We slaughtered the chickens yesterday. Chicken harvest, as folks call it, a term that’s always bothered me. Sure, it’s a harvest, but there’s a difference between harvesting kale and killing a bird. Killing a living creature with blood and lungs and a windpipe is significantly more complicated than snapping off a leaf of chard or picking a basket of peas. So let’s call things by their names.
The first time I killed a chicken it felt like a really big deal. It was back at the Farm School, and the day had a somber, important feeling about it. For many of us, it was the first time we’d purposely killed a creature we’d raised, with our own two hands. I was nervous about it, and the actual throat-slitting felt alien and difficult. Rightly so.
This time it felt entirely different. My good friend Monica, who has killed chickens many times in many different settings, came over to help out. It was the perfect day for it – not so cold that our fingers froze as we gutted and plucked, not so hot that it was gross and sticky. I’ve been giving away birds, so we only had seven left, which took us about three hours. A good morning’s work.
This is how we do it: We invert the chicken in a killing cone, attached to a tree, with her head hanging down toward the ground. We grasp her head firmly and make two clean slits on either side of the throat, letting the blood rush out. The quicker and sharper and deeper the stroke the better, as the aim is to kill as quickly and cleanly as possible. Sharp knives are essential.
I don’t enjoy killing chickens, and I’m certainly no expert. It’s not the kind of thing you pick up perfectly on the first try; the only way to get better is to keep practicing. It’s not fun, and it’s not pretty. It’s not romantic, the way planting and harvesting can be. There’s no easy way to spin it. Blood gushes onto your hands and gets on your pants. But it also isn’t a monumental thing. On small-scale diversified farms, killing is just as fundamental as putting seeds in the ground. A hard and practical part of life. In the scheme of things, killing chickens you’ve raised yourself, in the best way you know how, with some reverence for their small lives and some acknowledgment of exactly what you’re doing – well, it strikes me as a good idea.
There are a lot of important, complex, philosophical and ethical questions around the domestication and killing of animals. I’m not trying to belittle those, or ignore them. But here’s what I know: killing the chickens yesterday wasn’t that big of a deal. Those chickens have given us delicious eggs and plenty of entertainment for two years. But they’re not producing well anymore, or adding to the health and productivity of the farm. This is the part of the deal; this is what I signed up for.
For me, there is no emotional ambiguity, no guilt. There are six stew hens in the freezer, and they’ll make wonderful soup and stock. All the chicken innards we pulled out – lungs, hearts, intestines – are in the compost now, and eventually they’ll make new rich dirt, grow something. I don’t love slaughtering day the way I love pulling carrots and mulching beds with golden straw. That’s good; that’s the way it should be.
But there’s a satisfaction that comes from a job well done, a careful and thoughtful execution of a necessary task. It’s the same well-earned exhaustion, the same pride in good work, whether it’s after planting a quarter acre of tomatoes or slaughtering and gutting seven stew hens. Those chickens will feed me and my community for many months, and I can eat them knowing they were killed in the most humane way I know how, that they were plucked and gutted and cleaned with care and intention. Farming is dirty work, and there is nothing straightforward or simple about it. I’m glad it was me and Monica killing those birds behind the house yesterday morning, talking and laughing and trading stories, taking care, giving thanks, working hard under the grey March sky, sleeves rolled up in the raw early spring air.