My brother, Brad Atwood, lives in South Royalton, Vermont, in an old yellow farmhouse flanked by grand maple trees and shouldered by rolling meadows, in which stand his small herd of Scotch Highland cattle. Brad recently invited me up to witness the finish of one of his steer. Fascinated but squeamish, I chose not to go, but asked Brad to write a post about the experience. Brad practices law in Hanover, New Hampshire when he’s not tossing bales of hay to the shaggy brood. He also has four kids; the youngest, Bruce, is fourteen.
Bruce edited a school newspaper (Sharon Academy, Sharon, VT.) last year on the politics of local, national and global food policy, in which he presented the virtues of home-slaughtering farm-raised animals. Bruce’s paper, written with his friend, Chris, is printed at the bottom of the blog.
Here is my brother’s account of his own home slaughter last Thursday.
If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, please take your fight elsewhere. I am writing for the silent majority of omnivores who are not giving up meat any time soon, but who still care deeply about how this important food source is raised and ultimately slaughtered for our consumption.
Chet Miller and his son arrived at my Sharon, Vermont farm early one recent frigid January morning. The sky was blindingly clear and the snow squeaked in the subzero temperature as I marched across the farmyard driveway to greet them. Chet climbed out of his pick-up truck and pulled out the tools of his trade – sharp knives, block and tackle, electric chainsaw and a 30/30 rifle. He quickly got to work. “So, which one will it be?” Chet asked, looking over at my small herd of grass fed Scottish Highland cattle (known as “Hippie cows” by Vermont farmers for their long, hairy coats) who were otherwise interested only in that morning’s feeding of hay. “It’s the big red steer by the fence,” I answered uncomfortably, pointing to a large 2 1/2 year old male peacefully chewing on last summer’s grass crop. I was feeling uncomfortable, you see, because I had just signed the animal’s death warrant.
Chet belongs to what is really a noble and time-honored guild; a profession still actively carried out in Vermont and other rural areas across New England. Chet is the man you call to come to your farm to slaughter the animals you have raised, frequently since birth, for food. He is a consummate, skilled professional who kills your animal as humanely as possible, then skins, eviscerates and breaks it down into fore and hind quarters, ready to be wrapped in plastic sheeting and driven to the butcher for further processing. Chet and his son are very busy these days. In my area, on-farm slaughtering is a growth industry, as consumers become better educated about the meat they eat and how it was raised and slaughtered. All four of my own children have diligently read Michael Pollan’s highly recommended book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (my youngest, Bruce, now 14, read it in 5th grade). We, too, decided to “walk the walk” and raise and slaughter our own beef.
On-farm slaughtering is highly respectful of the animal. It avoids the real trauma of transporting a creature (who has known no other home but the pastures of your farm) by trailer to a “USDA approved” slaughterhouse where it lives out its last remaining days in the completely alien environment of dank, dark crowded holding pens. By contrast, the Highland steer Chet killed for me knew no fear when it died. There was no surge of adrenaline which can toughen the meat. It is never easy to take a life, but this cow had lived a very good one. Let’s face it, if you are going to eat meat, some animal’s death is inevitable. Doing so in a respectful manner is not only more humane, but arguably provides better quality meat. Chet dispatched my steer with a single point-blank rifle shot between the eyes. He literally never knew what hit him while quietly feeding in the same pasture, and with the same herd members, it had known since birth.
After Chet shot the steer, I raised the carcass off the ground with a tractor for clean, safe skinning and quartering. Asked whether I wanted the “hanger steak” (who would not?), I quickly said yes. So, too, the tongue, liver and heart. Chet took the hide and head. I hauled the remainder of the entrails in the tractor’s bucket to drop along the edge of the woods as a welcome winter feast for the coyotes, ravens and other local wildlife. Carefully wrapped in plastic sheeting, I drove the two fore and hind quarters in the back of my pick-up truck to the butcher, where the steer weighed in at 463 pounds. After hanging and aging for ten days, he will custom cut the carcasses into constituent steaks, roasts and hamburger (all individually wrapped and frozen) to feed my family until next year, when Chet returns and the endless cycle of life and death on a farm continues.
On-Farm Slaughter: Unclean or Pristine?
By Chris Gish and Bruce Atwood
Since the 1970’s, the meat industry has trended away from the traditional small farm towards fewer, but much larger, corporate farm complexes. Today, the Food and Water Watch reports that four corporations, Tyson, Cargill, Swift, and National Beef Packing process 84% of all beef in America in huge, mechanized slaughterhouses (Estabrook). However, some people wish to buck this trend and continue the old fashioned way of raising meat. An integral part of this method is slaughter and processing, and many see slaughtering on the farm as the most desirable technique.
