Respecting Life, Accepting Death - Thoughts Regarding On-Farm Slaugther
by Chris Sims
On a cold day in November, Malik’s car pulls up in our driveway. He and a companion step out. Malik is a tall, elegant, and soft-spoken man who somehow exudes a bearing both humble and regal at the same time. Papa, Malik’s helper of the day, is slender, with a ready smile. We shake hands and exchange warm greetings. Malik asks after my husband and our two grown children. I ask Malik and Papa how their families are doing. We comment on the weather. Daylight is fading, however, and there’s work to do, so we head to the barn.
The barn is a simple structure, one I mostly built by myself, with evening and weekend assistance from my husband. We had a grand work party of friends and neighbors to help us roll on the heavy, translucent fabric roof that provides the barn’s only lighting. The floor is dirt; the walls are plywood and clapboard. A barn cat nicknamed The Phantom prowls the open rafters.
Grazing season is almost over, but all of my adult sheep, a dozen of them, are still pastured on neighbors’ property. The winter of 2018 saw seventeen lambs born to our flock. Friends and friends of friends (in other words, I have never advertised) reserved sixteen of these lambs almost as soon as they were born, the lone holdout being the ewe I plan to keep for breeding and wool. This November day, I only have three young rams here at home. Malik has come to claim his last lamb of the season.
I have the three lambs penned in the barn. Malik makes his selection. I release the other two to the barnyard. Malik, a Muslim, follows strict rules about how slaughter must take place. One of the rules is that no animal is allowed to witness its fellows being slaughtered.
Let me digress a moment on the word, “slaughter.” It used to be a term of respect, implying the humane ending of the life of an animal meant to be eaten. It’s only more recently that it has become an ugly word with a connotation of violence and brutal wantonness. I have watched my Muslim customers kill my sheep according to halal methods, just to be sure I was okay with it. I have confidence that halal embodies the earlier definition of slaughter.
I leave the barn while Malik and Papa turn my live lamb into meat. Once they have purchased a lamb, it is no longer my responsibility. My customers alone are responsible for keeping their meat clean. I stay out of the way. I provide a clean bucket of warm water, access to a cold-water faucet outdoors, and a wheelbarrow for any parts of the sheep my customers don’t want. Malik and his countrymen, originally from Senegal, leave very little behind. They have inspired me, in fact, to try consuming organs that I never would have imagined as edible. There was the time a twelve-year-old boy, the son of a customer, had the job of cleaning intestines. He asked what I would like him to do with the stuff he rinsed out. I gave him a bucket and said I would compost the “processed grass” along with any other remains. He was thrilled. “That’s great!” he said. “The sheep eat the grass, their waste goes into compost, and the compost feeds the grass! It goes round and round in a cycle! That’s so good!” I asked what would become of the intestines. He sighed in delight. “My mother will braid the intestine with strips of stomach and fat and cook it. I don’t know how she cooks it, but it’s so, so good! Mmmm!”
When Malik is ready to go, he thanks me once again for providing him the use of my barn. An apartment dweller, he could not possibly do his own slaughtering at home. All of the meat he consumes must be halal. That’s expensive and hard to get in Vermont. By doing the slaughter himself, he saves a lot of money. He can get more out of the carcass, including bones and organs, and he practices a skill that has been handed down through generations -- skills he, in turn, is now able to pass on to younger members of his community of faith. It also matters to Malik how the meat he consumes was raised. Like me, he is not interested in eating factory-farmed meat. He knows my sheep get a lot of love and care, that they are not fed grain, that they are only medicated when they’re sick, that they live their lives in fresh air and sunshine, grazing on lush pasture.
My Muslim customers are not the only ones who care about how their meat is raised. Other friends and neighbors also want local, grass-fed lamb, raised by somebody they know. They don’t all want to do their own slaughter. In those cases I hire an itinerant custom-slaughter expert who does the job in my barn, and hand-carries the meat to a butcher shop, where it is inspected, then cut and wrapped to the buyer’s specifications. The benefit to me is that I don’t have to truck my sheep to a scary place where they can smell the blood and fear of the animals that have gone before them. My sheep are born at home and they die at home. The only stress they suffer comes in the very last moment, which is quickly over.
As Malik’s car turns out of the driveway, I return to the barn to find it clean and beautiful. My guests scraped all waste into my wheelbarrow. We have a mortality composting system here at our little farm. In a mesh-covered bin with concrete-block floor and walls, we start with a layer of fluffy stuff: barn bedding, leaves, grass clippings, shredded paper, and wood chips. Animal parts get nestled in that, with more fluffy stuff piled on top along with a few handfuls of soil. Proper layering very easily gets the temperature of the pile hot enough to kill pathogens. Time and turning create gorgeous, black compost that sits in a static pile for several months to a year to further cure it into a product that’s safe to put in our orchard and gardens. The nutrients that grow here stay here. All life is respected, even the little critters that break down the compost.
We have several large gardens here. They supply enough herbs, legumes, and vegetables to feed us year-round. Fruit and nut trees are just starting to come into production. Flowers bring beauty and pollinators. When the sheep go back to pasture each spring, I muck the barn into a large pile in the empty barnyard, broadcast winter squash seeds over the pile, and sprinkle on some finished compost. In the fall, wildly abundant squash gives a boost of extra nutrition to my newly pregnant sheep. Now and then throughout the ripening season, I break open a squash for our small flock of laying hens, who dash in from all over the yard like kids descending on a piñata, although I have to say they enjoy access to the decomposing barn litter even more. They till it, fertilize it, gobble up bugs and weeds, and turn all those lovely nutrients into energy, personality, and delicious eggs with dark yellow yolks. When they’re old, say three or four years of age, the hens will become stew.
Everything goes round and round, in a cycle. The mortality rate of life on earth is, after all, one hundred percent. When I, too, die, I’d like a green burial. It would please me to know that my earthly remains will feed something else, just as I have been fed.
Photo Credits: Chris moving her sheep from one neighbor's pasture to another by Paul Sims and Sheep in front of the barn by Chris Sims.