Don’t eat chicken unless its name was Colin

I often shock people when I say ‘don’t eat chicken unless its name was Colin‘. My rationale is that if all chooks were raised properly on the paddocks, we actually wouldn’t eat very many of them – our grandparents typically ate chicken once a year – and most chooks are not raised this way in Australia. And even those that are are typically breeds of chicken that struggle to walk with their over-sized breasts, and are more susceptible to heart attacks. I don’t personally believe that respects the ‘chickenness of the chicken’, hence the only chicken we eat are surplus roosters and spent hens from our own small house flock.

So imagine my delight by the introduction in Australia of the Sommerlad breed of chicken, a heritage hybrid that is vigorous and healthy and able to display all its natural behaviours out on the paddocks. We have the inspiring couple Bruce and Roz Burton of Milking Yard Farm growing them outside Trentham near us, and my friend and Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) vice-president Jeff Pow and his wife Michelle McManus of Southampton Homestead in WA also include Sommerlads in their system.

And then equally delightfully, the wonderful Laura Dalrymple of ethical meatsmiths Feather & Bone up in Sydney wrote in detail about the meat chicken industry in Australia, and has graciously allowed me to re-post her excellent description here for your edification.

So read on – hopefully this will help you in your own journey to eat better meat, less.

* * *

Last time we wrote to you we featured Buena Vista Farm in a sad tale about the trials of sustainable farming. Mr not-at-all-fantastic Fox got in and slaughtered 100 chooks and caused great distress all round. Today, you’ll be pleased to hear, we’re doing the tribulation story.

We’ve carried on in an embarrassingly demonstrative way about these chooks before so we’ll try to keep it a bit more cool and collected this time round. Essentially, the Sommerlad Heritage chook represents a revolution in the meat chicken industry in Australia. Here’s a brief explanation of why we’re so excited.

This is how most meat chickens in Australia are raised.

Pictures of broiler chooks from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site

1. Breed
All meat chickens available in Australia are white feathered ‘broiler’ chooks from two main strains, Ross and Cobb. Over the last 60 years, these birds have been selected and bred for specific traits – disproportionately large breasts and the capacity to grow inside sheds at exponential rates so they’re ‘market ready’ by five weeks.

 Buena Vista Farm, December 2014: chick transport boxes, newly-arrived chicks.

2. Day-old chicks
The business of raising and distributing commercially viable volumes of day-old chicks for farmers across the country to grow out to market size is dominated by a small number of big, well-resourced poultry businesses. Breeding chickens are kept in large sheds with a standard ration of one male to every ten hens, their eggs are collected and incubated and then the day-old chicks are shipped out to farms to be grown out to market rates.

 Picture of a free range farm from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site
3. Free range 
While these chicks are mostly raised in sheds, 20% of Australian farmers practice free range and pastured farming. This number is growing as consumer demand increases and this is a good thing because it means that birds have access to open land outside the shed during daylight hours. However, it’s important to understand the difference between ‘Free Range’ and ‘Pasture Raised’.

The majority of commercially available free range chicken brands in Australia, such as Lilydale, Willowton, Mt Barker, Macro and Bannockburn are certified by the Free Range Egg and Poultry (FREPA) organisation – 100 plus farms. FREPA’s standards stipulate a much lower stocking density than the conventional system and require access to range land outside the shed that provides shade and vegetation.  

In all other key respects including housing, equipment, ventilation, temperature, health practices, age at processing and slaughter practices, the FREPA standard defaults to the standard conventional code. Among other things, this means that FREPA accredited chickens follow the conventional standard which allows for birds to be ‘harvested’ as early as 30-35 days (4-5 weeks). Access to outdoor areas is given to fully feathered birds of approximately 21 days or three weeks of age. Given that they are generally harvested between five and six weeks that’s not a long time. 

 Pastured broiler chooks at Buena Vista enclosed by mobile electric fencing.

4. Pasture raised
The growers we work with practice ‘pasture raised’ farming. So they receive day-old broiler chooks and raise them exclusively outside on pasture at very low stocking densities and with access to shelter rather than the other way around. The key differences between pasture raised and FREPA free range birds are these.