On-farm slaughter, the practice of killing livestock in the same place as it was raised, has generated deep controversy between Vermont and the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) in recent years. The state of Vermont has passed legislation encouraging on-farm slaughter, but USDA oversight prevented many of these reforms from becoming law. In 2007, Vermont passed the so called “Chicken Bill”, which allowed small scale poultry farmers to slaughter and process birds for sale to consumers without needing a state inspected facility (Farm Fresh Meat). Vermont went a step further in 2008, when it legislated the Farm Fresh Meat bill, aimed at encouraging meat production on small farms. This act would allow customers to buy meat animals live, though the animals would continue to live the rest of their life on the original farm. These animals could then be slaughtered and processed on the farm, without the need for an inspected facility (Ancel). However, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, upon reviewing the Farm Fresh Meat bill, divested it of many key provisions. The revised law only allows on-farm slaughter under the individual and custom exemptions. One qualifies for the individual exemption if the meat is consumed only by the farmer, his/her family, employees, or un-paying guests. The custom exemption allows farmers to sell meat slaughtered on the farm if the animal is slaughtered by an approved custom slaughterer in a VTAA (Vermont Agency of Agriculture) approved sanitary custom slaughter facility (McNamara). The USDA revisions have taken away many of the benefits of on-farm slaughter for small farmers, as it is laborious and expensive to fund a certified slaughterer and facility.
The USDA cites safety as its main concern in restricting the legality of on-farm slaughter. The USDA and other food safety organizations claim that on-farm slaughter in an uncertified facility increases the risk of tainted meat. Traditionally, many small farmers slaughtered their animals in no facility at all, it was common practice to hang the carcass from a tree limb or tractor bucket and process it there, where it may have been exposed to flies and other undesirables. These operations were obviously not “clean” in the sense that they occured in a place that can be wiped down and sanitized, and the USDA could not inspect these activities to fulfill their role in ensuring the safety of the public’s food. Because of this, the USDA decided to only allow on-farm slaughtered meat to be sold if the livestock was killed in a facility inspected to ensure its safety. Additionally, on-farm slaughter leaves one with the task of disposing the entrails from the carcass, a potential contamination hazard for surrounding land and waterways. Inspected slaughterhouses, on the other hand, must adhere to rigorous safety standards regarding proper waste disposal (Larson).
Many small farmers are frustrated with the USDA’s changes to this law, as it hinders their effort to make a profit selling local meat. Due to small size, it is often prohibitively expensive and laborious to operate an inspected slaughter facility on the farm, and to become a certified slaughterer. In such cases, the USDA suggests instead sending the animals to a larger, fully USDA certified slaughterhouse. However, many small farmers find this option less than ideal, for large slaughterhouses are often quite a distance from the farm. Transporting livestock long distances is known to increase stress levels in the animals. Additionally, animals sometimes must stay a few days alive at the slaughterhouse prior to being killed. Often times this occurs in less than desirable conditions, adding even more stress to the animal (Estabrook). Many feel that the higher animal stress levels engendered by taking the animals to a slaughterhouse make this method less than humane. Conversely, killing the animal on the farm gives it the feeling of being perfectly at home and content before its life is quickly and humanely taken. Many also believe that raising an animal on pasture and slaughtering on the farm is safer and far less of a health risk than the methods of large farms and slaughterhouses. It is common practice at these large factory farms for animals for the animals to spend their entire life amid their own waste, which often cakes onto the hide. Some also contend that slaughtering livestock on the farm is an integral part of promoting local food, for it cannot be very local if the animal was slaughtered 100 miles away, no matter how close to the consumer it was raised. Moreover, many see the open, completely transparent nature of on-farm slaughter as one of its foremost benefits. At a conventional slaughterhouse, killing and processing take place indoors, where it is invisible to the public, whereas slaughter on the farm would be completely visible to any customer. This provides many with a certain peace of mind, being able to see for certain that your animal was killed and processed cleanly and humanely, instead of just hoping that the slaughterhouse processed your animal satisfactorily.
Our food system has changed more in the last 60 years than it has changed in any other time period. We move increasingly away from our tradition, always in an attempt to escape the reality of our food and where it comes from. However, what some people are finding is that maybe our ancestors had it right, and small, simple farms are the way to go. To allow such small farms to flourish in providing meat to our population, some believe slaughtering on the farm must once again play a crucial role
- Ancel, Janet. “Legislative Documents.” Vermont Legislature. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2012. <http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/legdoc.cfm?URL=/docs/2008/bills/intro/H-749.HTM>.
- Estabrook, Barry. ” USDA Red Tape Stands in the Way of Humane Slaughter Techniques and Local, Sustainable Meat Production .” Politics of the Plate. N.p., 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 19 Jan. 2012. <http://politicsoftheplate.com/?p=212>.”Farm Fresh Meat | Rural Vermont.” Rural Vermont. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2012. <http://www.ruralvermont.org/issues-main/ffmeat/>.
- “Farm Fresh Meat | Rural Vermont.” Rural Vermont. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2012. <http://www.ruralvermont.org/issues-main/ffmeat/>.
- Larson, Jean. “Disposal of Dead Production Animals.” usda.gov. USDA, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. <www.nal.usda.gov/awic/pubs/carcass.htm>.
- McNamara, Katherine. “Update on On-Farm Slaughter.” Vermont Agriculture. Vermont Agency of Agriculture, 15 Dec. 2010. Web. 19 Jan. 2012. <vermontagriculture.com/fscp/meatInspection/documents/update_on_farm_slaughter.pdf>.
note: Chet told my brother that more than once he has returned to a farm a year after a slaughter, seen the cows lift their heads at his truck’s arrival, and they’ve turned and run.
All photos here by Caroline Atwood