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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.

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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.