  • Smaller groups of birds in lower stocking densities with permanent access to range lands – mostly moved to fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing.
  • The freedom to graze on fresh green pick, bugs etc providing additional nutrition and protein.
  • Greater capacity to express instinctive behaviour due to lower stocking densities. 
  • Life spans of eight to nine weeks, almost double the conventional standard.
  • More muscular, robust, deeply-flavoured product 

5. Feather and Bone chooks
Buena Vista Farm: groups of about 100 birds with very low stocking densities rotated onto fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing – broiler and Sommerlad flocks.

Hillside Farm: small groups of about 50 broiler birds rotated onto fresh pasture daily and contained in Joel Salatin-style chook tractors.

Inglewood organic: ACO certified – broiler birds kept in sheds at night, the sides of which are raised during the day to provide access to pasture. Fed certified organic feed and processed at eight to nine weeks. 

 Sommerlad Heritage chooks at Buena Vista, 15/12/14

6. Sommerlad Heritage pasture raised chook
The Sommerlad Heritage chook, however, is something altogether new. After many years of research working with different breeds, bird nutritionist and chook experts Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad have developed a new breed of chicken with strong bones and even distribution of meat specifically designed to thrive as a pasture raised bird in Australian conditions. This is a bird that retains many of the behavioural characteristics that have been intentionally bred out of the broiler which is designed to become relatively immobile in order to quickly fatten to market size. Among other behaviours, the Sommerlad birds have well-developed survival instincts and seek appropriate shelter at night so predation from foxes and hunting birds is reduced. They graze enthusiastically, take pleasure from playing and
respond vigorously to a life lived literally running around outside on pasture. They look pretty good too, particularly the very bizarre Transylvanian Naked Neck which is included in the programme because of its capacity to deal with hot Australian summers.

The Sommerlads have authorised a handful of farmers with demonstrated expertise in pasture raising chickens to grow these birds and, after we introduced them about a year ago, Adam and Fiona at Buena Vista Farm became part of that group. 

About half of the batch we’re receiving on Wednesday are pre-sold so, if you’re interested, please get your orders in quickly. Or don’t, because then there might be one left for us.

Sommerlad Heritage chooks including the Transylvanian Naked neck at Buena Vista, 15/12/14

2013: Our Meat is Real

In 2010 it was sourdough. This year it’s meat.


My journey into the world of breadmaking resulted in a life of no bought bread, and I anticipate this year’s meat venture will do the same. In short, if we haven’t raised or caught the meat ourselves, we won’t be eating it at home.

As those who’ve been here before already know, I was a vegetarian for seven years and now I am a free-range rare breed pig farmer along with my hypercompetent husband Stuart and three orsmkids. I was not a vegetarian because I thought humans shouldn’t eat non-human animals. It was because I couldn’t bear to be complicit in the realities of industrial meat farming – ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations’ or CAFOs, where animals are never given the opportunity to dig, scratch, munch on grass and otherwise express what Joel Salatin calls ‘the pigness of the pig’. I don’t want to make animals suffer throughout their lives so that they can end up on our plates, and nor do I want to participate in the environmental degradation caused by intensive systems. So when I came back to meat, I stuck with ethically raised, until ultimately we decided to take our ethics and our advocacy to the next level by becoming producers ourselves.

So as smallholders, we are in the luxurious position of being able to raise our own animals as part of a healthy agroecological system, whereby some of them are for sale for the economic viability that allows us to live here, and some are for our own consumption. The pigs are our tractors, efficiently turning the soil in preparation for the next season’s fodder crop (and for our expansive vegie garden), the sheep and cattle manage the grass growth and keep our paddocks healthy and safer from fires, and the chooks convert our kitchen scraps into a plentiful supply of eggs (and we eat the excess roosters).

On our 69 acres, we’ll ultimately have about 10 rare breed Large Black sows, two boars and an ever-fluctuating number of weaners and growers, and then we also currently have a dozen Lowline Angus cattle and seven Lincoln sheep. The very awesome Ellie also just brought us about 100 rainbow trout fingerlings that we’ve put in the Home Dam and are hoping won’t be eaten by cormorants… and then there’s the ever-expanding flock of heritage and common chooks.

We will, of course, be slaughtering pigs regularly as that’s our primary farming business, so I think there will be a ready supply of pork, both fresh and cured. However, we tend to serve lovely pork roasts only for gatherings here on the farm, and we eat mostly cured pork in small doses as a flavouring for otherwise vegetable-based meals, plus the occasional sausage. In short, just because we’re pig farmers doesn’t mean we’ll be binging all year on pork.

