Monday, November 30, 2009

Turkey Day

I knew when Sara invited me to the Thanksgiving turkey harvest at the farm the only possible answer I could give was an enthusiastic “Yes!” Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to learn the intricacies of small scale poultry processing, spend a day on the farm and catch up with one of her closest friends?

So I woke up at 5am, dug out my favorite farming clothes from the bin under the bed (they are so lonely down there since going back to school) and drove the long haul for a full day of harvesting and processing about 150, 28-week-old ‘Broad Breasted Whites’ that had spent most of their turkey lives foraging on pasture. “Harvest” and “process” are, of course, pleasant euphemisms for the last stage of raising livestock and getting it to market: the slaughter.

As many Americans were in the pre-holiday frenzy of buying a frozen turkey at the store, I felt excited to experience the process from a new perspective. In this case, these birds were pre-sold (and sold out!) to a community of people who value small-scale agriculture and having a direct connection to the land and people who raise their food. A group of people willing to trek to the farm and pick up a turkey at its source.

I walked from my car to the barn with that familiar mix of excitement and nervousness roiling in the bottom of my belly. It was that first-day-of-school feeling, mixed with the squawk of the geese in the pasture and the warmth of the early morning autumn sun. I was in an unfamiliar place about to embark upon a new, and quite messy, expedition. I walked into the small slaughterhouse and slipped on a pair of the indoor rubber boots lined up by the door. “So, what made you want to come here and do this?” one of the farm crew asked as I walked toward him down the white hall. For me the answer was simple: one day I plan to raise poultry and I want to gain any first hand experience I can.

I had a few weeks between accepting the invitation and my morning drive to the farm to mentally prepare for this adventure. I spent this time recognizing my immense excitement at participating in harvest and learning a bevy of new skills about small-scale poultry processing. Not only did it feel like an important step in gaining poultry production knowledge, but also a deeper understanding of exactly what it takes to produce the food I eat. Tempering my overt enthusiasm was the awareness that turkey harvest unavoidably included killing a living animal. Would I be able to kill a turkey? Should I even be eating animals in the first place? I believe strongly that animals are an important part of the nutrient cycle of the farm…and of our food system. So for me, I concluded that if I’m going to eat the meat, it should be humanely raised using sustainable practices and that I should be able to kill it…or at least be intimately aware of how it ends up on my plate. But at my core, I was just so excited to experience a part of the food system in a way.

I knew, roughly, what to expect on the farm: from the large, upside-down cones that would hold the birds as their necks were cut to the hot water scald and the infamous plucker: the stainless steel cylinder lined with rubber fingers that quickly pull feathers from the birds as they spin around and around in the basin.

Then there would be evisceration…the process of removing the turkey guts by hand. I’ll call them guts because that was the depth of my understanding of the inside of a turkey before that day. This last step of the process was the biggest mystery, I could hardly name all the internal organs of a turkey, nonetheless how to remove them.

And so it began! I walked into the first room and waved a hello to Sara and met the rest of the farm crew. There is no hugging or handshaking when you are covered in turkey. Sara was working on a pile of turkeys as they spun out of the plucker. By this stage they looked, roughly, like a bird at the market: pink and featherless breasts, thighs and wings with necks still attached. Her job, and later mine, was to remove the oil gland, trachea, crop and neck. The neck was saved in a bucket of ice and the bird was then hung on a rack for evisceration. Two very skilled, and quick moving, apprentices cut a circle around the vent of the hanging bird and gently escorted the intestines, and everything else, out of the bird onto the stainless steel table below. The liver, gizzard and heart sorted into buckets of ice, joining the turkey later on. The intestines scooted into a bin for compost. I got to try my hand at this, and it was at first the equivalent of playing Operation, blindfolded. But one learns quickly where to find the lungs, the heart and the gizzard inside a still-warm bird.

OK, this is the point where you may say, “Stop! Please! Too much information!” The point of these details is not for the gross-out factor or to open debate about if we should be eating animals. But for those of us who believe in good, clean, fair food: this is it. This is small-scale production that treats animals, farmers and the environment fairly. And the more we know and understand exactly what it takes to raise this kind of food, the more easily we can find and support farmers, growers and producers who share these values. Each of us may value a different part of the process, but the power is in the knowing.

After about half of the turkeys were processed and resting in ice baths, we got to the task of cleaning out the gizzards. The gizzard is, roughly, the secondary ‘stomach’ of the turkey. Since turkeys don’t have teeth, the gizzard is the place where food is mashed up by the external squeezing of the gizzard muscle and internal, mechanical grinding of grit: non-food matter that’s eaten and stored in the gizzard for this purpose. Little did I know that each gizzard gets cut and cleaned out by hand before joining the liver, neck and heart as the (previously mysterious) giblets. We stood around the slippery-floored room, sharing small, sharp knives as we worked through the icy bucket of fist-sized gizzards. Each gizzard was cut open like a clam, exposing the gritty contents of the turkey’s stomach, surrounded by a rough lining. This is delicate, detailed work when compared to the previous hours of the day. I slowly opened my first gizzard, almost like opening a small gift, to find a pocket of nickel-sized rocks, short pieces of straw and something that looked eerily like sea glass.

Sea glass?

I paused, not quite believing what I saw. Maybe there was something about turkey digestion that I just didn’t understand. I glanced around the room; every other gizzard was full of the frosted glass too. “Um, is this glass?” I asked. Sure was! The best I could determine, through the rapid-fire banter of the farm crew, the teasing and jovial finger pointing, was that someone cracked the windshield of a farm vehicle while driving through the pasture. I think I heard something like, “That structure just appeared out of nowhere.” Of course, the fine turkeys, always attracted to sparkly goodies, pecked up the small pieces of safety glass that scattered in the field. This unusual grit was burnished into the equivalent of sea glass through the constant grinding of the gizzard. Not to worry, the glass didn’t harm the turkeys, as the inside of the gizzard is encased by a very thick lining, which we eventually removed before the gizzard joins the rest of the giblets.

Yes, there was the instant amazement of seeing glass in the ‘belly’ of the turkey, and it makes for a good story. More importantly, I very directly experienced the connection between what we put into growing and raising our food and where it ends up…be it the gizzard of the turkey, the food we eat, the water or the air.
I left the farm that day content, exhausted, dirty and empowered. Proud that I had learned new skills and gained a fresh understanding of what it takes to produce the food I eat. I left eager to prepare my own Thanksgiving turkey, ready to face the giblets with enthusiasm (not trepidation) and more steadfast than ever to make educated choices about the source of my food.

Want more information? Below are a few links addressing small-scale animal processing, ‘humane harvest’ and the culinary interest in small-scale butchering.

Grist Will Whole Foods’ new mobile slaughterhouses squeeze small farmers?

Gourmet Humane Slaughterhouses

Wilamette Week Ethical Butchers Do It Better

Dean Mullis of Laughing Owl Farm in the Charlotte Observer

NY Times Diner’s Journal Blog

Written by Vanessa Herald


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience! Did you get to take a turkey home for dinner?

  2. Great piece, Vanessa! And you're right, the "sea glass" makes an interesting story - and graphic demonstration of the interconnectedness of what we do and where it can end up -

    I admire your honest embracing of the whole of the "food cycle" too - still don't know if I could do it, myself.

    Great reading, thanks!