After reading Mark Bittman’s New York Times column about junk food from September 25, I investigated the local chapter of the Slow Food movement – Austin Slow Food. I found out they were going to visit Richardson Farms near Rockdale, TX, the following weekend. $20 covered the tour and a portion of locally-raised meats, so I was in.
Richardson Farms is a 200 acre farm that raises cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks…for human consumption. I went to see where meat comes from. I wanted to look in the faces of the animals that many of us eat. I wanted to see where they lived and, yes, where they die.
If I choose to eat meat, I want it to be with this complete knowledge.
Granted, Richardson Farms raises it’s animals under conditions that I would consider more humane than your average industrial ag operation. Does that make a difference? An animal farm that is more humane is still a production facility of life destined to be killed for our food – MY food (I am what many call a “flexitarian”).
I don’t have any moral judgements or philosophical certitudes to pass on, but what I can show are the images I captured.
At around 90 degrees or so, it was warm, but it was a lot better than 105, which has been the high temperature range most of the summer.
Jim Richardson (khaki shorts and baseball cap), the man who runs the farm, speaking to the Slow Food Austin group. Mr. Richardson is a veterinarian who says he loves his new career. The man knows his stuff when it comes to raising animals in a healthful, ecologically thoughtful manner.
Above – Turkeys for Thanksgiving. It’s hard to read the mind of a turkey, but I can tell you it sure looks like there isn’t much going on in those brains. They gawk and honk, mouths open, most of them with their heads turned in your direction. Like photocopies of a turkey, photoshopped onto the dirt landscape in front of you.
Above – Chickens. I saw one chicken sitting in the corner, seemingly unable to stand (I saw it make an attempt). I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but it did seem either hurt or sick. One pig kept tilting its head to one side, which they said was due to an ear infection and which they treated the pig for with antibiotics (they said the pig would not be sold for this reason). We did discuss how some animals die on the farm prior to slaughter. It seems that just like people, animals get injured or sick and some don’t make it. Still, I felt a pang of guilt for my small contribution to the confinement and eventual slaughter of animals who sometimes suffer various disabilities or injuries with/without notice from those who could correct the problem (lest we forget, many humans in our world also suffer disability and injury without notice). Is it my fault these animals are hurt? Does their pent-up animal prison condition increase the odds of injury? Am I the cause of pain for the occasional bite of chicken I enjoy?
Many of the chickens were missing feathers in patches, often on their backsides. According to Mrs. Richardson, this is because they peck at each other. You put a mob of birds in fairly close quarters and things are going to happen. I didn’t see any injuries or bleeding sores, but these weren’t the robust birds, fully feathered and ready for a magazine cover photo shoot, that I had in my mind. Still, I’m not sure that was a realistic image in the first place, and overall they looked healthy to me.
Above – A young turkey. I guess it’s fair to say that most of the birds had some part of them which was red and featherless where you’d expect feathers.
Above – It’s tempting to anthropomorphize animals (imagine they are more human than they really are), such as this pig, which seems to be smiling. Still, the pigs had shade, and mud to roll in. On the other hand, it would someday have it’s life prematurely ended for human gastronomical enjoyment (certainly not for the nutritional benefits).
Above – A shot from the “killing room.” Chickens’ heads go into the tubes and out the bottom. This is where their throats are cut. The silver box on the left is filled with scalding water to aid in feather removal. I considered not mentioning this part, but that’s part of the problem with today’s food culture in America – we don’t think about how the meal comes to our plate. I figure it’s better to know and decide on a particular food than to make a thoughtless decision. When we think of meat as easy to get, I think we’ll be more likely to mindlessly indulge in more of it than if we were fully away of the effort and grim realities that go into it’s delivery to our dinner table. Many understandably choose to not eat meat because they find these images repugnant and unnatural, and I understand completely.
Above – This machine spins and removes the feathers of birds dipped inside (they’re dead by this point).
Above – A pig wallow. Let me tell you, after a couple of hours in the dusty Central Texas heat, it looked inviting.
Above – Sorghum leaves.
My convenient, middle class, and Western lifestyle has meant I have the luxury of thinking animal farming and slaughter is a bit brutish. It’s not necessarily so for all the world’s people, who may raise or hunt animals for necessary food without a twinge of moral confusion. For we Americanos not wanting to bloody our Banana Republic slacks, Richardson Farms falls somewhere on the sunshine-y side of the continuum of livestock operations which starts at bucolic, idyllic pastures where you’d almost imagine the animals are happy to be your meal and goes to behemoth, frightening flesh mills. The Richardsons seem to be genuine people who care about the animals, the ecosystem, and their customers.
But do the animals notice the difference? Do our bodies notice the difference when we consume animals from “nicer” farms as opposed to grimier operations? Do our spirits notice a difference? What about the spirits of the people slaughtering animals repeatedly? (I once read that violent crime is higher in areas with more slaughterhouses.)
Does anyone deserve judgment for enjoying a meal of their choosing? Aren’t they doing just what they’ve learned? Is the morality of animal consumption relative – or absolute?
My research into correct diets leads me to believe that minimizing our consumption of animals is in our best interest. Beyond that, it’s up to each person to decide if, and how much, they should consume them. In any case, it behooves us to know from where our food comes and make choices which align with our personal values.
What do YOU think?