Our aim is to slaughter about one cow per month and sell the meat locally, which will also mean we’ll have access to beef when we want it, but I’m going to record our consumption and we’re aiming to basically eat one cow this year.

With the sheep, we have one ram and four ewes, all of whom had their first lambs last winter. One had twins who died of exposure the first night and another was killed by either a fox or more likely, our dog Maya, who sadly had to be put down as she was a menace to small animals. 🙁 That left us with just two lambs, a ewe and a ram (which Stuart castrated so is now a wether). As our original ram is not the father of the ewe lamb, we’re keeping her so we’ll have one more breeder, leaving us with just the wether to eat. And so what might have been as many as five lambs to eat this year was reduced to one, and that is what we’ll eat.

It’s these vagaries of supply that we lose touch with when our only connection to the meat we eat is through the butcher or the supermarket. Have you ever thought about how many lambs it took for your annual consumption of cutlets? Chicken thighs? Pork belly? And who eats all the parts you don’t like or know how to cook? I’ll be in a much more knowledgeable position as the year progresses to tell you what a smallholder can produce for home consumption in a year, and also which cuts become the real treasures when they’re only enjoyed once or twice in the entire year.

Roast chicken used to be an annual event, not a weekly one. And there’s a good reason for it – it’s bad maths (in both global and domestic economies) to eat too many chickens, and good maths to eat lots of eggs instead. We won’t be killing the goose, we’ll be collecting the golden eggs. Only surplus roosters that grow from eggs hatched by the broody bantams will be eaten here on the farm, which means very little chicken in our diet. And when you think about how many lives we take for consumption, one cow goes a hell of a lot further than a chook.

An exciting aspect of this adventure is that I’ll be butchering whole carcasses myself with Stuart’s help. I figure I need to so that I understand the cuts better before sending subsequent carcasses to the butcher with my cut sheet so we can have confidence in what we sell. I butchered our first pig last month and it was fascinating and extremely useful to understand more deeply how many pigs it takes to sustain a household of omnivores. Next up is a cow, which I’ve been sternly warned to have quartered at the abattoir to make it possible to handle!

In short, I’m hoping that through our year of what we propose will be a sustainable amount of meat eating in an ethical, smallholder system, we’ll be able to demonstrate how much meat (and the diversity of cuts and animals) is sustainable for the planet and its many inhabitants. We expect to continue our habit of roughly 50% vegetarian dinners, and of course small portions of meat at omnivorous mealtimes. In fact we’re starting the year with nothing but a slab of our bacon in the fridge as we wait for the next slaughter, so are looking at a purely vegetarian couple of weeks, which is fine with us, and a great season for divine salads full of nuts and berries!

But you don’t have to live on the land to eat like you do. Hopefully this will be a model for city dwellers and country folk alike, because we’re all living on the same planet. Here’s to a tasty 2013!

A Happy Day at Polyface Farms

Polyface. It’s a name that initially sounded a bit wrong to me – I’m thinking ‘two-faced’ here – but one that we hold in our non-Cartesian selves as ‘Mecca: √’.

It really starts in the beautiful historic downtown of Staunton, Virginia, where a couple of organically-minded cafes and grocers stock Polyface produce. We went into Cranberry’s Grocery and not only secured some luscious Polyface bacon and a big, tender skirt steak, but also organic, unhomogenised milk in a returnable glass bottle and a hunk of raw milk cheese from a local dairy. Raw milk and its products are regulated by state in the US, and the movement seems to be gaining more traction all the time.

How I'd love to see this on our shop shelves in Victoria!

The next morning after a farmer’s brekky of bacon, eggs and day-old sourdough, we drove down locals-only side roads to get to Polyface, which is just a bit southwest of Staunton. As we passed a couple of poultry CAFOs I reflected on what it must have been like for Joel Salatin, the ethical, sustainable pioneer of the region, in his early years as a ‘lunatic farmer’.

Poultry CAFO not far from Polyface

Then I got distracted by how beautiful every single piece of land is there, and how much water there is, and how fertile it is… [NB 20 years in Victoria, Australia has given me a slight drought-twitch].

wildflowers everywhere

And then we were there. We were actually there! But would it live up to our expectations? After all, Joel Salatin is the man who convinced us (from a stage, unawares) that our dream to move to the bush needn’t only be a self-sufficiency opt-out, but one that could help us be part of changes to the food system through contributions as primary producers, and the capacity to earn (some of) a living while doing that.

