Apifera Farm - where art, story, animals & woman merge. Home to artist Katherine Dunn

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Thursday, September 04, 2014

To harvest...to butcher

Take note: this is not a prompt to debate eating meat or not eating meat in the comment section.  You can do that on your own blog.

Yesterday was butcher day. We harvested three ewe lambs. The angry non meat eaters that troll the internet looking for places to get on a soap box want me to use the word, "butcher"... So this is for them-we butchered them. It was a good, quick death. I know this because I watched it.

Some people get uncomfortable reading about anything to do with killing an animal, and I understand this. When we knew we were moving to the farm, I decided if I was going to continue to eat meat regularly, I owed it to myself and the animal to be present with it at its death, as well as it's birth and in between days. I am not judging anyone who eats store bought meat-not everyone can live on a farm, or chooses too, and not everyone wants to raise animals. And we do eat meat from time to time from our nearby store or local butcher, or other farm friends.

But I don't want to debate where you get your food, or what you choose to eat. That is all up to you. I want to describe what it is like to be present at butcher day-and what goes into the routine of the days leading up to butcher day. Of course this has changed since eleven years ago when we had our first group of sheep butchered. That was a very uncomfortable day–and it still is. It will always be uncomfortable-just like taking a dying animal into be euthanized-you know, and they don't. You question your motives, as you should-or at least I do year in and year out. But I come back to the same decision each time-I am part of Nature, not above it. I choose to be within the food chain, not standing outside it. I think Nature has given me a pretty good path to follow-just like it gave all the other creatures a path to follow to survive.

{Graphic statements follow in this paragraph}
I researched through my vets, hunters, butchers, farm friends, what and how the animals should be killed. Different animals are butchered differently. The sheep have their throats cut-right through the vertebrae. It is over before it starts. They feel nothing and are instantly dead. But I question this every year, and every year I ask my vets again about it. Would it be better to shoot them in the head first? No. Sheep have small heads, the bullet can easily go astray, causing more panic and injury to both sheep and butcher [A sick animal is another story]. If done properly, the throat cut through the vertebrae is instant, and it is over. I couldn't watch it the first few years. It is a process one goes through as a farmer-the butchering. I've heard this from every farmer I know. But I just feel I owe it to them to be there, present.

We are lucky to have a mobile butcher who comes to the farm and does the butchering here. If I had to haul animals to a butcher facility, I'm not sure I would raise animals for meat anymore. I do everything in my power to make the butcher day seem like normal. I separate out the few sheep we will harvest from the flock-often if they are rams they are separated out at 3 months, and harvest happens at 5-6 months. The week before the butcher date, I bring them in at night into the same stall that the butcher will enter to grab each sheep. I have a morning routine with them, and on the butcher morning, they have the same routine. My main job before the butcher comes that morning is to be calm and create a sense of the ordinary for the animal-making it as stress free on me, and creatures. If I am stressed, they are stressed.

I hang white prayer flags in the stall, and the night before, I sit for a very short time and thank them for their good work and sacrifice.

The week before, I am always agitated. I was talking to another farm friend who said it would be the day she wasn't agitated that she would be upset with herself. I know I will always feel anxious in the days leading up to the slaughter. The actual day-it is so fast, and they are gone. It also helps to have a butcher you can talk to and feel confidant with. He too wants a quick, smooth kill. These are good, hard working people. They love animals too and want to do their best. Interestingly enough, my butcher doesn't eat much pork-because he says he kills so many. But he hunts deer and eats lamb and beef. So everyone deals with their own individual nature as they see fit. Everyone comes to that individual nature by years of experiencing their own life.

The first years, I didn't look much at the dead animal. But that has changed. I inspect the skin and certain organs out of curiosity. I am the one who cleans up their blood. It is a very beautiful, bright red and it coagulates quickly. And then the chickens eat it.

