Sheep and Lambs at Dickinson Farm, May 2011
Scott Hoffman and I are both Student Workers at the Dickinson Farm in Carlisle, PA, a 180-acre farm that raises vegetables for our cafeteria, runs a vegi CSA, and is just starting to produce meat. The farm’s main goal is to provide educational opportunities in sustainable, organic agriculture to the college community. This Wednesday, Scott and I went along with Matt, the Assistant Director of the farm, to bring lambs to slaughter. Following the experience, Scott wrote this essay, reflecting on our trip:
It is a seemingly innocuous request, one very much in line with my goal of no longer being ignorant about where my food comes from. “Do you want to help take the lambs to the slaughterhouse next Wednesday?” I unhesitatingly say yes, due to the ignorance-eliminating potential of this task and the fact that I love farm jobs that require travel. The week goes by (it’s finals, so it goes by very slowly and very quickly at the same time) and 6:10 Wednesday morning comes very early. Quickly and groggily, I dress, make coffee, grab truck keys, meet Daniel, load compost (not too many buckets this morning- do people just stop eating during finals?), drive to farm, meet Matt. We are excited. We shake hands and he thanks us for coming. The sun rises, a beautiful pink and purple (though overcast) sky, as we walk to where the flock is in the kidney bean field (so named because of its shape, not because of its contents). Matt leads the sheep with “sheep candy” (chicken feed) and Daniel and I make sure there are no stragglers. Once the whole flock (13) is in a permanent pen, Matt coaches us on strategies to isolate the male lambs, distinguishable from the females because their tails haven’t been docked. There are three, and working as a team we grab them one by one and lift them out of the pen. They’re heavier than I expected- about 150 pounds each- and I have to concentrate on holding them firmly around the neck and what would be a waist on a sheep for fear of them getting loose and running off. I had my first lesson in how difficult it is (very) to catch sheep when they’re not in a pen a few weeks ago when I opened a gate I shouldn’t have. However, no significant problems occur, and we get the lambs in the bed of the truck relatively easily.
After a quick conversation with the boss (next time, we are to put a tarp over the top of the truck bed), three men and three sheep depart. The ride to the slaughterhouse takes about 45 minutes. We talk mostly about sheep (shearing, optimal time for lambing, etc.– I calculate that the lambs riding behind us in the bed are about seven months old) but also about spelunking and bus rapid transit, among other topics. Daniel and I both look up immensely to Matt as a teacher, a mentor, a farmer, and a person- I believe I can speak for both of us when I say that I aspire to emulate Matt both in terms of his demeanor and his accomplishments. Thus, we listen carefully when he gives us these details and try to ask as many questions as we can. The conversation ends abruptly with promises of continuing soon when we reach the slaughterhouse, a small industrial-looking complex.
We wait our turn to back up to the gate and watch another farmer unload several large pink pigs from a trailer. Two slaughterhouse workers wait in the bay, donning plastic aprons and a plastic chain around their waist containing several knives. It is at the point when I see the workers that I begin to realize the reality and gravity of the situation I’ve just walked into. The small bay has a concrete floor, a complex of metal pens, and is presently housing five pigs, all fairly active. I am dimly aware of the loud noise being made by one of the pigs, but am focusing on the task at hand, unscrewing some boards we had in place to keep the lambs from jumping out on the ride. Matt and Daniel climb in the bed of the truck and coax the lambs out, onto a ramp and into the bay once I’ve finished.
From here things begin to happen very quickly. It is unclear if Daniel and I are to follow the lambs and Matt past the squealing pig pens into a room adjacent to the bay so we hang back, but the confusion is resolved via a reassuring glance from Matt and we walk quickly through the bay into the next room. There are five sheep in this room, our three plus two others from another farm, and a conversation ensues regarding which of the two new sheep are haired. This seems a little contrived to me given the imminent event, which is made even more poignant by the large pool of blood on the floor. Matt, Daniel, and I were alone with the sheep for a minute but now another worker enters, wearing the same apron and knives as the first two. Matt apologizes if we’re in the way (we want to watch, we want to understand, or at least I do), and the worker states that we must go back into the bay as he’s worried about “the bullet bouncing.” We all peer through a small vertical window in the door as the worker wields a .22 and aims for a few seconds. We hear a pop and then open the door fully to see one of our lambs down on its front legs. The worker roughly drags the lamb to the floor and using one of the knives, slits its throat. There is more blood. I become aware that I’m slightly nauseous, but remind myself that it’s only cells, I’ve seen blood before, I’ve killed animals before. The nausea increases as I see the worker unceremoniously drag the lamb, alive seconds ago (later Matt makes a remark about the fragility of life), over a ledge and into the next room. The sheep convulses slightly; I try to convince myself that the lamb is dead and residual neuronal activity is causing this but I can’t really be sure. I begin to contemplate scenarios in which I throw up.