Stuart has read many of Joel’s books, whereas I, mid-PhD, have only skimmed. As we walked around the property he captioned my view, which was an excellent substitute for a personal tour by Joel, which is currently not an option (I think largely do to over-popularity and his need to farm!). But Polyface has an open-door policy – anyone can come onto the property and wander around to see how they do things – and the farm shop is open Mon-Sat 9-12 (and into the afternoon on Saturday).

We wandered in, unsure of where to start, as the many structures have a similar aspect of charming rural decay – Stuart reminded me of Joel’s credo that a farm that’s too tidy is probably not profitable. Judging by what we saw, the Salatins must be doing okay. 🙂

The first hoop house had rabbits and chickens working together to create fertile soil for planting while fattening up for the table.

Rabbits & chickens eating, pooing & growing

Next we found one of the many barns with the cows’ feeding system on pulleys next to stacks of hay. They winter the cows here, throwing layers of mulch in with the cow manure and sprinkles of corn occasionally. In spring, the cows head out and the pigs come in to turn it all, making a rich compost for crops. Talk about harnessing the power of your livestock.

Cow-feeding system on pulleys

We found some of the pigs in one of them doing their job, or perhaps taking a little break from it…

Nearby we found a couple of sows with their new litters – they farrow in large pens with plenty of nesting material (hay), which not only creates a warm, cosy environment for the new piglets, but makes them less susceptible to crushing by careless new mamas, as was explained to us by one of the former Polyface interns.

Next up, a stroll out into the paddocks to see the meat birds – turkeys and chickens. The young turkeys were contained with mobile electric fencing, and the chickens in ‘tractors’ that are moved regularly to fresh grass. As with any such system (we’ve had the same in our suburban backyards for over a decade), the chooks eat bugs, and weeds and fertilise the soil while getting much of the omega-rich grass into them that gives free range eggs their distinctive deep orange yolks.

Turkeys in the verdant pastures of Virginia
Chook tractors

I loved the ‘eggmobiles’ in the middle of the fields with their noisy, happy layers in and around. It’s a clever system, and one we look forward to implementing on Jonai Farm.


Eggmobile interior

Another highlight was seeing the pigs out in the forest, where as with pasture pigs, they’re rotated regularly. These are very happy pigs, let me tell you, which certainly explains that delicious bacon.

Happy as pigs in a forest 🙂

In one of the structures we found the farm cook – he’s here for four months a year to feed all the hard workers a hearty dinner, usually 24 or 25 people a night. That day he was cold smoking some bacon on the mobile smoker, a huge contraption he told he us he also cooks whole pigs on. Yet another good design for us to implement in Eganstown…

Mobile smoker

We did get to meet Joel briefly, having seen him zooming around in his famous hat on an ATV directing the farm’s many activities earlier. I told him ‘hello’ from Alla at the Lakehouse and that she’d said, ‘may your carrots grow straight’, which is one of Joel’s blessings. He offered his blessings back to her and the Daylesford community, and smiled to hear his influence on us. I gather he hears that a lot actually, as he handles fans like us with affable humility.

The Jonai with Joel Salatin 🙂

We bought each of the kids a Polyface t-shirt (we rarely capitulate to such requests, but this was Polyface!) about the ‘pigness of the pig’ and being ‘future lunatic farmers’.

Mid-tour, we headed back to the RockVan for a quick sandwich of Polyface ham, raw milk cheese and lettuce from Nate & Lizzie’s neighbour in Front Royal they’d given us as a parting gift. After the overwhelming amount of industrial, processed food we’ve seen (and eaten) on this trip, it was a very homely and grounding meal.

Lunatic ham & cheese sandwich

As we approached the farm shop for a few more delectables, we found a crew of local farmers and Polyface interns just finishing the morning’s chicken butchering – 360 birds that day. Unlike so many kids (and adults) who can’t bear to think of where their food comes from, Atticus immediately asked if we could have chicken for dinner.

We bought one of the ‘Freedom Rangers’ already cut up, as I don’t have my cleavers with me, and enjoyed a spectacular dinner of fried chicken up high in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Joel’s philosophy that ‘food production should be aromatically and aesthetically pleasing’ is certainly evident at Polyface. Another bit of wisdom came from Atticus after we visited the pigs in the forest, when he remarked, ‘Farms are about two things: food and fun.’ So long as we keep framing plenty of hard work as fun, I think we may indeed be raising our own ‘future lunatic farmer’.

