Slaughterhouse Diary

I am a city girl born and bred, with city needs and city habits. My junior year of college, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I took a course called “Religion and Ecology,” in which we read everything from the Jewish laws of kashruth to Buddhist texts; Heidegger’s “Technology;” to “The Monkey-Wrench Gang.” At the end of the course I vowed to spend time on a farm, to look a chicken in the eye as it died, to bear witness to the slaughter of a cow, something that would earn me the right to eat one of these sentient beings.

When I graduated from college I moved back to NYC and hit the pavement running, my farm dreams something quaint and faraway. I became a vegetarian, thinking that if I could not come to terms with animal slaughter, if I could not find the time to go to the farm, then I would refrain, altogether, from eating meat.

But what a terrible vegetarian I was, making exceptions for street food in Mexico and an annual NYC burger. This lasted for five years, on and off, until I gave up, gasping for meat like a drowning woman for water. And hadn’t my vegetarianism been the coward’s choice?, I asked myself. I had found a way out of my vow since it was a helluva lot easier than finding my way to a farm.

So imagine my sense of wonder, when four years after giving up on vegetarianism, and twelve years after graduating from college, I found myself on the farm, present for the slaughter of two sheep. I had traveled to Lopez Island, off the coast of Washington state, in order to visit the community of farmers who make up the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative. This collaborative is in possession of the first ever USDA certified mobile slaughter facility. The reasons for building a mobile unit were particular to their island status: farmers had to go off island to slaughter and then bring the meat back to the island. This wasn’t cost-effective, so most people just brought their meat to the mainland and then sold it there. The ironic result was that the island was having a food access issue; the meat was being raised there but not eaten there.

There is a need for mobile slaughter facilities all over this country because everything is being geared more and more towards the large-scale producers, so that there are very few processing facilities for small farmers, making the market increasingly favorable to large industrial operations and less and less favorable to the little guy. All the little ones are gone, and in their wake are large facilities that are geared for huge numbers of animals. This means you have to travel farther to get to them, sometimes prohibitively so.

Before I headed out to Lopez, I spoke to Holly Freishtat, who was hired early on to do a needs assessment of the island. I asked her what she learned and she said that “the issues this island community is facing, of farmers not having access to local infrastructure, and consumers not having access to the local foods they demand, is no different from what rural and urban communities are facing around the country. I thought they were unique because they were surrounded by water and now I have realized that it is a result of a centralized global food system. We have to build the capacity and infrastructure for our farmers and consumers to have local foods.”

Back to the farm (not the first farm I’ve been on in the past two years at my job, by the way, not by a long shot): I approached with the jitters, and in the first moments I had to suppress tears. But those tears were the tears of a city girl who is so soft-hearted she cannot even train her cats to stay off the kitchen counter. Those were not the tears of a woman who tore into a burger the night before; I would not let them be.

Watching the farmer next to me, I was humbled by her graceful understanding of the cycle of life. She raised these sheep with tenderness, and she watched them die with tenderness. The parts of the animal that are cut away (the head, the hooves, the skin, the innards) are composted on the farm, eventually enriching the very soil that grows next year’s crop of vegetables. To see this is to learn more in 30 minutes than I could have hoped to learn in my semester-long “Religion and Ecology” class.

To see the IGFC mobile slaughter facility in action is to understand what a successful venture this has been – for business, yes – but even more, for the health and well being of the animals. The animals live well in the fields, then enter the barn they’ve known all their lives. They are processed humanely and the work is slow, careful, and meticulously clean. I watched it from inches away, and though it was challenging at first, I watched it open-eyed.

I left the island utterly convinced of mobile facilities’ ability to step in where small/mid-size infrastructure has crumbled away. It works for the farmers, and it works for the residents of the islands. It’s an amazing sensation to drive around the island and see the animals, and then to know—not just because someone told you, but because you’ve seen it with your own eyes—exactly where your food has come from.

Photo courtesy of Horse Drawn Farms

10 thoughts on “Slaughterhouse Diary

  1. One word: “processed”? Knowing matters, being close to how food happens makes a difference; but why sugarcoat it in this particular instance? Whether from the moral/ethical stance, or from the perspective of in/efficiency around production…”slow” in this instance is still self-indulgent and not a thing written about from the perspective of the greater good.

    It’s hard indeed not to read this as an iteration of ‘carnivore guilt.’

  2. Hi Heather, I know what you mean–“processed” seems like a crazy word, full of inuendo and covering up all the bad stuff. I am fairly certain it’s industry standard in the world of slaughter, both on industrial scale and small, humane scale like I discuss above.

