Chicken Harvest: Conscientious Consumption

| 8/14/2008 4:07:50 PM

Ever since they arrived on a cold, sunny day in April, I worked hard to keep nine broiler chicks alive. The first week of June, I killed them.

People who know my over-the-top affection for all things furred and feathered had bet I couldn’t do it, but I didn’t even wonder about it. If I’m going to continue eating meat, I have to know that the animal lived well and died humanely. I can vouch for those nine birds.

I kept them warm in a borrowed brooder house until they feathered out enough to move into my garden. Preston built a floorless, A-frame coop so they could glide along the fallow rows, eating insects and a ryegrass cover crop. We watched them chase their first bugs and sample their first blades of tender grass inside their wire condo. Before I knew what was happening my Celtic distaste for penned animals took over, scrapping our plans for their orderly life. I threw open their door to the entire garden, shouting: “Live it up, time’s a wasting, life is short!”

Or is it? Maybe lifespan is relative. Perhaps each week is like a decade for a bird that’s genetically programmed to mature at two months and self destruct at three. Legs start breaking under the weight. Hearts and lungs can’t keep up with the mammoth bodies.

As they approached their eighth week, mine did look elderly. When they spied me coming with their feed bucket they would waddle at full speed on bowed legs, short wings flapping for an extra boost. The roosters still held mock battles, bumping into each other’s broad chests like so many Pillsbury dough birds before plopping back down on their rumps. By then the rumps were conspicuously dirty from resting so often in the holes they dug in the soft garden soil. They still sprinted to the compost pile to compete for earthworms lounging near the surface, but the effort made them wheeze.

Watching them grow helped me see my place in the big picture. I can’t absorb energy from the sun, but ryegrass can. I can’t digest grass, but chickens relish it and then convert it into tasty protein for me. The other links in the food chain have become real.

10/8/2008 6:45:15 PM

I have a question. With large scale chicken production, at the "factory" at the end of the day, what are there more of left: chicken pieces (legs, breasts, thighs) or wings? By that I wonder if we are harvesting for the demand of wings or the other parts. I'm guessing it is wings. Is there a manager who tallies the wings vs body parts and orders the higher number (wings) divides by 2 and the rest of the parts go into hot dogs, lunch meat ect...?

Sharon Hoggard_1
9/30/2008 10:11:48 AM

Gwen: I just read your book and I loved it so. I was lucky to spend a lot of time on my houseboat on the Mississippi river. I live in a small river town and have a 24x24 garden in which I grow wonderful things. I compost, never a leaf goes to waste. We have chickens and I love the eggs and meat. I find you to be amazing, a true pioneer. I would so love to be able to correspond with you if at all possible. I love the story of your life.

Sharon Hoggard_1
9/30/2008 10:03:15 AM

Gwen: I grow a wonderful garden on the banks of the Mississippi river in Iowa. It is amazing what I harvest from my 24x24 space. It is wonderful sandy soil. I also grow and harvest chickens. We love the eggs and meat. I was lucky to spend a lot of time on a houseboat on the Mississippi river and I so enjoyed your book on your life in the bayou. It was just too short. I am sure you have heard that before. I would so love to correspond with you a little more on this. I had dreamed at one point in my life to cook on a barge so I could see the rivers. I even dreamed of being a river pilot. You are an amazing and talented person and I so admire the adventurous manner that you have lived your life.

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