the other day. I know she’s not really down with this butchering thing, but she’d said something about her gals not laying anymore. About maybe putting them in the ‘deep freeze’. Now she’s not one for this sort of stuff – cuz she loves her birds – but her husband and her father-in-law just might be. So I called her. Suggested we pool our birds – that I take em all out to Ben’s. Or maybe…. maybe Zac and Phil might consider doing em in? Phil grew up on a chicken farm, and the father and son duo had butchered flocks in the past. Though both were currently out of town, she said she’d run it by them soon. We hadn’t settled on it at the end of our conversation, but it seemed possible they might be the men for the job.
Over dinner Elihu and I discussed it. We both felt like we didn’t know Chuck well enough to make such a request of him. We also both felt a bit more comfortable with Zac and Phil. “They kinda feel more like uncles, ya know?” Elihu suggested. “Like they’re kinda family.” He paused for a bit as he thought about it. “I think I’d feel better going with them.” I knew that we were both feeling the need for some emotional support here. And while Chuck would certainly offer us a good education, I could tell we were each feeling the silent, unexpressed need for a bit of tenderness, a bit of familiarity to ease us into the process. Elihu was ahead of me, for sure, but still I could sense he’d appreciate the help of neighbors over the stern-faced farmer. We didn’t talk about it again. Instead we talked a bit about his bass, about orchestra and the need for a rubber stop at the end of his instrument’s end pin. We talked about Central America, about his wanting to go to Pategonia, about the islands just east of New Zealand and puffin studies in Maine. Soon he got into bed and I read to him a story of a mysterious, fast-growing cat.
His bedtime book may have presented us with a mystery, but there is no mystery here in the case of our chickens who continue to eat but have long since ceased to be fast-growing. There is no mystery in what comes next. There is only the hard fact before us: the seasons are changing, our freezer is empty, and we cannot keep some forty-odd birds over the winter as pets alone. They must earn their keep. It’s either eggs or soup.
As the trees let go of their leaves for fall, so too must we cull our flock in order to prepare for the cold months ahead.