the meat we eat

This is a post I have been mulling over for months now.  As we try to define our homesteading and lifestyle goals the topic of raising our own meat has been at the forefront of our minds.  Do we want to raise our own meat?  Do I want to slaughter the animals we have fed, tended to, and pet ?  If we do decide to raise our own meat do we want to butcher them ourselves or take them to a slaughterhouse?  If I am so uncomfortable with what meat is then should I perhaps give it up altogether?

 I love having and tending to animals.   There is something so sweetly quiet about the walk to the chicken coop; everything silenced by the freshly fallen snow; the dog racing to the coop and back again in an effort to hasten my pace; the cooing and clucking they welcome me with.  I would love to reconnect with the natural rhythm of animals and seasons.  I dream of  having a couple sheep for wool to spin, bees for honey and good conversation, a Flemish Giant rabbit and a goat for a few good laughs, more chickens for eggs and meat, and and cow for milk.  It all sounds romantic and homey when I say it like that doesn’t it?  But the reality is much more involved, complicated, and, for me, tortured.  The biggest thing being that a milk cow needs to have a calf each year in order to produce milk.  Do we sell or eat the sweet calf?  Romance gone.

I was raised in a family of lifelong responsible and respectable farmers and hunters and, yet, I have always struggled with eating meat.  Always.  I feel guilty when I question whether or not we should be entitled to eat meat or not as it puts my father’s livelihood into question and that makes me uncomfortable.  Even still, I can never quite disconnect from the fact that this beautiful creature died so I could eat it.  I imagine their fear and wonder what went through their minds in that last moment.  I wonder if their family misses them.  We dabbled in vegetarianism for about 9 months, but we did it in an unhealthy and unsustainable way.  We were unprepared as we had been raised eating meat at nearly every meal.

That being said, I don’t want to give up meat again.  I just don’t.  I do, however want to eat meat that was given room to roam, the ability to form natural bonds with other animals and the humans who cared for them.  In the words of Michael Pollan “…meat that had a really good life and one bad day…”.

We have gradually and permanently cut out conventionally raised meat and buy our organic, grass fed beef and pork from my father and step-mom’s farm.  When we run out, we simply eat meatless meals until we can get a visit in to their farm again.  We don’t have an affordable source for chicken so we don’t eat it.

So begins the conversation of starting into chickens for meat.  This would mean buying  a larger number of mixed sex day old chicks, raise them, and then either take the roosters to the butcher, or do the butchering ourselves.  I would be more comfortable with sending them away for processing, but is it about me or about the chickens?  Can I justify the stressful trip to a scary new place so that I feel better?  I eat meat and, therefore, am responsible for the death of an animal whether it is by my hands or someone else’s hands.

We recently were present when our friend Andrew slaughtered one of their own pigs.  For some reason it sounds more brutal when you say you slaughter your own animals, but their pig had a sweet little life and had no idea what her day would hold.  There was no stressful loading into a trailer, long trip to the butcher, unloading in unfamiliar surroundings nor an anxious wait.  She followed Andrew and the bucket of food up the hill where she began gobbling her feed and with a single shot  she left this world peacefully and quickly.

I have not yet made up my mind with regards to who will be doing the processing, but we have decided to take the plunge and raise some chickens for meat.  Running an old age home for old laying hens isn’t sustainable.  Rather than dying  and having the tough meat going to waste they will feed our family and revive the respect, connection, and reality of eating meat.  It is not a decision I have taken lightly nor is it one I am entirely comfortable with, but I am willing to push my own boundaries for the sake of learning and reconnecting.  This isn’t a topic most people are not comfortable with, but if you’re eating meat and have no intention of stopping, it is time to get comfortable with where it comes from.

Have you struggled with these same feelings?  What was your solution?  Is this a path you’re heading down yourself?  I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences so please feel free to share in the comments.

A friend shared a really great video with a very graphic, very respectful how to video.  It is two parts so make sure you find both if you want more after the first.  She is very sweet and makes the process seem like a doable process of life as a homesteader.

go gently + be wonderful


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  1. Posted January 23, 2012 at 1:35 pm by Lynnette | Permalink

    Erin, I have so many of the same issues with eating meat, yet we still do.Honestly, the one idea I had not thought about is the stressful trip to the butchers. Thank you for bringing that up. I have thought about raising chickens but in the past the bears that go right through our small property to get to the river have eaten our neighbors’ chickens.
    thank you for this post, it is hard to write about some topics but I believe you did so honestly and with gentleness.

