Disclaimer– Some folks may want to give this post a miss. This post contains fairly graphic descriptions of animal death. I have not spared many details in my description of killing animals on the farm (both processing and euthanizing). I do this not for shock value or because I’ve grown calloused, but because I want to present a real picture of what this work is like. Those of us that choose to eat meat have a responsibility to have an honest image of everything entailed.
Mornings on a farm are mixed blessings, Friday mornings more so than any other day. By Friday, I am exhausted. Non-farmers may not fully grasp what “exhausted” means to a farmer. I have a tension headache. Without fail. Every Friday. If I’m lucky and the weather has been properly distributed (not generally the case) I have worked four 12-16 hour days straight. On Wednesday or Thursday most of the year, I cap off 12 hours with a 4.5 hour teaching gig. If rain is forecasted for any day of the week, I have also worked 5-8 hours minimum (plus chores) the previous Sunday (my “day off”). Still, Friday mornings are a treat. I drink coffee and allow my dogs to break the cool stillness of the morning by stirring up the chickens and ducks while I take my time setting out feed and water, spending a few extra minutes with each set of animals.
On one lovely March morning (sunny and 45), I took my time examining our “Freedom Ranger” broilers, doing a quick spot health check as I moved our three 10×10 pasture pens by hand. I took in the classic bucolic scene of our chubby, but healthy meat birds scratching and basking in the sun, only to notice that one chicken was moving with his wings rather than his legs, one of which had to be broken. At this point, I had to make a decision. To wait or to act? A step forward, a deep breath, and a deft flick of the wrist. In a few seconds everything changes.
The idea of executing a chicken by hand must sound terribly barbaric. Most livestock farmers I know keep a .22 rifle handy for these occasions. Driving so often into Memphis to teach or for market, I cannot afford to do so as it increases the likelihood that I will forget it is there, thereby leaving a gun in my inevitably unlocked truck. Also, believe it or not, outside of hunting I have never been quite comfortable around guns. I do carry a knife, but this is both impractical and dangerous for the task if you are alone. So, I did it the way people have done it since the domestication of the chicken. And just like that, I reminded myself what I truly am, a murderer.
It is probably unwise to reveal that I am morally conflicted about killing animals. After all, it is my job. I raise animals for meat, and I would very much like for people to continue to purchase that meat from me. Among locavores there is an orthodoxy that holds that if an animal has lived a happy life and can be killed with a minimal amount of suffering one is, morally, in the clear to eat that animal. It is, I think, just a bit more complex than all that.
I feel badly every time I kill an animal, even when I truly believe it is the correct decision. The morning I killed the chicken with a broken leg, I acted out of compassion. Had I chosen to go to the house and grab a gun, it would likely have been pecked to death and eaten by its compatriots as chickens are both omnivores and opportunists. Had I segregated it from the other chickens, it would have died slowly as even slow growing heritage chickens grow much too quickly to recover from a broken leg. And let’s be honest, there is no such thing as a vet visit for a meat chicken, unless you have customers willing to pay $75 for a 4.5lb chicken. We run the type of operation where euthanasia is relatively rare. We take every health and safety precaution we can, but I refuse to watch an animal suffer unnecessarily. So, I did what I think any compassionate farmer would do, I killed it quickly and tried to move on with my day, partially bothered by the ease with which I killed it, partially bothered by the fact that its death would not now be followed by the exchange of its meat for money.
Claire remarked recently that it really is a privilege to watch the birth of a baby goat, to watch the mom clean it and see it take its first steps and nurse for the first time. Moments like these make life worth living and farming worth doing. But, for all of the magic moments of farming, there are dark moments where we live hand in hand with death. It is omnipresent. This year we will personally process around 1,000 chickens, turkeys, and ducks for food. I will personally kill maybe 90% of those. I will have blood on my hands (and probably my face if I’m honest). While I won’t personally kill many pigs or the goats, I am just as responsible for their fates. For me, there is a huge moral weight to these deaths and a corresponding responsibility. It is here, that I cannot help but observe one of the more uncomfortable truths about who I have become: not only am I a murderer, but I am good at it. I know the correct amount of pressure, the precise knife angle, and the exact location to cut an animal’s throat to ensure death within a few seconds without cutting the windpipe and causing it to suffocate or hitting the brain stem and causing it to convulse. I am so good at it that I am reticent to allow anyone else that sacred task on processing day.
And so, I have become a murderer. Every animal I have killed weighs on my conscience. Every time a customer balks at the price of our chicken, it nearly brings tears to my eyes. “Don’t you know what I went through to bring you this $20 chicken? Do you not realize what I’ve lost in doing this for you?” We may both be complicit in the death of the animal, but I am the one that willingly keeps intact the veil between live animal and food. I chose to transform it from a bird into a foodstuff. I did the deed.
Is there any way we can truly appreciate what it is we are doing when we eat an animal? Is there any amount of pleasure we can offer to an animal in life that makes up for the death that we inflict on it? Wendell Berry’s “A Prayer After Eating” ends with the line “May I be worthy of my meat.” I am not sure that any act of which I am capable will ever make up for the lives that I have taken. Nothing I do with my body can earn the calories I stole from those animals. I think that’s why Mr. Berry offers his thoughts as a prayer. To become worthy of those lives can only ever be accomplished through grace. This to me is the central problem for omnivores. If this reality is difficult to stomach for a farmer, it is still a step further for the customer that is even less aware of the truth of meat.
I am here tempted (and likely expected) to launch a defense of meat eating. But, I’m going to save that for a later date. I set out in this essay to inject a bit of nuance into the debate over the ethics of eating animals, to complicate the omnivore’s worldview a bit. Those of us who choose to eat meat have a responsibility to keep in our minds a full picture of what this act entails. As I’ve wrestled with these ethical questions over the last few years, I have become certain of only one thing. Treating meat animals humanely is not merely a matter of choosing a side, a diet, or a farming ideology. Ethical meat is a choice that we have to make continuously every day. The customer cannot simply shop primarily at the Whole Foods or the farmers market and feel noble. Likewise, farmers cannot rest easy simply because they are “better than the big guys.” For the farmer this means daily recommitting oneself to not cutting corners, avoiding those little shortcuts or mistakes that cause unnecessary suffering to our charges. Often times it means making a choice against our financial best interest. For the non-farmer, I think it requires transforming oneself from consumer to what Michael Pollan calls “co-producer.” The co-producer not only knows her/his farmer, but engages with him/her both in dialogue and in the realities of the work. We may never fully assuage the guilt of living at the expense of animals, but we can at least hold our heads a bit higher with the knowledge that we are the best murders we can be.
 And I do think the vegan or vegetarian has at least slightly dirty hands here as well.