How do you do it? On good cooking and finding time.

This is not a post to make others feel guilty about what you’re not doing, though it may have that unintended effect on some. I apologise in advance to any who take it that way. But while we have a quick look at the life of the Jonai, here’s a brief bit of background:

I was raised in a family with two working parents who outsourced most domestic labour, including quite a lot of what cooking was actually done (very little, in truth). Our ‘junk cupboard’ (full of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Chips Ahoy, Ruffles potato chips, etc) was precisely half the size of the ‘real food’ pantry, which was stocked with tins of vegies, soup and other highly refined items. There was minimal fresh produce in the house beyond bananas and apples. My mum hated to cook, but would occasionally produce a dinner of pork chops cooked to cardboard consistency (to ensure we didn’t get salmonella) and mashed potatoes (made from real potatoes). Many dinners were toast or a bowl of Cheerios we made ourselves, though we could sometimes convince Ma to make french toast, waffles or pancakes (from Krusteaz). She also made oatmeal to order as we all chilled out in front of the tv at night.

Stuart, on the other hand, was raised in a family where fresh food was paramount and readily available. Hardly any refined foods sullied their pantry, and his mother was a steady and plentiful cook of quality meat and three veg. Neither of our fathers cooked, though mine would man the barbecue at parties (Stuart’s still doesn’t like to do so) and mine also taught my mum to whip up a damn fine southern-style fried breakfast (he’s from Alabama).

The point is, I certainly wasn’t raised with any cooking skills, let alone positive food memories from childhood, except for the beautiful restaurants my folks would take us to during our regular travels. Our housekeeper did teach me a lifelong love of quesadillas, which I have passed on to my own children, though with many added vegies and my own refried beans.

So here we are, late thirtysomethings, both working full time, with three children. I work as well as doing my PhD, and this year my role as President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) sees me interstate on average one night a week. Yet this year is the year I am learning to make sourdough, it is a year we are slaughtering chooks and eating them, a year our garden has proven extremely bounteous (and we rent, by the way), and we manage to put a home cooked meal on the table nearly every night. How do we do that, we’re often asked?

I’ve written plenty on the importance of skills – competence is the friend of efficiency. The other thing I’ve written about is the pleasure of competence, and the need to take pleasure in the everyday, including ‘chores’ such as cooking, gardening and tending the chooks. Finally, I’ve also pointed to the benefits of teamwork and the further efficiency of a larger household to reduce waste, a point supported by last year’s report on household waste, which showed that smaller households waste more, though large share houses that are not families still tend to waste more as well. Just briefly then, here’s how we do it:

  1. We don’t do exhaustion. Our philosophy is that everything is achievable if it’s a priority, and cooking when you’re tired can actually be a way of relaxing if that’s how you see it. For Stuart, this extends to foraging on the way home, doing a bit of harvesting or staking tomato plants, etc, and for me it extends to finely chopping a number of ingredients for a quickly fried Thai basil, chili garlic fish instead of ordering takeaway. This is not to say we never get tired. We do, but perhaps we think of it differently to others, and reasonably expect ourselves to still cook a meal for the family, which may be something as simple as rice and avocado on a really lazy night. (NB We do order takeaway sometimes – perhaps once a month.)

  2. We share the shopping, and make do with what’s in the house when necessary. Stuart pops into the Vic Market once or twice a week on his lunch break to pick up mostly fruit or a bit of meat. I stop in at the butcher, Italian grocer, organic grocer or fruit shop in our local shopping street after dropping kids at school on a day when I work at home, or on the way home from working in the city. When we’re really low on fresh food and too busy to go get some, we raid our freezer, which is always full of stock, homemade pasties and sausage rolls, and frozen meat for ’emergencies’. Plus we keep a lot of beans, both dried and tinned, for quick and simple meals. Having chooks means we always have eggs on hand, and my breadmaking obsession keeps us in bread!

  3. Although I’m the primary and more passionate daily cook, we share the cooking as well. Like I said, if we’re very busy, sometimes the meals are incredibly simple: rice and avocado, pasta with a jar of passata from last summer’s harvest, lamb chops with roast potato and a simple salad, or Stuart’s stir fry, much beloved by the children. When there’s time to do something more, we do. I love nothing more than having time to get into the kitchen by 5pm so I can serve something delectable between 6:00 and 7pm. Sometimes I’m overly ambitious and dinner is late – in which case I let the children graze on nuts and fruit to tide them over.

