Food & Drink

The State of the Chickens: Aging, the circle of life, and Harvest Fest

Disclaimer: This article has language and imagery not suited for the faint of heart. Please read with an open mind and at your own discretion.

It’s been almost a year since Jeff Kaplan ’14 was inducted as the official Macalester CLUCK captain. The Committee for the Long-term Undertaking of Chicken Keeping is in charge of watching over, caring for, and making big decisions about the MULCH garden’s chickens. Mollie Siebert ’14 has been a co-leader of the MULCH garden for two years. For both of us, when it comes to chicken care, every step of the way is affirmation of the fact that reading books and forum posts on BackyardChickens.com does not teach you how to be a chicken farmer; there is always another lesson to be learned.

One of the first lessons we learned was from a Mac student who grew up with chickens: while they can live for the better part of a decade, hens slow their laying after about a year, and many stop after two years. The student said that his family growing up would slaughter the hens after the initial slowdown, and asked how old our chickens were. Our five hens were turning two years old within the month. The gears started spinning and the question came into our heads: should we slaughter our chickens?

Once the question was asked, we realized that our CLUCK forefathers and mothers had stayed pretty silent on this issue – two years in with no record of what the long term intention was for the hens. And the question wasn’t going away. It even dredged up lots of other questions—for instance, Jeff’s choice to be a vegetarian: how could removing himself from the “meat” part of animal agriculture be moral when he still ate eggs? What happened to the chickens who supplied his breakfast after they stopped laying? Our imagined version of where our food came from was converging with the chickens that we fed dandelion greens and spoke Spanish to everyday… and they didn’t reconcile too well.

When the end of spring semester 2013 came around, we realized that the deadline for ordering baby chicks was fast approaching, and we had to make some serious decisions. After meeting and consulting friends, farmers, books, and articles, we realized the decision was irrevocably personal. It was up to us what happened to these hens we had raised over the last two years.

Reflecting on MULCH’s mission, which is centered around education and community learning, we decided that slaughtering the chickens and seeing the process through full-circle, new chicks and all, was the most meaningful way we could honor our organization’s values, to the food system we are a part of, and most importantly, to the chickens we had grown to love and respect. It’s not every day that urban gardeners, let alone residents, get to develop relationships with their meat or animal products, and we saw this as an opportunity to take our interpretation of the chicken program and MULCH one step further.

But we couldn’t exactly do the deed in the garden. We needed to do this with someone who had experience (neither of us had any) and access to a proper facility. Not entirely sure where or how to look for this, we read up on our options. What we came up with was Jeffries Chicken Farm (no relation to this Cluck Captain), a “custom slaughterhouse” in Inver Grove Heights. In essence, it is a DIY slaughterhouse. They gather up livestock from around the tri-state area (or in our case it was BYOLS), and sell it on weekends at prices far lower than you could get at the grocery store. You just have to put some work into it and be willing to get a little blood on your hands.

Despite all our planning, we didn’t exactly know what we’d be getting ourselves into when we made the date to meet up on this farm one sunny afternoon in July. Jeff came from St. Paul with the chickens in tow and Mollie came from her farm in Prescott, Wisconsin. We met up and were immediately engaged in conversation with Joseph Jeffries himself. He gave our chickens a thorough once over, proclaiming them good “college-educated chickens,” like he’d never seen before. Then he told us if we wanted help with our hens, we should go inside and “ask the Mexican,” and with that, the 81-year-old chicken-veteran hobbled away to gather some eggs.

This place was a sensory and emotional overload. The only way to describe the smell of the slaughterhouse was like burning blood and bone. The first thing we saw when we walked in was a pair of people butchering a goat hanging from the ceiling. We heard the sloshing of water and blood and workboots on the cement floor, and listened to the whirring of machinery and people hard at work. There was, of course, the intermittent squawk, cluck, bleat, or chirp.

We carried our chickens in and met the aforementioned “Mexican.” Almost nonverbally, he agreed to help us and brought over a barrel and his knife. Our friends joke that this place was an HIY “Hold-It-Yourself” slaughterhouse, because that is just what we did: held the chickens while this man slit their throats and told us to drop them in the barrel to flap out their final moments. We hesitated, as if not sure whether we should let go or not, though we knew what we had come here to do had already been done. He defeathered them for us, and then sent us out the door. He wouldn’t even take any money for his help; he just smiled and waved us goodbye, already busy with his next job.

From the moment we dropped those chickens, all we could really feel was shock. Just like books and websites don’t make you a chicken farmer, nothing can really prepare you for the first time you slaughter an animal you cared for.

We could probably write another article (or two) about the rest of the process that got us from the slaughterhouse to today, the day we will be cooking and eating our chicken soup at MULCH’s annual Harvest Fest. It will be an evening to remember, as we think about our role as consumers and producers of our own food. Please join us in celebrating another year of bountiful harvest and honoring our creature friends this evening at 6 p.m. in the Smail Gallery of Olin-Rice by bringing a dish, friend or something to share, and joining in a square dance hosted by the Wild Goose Chase Cloggers. We want to wholeheartedly thank and appreciate all those who loved and cared for the hens over the years; your contributions were unique and essential to the garden, our development, and our collective knowledge as a community. We are also extremely grateful to the College for allowing us this incredible opportunity to learn about and actively participate in our food. This wouldn’t have been possible without all of you. Thank you.

October 4, 2013

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