This was the first year that we had Marcella during a harvest day. She was behind a gate with her goat and pig clan and could hear the butcher's voice as he worked and talked with Martyn. She was not afraid, but she paced back and forth quite a bit. I sat with her once all the sheep were dead-it is my job to help the butcher catch each sheep-when that is over, my job is done. When the butcher drove off, I watered down the area where the blood was, and then let Marcella out. The blood leaves a smell for a good couple of days- I'm sure longer for her. She came out and really checked out the entire scene and the barnyard. But while the butchering was going on, you could tell she sensed it. There is no sound of distress during the butchering, since their is no distress as the animals die instantly. I realized if there was a predator somewhere, she was going to smell it. It just was an example of how smart their noses are, and their instincts.

I have cried on butcher day in the past, when it is over. But now I usually have a day of tears in the weak prior. So it is on my mind-it is a conscious decision I make to kill an animal to eat it. It is a conflict to love animals, nurture them-and kill them. I get it. Because I live it. But its a conflict to raise a puppy and send it off with a stranger. I don't judge any kind of eater-be it lion, dog, coyote, hawk, cat, worm vegan or meat eater-for killing another creature-either vegetable or animal. When I was a vegetarian for about 7 years, I began to feel that I had actually judged Nature. I had taken myself out of her perfectly sound and wise food system. While I realize I am currently at the top of the food chain, I don't take it lightly, and never will-and that is why I go to the extremes I do before, during and after harvest day. That is why I always check in with myself, asking

"Do I still want to raise an animals this year to eat it?" I hope I never stop asking it.

It is our ritual to eat the fresh liver of the animal the night of the harvest. We sauté it in butter with onions and salt and pepper. It is the smoothest, clearest liver I've ever seen. It always has been since our first harvest. There is an overwhelming pride that comes over me when I hold the liver, and then eat it. I am not eating it alone, it is in partnership with the animal that sacrificed it. Years ago when we first started farming, I heard a Seattle chef on NPR talk about how cooking with a meat you have reared and killed is a different kind of cooking. I understand that completely. It is a feeling of pride, reverence and gratitude-and yes, joy. A celebration in the meal, a ritual of a toast with wine to the animal, and to Nature and the land for feeding that animal so we can now eat.

A very angry internet troll wrote me once, anonymously of course, and told me they thought I was a hypocrite, helping old animals and then eating young 'baby' lambs [they never get their facts right]. She told me I did it out of 'greed' [this was laughable-we are lucky to break even on the small number of sheep we rear to eat or sell]. They demanded I post photos of the slaughtered lamb. I am not PETA, posting such photos would do meat eater or vegan no good-it would not help a person come to an educated understanding of what harvesting an animal is really like. For it is not just the moment the throat is cut-it is the combined moments leading up to its death- the birth, through its growth and the eventual day of butchering that lead to what it feels like to look down at the same animal bleeding out. When we first started, I couldn't look. It is a process of understanding, acceptance and realizations of life and death within the actual hierarchy of Nature that allowed me to look. This same troll said they prayed that someday a pig eats me. I said I'd be honored. Why waste my meat? The worms or someone will get me, and her, sooner or later.

Death is not necessarily a bad thing.


Karen said...

Katherine, this is a beautiful post. You honor the animal and you honor your health and well being. What you do is done as beautifully and respectfully as it can be...and then you continue to honor the animal in ritual and how it nourishes your body. Vegetarians are good people ,as well as meat eaters...respect for our personal decisions is often what stands in between. I am a meat eater as well and am always thankful to the animal that brought us our food. I also thank plant life ; they too are living beings...I see no difference. I enjoyed what you have written and stand by you.

Katherine Dunn said...

Thank you for reading Karen and for the thoughtful note. I appreciate your care....

Kate said...