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 1:40 pm by erin | Permalink

      Thanks so much for writing and sharing.
      It was a tricky post to write, but the blog is about our journey and this is a huge part of our journey.
      Thank you for the kind words.

  2. Posted January 23, 2012 at 2:42 pm by Meryl | Permalink

    Every year that we’ve had chickens, we’ve had an accidental rooster. Good homes for them have materialized in “meant-to-be” ways, but I keep talking about raising a meat flock one of these years for a lot of the same reasons you are talking about. It feels hypocritical to eat meat and not think about where it comes from.

    I’m interested to hear how this goes for you, and wish you good luck!

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 3:14 pm by erin | Permalink

      I will keep you posted 😉

  3. Posted January 23, 2012 at 2:45 pm by Joan | Permalink

    Is there someone who raises chickens for meat near you that does their own processing? I eat meat very seldom (and only local, ethical meat) and thought I could never kill my own chickens. After a processing session at my friend’s farm I realized I could do it! Other people realized they couldn’t do it. There are parts I am good at (scalding/taking off the head and feet) and parts at which I’m not so good. But if you have a crew for all of those chickens, it can be a team effort and people get paid in lovely fresh, organic, local chicken! We did somewhere around 30 chickens each time. So if you can participate in a workshop or have a friend who will teach you, this may help.

    BTW: I have never hunted or killed anything before doing the chickens (not even frog dissection in HS) and it was pretty intense. The transformation from farm animal to FOOD was quickly realized and helped me overcome my doubts. Good luck!

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 3:13 pm by erin | Permalink

      This is really great to hear/read. I think it would be best to do it all in one go with lots of people to help out.
      Thanks for writing and sharing!

  4. Posted January 23, 2012 at 3:14 pm by sarah | Permalink

    I have so many of these same thoughts, but for me it is made worse by the fact that I have to eat meat on a semi-regular basis as I have chronic anemia, but I can’t afford to buy free-range meat. So every time I have a meat dinner, I know the suffering which has occured so I can eat it. I also know that I am ingesting the toxins from that suffering – both physically and spiritually.

    I’d prefer to be vegetarian – but then I also think plants are living things too (and I know people will laugh at me for that.) In the end, we all – animals and plants – have to consume from this living world in order to live. The question is, what will we give back, how will we create balance?

    I think by killing the animals respectfully, with kindness, that goes a long way towards keeping balance. And also raising a sustainable herd, and giving them a quality life.

    I would like to find a local hal-al butcher as that may partly solve some of my issues.

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 3:33 pm by erin | Permalink

      I agree that it is a fine balance of life and death…a cycle.
      Thank you for the thought provoking share.

  5. Posted January 23, 2012 at 7:02 pm by Mandy | Permalink

    As a child my parents raised and butchered chickens. It isnt as bad as it seems and the taste and quality of the meat is far superior, as you already know. At some point you just have to separate the 2 things. For me as an adult, I was able to work in scientific labs doing surgeries on animals, not because I was inhumane, but because I separated the two, love for the animal, and the cause. Remind yourself of this and you will be fine. In a years time you will be an old pro. I promise. You can still love the chicken as well, enjoy the process until its time has come :)

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 8:46 pm by erin | Permalink

      I think you’re right, though it something I always struggle with.
      Thanks :)

  6. Posted January 23, 2012 at 8:40 pm by Greer | Permalink

    Great post. I recently read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and it has had a huge impact on me. I’m not going to give up meat, but I can no longer buy and eat meat whose origin I’m ignorant of. The goal, eventually, is to raise our own. It’s a scary responsibility but I feel confident I can do it and all the scary stuff it entails. Good luck with your chooks x

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 8:44 pm by erin | Permalink

      I think you sum it up perfectly when you say it is a scary responsibility.
      Thanks for writing!