  4. But you even make bread during the week? Yes, and I can do this because I believe in a lackadaisical approach that makes it possible. You can see my post on how I wander through the kitchen, giving a dough a quick knead here and there, before letting it rise overnight to pop into the oven when we get up. This takes me no more time than someone else might spend reading the paper or watching the news (in fact, much less). Much of my bread is fairly flat because I leave it to rise for too long – it’s still totally scrumptious! Stuart also regularly brews beer of an evening, and does so quickly and efficiently after more than a decade of practice.

  5. What about all the preserving? Harvesting and processing the masses of plums, tomatoes, pumpkins, olives, apricots, and more is one of the pleasures of our ‘down time’, though some of it can be rather tedious as well (ie pitting plums!). We do most of this on the weekends, though Stuart, who never rests, will often do some after work as I make dinner (does this cause some tension in the kitchen occasionally? Yes. ;-))

  6. How do you manage to have a social life, take children to lessons and sport, and do any exercise, etc? Okay, a confession: I’m a little allergic to exercise. When I commute to the city I try to ride my bike (8km), so I get exercise that way sometimes, but admittedly not enough. Stuart rides every day, rain or shine, so does about 20km a day. He also brings crazy amounts of stuff home on his bike, so perhaps he is a little superhuman and not everyone is inclined to do what he does. We socialise plenty, but often by having people over or going to their houses for dinner. Our kids are not heavily scheduled, though Antigone now does gymnastics (shared between 3 families, so only have to drive once/three weeks) and piano (the teacher comes to us). The boys aren’t keen to do lessons, and we don’t push. We’d rather have more homely time here, cooking, reading and playing, which we think will give them what we regard as more important life skills than many other things we could outsource, though we’re not knocking the value of those other things – they’re just not priorities for us.

So how can everyone ‘find time’ to cook more delicious and nutritious foods? First of all, through practice. The ability to use limited time well requires skills. Skills lead to competence, which is pleasurable. It feels great to know you’ve dashed in with a few ingredients and knocked up a lovely meal for the family, which leads to you wanting to do it again. Rushing in and throwing a frozen or takeaway dinner on the table doesn’t feel that great, but you’ll probably do it again if you don’t know how to cook something better, leading to a dreadful cycle of bad food and related guilt/bad feelings. It’s a no-win cycle, but skills are the way out.

An important part of this skill-building is reframing cooking and food shopping as ‘fun’ and ‘relaxing’, leading to ‘delicious’. It’s also great to spend time as a family doing the harvesting and cooking – we think it’s ‘good parenting’ to cook with your kids. 🙂 Ultimately, the creative process of imagining what’s in the garden/fridge/pantry and how you might transform it into a meal to nurture yourself and others is deeply and viscerally joyful, in my experience. ‘scuse me while I go knead the bread…

Check out other awesome food posts over at Food Renegade!

A Rant: Raising Chickens is Good (or, on the Stupidity of Industrial Agriculture)

I wrote this poem last year, but given my recent posts on why and how we raise and eat our chooks, as well as other sustainable homely practices, I thought I’d share it here. Warning – this is not intended to be scholarly – it’s an ’emoticons off’ rant.

A rant, or
F*&king stupid people f*&king up our world not an ounce of sense or personal responsibility wanting to own dogs & cats but not allow productive small animals like chickens stupid pointless people need to f*&k off now turning me into a bloody misanthrope when I really want to like people (that is not the poem).
16 July 2009

It started with 3 chickens
3 clucking
bug & weed-eating
fertilising chickens
in one suburban

They cost her 7 dollars apiece
and gave her
2169 eggs
in their pleasant quarter-acre lives
worth a conservative 1100 dollars
leaving her 1079 dollars to spend
on organic fruit
she wasn’t already growing in her own

The chickens
meant she needed no
no herbicides
& needn’t pay for any
fertilisers for the food she was growing
in her own

She called the chickens
John, Deere, and Tractor.

Over the fence lived
a couple with a dog
a bright green lawn
a 4 wheel drive
a sedan
roses and no food growing
in their

The husband worked
for agri-business
who’d been stung
when their bagged spinach product
killed four
left 35 with
acute kidney failure
due to e coli contamination
in their Salinas Valley
industrial scale
vegetable fields.

