Caution: This post describes the slaughtering of turkeys in graphic detail.
I can't say I was sorry to see our turkeys go. They had taken to breaking free in the dead of night. Rounding up wandering turkeys in my pyjamas was getting old. Last Friday we put the homemade wooden cap on the back of DH's truck and threw all the turkeys into the back of it. Or, rather, we carefully placed them, not wanting to damage their limbs.
There are very few abattoirs left in Ontario, and fewer still that will process poultry. However, if you want to sell your animals they must be processed at an inspected facility. The closest one to us is an hour away.
When we got there, some trucks were already lined up. The people who bring their birds to an abattoir like this are all small producers. In Ontario, if you do not have meat chicken quota, you are only allowed to raise 300 chickens and 50 turkeys per year- in other words, not enough to make a living on. People raise these meat birds primarily as a hobby, or to make a few bucks on the side. We met everyone from farmers-from-way-back, whose speech we could not easily understand, to the gentrifying farmer who moved from the city and sells to other rich retirees.
We waited for some time and then received word that we were held up because the water heater was malfunctioning. Nobody knew how long it would be, if indeed it could be fixed. Men started circulating to one another's vehicles to complain and socialize. The inspector, in a fantastical costume made up of white cotton pants and shirt, hair net, hardhat and grass-green lab coat, came around to look over everyone's birds. The birds themselves started getting restless.
Eventually the line was moving again. We pulled up into the next position. DH and I went over to the entranceway, where people take their birds out and load them onto the assembly line, in order to see if we could be of any help. I hadn't seen this area before. Birds are taken from their transportation enclosures and hung by their feet. Turkeys go still as soon as they are upside down. Chickens squawk and flap their wings for a short time before pacifying. At the opposite end from where the chickens are loaded is the entranceway into the rest of the processing facility. Outside this entranceway, like a guard, stands the man with the knife. It is electrified, to stun the birds, and from time to time he sharpens it on a rod of steel. This man has blood spattered on his white rubber apron, on his shirt and even on his face. There is blood pooled on the floor. As the birds are propelled towards him, he quickly and efficiently slices open their necks. Just beyond the entranceway, a young Mennonite man with a light fluff of facial hair and a straw hat removes the birds from the conveyor and dunks them into the scalding tank then passes them on. Scalding the birds loosens their feathers, the better for plucking.
A feeling welled up in me, as impossible to ignore as nausea. I had to get away from there. I went back over and stood near our truck. From the back of the truck, the turkeys blinked at me. They had worn themselves out and were trying to find enough room to sit down and sleep. Every now and then they would get riled up and flap their wings in the confined space. After a while I sat down in the passenger seat and watched the people around me. I started to feel as though I was watching a carnival freakshow- everyone seemed to be a strange character: the grinning man with the knife, the yokel with gaping mouth and half un-tucked shirt, the man with pointy brown teeth, the woman with waist-length blond hair and almond eyes. . .the slaughter was a twisted peep show. I noticed that on the ground beside me lay a die. How could it have gotten there? It seemed like a symbol of Fate.
In a flash I realized I was letting my imagination wander too far. DH came jogging over to drive our truck into position. There were enough men around to help that I didn't have to load any of the turkeys.
An elderly man tottered over. “Things are moving, but slowly,” I said, assuming he was come from farther back in the line to check on progress.
“Well,” he said, “I don't move too fast myself.”
I chatted with him and the other men. We swapped stories and farming techniques. A farmer from a nearby county decided he should raise his prices when we told him our rates. Many people selling free range birds seem to undervalue their product, selling a vastly superior bird for less than grocery-store prices.
All told, a trip to the slaughterhouse is a fairly social event. It's a time to work together, for people who often work alone. It's a chance to compare notes and commiserate about the woes of smalltime producers.
Our turkeys were all unloaded and sent down the line. We picked them up, frozen, the next day and we've now sold half our stock. I'm extremely proud of our birds. This time we made them just the desirable size- ten to fifteen pounds.
This Sunday, we'll roast a larger one to share with whoever shows up to work on our house. We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to grow animals in the manner we deem most appropriate and we are so fortunate to have meat at our table.