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
egg-laying
bug & weed-eating
fertilising chickens
in one suburban
backyard.

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
backyard.

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

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
backyard.

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
fridge.

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

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

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
backyard.

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
backyard.

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
farm.

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

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
farm-like
backyard.

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
sterility
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
unsanitary
backyard.

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)