So clutching his values
his greed and his fear
he sat in his boardroom
and agreed
that a scorched earth strategy
was the only way
to ensure that he
and all his successors
could live in good conscience
that they would never again
be held liable
for what was contracted
from once-living products
now wrapped in sterile plastic
in somebody’s

And so
if a squirrel ran along the edge of a field
everything within 10 metres
had to be
the pest-deterring
planted by the organic grower
in the next

And then he went home
and he heard a strange sound
not really unpleasant
but definitely
belonging to
something un-hygienic
in somebody else’s

He peered over the fence
and stared in shock/rage
at John, Deer and Tractor.
3 clucking chickens
alive, eating and shitting
in the neighbour’s

It didn’t take long
to garner the cries
of the neighbourhood association
who contacted the council
who knocked on the door
of the woman with chickens
in her

This will not do
they said
you must be rid of these animals
who have no place in the suburbs
if you want to have livestock
move to a

Your chickens
they said
are unsanitary
and a temptation to
the dogs
in others’

And by the way
you must stop dumping your food waste
in that bin up the back
it attracts rats
and foxes and possums
in droves
and your grey water system
well it just won’t do
it contaminates all of those vegies
you grow
here in this outrageously

You must buy food that
we know is safe
you can get it at Coles
where it has been sprayed with
47 chemicals to ensure its
and bagged in clear plastic
so you can see it is safe
though you must wash it at home
just to be sure
it hasn’t been tainted somewhere
along the industrial line
by some unhygienic worker
who probably looks and acts
a lot like you and your

Do you eat chicken? Could you kill one?

The recent story from the UK about the teacher who was pressured by parents to resign after slaughtering the school’s farm lamb because their children were ‘traumatised’ provoked exactly the outrage you probably expect from me on this topic. The same week, Jamie Oliver spoke of the importance of teaching children where their food comes from, focusing primarily on health rather than culture, sustainability and competence.

So here’s the story of the Jonai family raising chooks for eggs, and slaughtering and eating them when they stop laying.

A little background: we’ve had chooks since about 1997, primarily for the eggs, but also because of their contribution to a healthy garden system – they dig, eat insects and weeds, and fertilise extremely well. We move them around the garden, planting out the spot they vacate to great effect. Our system is based on the principles of permaculture, though we are fairly unorthodox in most of our gardening efforts. The one aspect of permaculture to which we are totally committed is to maintain a closed cycle – no organic waste leaves our property, which is an average sized suburban block in Melbourne.

The first few years we had chooks, we lost them occasionally to foxes or disease, and continually replenished the flock with new pullets. Then came the year Antigone brought home nine chicks that her kinder had hatched – our first time raising them from so young. Of course, probability being what it is, we ended up with a few roosters, which you’re not allowed to keep in the suburbs. The dilemma of what to do with them had an obvious, if not easy, solution – we would have to slaughter and eat them. Neither of us had ever killed our own meat, though we’d always said we should be willing to do so if we were going to be meat eaters. At last, here was our chance to practice what we preached.

The first time was definitely the hardest, but each time since has not actually been a great deal easier, insofar as it’s difficult to take a life. Roosters are truly magnificent creatures, and it seems a shame to cull them so young and glorious. But of course, all those carefully wrapped breasts and thighs in the supermarket were once lovely young (mistreated, usually) creatures, and they’re tastiest while they’re still young.

Stuart slaughters them by laying the chooks gently on a chopping block, patting their head all the while so they remain very calm and content. And then quickly, down comes the cleaver, the chook is beheaded, Stuart holds its wings so the nervous system’s reaction doesn’t result in that awful sight of a headless chook running around the yard, and then the bird is hung from the monkey bars to drain the blood.

We’ve experimented with both plucking and skinning, and unlike the intrepid Zoe’s preference, we prefer plucking so that we still have the luscious fatty skin on, which is especially important if you’re roasting a younger bird. But even with boilers, we pluck as neither of us really likes the sensation of skinning a still-warm animal.

We both find the eviscerating quite unpleasant, especially if we’re trying to keep a whole bird to roast, which requires that someone reach inside and pull the guts out – it’s rather blech. With the boilers, we cheat and cut them open at the breastbone with sharp Chinese scissors and then sort of scoop the organs out. The kids are fascinated by sorting the organs and feet on a piece of cardboard, and we either save those bits to feed to the neighbour’s dog or compost them, though we have eaten the livers from some of the roosters.

