Although I love farming, I can’t say I’m particularly enamored with farm animals. Our farm property lacked fencing when I bought it, and the expense and labor of installing fence has given me a great excuse throughout the years to avoid forays into keeping cattle, sheep, goats, or any other four-footed livestock, including horses, those iconic money pits of rural people. I’m intimidated by the responsibility livestock require, and I worry about having a large capital investment in stock that I could easily kill through ignorance and neglect. Looking out over a field of vegetables or an orchard might make my heart sing, but looking out over grazing cattle makes my heart sing only if they’re in our neighbor’s field.
My wife, however, grew up on a small farm in Pennsylvania, where her father fearlessly dabbled in raising every kind of livestock, from milk goats to cattle to roller pigeons. Through the rose-tinged memories of her childhood, she remembers how much fun it was to keep farm animals, and so since we have been married she has been after me to add livestock to the mix of our already very mixed farming operation. I’ve always known she is right, as no natural system functions without animals, and ecological design strategies such as permaculture insist that domesticated livestock should play some role in a healthy and diversified agricultural system. Even so, I dragged my feet.
Two years ago, Cyndi finally held sway, and I made a small step toward the animal kingdom by agreeing to raise laying hens. We took a two-pronged approach to establishing our flock. First, we bought a straight run (i.e. random sexes) of naturally-hatched, mixed-breed chicks from a neighbor. So that we wouldn’t have to wait months for those chicks to start laying, we also went to a nearby large-scale chicken farmer who raises about 20,000 laying hens a year and sells the eggs for breeding purposes. He only keeps his layers for one season, and then sells full-grown, already-laying hens to individuals in the area before sending the remaining thousands off for butchering. On that visit, I remember vividly the awful living conditions of those birds, crammed into a huge, crowded building, running over top of each other, and all debeaked so they wouldn’t kill each other in their boredom and frustration. We went home with birds of several different varieties, glad to rescue even a few from those circumstances.
Several of the straight-run chicks turned out to be roosters, and several of them turned out to be mean, both to the hens and to each other. We sold some to a neighbor, and I planned to butcher the rest. However, our twin daughters, who had helped care for the chicks as they grew, had grown attached to one poor rooster who had been at the bottom of the pecking order. And yes, they had named him: “Fluffy, the Roostery Chicken.” How do you butcher a chicken named Fluffy? Eva and Clare insisted that the hens needed him, and I relented.
I did dispatch the rest to our kitchen table, however. I didn’t grow up hunting or on a farm, so aside from picking off a few sparrows with pellet guns as a boy and the everyday squashing and swatting of bugs, this was my first time to take the life of another living, breathing creature, intentionally and at close range. It was not, to be sure, a particularly pleasant experience – and certainly not helped by my inexperience and reticence as a butcher.
And yet I’m glad of it – far more than the roosters, I’m sure. Although I’m mostly vegetarian, I do believe that eating meat can be a morally and ecologically responsible practice (more on that in another post at some point). But I also believe that those of us who eat meat should have some sense of what it is like to take an animal’s life: that ambiguous admixture of repulsion, fascination, guilt and gratitude. Even though it’s not practical for us all to raise and slaughter animals (though it is indeed possible for many more than might realize it) it seems that most of us could find some middle ground between blood on our own hands and the abstraction of buying conventional supermarket meat and paying others to do our dirty work for us, which is ultimately far more cruel to animals and to those who raise and process them.
Of the hens we rescued from the confinement operation, all but one have died, picked off by coyotes or dogs, or just gone missing. The holdout is, literally, a really tough old bird, who fit in well with the rest of our laying flock. With the exception of having to deal with Fluffy, who has made up for his previous low status by an almost hyperactive servicing of as many hens as he can, the old hen has had a good sort of chicken existence on our farm – good enough, I hope, to redeem the misery she endured in her previous life.
But now she has stopped laying consistently (or at all). In the case of this geriatric chicken, then, a tug-of-war has begun between sentimentality and practicality, two competing impulses on a small farm. I know that practicality will ultimately win out in this case, although sentimentality has already given this chicken a far longer life than any chicken might expect on a farm. And pragmatic as I am, I don’t apologize for also being sentimental. Raising livestock on a small scale always presents a paradox: you end up killing and eating animals which you have come to hold in some affection.
Paradox is what keeps things interesting, however – on a farm, in theology and spirituality, in human relationships, in all of the created order. There are few simple, clear answers to any question having to do with how we make our way in the world of nature, culture, and spirit. To farm well, then, as to live or pray or love well, is to embrace the ambiguity of a Creation and Creator far more complex and mysterious than most religious people want to admit. One thing is very clear, however: Fluffy the Roostery Chicken isn’t going anywhere soon.