Sunday, November 28, 2010

Turkey Day

It's time to talk about turkey. And like any other subject involving death, I have avoided it long enough. Last Tuesday Richard and I took the little kids and headed out to The Wren's Nest Farm in Pueblo for turkey day. Turkey processing day.

Heritage breed turkey
Paul and Tammy raised turkeys this year to sell to CSA members and members of the community. There were heritage breeds as well as more traditional "eating" breeds. They were all very nice looking birds, although Paul said turkeys are difficult to raise as they are prone to diseases and they lost several at all stages, from day old poults to month old birds. Who knows the causes...can anyone ever figure it out? The best we can do is try to keep a healthy environment and hope for the best. Losing a few birds comes with the territory of raising turkeys...or chickens. Richard and I have lost a few chickens to mysterious ailments as well.

As we are interested in raising turkeys of our own, this day was to be a day of learning. We are also considering raising meat chickens to sell at our farm. There's a catch. We haven't been able to find anyone who will process poultry locally. There is someone in Ft.Collins, but its too expensive and too far away. If you want to raise birds to eat, you better learn how to process them. So, Richard and I decided to check out the Wren's Nest processing day, not only to learn how it is done, but more importantly, and very crucial to our farming future, to see if we could stomach it.

Dead turkey, walking
They were in process when we arrived...late. Three people were in the killing zone--one holding the legs and the body of the turkey down, one holding an ax on the neck of the immobile bird, and one swinging the sledge hammer down onto the ax, which quickly pushed the blade through the neck of the bird, severing the head in one quick motion. Just like that, it was over for that unsuspecting bird, and it was on to the next.

I can't say it wasn't hard for me to watch, but watch I did, trying to get as much exposure to the event as I could so I could determine if I could be the one holding down that turkey next year. On this day, I didn't volunteer to whack off a head or hold a bird, nor dip it into the  hot water bath to make feather plucking easier. I didn't want to touch any of them. I was having a harder time than I thought with the whole thing.
Pretty big Tom

Richard got involved with the last big Tom that must have weighed 40 or 50 pounds before processing. I did hold that one, upside down by his feet, while he was on his way to the chopping block. He was a big bird. Not sure if he'd even fit in a conventional oven, let alone a roasting pan.

Paul and Richard dipping the headless big Tom

I got more comfortable with the whole thing as time went on. No one else seemed overly upset. Everyone was involved, dipping and plucking their turkeys, and a few brave souls even held the ax and swung the life-ending blow.
Plucking the feathers off

Tammy disemboweled the critters and then they went into an ice-water bath before the respectful owners of the fresh turkeys loaded them into their own coolers for the trip home to a couple of days chillin' in the fridge.
Tammy, cleaning out the bird
There was no question here about what purpose these turkeys were raised for. Yummy Thanksgiving dinner...and the guest of honor is one healthy, hormone free, clean, happily raised turkey. They lived well. They were cage free and allowed to be turkeys in the course of their lives.

When all was said and done, the "finished" turkey looked just like the turkey I would be taking out of my own refrigerator to roast for Thanksgiving. Was I willing to be responsible for raising the meat I was willing to eat? Or, am I just like every other American who can close his or her eyes to reality and tell the kids the turkey comes from the grocery store. That's it.

I think there's more to it than that. When we moved out to our little farm, I thought long and hard about what it meant to raise my own food, including the poultry I normally eat. We don't eat red meat in my small family, but we do enjoy our turkey dinners, and chicken fajitas are the best. Keeping that in mind, am I willing to do what it takes to raise clean meat for myself and my family, knowing that the chickens and turkeys in the big commercial feed warehouses live a very miserable, short life, in a dark, filthy, crowded cage where disease runs rampant and the poor birds get to stand and live in their own fecal waste and possibly decomposing cage mates? Those are the turkeys and chickens we buy from the grocery stores. They are cheap and they are dirty, and so often lately we get sick from preparing and eating such unclean, unhealthy poultry. The warning labels on a package of chicken is astounding.

I decided maybe I could raise my own poultry, but when processors were no where to be found, I was leaning toward total vegetarianism. If I can't kill it, I have no business eating it. But months into this, I was missing the taste of chicken, and when we did buy some chicken breasts at the local grocery, I was trying hard not to think about the poison that was wrapped in that cellophane along with the bird. But think about it I did... as I was washing and disinfecting, as I was cooking and serving, and especially as I was eating that questionable poultry. There has to be a better way--a healthier way.

There is no doubt in my mind that if my family was starving, I would walk down to my chicken coop, grab the oldest hen and take a handy ax (where is my camp hatchet?) and chop off its head. I would dunk it into hot water for a few minutes to loosen the feathers. I would hang it up and pluck it. I would carefully remove the entrails, making sure not to break open any organs as I dislodged the parts from the chest cavity. I would chop off the feet and put that bird on ice before I stuck it in the oven brushed with butter and herbs. To feed my family I would do what it takes.

So the real question here is is it important enough now for me to do what it takes? If this is the only way my family can get access to healthy meat, am I willing to do what it takes? Essentially I can choose to buy tainted, poisonous meat that has the potential to kill my kids, or I can raise my own clean and healthy chickens and turkeys, giving them happy lives. I have to say it is certainly less cruel to chop off the head of a happy turkey than to knowingly participate in an industry that raises turkeys and chickens in a horribly cruel manner for several months before ending their pathetic lives.

I need to grow up and be an adult and take responsibility for my own food and food choices. If we expect to win this war on food, then we have to stop participating in big agribusiness, in all of its multi-layered evil facets.

I think next year, Richard and I will try to raise turkeys along with meat chickens. I am still searching for a cheap and local processor, but I know that I may be the one doing the dirty work at the end of the season. I will try. For my family and the health of our planet, I will try. Or, I may end up having a whole lot of pet turkeys and chickens, although, in all honesty, the way the birds are bred now, it would be more cruel to prolong their lives past prime killing time. The chickens and turkeys will grow such enormous breasts, their legs will not be able to support their own weight. They will collapse and be prone to heart attacks and other ailments due to their large sizes. (Not unlike many overweight Americans today.) Unfortunately big agribusiness has taken everything natural out of the food industry and it is a horror to realize how far from nature our food has come. Can we expect anything but sickness and poor health when we put such unnatural "foods" into our bodies?

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful to Paul and Tammy for letting us participate in Turkey Processing Day at the Wren's Nest Farm ( I am thankful that the beautiful turkeys (yes even turkeys and chickens have their own sort of beauty) I saw there had happy lives and their deaths were quick and painless. I am thankful that a few families will have healthy food for the holidays. I am thankful for being shown a better way. I am thankful for the opportunity to give my family the choice to have better  food, and I am thankful for every single person who reads this blog and becomes educated to where our food comes from. Choose a better way everybody. By buying a farm fresh turkey, you ease the suffering of one more bird in big agribusiness. Say no to intolerable cruelty in our food industry. The poultry and the cows, the pigs and even the plants don't have to be treated in the unnatural manners in which they are for the benefit of humans. We need to treat our food with respect.

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