With the young roosters, I make roast chicken, chicken arrabiata and other such tasty dinners, but the old girls aren’t called boilers for nothing. And so Australia Day 2010 was our first experience of culling non-layers and making the most of them. We explained the plan to the children, who were initially a bit sad that we were going to kill the chooks, but after we reiterated the rationale for keeping, slaughtering and eating our own animals, with details they’ve heard before about the horrors of factory farming, they were back on board with the project. They feel sad about killing the chooks – I do too – but I think it’s irresponsible for omnivores to use that sadness as a justification for not exposing children (and ourselves) to the realities of what’s behind meat eating. I really think only vegans have a reasonable position from which to oppose exposure to animal slaughter.

The killing went as usual, and this time Atticus was game to help me pluck them, which made a mother proud. 🙂 The evisceration was interesting as we’d never seen the eggs inside a chook before. Zoe’s got great photos, but you can see in mine that there were some large and small – we worked out that one of the chooks was in fact still laying once or twice a week but had set up a secret nest in a little-seen corner. We were a bit sad about this discovery, but figured she would have stopped completely like the other two soon enough.

Three chooks filled my biggest stock pot, and after simmering for about six hours, we had a deeply flavoursome 18 litres of clear stock. I pulled all the meat off and finely minced some, mixed it with prosciutto, ricotta and reggiano, and the kids and I made masses of tortellini for that night’s dinner & to freeze. The resulting feast included tortellini en brodo, and a tomato and bread salad made with a variety of cherry tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden and the stale remnants of my last loaf of homemade sourdough, dressed in olive oil pressed from last year’s harvest with the Binks. For starters we enjoyed that day’s fresh loaf of sourdough with Stuart’s olives and a tapenade. The sense of homely virtue and connection to the natural world as we enjoyed this dinner was profound, and I reflected on the fact that it’s only fairly recently in our history that we’ve lost these daily rhythms, skills and ensuing satisfaction.

Our society will almost certainly never go back to the majority of us raising our own meat. However, probably more of us than realise could do the sort of small scale livestock raising that we have in our backyard, and growers could certainly go back to or redevelop sustainable models of production, such as if egg producers were to slaughter unwanted roosters and sell them for the meat, and then sell the old non-layers as boilers, as well as the obvious need to raise chickens (and pigs) in free range environments. In the meanwhile, it’s a very simple decision to refuse to buy factory farmed meat of any type, which gives producers the message that these systems will no longer be tolerated by the public.

As for squeamishness about the killing of animals, and especially about children witnessing or taking part in the slaughtering and butchering processes, it’s obvious we have this backwards. In the UK case where children witnessed the slaughtering of the lamb, some parents actually claimed their children would need therapy to overcome the trauma. I would argue the high rates of people seeking therapy is rather about not witnessing the food chain, it’s about our lost connections – to the land, its plants and animals, to each other, and to the past. People who are engaged each day in creating things for their basic needs – by gardening, raising and slaughtering animals, cooking, building, repairing and maintaining a home and its contents – by and large enjoy a strong sense of competence, sometimes mastery. (My interviews to date support this claim across class, culture and generational differences.)

And it’s not just a sense of competence that is gained by working for your food in this way. The respect engendered by having to face your dinner and take its life in order to sustain yours cannot be overestimated. Again, my research around frugality has certainly highlighted the strong drive to waste nothing that arises from both a fear of scarcity but also a true understanding of the value of what you’ve got. And of course my own experience has been precisely that. Understanding and respecting our food sources is a great motivator to reduce our consumption – especially of the high impact foods like most meats.

Yet we’ve drifted so far from this basic principle of living thoughtfully in the world that too many people think it’s reasonable to insist that they should not be exposed to the realities of food production. It is indeed sad to kill animals. But the majority of us choose to eat them, and to eat them we must kill them, and so we must learn to do so in the most humane and sustainable manner. If every omnivore killed a chook even once in their lives, we might not be facing the serious ethical and environmental issues we have today as a result of overconsumption, and we might not be suffering the sense of disconnection and isolation that is the real trauma in our society.

Bring back competence and mastery in the everyday.

(This post is a part of Fight Back Friday @ Food Renegade)