  3. Indeed, I must echo this. This is self-deception at its worst. Feeble justification for one’s choices does not leave the reader with the sense that the writer is at all comfortable with her decision. Rather, that in order to continue to eat meat, she concocted a shallow, self-designed ‘ritual’ after the completion of which, she has ‘earned’ the right to continue to eat meat. Further, her scenario is quite the exception than the norm. It is astonishing to me that you are humbled by the slaughtering person’s understanding of life. How could you possibly assess that from what you saw? What of the animal? What of their understanding of a signifantly shortened cycle of life. Look into the eyes of a downed cow or a veal calf wrenched from his mother and talk to me about being humbled. This is a self-aggrandizing attept to justify a choice about which you are hardly comfortable. And mobile slaughterhouses??? God help us.

  4. I disagree. while I can’t speak for Jerusha, it is too easy to dismiss her ritual and her beliefs because you do not agree with them. I feel no guilt for eating meat. I love my garden and the plants in it, but I eat them too. I fear the distinction between sentient beings and plants is too easy a way for vegetarians to say they have bowed out of the food chain. If you don’t feel comfortable eating meat, so be it, I respect that choice. But do not get holier than thou about my choice to eat meat.

  5. I for one – and seem to be the only one- applaud the writer’s integrity for confronting the act of slaughter and making up her own mind. Man has eaten meat for a very very long time on this planet. That isn’t going to change. I get tired of the self righteous who think they are holier than thou imposing their viewpoint on others.
    People are going to continue to eat meat. Get over it.
    But if there is a humane way to handle it, then lets do it.
    Many consider it a cycle of life. They grow animals to eat. They use every part of the animal.
    In Provence they use to have someone who came around once a year to kill the pigs so the families had food to live on all year. This was true for a long time, not sure if it still exists.

    Raising animals humanely and then slaughtering them so that they feel the least amount of pain and contribute back to the earth seems like the best solution to me and to those who need the meat to survive. I know I know, you will argue that we don’t need the meat. This isn’t an argument about whether one should eat meat or not at this point. The point is that raising animals and slaughter is done wholesale and the results are terrible. Cows overfed on corn, shoved in a feedlot, wallowing in their own manure. The mobile slaughter house takes that situation and improves it for all involved. Thanks for an insightful essay, it is a subject I myself have struggled with and it helped put matters in perspective.

  6. You bleeding-hearts make me sick. The world is a tough place, always has been. It’s a lot less tough now that 50,000 years ago. Then prey was torn down and eaten alive. Watch some National Geographic video. We all make choices, I think Jerusha has done a good job with hers. She is a lot more sensitive now than before. Is she perfect? Heck no, but none of the others of you are either. You are no better or worse than someone who hunts and kills for a living, animals or vegetables. See you at the market. You pick your prey and I’ll pick mine. Just because you can’t hear the carrot scream…

  7. I’d just like to point out that “slaughtering” is just the beginning. Then the animal has to be skinned, gutted, and butchered; all of these are encompassed by the word “processed”. If you don’t like the word, please suggest a new one that is equally as encompassing.

  8. Meat is not the problem; humans have eaten meat for millenia. We have as much right to meat as any other critter. The problem, I’ve maintained, is the means of production: harmful feedlots and dangerous industrial slaughterhouses that are inhumane to animal and human worker alike; slaughterhouses have sky-high workplace injury rates. The mobile processing trailer is an excellent idea; transport the abattoir instead of the animals.

  9. Thanks Jerusha for a great article about a very important trend, early as it may be, in meat production (yes, it´s a production)for the ´little´guys. I run a company in PA, Local Pastures, that basically buys and sells organic and natural (basically organic without the stamp) meats, poultry and dairy. I thought the biggest barrier to entry would be the price I would have to pay for organic meat and the subsequent price consumers would have to pay the retailer to whom I sold the meat. Not so as it turns out. The biggest barrier is processing. There are only 2 certified organic processors in PA and even the regular houses are few and far between. When I find a producer of pork that I like I find out that I have to get on the list and maybe I´ll get some cuts 3 months down the road. Same for beef. One producer whom I like sends his cattle to a processor in Baltimore! for Kosher processing. Otherwise he sends to Smucker´s in PA but the waiting list is long. Sometimes as long as 6 months. We need mobile processing in PA now. It´s the best option since NIMBY applies to permanent slaughterhouses as much as it does to nuclear power plants. One other thing, the real bottleneck in the processing is the cutting and packaging. The killing, skinning, gutting and halving or quartering is quick. The next step, three weeks minimum of aging in a cooler and then cut to order really slows the process down.

  10. Apparently, differences among people about diet evokes as much sentiment,judgment and angry responses from folks as religious differences! Whew!
    Applaud goes to the open mindedness of the writer of this article and I am happy to learn about mobile slaughter units.