  7. Posted January 23, 2012 at 9:05 pm by L.Bo Marie | Permalink

    Erin… beautiful writing. These are things I’ve been mulling over for some time. And not having the funds to be able to purchase meat that’s been raised and killed the way I’d rather it be done has driven me crazy. I was raised mostly meat and potatoes, so my adventures into vegetarianism have been short (though tasty)… I don’t know that my stomach and my brain will ever come to an agreement about meat.
    So anyway… I made myself a life list 12? years ago, and one of the things on it was to be part of the process of the food that I eat from beginning to end. (this was after being employed in an industrial chicken hatchery between high school and university)
    My thought was, if I’m going to eat meat, I want to be aware of the investment that meat involves… what is it’s cost? not just it’s cost in dollars, what is it’s cost to my land, it’s cost to my emotions, it’s cost to the animal… it’s cost in my time… all those things and more.
    I had no idea how to make that happen until this last summer I was given a chick. I live a block from downtown… chick wasn’t allowed to be a rooster -according to my bewildered neighbours- (those poor folks don’t know what to do with me!) So, I made the promise that if it turned out to be a rooster, I’d be responsible and “take care of things”.
    It didn’t turn out to be a rooster, but the resolve was there. I just had to make the decision that I could do it. … thankfully I came to that decision, and found that resolve before chicken number two (oops! I brought another home) started crowing.
    The two biggest things that led me to that resolve were videos that I found online. The first, a terrible video I never want to see again- part of the documentary “if slaughterhouses had glass walls”… terribly terribly graphic… but sadly still not enough to turn me off meat. The second was a video by this AMAZING woman named Alexia Allen. I was blown away!!! Here was life respected, but…. very practical…

    In the end Cameron (previously Camilla) went quietly and calmly, both he and I.
    He was delicious. I was proud… and part of me really only wants to eat meat I’ve raised and killed. (the forever broke part of me recognizes that it’s not possible)

    Joan’s idea is amazing.. I would SO be a part of one of those groups working to process together. seriously… so so so seriously.

    Here’s a link to that video by Alexia (it’s a two parter).

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm by erin | Permalink

      Oh I am so glad you shared that video. She is such a sweet woman who makes it seem like such a doable task that can be very respectful.
      I must share this within the blog post too.
      If we end up doing a big processing day down the road you will be the first on our list to call into action! I promise.
      Thanks so much for writing and being so excited!

  8. Posted January 23, 2012 at 9:06 pm by L.Bo Marie | Permalink

    oooo. sorry that was so long.. I spent all day thinking and waiting to get near a computer!

  9. Posted January 24, 2012 at 8:23 am by Stephanie K. | Permalink

    We raised our own meat birds, and when it came time to kill them, I was glad. The chicks you get from the local feed store gain fast, and there are all kinds of gross things about them…they lie in their own excrement so that when the time comes to slaughter them, all the feathers are burned off their breast. We encouraged them to wander outside but all they did was sit in the coop eating, eating, eating. I want to look into another breed that maybe doesn’t gain as fast or as much, but that behave more like “natural” chickens (ie like our laying hens…dust baths, exploring, roosting, etc.). When it came time to kill them, we called our friend who has a “chicken truck”…he drives to your farm and processes your birds right there beside the barn. I liked that they only had a moment of fear before they were very humanely and quickly slaughtered (rather than the terror of travelling in a noisy vehicle to a slaughterhouse). We have friends who hunt and raise and process all their own meat, and I’m tempted at times to raise a pig of our own This year will be the year where I offer them my help so I can learn about the process. It’s a heck of a lot of work and mess, and my worry with doing it myself is that I won’t be efficient, and the animals will suffer because of my inexperience/hesitation, you know? I heard that pigs are as intelligent as dogs and that made me feel badly about the idea. It’s a hot-topic for sure. We have lots of local farmers who are raising their meat humanely, and although it’s more costly than grocery store meat, it’s lovely to see where the animals lived…happy lives. I’m not sure of how efficient it is for all of us small farmers to be raising EVERYTHING…while I like the idea of having a self-sustaining homestead, I think it’s more efficient to raise a few things, and to let other farmers raise THEIR things, and then to barter what you raise for what they raise. I have to work outside the home, too, so I know that affects my thinking on this. We ARE looking to get some goats as soon as we can; raising our own milk and eggs THRILLS me.
    Great post, as always!

    • Posted January 24, 2012 at 10:06 am by erin | Permalink

      I shared a video that a friend shared with me at the bottom of the post. A really soft natured chicken whisperer type woman honouring the animal and slaughtering in such a calm manner. It was really inspiring.
      I am so excited for you to get goats and look forward to reading more about it.
      My thing is more having animals for the things they can give us without death. That is magic, but not the whole picture. I am channeling my inner Gramma; I know she didn’t like the task either, but she did it.
      Thanks again for writing! Always a great read.

  10. Posted January 24, 2012 at 8:25 am by Stephanie K. | Permalink

    PS When we ordered our meat-chicks (ew, that sounds awful) we ordered mix sex so that we ended up with some 8 pound chickens, and some 11 pounds…roosters can get nasty when they’re all clumped together in a smallish space; Iiked how it worked out for us.

