Yesterday I got up at 3am and prepared myself for a shift at the Bega small species abattoir. This wasn't the first time I've worked at the abattoir - I've been doing a shift a week there for the last few months, gradually becoming more and more involved in the running of the co-op. But yesterday was different because it was the morning we were to process the first of our Autumn Farm chickens.
|Autumn Farm chicken house number 1|
As we loaded the chickens into their crates the night before, we'd said thank you to each one as we held it. Olive calmly explained to them what was about to happen - that they'd be taken to the abattoir where their heads would be removed. She thought that this was a reasonable thing to do, given that they couldn't understand her, and even if they could, they wouldn't know what an abattoir was. Fair point…
|Piles of rocks with grass growing between, we discovered, are snack bars, playgrounds and nesting areas, all in one: our chickens LOVE them, and luckily we have quite a few on our land|
While the kids were matter of fact, Pearl and I were a little more thoughtful. There isn't a word to describe the way we felt, we decided, as we drove our 98 chickens to the abattoir. Those chickens we'd spent the last 8 weeks caring for, watching, being entertained by. Those chickens we'd tended to each and every day, ensuring that they had water and food and fresh grass and clean sleeping quarters. Those chickens we'd occasionally carried, one by one, to their house, when they'd lost their way because we'd moved it a bit too far (they're not the sharpest tools in the shed).
|Autumn Farm Cornish Cross meat chickens, around 6 weeks old, feasting on sunflower seeds|
Our feelings were mixed, for sure. We were so conscious of the fact that we were sending them to their deaths. But this was always to be the case. At the same time we were thanking them, we were also excited by the prospect of providing our community with good food, ethically and responsibly raised. It was strange. The culmination of so so much work and anxiety.
There were times I'd worried that I would cry at the abattoir the morning they were killed. But in the moment, I just watched, feeling calm and believing that we had given them the best possible life and death. Not to say that any of this was easy, but it was real, and so completely true to our ethics, that it just felt right.
|1 week old chicks going crazy for end-of-season ruby chard pulled out of the veggie garden|
We are so lucky to have such a facility so close to our home. A small, co-operatively run abattoir, run and operated by growers. We respect the animals that we process, because we raised them and cared for them. We process by hand, so the animals are killed quickly and efficiently. We gut them by hand so we can inspect the intestines for abnormalities and disease. It is intimate, and it is real, and we as growers are connected to the lives that we take in order that we can make a living.
3 hours after they were slaughtered, our chickens were picked up from the abattoir door by our customers, who also bought livers and feet and necks and hearts. We were excited that people were keen to use the whole birds, and they were excited to be able to purchase locally and ethically grown birds.
|8 week old chickens (affectionately known as "the fatsos") enjoying silverbeet. The longer life (most meat chickens are slaughtered at 32 days) and varied diet makes for a tastier and better-textured bird|
It was a long and massive day, both physically and emotionally. We returned home, exhausted, not to a congratulatory meal and a glass of wine, but to leftovers and another 200 chickens requiring our care and attention. And it was OK. Because we've made this choice. We've chosen this life.
When people ask me "is it worth it?" I ask, "how to you measure 'worth'?" If you measure worth in monetary terms then the answer is definitely "no". You don't go into pastured chickens to make your fortune. But if you, like us, measure worth in terms of positive contribution and engagement with your local community, and contributing to local food systems and ecologically sound, regenerative farming practices, and teaching and spending time with your kids, and learning and teaching and growing and eating wholesome, real food, and making money from something positive that you believe in, then the answer is "yes - absolutely".