Engaging with Food Choices
Helen Jukes recalls her experiences living and working on smallholdings.
Whitmuir Farm is located in the Scottish Borders around 16 miles South of Edinburgh. Co-owned by Pete Ritchie and Heather Anderson, it is a constantly evolving experiment in making ethical, organic food a viable and accessible option for more people. Alongside a farm shop, café, and art gallery, crops and livestock are farmed carefully, unwaveringly, sincerely.
I’ve been working at a smallholding up the road from for a couple of weeks at Bread Matters, finding out a little of what it’s like to live and work with what’s around you. I’ve been learning afresh about production and consumption, and how to begin to consider both together. My hands are dirty and my body has been moving, I've been actively engaging with how things grow, where food comes from, how it feels. I want to experience, but also to better understand the processes and possibilities involved in growing, eating, working and living. So when I am invited along to help with the potato harvest at Whitmuir farm, I need no persuading.
We judder and slip across the field, but when on the second day a chain on the tractor breaks, the potato picking stalls and Pete decides instead to slaughter 20 chickens before lunchtime.
“Can I help?”, I asked.
Pete pauses. I had told him earlier that I ate a sausage last week for the first time in 7 years.
“I promise I won't freak out.”
He looks doubtful.
“You can help”
“Yeah – I don’t want to just stand and watch. I’ll help.” I want to do things too.
I feel excited and a little apprehensive, but ready to confront the reality of the sausage and the possibility of a chicken breast. I am going to – with awareness, and my wits about me – get to grips with meat. Where it comes from, what it is, eyes open to it.
We drive golf-buggy-like to the chickens. Green fields, picture books. Pete, out of the tractor already, starts to catch the older birds who are no longer laying. I'm not quick enough, but I take the chickens from him and carry them to the back of the truck. Their bodies are soft and warm under my arms, and I start feeling a little more aware of their aliveness than I’d intended. It's happening very quickly, and I try not to 'not think about it'. I try to think about it without needing to not think about it. This is just a thing. But death is pounding pretty loud as I’m watching them slip through the grass, and I find myself silently cheering for the ones that get away.
Then I remember that I’m supposed to be being useful, so I go to the van and count the chickens. Eighteen. And here’s Pete with two more, one under each arm – so we're done now, we're back in the truck and driving across fields to outhouses I hadn't noticed before. And there is the Butcher looking like a Butcher. And now we’re in.
I ask – for no clear reason – if I should go back and close the gate. We don't need to close the gate. I wouldn’t mind walking out the gate, but the gate is forgotten and now there are one-two-three chickens out of the truck. I am aware that I am not managing to dissociate myself from this experience. Then suddenly the associations are in free-flow, and I’m thinking about that film with the recurring dream image of the kid chopping the head off a chicken, and some novel with nightmarish headless birds, and these chickens are definitely about to be killed.
Their life is definitely about to stop living.
The Butcher takes a chicken between his knees and twists its neck and it starts hiccuping, spread-eagled across the stone floor. I am feeling a bit sick and I'm thinking how it's a shame the other chickens have to see the first one die. Is this anthropomorphism? No. This is life and death, mate. In a shed together where they shouldn’t be. Jerking insanely about.
I’d promised I'd be helping not watching, so I better get on and help. I take half a step forward then half a step back and realise there’s not much I can do, especially since I’m moving about 3 beats slower than everyone else. The Butcher switches on a loud machine and Pete hands me some earmuffs that keep slipping off. I pretend to be absorbed in keeping them on my head. Fingers and thumbs and a chicken getting its’ feathers sucked off.
Then the chicken is hung upside down on a rack, and Pete (seeing that I need to be given something to do, because I am not quite dealing with standing here watching this happen, this life and death and all the things it makes me feel...) tells me to finish it off. Pluck the last of the feathers by hand. Baby’s bottom. It’s head is still on, and – worse – the body is still warm. I start to pull the feathers off, too carefully – slowly, while the others are getting to it with speed and sure-footedness. But the feathers don't come if you pull lightly. You have to really tug, and my hands have lost all their keenness. There's a choice here, and I don't need to do this. I see that I could. Pull the feathers, wring the neck. But I don't have to. So I think I won’t, for now.
'I don't think I'm gonna be much help..' I say apologetically. 'I thought I'd be fine with it, but...'
Pete wants to reassure me about how carefully they're looked after, that they don't suffer when they die... I know all this. There is nothing I disagree with about what's happening. I can see that every part of this process is given care and attention with 'getting-a-job-done' conviction. But still. I leave, feeling a bit shaky, and walk back to Macbiehill – thinking how much I like chickpeas.
For animals to be treated and killed humanely, there must be a presence of care (as there is at Whitmuir) right up until the moment of slaughter. I see that. But how to remove the care for the kill?