Thank you for sharing this. I'm an animal lover and I was fascinated reading about your experiences.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written Katherine. Our family has made the same decision regarding the meat that we eat after our 14 yr. old son did a report for school on the topic of factory farming. He came home and said he never wanted to eat meat again unless we raised it our selves. So... he's now in the chicken business, and it's very comforting for us to know that the chicken we consume had a great life, and was treated with great care and respect, to the very end ("The very end" meaning all the way to through the final soup.) There is also a wonderful phenomenon that occurs when you are eating food that you raised (we also find this with our maple syrup) which is that you tend to savor every bite, and waste as little as possible. Anyway... you already know all of this... I just wanted you to know I like what you wrote, admire your courage in raising your own food, and even more so, admire your willingness to address, publicly, that nasty little topic of how our food actually gets to our table. Best to you and Marty, Tim

Katherine Dunn said...

Thank you Marty and Tim- and bravo for your son! That is exactly what happened to me back in Mpls- back in the '90's when I was learning about factory farming, and I quit eating meat. I appreciate your comment-thank you!

Sharon Stanley said...

Katherine you always express yourself so beautifully. Anyone who has been an Apifera fan for any length of time knows the care with which you do everything for your loved ones, 2 and 4 legged. The others choose not to understand or take the time to learn and that's their business. Just because something is extremely hard to do doesn't mean it's wrong. You should be so proud of the way you and the dirt farmer run your farm.

mel said...

i just wanted to de-lurk to say a heartfelt thank you for this post. we raised chickens and turkeys for the first time this year and today was The Day -- i've been feeling ill all week, a terrible nervous churning in my tummy over the whole thing. i think i've grieved and doubted and grieved some more....and all the while thinking i'm an utter failure at this homesteading lark because i'm re-thinking my views on eating meat.

our birds had a great life -- they free-ranged, plundering my garden and roosting on the lawn furniture, grazing the good pasture and chasing bugs. still, this has been hard for me...and i didn't even really "like" some of the chickens very much!! :)

i'm still not sure where my feelings will end up - i started off as a flexitarian (wanting to eat only meat we'd grown ourselves) but somewhere along the way into raising these birds, i decided i couldn't eat meat at all. witnessing the start-to-finish, i realized it isn't for me....not something i'd expected when we decided to order those chicks!

anyway, after reading this post this morning, i felt so much better. i'm so grateful to you for writing about it.....i feel less a failure, knowing it's normal to be sad even when i knew going in, how it was going to end.

you've given me lots to think about - thank you.

Katherine Dunn said...

Mel- thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think we can all rethink all of our habits and choices as our lives go one and new experiences take place. I don't think feeling things is 'failing' at all, it's being honest with what works for you at the time-which can change at your discretion. I don't think 'sad' describes the feeling I have the week prior or that day [although I understand that]-what word can I use-reflective anxiety of choice - I guess. I think after 10 years of living this much closer to nature and her cycles, I just feel more and more in sync with the decision.

Corrine at sparkledaysstudio.com said...

Thank you for such a beautiful post about what is a fact of our life in the food chain. The connection to the animal and the dignity with which it is butchered are the important things. The reverence for the food and the gift of the sacrifice and they way you describe it is "real" and important. More of us should experience what farming truly means. xox

Jason Mihalko said...

If only we were all this connected and this thoughtful about the food we consume.

Katherine Dunn said...

Thank you Corrine-for taking time to read and think and comment. Jason-thank you, coming from you that means a lot to me.

Ruth Armitage said...

You go girl. Beautiful post... and thank you for your mentoring as a farmer. Even though I grew up this way, it is different when you are the decision-maker, the one who brings them into the world, the one who nurtures and cares for them day in & day out. Farming is not like having pets. We honor the earth and the animals, often above our own comfort & needs.... we are stewards.

Katherine Dunn said...

Well put Ruth. I was lucky to have one or two sheep mentors, and now a pig mentor, so I am happy to help-I hope Nellie is doing well!

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Thank you for reading! The farm and my art/writing keep me hopping, so might not respond immediately. Thank you for understanding. ~Katherine & Apifera ~