Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: Getting Close to Our Food

Two years ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

Thank You, Mr. Red

Sometimes blog-worthy things happen to me, but I resist writing about them right away. The event’s importance demands some time to ruminate, to gain a little historical perspective before I can do it justice in prose. Several months have passed now since, for the first time in my life, I killed an animal in order to eat it. And I think I’m finally ready to talk about the rooster named Mr. Red.

It started on a warm Saturday in April. I was just getting off work at Urban Roots when my friend Marissa sent me a text: so there’s an extra rooster at Boggy Creek, and I think I’m going to kill it and eat it. Want to do it with me? Marissa works at Boggy Creek Farm. If you live in Austin, you have probably heard of Carol Ann and Larry’s iconic urban farm on the east side. Carol Ann and Larry have been farming in Austin since the 1980’s. They opened up the doors for organics in Austin, selling tomatoes to Whole Foods when the multi-national corporation was just a little corner store on Lamar Street. Now, they have become local legends, and for a newbie farmer like me, they are a font of good advice and gracious support.

Boggy Creek’s chickens are strictly layers–normally Carol Ann doesn’t sell her chickens for meat. But it came to pass that about six months ago, she found herself with an extra rooster on her hands. Someone had given her three chicks, thinking all were female. When one turned out to be male, Carol Ann decided to keep him, feed him, and let him have his way with the hens for a while. Fast forward a few months, and Mr. Red was a full-grown rooster, picking fights with the dominant male and running amok on the farm. There was only one solution: Mr. Red had to go. According to Marissa, either we could have him for dinner, or Mr. Red would be shot.

It wasn’t that I particularly wanted to spend my Sunday killing a rooster, but I didn’t hesitate to say yes because, as a would-be farmer, how could I turn down an opportunity to learn how the process worked? And under the direction of Carol Ann and Larry, I felt confident that we could do it without a mishap. I met Marissa at her house the next day around four in the afternoon. Her brother-in-law, Chris, had decided to come with us. The three of us crammed into Marissa’s clunky pick-up truck and made our way to Boggy Creek. “I just finished Omnivore’s Dilemma, so this is perfect timing,” Chris said, excitedly. Chris, wearing black-framed glasses and cargo shorts, worked as an accountant in town and was having the same realizations about food I had in Boston a few years ago. He was explicit that he didn’t want to really be a part of the killing; he just wanted to see it happen.

We arrived at Boggy Creek as the afternoon heat was breaking. Carol Ann met us with a smile. She brought us over to a corner of her farmstand, where a full, colorful rooster was waiting in a large cage separated from the chicken coop, “There he is. That’s Mr. Red. I think he knows something’s up.” Mr. Red cocked his head and looked up at us quizzically. My stomach lurched. There he was, a living creature, and I was about to have a hand in his death. I looked back at Marissa and frowned. She frowned back. Carol Ann must have noticed my anxiety because she put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “Now don’t you worry about this rooster, he’s had one of the best lives a rooster can have. Good food, lots of sex, and a great place to roam around. Now, he’s going to be food for you, and then he’ll be right with the world.”

It was the sort of fatalism I admire about farmers. I took a deep breath and asked her what the whole process would be. What should we do first? “First,” she said, “get a large pot of water boiling. Then, you need to find a good chopping block.” At this point, Carol Ann’s imposing husband, Larry, wearing his standard cowboy hat and hole-filled t-shirt, had strolled up with a large blade in his hand. “You can use this,” he said, eying Chris. “I see you have a man here who can do the hard chopping,” he chuckled heavily.

“They have an accountant,” Chris responded without missing a beat.

Carol Ann continued, “Do make sure it’s a heavy blow so you don’t prolong the killing. Have a bucket nearby so you can hold the body upside down and let the blood drain out. There’s going to be a lot of kicking and wings flapping, but that’s just nerves. Once the head is gone, he’s dead. Remember that, don’t get scared, and hold on tight. Pour the hot water over him to loosen the feathers. Pluck ’em out, remove the insides, wash him, and you’re ready to make dinner.”

Something about Carol Ann and Larry’s nonchalance–their matter-of-fact directions in their easy southern accents–gave me a little confidence, but my stomach was still in knots and my breathing was shallow. “Okay well I guess we’re ready.” Marissa said. Larry reached in the cage and grabbed Mr. Red, bound his feet, and put him upside down into a black bag. Hanging chickens upside down makes them pass out, and they have no night vision. Once in the bag, the rooster was surprisingly still.

“Nothing personal, Mr. Red, but I can’t have you here anymore,” Carol Ann said seriously. Marissa, Chris and I walked to Marissa’s truck, Chris carrying the bag with his arm fully extended in front of him. “Don’t forget the water!” I heard Carol Ann call as we pulled away. We arrived at Marissa’s house and hung the bag on a laundry line in the backyard. We poured some gin for our nerves and, as we waited for the water to boil, discussed the intricacies of cutting a bird’s head off (“Just do it really hard”) and set up a chopping block with a 2×6 and some cinder blocks.

When the pot boiled, it was time. Since it was Marissa’s idea, she would be the one doing the chopping, while it was up to me to hold the bird down. I pulled Mr. Red out of the bag and held him on the board. Marissa, nervous and inexperienced, took a handful of blows before the head came off, but it was all over in less then 15 seconds. Marissa threw down her machete, yelling “OH GOD!” and walked to the other side of the yard. Meanwhile, my heart was pounding as I held the pulsing body over a five-gallon bucket. Slowly, the wings stopped flapping. The body cooled. The feet relaxed. It was done.

A moment later Marissa, who had calmed down enough to walk into her house, appeared with the pot of boiling water. She poured it into the bucket with the rooster in it. We pulled it out again and began plucking the feathers, which came out pretty easily. I remember thinking how quickly this bird went from looking like a chicken to just chicken. The majority of my anxiety and fear melted away at that point. I’ve been eating chicken my entire life, I thought to myself. Now I have to stop pretending that death isn’t involved.

After we removed the innards and feet, we were ready to wash it, cut it up, and cook it in a soup for dinner. Carol Ann had insisted that we bury Mr. Red and thank him for feeding us. We dug a hole and put his remains in, then sat and ate on Marissa’s porch. It was dark out now. The whole process, from picking up the bird to eating him in a soup, took a little under four hours.

On the way home, I felt sad for Mr. Red, in a way that I never feel sad for the chicken that I buy from the market.  Then I began to feel foolish for my sadness.  I am just one of an endless line of people to have killed their food.  If anything, the fact that I had been so disconnected from it should have been what bothered me.  Aside from that, I knew that raising and slaughtering farm animals is a common cycle on a farm.  I dont know if I will ever be completely comfortable with harvesting an animal, but I will have to remind myself that for a farmer, completing that cycle does make things right with the world.

Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa

One Response to “Why We Farm: Getting Close to Our Food”

  1. Hi, I’m interested in your farming and especially that you have only 1 acre. I am working on a project in Atlanta for a .8 acre farm proposal for an “urban farm” on a currently vacant lot. I wondered if you can share how yours is laid out, what works and doesn’t on such a small plot. I’d like to find a partner and do exactly what you guys are doing. You inspire me! Thank you and keep up the great work! We must go back to growing our own food and rebuild our agrarian society, from the ground up!! You are pioneers and saints!

    Sincerely, Beth

    ps. I actually have a couple of other blog websites and am on facebook, but am still learning how to do this and don’t know how to link them yet.
    http://foodsnobconfessions.wordpress.com/

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