Friday, August 12, 2011

What I Learned from the Slaughterhouse

Here is my equivalent of a glamour shot: hair pulled back under a bandana, big yellow butcher apron covering my clothes, a knife in one hand, and an animal foot in the other!

When I first started working at the slaughterhouse, it took me some time to become used to the process. I have always been on the carnivorous side of the omnivore lifestyle, and I have always held a firm belief in the circle of life. Despite this, it does take an adjustment to be able to handle the reality of working in a slaughterhouse. For the first year that I was there, I observed the kill floor, but did not participate much in the process. Eventually, there was a day that our Christian employee was unexpectedly unable to be at work. We had both Muslim & Christian customers, and our goal was to serve their religious & cultural needs for their food products. Thus, I had to step up and perform the Christian kills to suit the needs of the Ethiopians & Eritreans that were purchasing animals that day.

I had observed the kill completed on an animal hundreds of times by that point, but I do vividly recall doing it myself for the first time. Mohamed held the sheep down to ensure the animal did not struggle, and to keep me safe as well (after all, a 200 pound ewe has the weight advantage on me!) I followed the procedure I had been taught: one stroke of the blade with a sure hand to sever both the carotid and the jugular as quickly as possible. I stepped back from the large sheep, as Mohamed held the animal to allow it to bleed out rapidly. I can remember with clarity standing there with the knife in my hand, and letting the impact sink in. For the first time, I felt that I was really taking ownership of my position at the slaughterhouse. If I was going to be the general manager, if I was going to be an advocate for local meats, if I was going to promote animal agriculture -- then I needed to be a part of EVERY step of the process.

From that day on, I made it my responsibility to learn every step of the process. I was already the "staff expert" on stomach cleaning, but I worked to learn the appropriate skinning process as well. Some things I was skilled at (bandsaw, you are mine!), and other things I struggled with (I can wrestle 120-140 pound lambs out of a pen . . . but I would rather not!) One part I always enjoyed was the evisceration process. I am fascinated by the anatomy of the animal and how each part of the body functions. In the picture above, the pig carcass has been skinned & washed. The next step was to open the mid-section, to remove the stomach, intestines, and internal items.

By working with the inside of the animal, I have learned a great deal about taking care of the outside of the animal. Intestines that split apart when you try to clean them? Parasite overload! That goat needed a good de-wormer. Lungs that are hard & purple? Pneumonia. Livers with hard spots? Possible parasites . . . must trim these off before releasing to the customer. We would even see bizarre things, like the goat that had testicles AND ovaries. The thousands of animals that I opened up taught me numerous lessons to make me a better farmer.

Slaughter isn't glamorous, but it is a part of the process of raising & enjoying food! The more we share with the public about what we do, the better educated they will be to make their own decisions on food. Besides, who doesn't enjoy a good slaughterhouse story?!?

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