by Brian Awehali
San Juan chickens before harvest – photos (c) 2012 Brian Awehali
“I am largely worried about wingless chickens. I feel this is the time for me to fulfill myself by stepping in and saving the chicken but I don’t know how exactly since I am not bold. I only know I believe in the complete chicken. You think about the complete chicken for a while.”
― Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
I’d asked if I could come and see the chicken harvest. It was a sunny day in the San Juan Islands, and my acquaintance with two farmers had presented an opportunity to see a free-range, all organic culling, or harvest.
“Do you think they have any idea that today’s different from other days?” I asked one of the farmers as he beckoned the chickens.
He paused handsomely in his well-worn green t-shirt with a large peace sign on the chest and scratched an unruly sun-bleached beard.
“Nah. They have a simple life, and they’ve never known anything but this, so why would they?”
“And anyway, these are broiler chickens. They can’t live past about two years old, or their hearts give out.”
I watched the chickens, and the few dark ducks in the flock, who were eager to approach in hopes of being fed, and paid me no attention as I shot photos. A few had to be chased down and put into the enclosed truck bed, but most just filed in, clucking, in a way that made me think darkly of Black Friday.
About 9 billion chickens are harvested and eaten each year in the United States. Most are slaughtered in factory farms, where “cervical dislocation,” “asphyxiation by carbon dioxide,” and maceration (grinding) are considered the best “acceptable humane methods.” I was curious to see a smaller, sustainable family-run operation, where the farmers actually care about the quality of the chicken’s lives, care about what they eat, and where they participate directly in the harvest, rather than resorting to mass mechanical means.
Once all of the chickens were in the back of the truck, we rolled towards several white tents where the harvest would take place.
This type of chicken has been bred for early harvest, as well as for an easygoing temperament and generally pleasant appearance. They did not get too excited in the truck, nor did they put up much resistance before being placed headfirst into tapered metal bleeding cones, where their vivid yellow feet and bright red combs twitched as they bled out.
“When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the news. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.”
— Flannery O’Connor
[Warning: graphic material follows the jump]