We have one hundred chickens on the farm right now. They are Cornish Crosses, a special breed of meat bird that is generally docile, and reaches slaughter weight in approximately eight to ten weeks. One week ago, they were living in a chicken coop. But we recently moved them to a barn which opens into an enclosed pasture. Their new home will provide them with plenty of room to run, grow, and socialize until the day they're sent off for "processing". It was during the transfer process when I felt their scared, squirming bodies in my hands that it hit me, "These chickens are going to die, and it's all my fault". I've spent most of the past week trying to wrap my vegetarian brain around this fact. To be clear, I knew that this would be part of my experience. When I visited www.attra.ncat.org and searched for organic farming internships, the listings were very explicit in terms of what would be expected of me. So how did I end up here?
To be honest, a lot of it came down to necessity. When I emailed organic farms inquiring about internship opportunities, not many people wanted to hire an IT guy with no experience. Furthermore, the ones that did show interest all included meat production as part of their programs. Going back to corporate America wasn't in the cards, so I took the pragmatic approach, and weighed my options. There was a very nice lady in Oregon who seemed eager to have me. She liked the fact that I was a refugee from the corporate world, but she made it clear that if I was going to intern on her farm, I'd have to take part in the slaughter. She walked me through what that would entail, giving a detailed accounting of everything from sanitation requirements to how the evisceration table works. I appreciated her honesty, but I politely declined. Next, was a lovely couple with a farm near Syracuse, New York. The wife was a former vegetarian, so they understood my predilections about animal slaughter, and they were willing to work with me to a point. The husband would handle the bloody business of killing and gutting the animals. But I'd still be responsible for cleaning the corpses and putting them in boxes. This was a little better, but there was too much of a John Steinbeck vibe to the whole deal. I pictured myself as a stone-faced slaughterhouse employee, putting dead bodies into boxes as if they were cell phones, and decided that this wasn't a good fit either. Finally, I ended up here. At an organic farm outside of Albany, New York which raises chickens and pigs as part of their portfolio I don't have to kill any animals or even view their dead bodies. I just feed and water them until the fateful day that they are loaded onto a truck for processing. It's not a perfect solution. But if one takes into account the humane way that the animals are treated while they're alive, and the fact that I'm not taking part in the killing; can we at least call it a "not quite so terrible" solution?
One of the things that attracted me to Zen practice is it's emphasis on self-reliance. My life and my mind are my responsibility. There is great freedom in bearing full accountability for your life. But at times like this, it can also be painful. By caring for these animals every day, I am complicit in their murder. I have no illusions about that fact. My one consolation, however, is that for every one of these birds that we sell, that is one less chicken that will purchased from a factory farm. The animals that I'm raising don't have their beaks cut, they spend most of their day outside in the open air, and they aren't given growth hormones. Yes, these animals will die for human consumption, but both their lives and their deaths will be better than these factory farmed birds. It's a weak argument, and I wish that I could do better. But the more I walk this path, the more I realize that life rarely gives us perfect answers. It just gives us the moment, and tells us to do our best. With this in mind, I'm going to continue caring for these animals. And when the day comes for them to be butchered, I'll load them onto the truck, hold my hands in gassho on their behalf, and hope that no one can see their blood on my hands.