This piece is based on a journal entry from my field study this past fall. I was working at Butterworks Farm, which is an organic Jersey dairy in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Yogurt is made on the farm and sold throughout the Northeast.
The steer stood across the paddock from us, glancing at us with a mix of suspicion and annoyance. Well muscled, fat and powerful, with a glossy black coat, Chocolate Chip was by far the larges and most imposing animal on the farm. I stepped to the middle of the paddock an retrieved the rope halter from where it lay in the muck. “Do you think we should we get the tractor?” Brian quietly asked.
“I guess so. It’s not worth anyone getting hurt over” said Collin, who had been trying to hang on to the frightened animal. “I hate to do it. I wish we’d halter trained him better when he was little.” he added.
Brian went up to get the big John Deere and Collin, Anne and I made sure that Chocolate Chip didn’t escape back into the solar barn. The atmosphere as we waited was tense. At over a thousand pounds, Chocolate Chip was dangerous and unpredictable. A rush of adrenalin swept through me, making my heart beat uncomfortably in my chest.
When the tractor arrived, Collin approached slowly, quietly talking to the steer, then quickly put the halter over his head before he could react. Two of us held onto his head as the others tied the rope to the drawbar of the tractor. As the tractor inched forward in creep gear, the rope tightened, and the steer began to go step by stumbling step up the hill to the slaughtering place. Halfway up the hill, the steer attempted to escape, running in a half circle around the back of the tractor, nearly clotheslining us with the heavy chain when we tried to grab hold of his head. At the top of the hill we tied the rope to an old hay wagon. Chocolate Chip fell down, thrashing against his bonds. When he stood up, a trickle of blood came from one of his nostrils.
Then we waited for Dave, who slaughters animals for the farm. Finally, we saw his truck coming up the driveway and I left to get a pail of hot water from the milk room.
When I returned Chocolate Chip was on the ground, bleeding from a cut across the jugular on his brisket and a neat gunshot wound in the middle of his forehead. We stood clear as the carcass kicked, running in place as its nervous system shut down. The kicks became twitches and the fountain from his chest became a trickle and he was still. We attached a chain to his hind legs and I hoisted him up with the front end loader. The disassembly began. The process was amazingly clean. “This is probably my nine-thousand and twenty-seventh animal,” Dave joked. Then more seriously “I think I’ve done almost one hundred head of beef this year and as many hogs.”
Dave is a stout man with a graying blonde beard. He wore rubber boots and delicate wire rimmed glasses that made him look a little like a Santa Claus who just happened to be wielding a running electric meat saw while giving an almost uninterrupted lecture on the intricacies of meat processing regulation in Vermont.
The belly was opened. “ If you care to, step aside” Dave said quietly in his Vermont accent, so it sounded like ‘step asoyed.’ I did as was told, just in time to dodge an aromatic jet of gas from the rumen as he pierced it deftly with his knife. Deflated, the massive off-white organ slid out of the incision down the length of the animal to the ground. I grabbed a bucket and in went the heart, liver, tongue and esophagus muscle which is simmering on the stove right now as I write. Eventually, Dave sawed down the entire length of the spine and the halves swung apart. The transformation was complete. A living, breathing steer was now two sides of beef.
The other animal to be processed that day was Chloe, a cow who had drunk some contaminated water earlier in the fall and nearly died. She recovered, but developed a massive abscess on her neck, a smaller one on her udder and mastitis in three quarters of her udder. Even though she had recovered, she would never be a productive dairy cow again. I had been at Butterworks Farm for a few weeks, during which time I had cleaned the putrid hole in Chloe’s neck almost every day as she stood patiently in her stanchion, munching hay and enjoying a good scratch behind the ears from my free hand.
Chloe was reluctant to be led to the spot, past Chocolate chip’s bloated rumen lying on the grass. She was nervous but didn’t fight. I don’t know if she knew what was going to happen, but if she did she was resigned to it. I tied her to the wagon and Dave pointed the shotgun at her forehead. There was a loud pop and Chloe hit the ground limp. Dave cut her jugular and a torrent of red rushed onto the grass. She kicked as she bled out and lay still.
It is disturbingly easy to kill. Every time I’m involved in slaughter, I get nervous as the task approaches. My heart pounds and I start thinking of ways I can get out of the task at hand. And then it’s done. A gunshot, a stroke of a knife or the fall of a hatchet and the animal isn’t alive anymore. It’s as simple as that, not dead then dead, animal and then meat. Nothing else is changed. I expect something to be different, some cosmic change signifying the end of a sentient being. I don’t know why I expect this, whether it’s cultural or an innate part of our psyche. I don’t feel good about it, or bad. Just a little numb.
I’m not really sure if it’s more or less comforting that death is so matter of fact. It’s unsettling trying to reconcile our concepts of what life is and how it is to be treated with the plain reality that it can be taken away so easily and without consequence.
The role of the farmer is complicated, a constant balance of nurturer and killer. We help living things come into this world, but we depend on them and in turn must take their lives, animals and plants alike.
After the slaughter I felt conflicted and a little sick when I thought about Chloe. But this is meat in the best way, I realized as I washed Dave’s greasy knives in the milkroom sink. It should be complicated and we should think about it and it should make us uncomfortable. On the farm, the land and the animals are treated with respect right to the end. Involvement in the entire life cycle of an animal makes the abuses commonplace in industrial slaughterhouses unthinkable. In the end it seems right and respectful that we should be nourished by another animal’s body, just as eventually we will provide nourishment for other organisms and be returned to the earth.