For some reason, I didn’t expect its blood to be warm. More than warm. Its blood was hot, and as it flowed down my hand – the hand that was wrapped around its neck – I was surprised. Hours earlier, I had been the one responsible for submerging this turkey’s already-dead companions in a hot water bath of 160 degrees; and now, being the one to nearly choke it, out of fear that it would struggle itself loose from my grip, being the one to slit – no cut; slit is too shallow of a word – its throat and hold its head while it bled out, while it died, was an altogether different experience.
This year’s Wilderness & Civilization (WC) gang knew, in theory, what was in store for them come November. The WC program directors had more than alluded to our upcoming participation in the Thanksgiving turkey “harvest” at Prairie Heritage Farms, so as a vegetarian, I had had a few months to prepare myself for my role in the harvest on the 21st and 22nd of November.
Prairie Heritage Farms (PHF) is a small farm near Great Falls, Montana on the Fairfield Bench, outside of Power, owned by Jacob and Courtney Cowgill. Hop on over to their website, and you will learn that the farm is family-run and a cultivator of organic vegetables, ancient and heritage wheat, lentils, a variety of other seed crops, and heritage turkeys – these turkeys – which are birds that a) are naturally-mating; b) have long outdoor lifespans; and c) have slow growth rates. One can compare these turkeys to factory- and commercially-farmed birds (which are none of these things) and see that PHF turkeys are happy and raised with care. The PHF website reads, “Our turkeys are more flavorful, juicier and just plain better than the factory-farmed ones you get at the grocery store. They're more expensive, yes, but they're worth it – not only because they're the best turkey[s] you'll ever taste, but also because they're raised with love and care.” This TLC is why PHF has sold every one of their turkeys every year they’ve offered them to the Montana public.
Part One: The Killing Station
The Killing Station is more of an open shed situated between a large, closed barn and familiar amber waves of Eastern Montana pasture. There are two plastic, white buckets on the ground at the left of this shed, which sit directly under two metal cones. In the barn, the stomachs of one hundred and thirty-some turkeys, which were herded from the farm’s open fields a day earlier, are getting lighter and lighter. Because these turkeys are raised outside, they eat the grasses and the bugs that exist there; and because it is easier to process turkeys whose gullets and gizzards are empty of these foods, they are barricaded in the barn a day prior to slaughter.
Enter four students charged with the most physically challenging part of the process: catching the turkeys. Once the first turkey is caught and killed, it is evident that the remaining turkeys are, to some extent, aware of their fate. Cornering them seems to be the way in which most students are able to catch them. Me, though – I’m not able to catch a single one; the feeling of their weight and their frightened stiffness makes me anxious and hesitant, two things you cannot be if catching a live bird is your end goal.
Once caught, they are taken from the barn to the open shed and held upside down, one student containing their legs, another guiding their bodies through the aforementioned metal cones. Their heads are pulled through the smaller, bottom hole, their necks held firmly. With a steady hand, a knife is pressed to their jugular vein.
It takes a turkey somewhere around five minutes to bleed out.
Part Two: The Plucking Station
Once a bird is caught and killed, it is brought around the barn to the Plucking Station, which consists of: a scale on which the bird is weighed (this immediate weight is called its “live weight”); a large tub of scalding-hot water in which the bird is plunged for a minute and half – this bath allows its feathers to be easily pulled and plucked from its body; an automatic turkey plucking machine (what I will call a “turkey spinner”) that does exactly what it sounds like it does – at its best, it completely plucks the feathers from a turkey in a whirlwind of water and extremely fast rubber “fingers” or knobs; and a stainless steel table around which one to four people stand, plucking the remaining hangers on.
Part Three: Necking
Featherless, the turkeys are then carried from the Plucking Station to two large sinks where the necks are removed from the bodies. My participation at these last stations is limited to observation, so I’ve enlisted the help of Jacob Cowgill to explain these processes. (Matt Freeman, a WC student and KBGA college radio personality spent the weekend recording the harvesting process for a radio spot, and I’ve used his audio to paraphrase Jacob’s explanation about this processing stage.)
“You’re going to cut back towards the base of the neck. Here, you’ll find the trachea and the esophagus, held together by a membrane. Peel back the membrane, and you’re going to follow the esophagus to the crop (which is where food is pre-digested), and what you’re going to do is loosen the crop. You’re not going to take it out, you just want to get it loose. The crop is sort of hard to see, but it’s a sack – a thin sack – and it’s fairly tough, but it can break. You want to prevent that; you just want to loosen the membrane from the wall with your fingers. There, at the base of the crop, you’ll find the trachea. Clean up the skin here. Peel the skin off the neck. Cut off the neck. You’re going to save the necks; they’re put back inside the bird before they’re bagged. Finally, you’re going to want to cut off the scent gland. You’ll see some ‘yellow stuff.’ Clear that yellow stuff away.”
Part Four: The Evisceration Station
The turkeys are then transferred to the Evisceration Station, where they are gutted and given a final inspection. Here, any remaining feathers are plucked, and organs are removed and sorted; livers and hearts are saved, to be joined by the necks inside the turkeys before they’re packaged.
Part Five: Post-Processing
The turkeys’ legs are zip-tied together and they’re placed in coolers until they reach a temperature of forty-one degrees (or less). They are then put in a bag, which is placed in hot water in order to seal them. They are then weighed (given a “dead weight”) and transferred to the truck that will deliver them to the Montanans that bought them so many months prior to this weekend.
There is a disconnect in the American food system. Many people are unaware of the production and processing methods that make a delicious Thanksgiving meal possible. So we, as a relatively conscientious group of university students, set out to learn what one of those processes consisted of. While doing so, we made sure to thank those that were “giving” us their bodies; as each throat released hot blood, and while each turkey struggled to survive the Killing Station – in a gesture meant to convey the heavy-hearted emotions most of us were feeling and the respect we had for their lives – we thanked them. We thanked them for being unknowing participants in our food system and thanked them for the transfer of energy from their living bodies into, theoretically, our own. In this sense, the weekend was not only an education in poultry processing and ethically-sound consumption, but it was also an exercise in mindfulness.
I went into the harvest weekend believing that, should I be able to kill a turkey, I would or should re-evaluate my own consumption, re-think my vegetarianism. As it turned out, however, the weekend was lifestyle-affirming. I am still a vegetarian, but should I ever choose to drift back to my omnivorous self, I know that I will be an educated meat-eater, and I have no doubt that I will be a thankful one. Happy [Belated] Thanksgiving.