Soundings : Slaughterhouse without walls
"Transparency is a more powerful disinfectant than any regulation or technology. Imagine if the walls of every slaughterhouse and animal factory were . . . made of glass. So much of what happens behind those walls - the cruelty, the carelessness, the filth - would have to stop." - Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore's Dilemma
Early on a bright Saturday morning on the lawn of Josh and Lindsey Scott's farm in Chilmark, Flavio Souza gets to work killing chickens. His work site is a bed of fresh woodchips with a large blue tarp strung from the trees above. Arrayed around him are the stainless-steel kill cones, scalder, plucker and evisceration table of the mobile poultry processing kit that was brought to the Vineyard last July by IGI, the Island Grown Initiative.
Tristan Scott, almost four years old, hovers near the 12 plastic cages on the lawn with their cargo of 70 Kosher King cockerels. When the work of processing birds begins, he watches with interest for a few minutes, then wanders off to play. Tristan won't have bad dreams tonight, and when one of these chickens appears on the family dinner table, he won't need to suppress any ugly memories of its life or death.
Ali Berlow, director of IGI, has come to watch the morning work of Flavio and his team, and she's clearly delighted by Tristan's non-reaction. IGI's poultry-processing program, she says, is about bringing an essential but missing piece of agricultural infrastructure to the Vineyard. It's also about something more than that.
"Humane slaughter is part of my motivation," Ms. Berlow says. "When we think of the word humane, we tend to think it's about the animals. But it's also about what happens to the human beings - about how we relate to the animals. This is like the equivalent of fair-trade coffee. Flavio and his team get a fair wage for what they do, and they're working in a safe environment."
The aspect of this morning's work that surprises me most is its peacefulness. Flavio extracts each chicken from its cage and tucks it under his left arm, feet up, as one might hold a bagpipe. He extends the neck and makes two cuts with a sharp knife, then places the bird head-down in a cone, holding the feet while the heart pumps out its blood. In a few moments the bird is still, and Flavio reaches into the cage for another.
After draining, the chickens go by twos and threes into the scalding tank, its water kept at 142 degrees by a propane fire. From the scalder it's on to an odd-looking piece of gear, a plucking machine whose tub is lined with rubber prongs that neatly pick off the feathers when a motor tumbles the chickens inside. Finally the birds, by now resembling the product we all know from the supermarkets, are gutted on the evisceration table and dropped into buckets of ice-water for cooling.
This new equipment and trained crew have been available for just a year, and already farmers across the Island are raising chickens in greater numbers. Meat birds like these Kosher Kings mature in just eight or nine weeks, and IGI has eight farms actively growing chickens for slaughter by the mobile processing team, which means that Mr. Souza and his crew have dates to work almost every week.
Says Mr. Scott: "We were thinking of doing this, but we always hesitated at the thought of loading all the chickens into a truck and taking them over to New Bedford. Mitchell Posin [of the Allen Farm] has been doing that for years. But last year he used these guys, and he said the quality of the meat was so much better because there's so much less stress on the birds."
Watching the processing team at its work, Lindsey Scott says, "This is, pretty much, all you could ask for - having the operation come to you with everything they need and a skilled crew."
Ms. Berlow says IGI was begun in 2005 with the modest goal of creating a map to all the working farms of Martha's Vineyard. You can still read that map by visiting the group's website at islandgrown.org. The poultry processing initiative, she says, resulted when IGI asked farmers a simple question: What do you need?
"As we listened," she says, "we heard basically three themes reoccurring, not just on Martha's Vineyard but through other rural communities, too: labor, access to land, and access to clean, humane, and safe slaughtering and processing facilities." IGI investigated the possibility of a brick-and-mortar slaughterhouse on the Vineyard, and then decided to start more modestly, with the poultry project.
Ms. Berlow recalls her first conversations with Mr. Souza, explaining IGI's dream that someday Island farmers might be able to bring their meat to market without having to haul animals to processing plants as far away as Vermont. "I took him all the way out to the end of the pier. I told him: someday, four-legged animals. Right now, we start with chickens."
The mobile processing kit travels behind Mr. Souza's pickup truck on a flatbed landscaper's trailer, and IGI makes its services available only with his trained team. "Our goal from the beginning," Ms. Berlow says, "was to have a trained chicken crew do this. The farmer can't just rent this equipment and use it." This, she says, sets the Island program apart from many others like it. "My feeling is, why open that up to a possible lack of quality control? Let's make it a chicken crew that first of all, gets paid a fair wage, and also minimizes any accidents or problems. In the end, the farmers get a less-stressed animal, which frankly means a better-tasting product."
If we really intend to sustain and foster agriculture on Martha's Vineyard, it will mean more than preserving vistas of fields dotted with hay bales or sheep. Because farming is labor-intensive, the cost of housing is problematic; and because it's land-intensive, the cost of acreage also figures in the equation. Then there's the business of building the infrastructure that connects the farmer, the marketplace and the dinner table. This is a challenge that involves such potentially distasteful work as creating better ways to process poultry - but this work is essential if we truly mean to make agriculture more than a postcard-pretty part of Vineyard life.
Ms. Berlow had no idea she'd end up working on this poultry initiative when she started her work with IGI, but now she embraces the project enthusiastically. "This is about the future of our local economy," she says. "It's about the way we look at land use, and our farmers, and our food, in a very intimate sense. I think it's important that people understand there's a price to local food, but the payback is a better environment, a better community, a stronger local economy, supporting neighbors."
Watching the quiet work of Flavio Souza and his team, I was reminded of that age-old mothers' admonishment: "Don't put that in your mouth - you don't know where it's been!" Because this, of course, is exactly what we do every day with those plastic-wrapped packets of chicken parts from the supermarket. We do it with the force of a powerful disconnect, a willful effort not to think about the life or death of the creature we're serving for dinner.
Says Ms. Berlow: "You can't really find out a whole lot about that specific chicken wing or drumstick you're eating if it came from Perdue. And maybe what you'd find out, you might not really like. So to me it's about awareness, and making decisions based on information about what you're eating - how did it get here and what's in it?"
Flavio Souza's operation is very nearly the antithesis of the distant, factory slaughterhouse. It's right here at home, and it's out in the open air, transparently on display for everyone to see, because it's a process that has nothing to hide. In the end, this project of the Island Grown Initiative is more than an effort to foster local agriculture. It's about helping farmers raise food we can feel good about eating.