Some Bad Mother-Pluckers

My previous post was about violence against people.  I find it ironic that to account for my weekend activity, this post is about violence against turkeys.

It would be easy to describe this weekend with words like “intense,” “gross,” or “brutal,” but perhaps the best adjective is simply “real.”  The work was hard, humble, and rooted in the simple reality that if we want to eat turkey, this is what it looks like in the best possible light. My friend Hannah and I drove up to Conrad, Montana to help Courtney and Jacob (owners of Prairie Heritage Farm) slaughter their heirloom breed, organic, free-range turkeys just in time for Thanksgiving.  I had heard about the great work that Courtney and Jacob were doing at the AERO conference I attended at the end of October, and just happened to hear they were looking for volunteers to help with the slaughter. Jacob and Courtney are simply beautiful people full of integrity and passion, and I jumped at the chance to get to know them and learn more about their farm.  Knowing it was up her alley, I mentioned the event to Hannah on Thursday night and we drove east in a snowstorm on Friday afternoon.

Early indication of how much "fun" we would be having.

(There are a lot of photos below, some of them are pretty, but most of them are graphic.  If you can’t handle it, be a vegetarian)

I headed over to the farm with Jacob at 5:30am Saturday morning to get the scalder up to temperature and set up for the day.  We hauled water, bleached the gutting table, and fed the turkeys that would be slaughtered on Sunday.

Saturday morning, cold and beautiful on the far northern plains.

I had expected to feel apprehensive, but instead I felt excited to learn and get to work- I was going to participate in my own meat consumption for the first time.  We had 6 or 7 volunteers by 830am and that was enough to get started.  Jacob walked us through the whole process:

Honestly, they are pretty birds- and it's about to get ugly.

The shadow in the window says it all.

In the killing room, they watch you work.

We aimed to kill about 50 birds each day.  The birds for that day were kept inside so we could chase and snatch them in a smaller area (it makes a huge difference), and the snatching was often one of the more hazardous parts.  Turkeys are strong and they are fighting for their lives- they kick, scratch, peck, and flap like they mean to live.  It’s a humbling thing to feel the last few breaths their of life in your hands.

Sam with the snatch. I'm grabbing for the feet. Watch out for flapping wings.

Sam wasn't as bothered as he looks here, but sometimes they spurt when you cut them, and blood on your face does feel a little "intense."

Yours truly with blood on his hands.

Somehow I did well with the catching and killing, and spent more time here than any other station. They kick sporadically for a long time after you slit their throats, and you have to hold the birds tightly so they bleed out properly and don’t kick themselves out of the killing cone.

Holding steady for the last few kicks.

Yeah, we were all actually smiling most of the time.  You don’t think about the act of killing much.  The urgency of the work, the desire to kill the birds as quickly and humanely as possible, and quality of people supporting their belief in local, sustainable, free-range, organic poultry is way more powerful than pity.  This is part of the food system solution.  This is what it is supposed to look like.  In non-organic (“chemical”) farms, the scene is not nearly so rosy.  We would have been wearing respirators and processing thousands of birds on a mechanical assembly line.

Some of the birds were rather large, especially in comparison to 5'2" Hannah.

After bleeding out, we weighed the birds (their “live” weight), then scalded them in preparation for plucking. Surprisingly, I found the plucking to be the hardest physical work.  It was tedious, and the plucking station was awkward.  When available, we found that three people plucking one bird was faster than using the machine.  I plucked for just an hour or two on Saturday afternoon, but was at the plucking station for most of 4 hours on Sunday, and got worked.  We also had 9 geese, which were significantly harder to pluck than turkeys- we would often need to scald the geese twice to be able to pluck them efficiently.  Scalding makes the plucking much easier, unfortunately I didn’t get a good photo of the scalding operation.

Our hosts, and local farming heros, Jacob and Courtney get it done cleaning off a bird.

Mandy and Nate were plucking machines- truly some bad mother pluckers.

Once plucked, the birds passed over to the butchering and evisceration table.  This was the only part of the operation I didn’t feel like I learned to do efficiently by the end of the weekend.  Feet, heads, crops (the first digestive chamber), intestines, and other organs were removed and discarded. Necks, hearts, and livers were removed and set aside (for packaging later).  Much care was required to not pop the crops or intestines to prevent feces or partially digested feed from contaminating the bird- in 109 birds, we only lost one.

Opening the neck to remove the crop.

Next up, removal of the head.

I had trouble with the eviscerating.  The texture was disgusting, and picking through body membranes and organs was admittedly gross.  I forced myself to work this station long enough to feel competent, but being efficient at this slimy, frustrating task is truly a skill.  I made through about 5 birds on Saturday afternoon and ~9 birds on Sunday morning.  By the time I called it quits I felt competent, but definitely tapped out of this work earlier than anywhere else.  Huge props to Jacob, “Evil Nate,” and Jill for doing most of the work.

Opening the body cavity.

Intestines are removed by hand to ensure complete and careful removal.

No, it really is NOT very pleasant at all.

Once fully eviscerated, the birds were cooled in an ice bath for about 4 hours, then checked for core temperature and bagged. Bagging was a pretty clean job, but pulling the turkeys out of the ice baths in breezy 0F weather on Saturday night was brutal.  Caroline may have brought some smile and class to our operation, but also brought amazingly tough hands- she pulled birds out of the ice until well after dark.

Clean and ready to bag- it felt good to finish the process.

No, the process isn’t pretty.  Yes, animal rights folks and my vegan friends will probably give me some hell about this post. But having met the farmers and done the work, I know I’m eager to sit down at the table on Thursday and enjoy the fruits of my labor.  I’ll be sharing one of these amazing birds with the friends that first invited me to Missoula, and most of the food we will eat won’t have traveled much farther than the bird did (203 miles).  I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this work, and I’m proud to support Jacob and Courtney as they breathe new life into the beautiful rural landscape that has been dominated by industrial agriculture.  This was one of the most “real” experiences I’ve had, and I’m glad I didn’t back down from the opportunity.

Tired and dirty. More experienced and bloody.

10 thoughts on “Some Bad Mother-Pluckers

  1. Patrice

    Wow that was amazing and I really won’t mind paying the price next year for some quality birds and humane butchering, thanks so much for sharing.

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