    • Posted January 24, 2012 at 10:07 am by erin | Permalink

      That would be the plan and then the roosters and “old” laying hens who weren’t laying would then be for the freezer…

  11. Posted January 24, 2012 at 1:08 pm by L.Bo Marie | Permalink

    lol… backyardchicken forum calls it “going to freezer camp”.

    here’s a link to an interesting permaculture article … somewhere at the bottom it talks about meat bird types- even a fun long term plan to develop a home-grown breed of meaties that would act a little more like real chickens. I like some of the ideas in the article too. There must be a good source out there in one of the forums about meat birds and dual purpose birds… I’m going on an info hunt!

  12. Posted January 24, 2012 at 5:26 pm by KarenW | Permalink

    We had old hens kicking around the house. They make great chicken stock and stew. Put the pot on (your woodstove) with carrots, onions and celery and just let it stew away long and slow. I personally think they have more flavor.

  13. Posted January 24, 2012 at 8:21 pm by Jenn | Permalink

    Great post Erin! We’re having the exact same debate over here. We only buy our meat from organic, humane farms and will only stop when we’re able to raise our own meat. But it’s really nice to hear that others wonder if their families miss them, what their final thoughts were, etc… and whether it’s fair to put an animal in a stressful situation simply to make it easier on ourselves. We are so there, and I honestly think we’ll have to find a local abbatoir to take care of it for us, atleast to start with – which I’m not comfortable with, but like you, we aren’t ready to stop eating meat. So we’ll stick with the animals that had a wonderfully happy life, with one bad day. Thank you for sharing these thoughts on the blog, with so few like minded folk around (especially these parts, I think you might be more fotunate in that department where you are) it’s nice to feel connected to a real person LoL

    • Posted January 24, 2012 at 9:31 pm by erin | Permalink

      Whereabouts are you guys again? We should probably get together this summer…
      Always nice to know we’re not alone.

  14. Posted January 28, 2012 at 7:49 pm by Amanda | Permalink

    I don’t eat much meat, but the meat that we do buy is from organic farms. When we first moved to this area I had to do a lot of research to find what would be acceptable for my family and myself. I know we pay more probably for the organic meat, but I feel better knowing what the animal probably lived a nicer life with better care and concern for its overall well being, then picking up cheap cuts from a box store. According to my dh, there is a big taste difference. He cannot stand the taste of mega commercial meat. We cannot raise our own, but I think the least we can do is chose as wisely as we can for our own family. good luck :)

  15. Posted January 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm by Ginny | Permalink

    Erin, we struggle with the meat issue too. We buy local humanely raised meats and it costs a small fortune to feed our family. Our plan is to raise our own meat in the future. We are waiting to find our forever farm first though. My husband and I sat down to watch the video of the chicken slaughter. He watched the entire thing no problem, but I found my stomach tied up in nervous knots, and had to walk back over the my sewing machine when she got out the knife. That being said–she truly has a great attitude and that is obviously the way it needs to be done. I don’t believe that I will ever be able to do it. I just watched a video about a farm local to me–the farmer talks about the hardest part being the day the animals are loaded up to go to slaughter. He believes that having a relationship with the animals is so important–and tries not to allow himself to detach as the day for slaughter comes closer. That would be so hard for me. I feel that if we ever raise animals for meet, that I would have to be detached. I can’t imagine another way. Humane treatment is a must, but I don’t believe in making pets out of what will eventually be my dinner. Otherwise I would end up with a farm full of expensive pets (that never get eaten :)

    • Posted January 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm by erin | Permalink

      I am glad you “enjoyed” the video. I still don’t think I will EVER be able to do it with my own hands, but I found her really calming and gentle and it helped me see that it can be a respectful and even emotional act in which you are grateful and kind to the animal right to the end. I feel exactly as you do, but the thing I keep coming back to is that I am responsible for the death of an animal every time I eat meat whether by my hand or someone else’s. Do I send them away to a stressful situation so that I feel better or do I get over my own issues and give them peace until the very end?
      I know the right answer, but I struggle with it still. :)
      Look forward to seeing you find your forever farm!

      • Posted January 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm by Ginny | Permalink

        I absolutely agree on the sending them away part–We wouldn’t do that–I just know that it will never be me doing the killing. That will be Jonny’s job!

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