We are now alone in the room again with four lambs, all huddled very close together in a corner with their faces away from us. I stare. Matt opens the door to the next room to inquire about paperwork, and it is made clear that we need to go to a different area to complete it, that we don’t need to be in this area any more. In a display of respect for animals that seems fit, just, humane and in stark contrast to the worker’s approach, Matt goes over to our remaining two lambs, strokes their heads and says goodbye, thanks them. He lingers for a little, clearly feeling something for these animals he has lived with for the last seven months. I watch his face; he looks somber, serious. I am almost moved to tears. I suppose this is why we don’t name the sheep.
Back in the bay, my attention is drawn fully at this point to the source of the (now hellish) squealing from before, which is happening every five minutes when a dark brown male pig attempts to mount a female pig in the same small pen. The female moves quickly in circles around the pen until the male is thrown off, a maneuver to be repeated several times in the few minutes we’re in the bay. There is another male in the pen with them, and no workers are here to witness this. Perhaps I am anthropomorphizing, but I feel like what I’m witnessing is attempted pig rape. Matt corroborates this, saying something about pig sexual assault (I believe he’s only half-joking) and I feel disgusted at what again appears to be lack of proper treatment of animals, in this case highly intelligent ungulates.
I think we’re all in shock a little (or at least I am) as we drive the truck around to complete paperwork. Polite conversation and logistics with another worker, a woman with a camo baseball cap involved in the processing of the meat into burgers, steaks, etc. She candidly remarks that she likes Daniel’s hat. I am to return in a week to pick up the meat. I’m not really looking forward to it.
The conversation in the truck, naturally, addresses what we just witnessed. Though the lambs we just slaughtered lived the best life of any lambs anywhere (never confined, allowed to run with the flock, plenty of feed and fresh pasture), admittedly the very end of their life was downright shitty. Matt remarks that if he were to be killed, it wasn’t such a bad place to go. We know he’s right; because this is a small operation and not a huge plant that processes hundreds of animals per hour, the care of any individual animal is going to be a little better than in the industrial plants. Still, we wonder if there’s not a better way, and realize that current law prevents the processing of animals for sale on the home farm. This is yet another potent reminder of the fact that the concentrated agribusiness model dominates, and that this model is, in addition to being unsustainable, inhumane. We also wonder about the effect on the workers, who surely would be desensitized (and clearly are) to killing after processing so many animals day after day.
After ten minutes or so of this debriefing, Matt receives a phone call and Daniel and I become distracted by an enigmatic lawn decoration. I realize later how quickly the transition went from being completely absorbed by the slaughter to resuming life as it was before this event. And so it must be, time doesn’t stop and we have other things to attend to. Still, Daniel and I agree in a later conversation, no one who saw that could not be affected by it.
This is the great tragedy in the modern food system; that we are so completely removed from the source of our food that if we were to see how it actually occurred, our eating habits would completely change. As long as giant agribusiness continues to be the paradigm, this forced and at the same time willful ignorance will continue to prevail. Lax bros, sorority girls, hipsters, librarians, physicists, doctors, teachers, schoolchildren, lawyers, policemen, day traders, cubicle sitters, the 99% and the 1%, will continue to perpetuate this system by their (our) rampant consumerism unless something is changed.
I already eat meat very sparingly, understanding that the amount of meat America consumes is inherently unsustainable. In the last 50 years, global population has doubled, but the number of animals produced for human consumption has quadrupled. Seeing the lamb slaughtered made it even more clear that eating less, or no, meat is the right thing to do. It was not the act of killing that made this so emotional; it was the lack of respect for life. An ideal world would see the killing of animals happen infrequently and with ceremony, yet the present reality sees animals processed by the thousands “as if they were wrenches,” to quote journalist, Mark Bittman. Seeing one of the “better” systems for processing animals makes me understand how badly most animals have it (way worse than our lambs), and this makes me want to work towards stopping that larger industrial process. The commidification of life needs to be stopped. The separation in our minds of living animals from everyday burgers needs to be eliminated.
That we eat more meat than we really need should be made blatantly obvious to the population as a whole; a large scale change in consumer behavior needs to be pushed. Legislation is needed to support small, sustainable farming practices, farmers are needed to start implementing those practices on a wider scale, and conscious consumers are needed to support both of these groups. The moral of the story, I suppose, is think next time you sink your teeth into a chicken sandwich. Respect life: eat less meat, and if you’re going to eat meat, buy from a farmer who knows his animals.
-Scott Hoffman, Dickinson Farm Worker