Austrian Farming

Turkey Slaughter, Apple Cider, and Austrian Politics

René looked at me and asked if I was ready. The ladies already had their surgical outfits on, those white, full body suits you tend to see Walter White or people who work at butcher shops wear. The neighbor was filling large, plastic hotel pans with hot water. He was a quiet guy, made worse by the fact that he only spoke German and I only spoke English, and seeing him around all these sharp objects and killing devices made me slightly nervous. Not that we were in any danger, just that he might enjoy this too much.

We had our station set. I would be working with René to capture the turkeys from the barn, using a bag to cover their head and then catching them by their feet. We would then bring them by the tree we were standing at, cover them with a floor mat and then sit on top of them to keep them restrained. When the person on top of the bird was ready, we would slip the mask off of the turkeys head and quickly cover it with our makeshift helium gas mask: a plastic bag attached to a hose attached to a tank of helium gas. We’d cover the turkey’s head with the bag, turn on the gas, and the bird should be knocked out in less than 20 seconds. Once the bird passed out, hopefully blissfully high and unaware of its surroundings, we would shut the tank off, slip off the mask, toss it headfirst into the bleed out tunnel attached to the tree, slit the throat, and let it bleed out.

Welcome to humane, organic farming.

If all went according to plan, the birds would die as humane a death as possible for a small scale, organic, family farm about a 45 train ride and 30 minute drive outside of Vienna, Austria. The helium gas would make them high, and since they were knocked out, they would have little idea that they were being killed. Holding them tightly with the mat and covering their head so that they couldn’t see meant they wouldn’t struggle nor flap their wings too much. Flapping their wings meant that the birds were stressed, which meant that they were releasing cortisol and other stress hormones into their blood stream, which meant that not only was the bird upset but the end product, the turkey meat, would be of a lower quality than if the bird didn’t struggle. The flapping couldn’t entirely be avoided. It’s a natural response by the bird during the blead out phase when the brain shuts down. However, we could prevent as much of it as possible early on, and covering the bird’s head and holding them tightly would keep them calm. At least that’s how our Workaway hosts, René and Elke, explained it to us.

“I’m ready.”

The first bird did not go as smooth as the rest. In the process of worrying so much about the bird’s stress level we seemed to have stressed ourselves out. Our hosts had spent the last year, their second year with turkeys, raising them, feeding them, and investing a decent amount of money into the birds. They had been planning on how to to do this effeciently and effectively for months. Chynna and I, for our part, had only been on the farm for eight days but we had waken up every morning the past week to feed them and water them. We all had our cause for concern.

Except for the neighbor, who remained remarkably calm and quiet.

There’s nothing romantic about humane slaughter practices. Despite the fact that the birds lived a relatively happy, cage free life, and died an unstressful death, they’re still dead. There is still a bucket of blood underneath the killing tree. There are still feathers on the ground and lifeless animals hanging on the line. Humane slaughter isn’t some magical, beautiful process where organic, free range turkey meat just turns up on top of your quinoa and kale salad. There are actual farmers out there who have to put in dirty, stressful work to ensure the most humane death for the animal occurs. Animals that they truly care about, but, at the end of the day, raised to be processed into food to support their family.

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Knockout gas. We used helium gas to knock the birds out before putting them in the chute, which was attached to a tree. The hope was to keep the birds calm and then knock them out before the slaughter, thereby limiting their suffering and limiting their stress.

We didn’t get the mask properly tied around the first bird and didn’t turn the gas high enough to knock him out fully. He shook and fought back, passed out, but woke up again before he had completely bled out. As a team we realized that we hadn’t moved fast enough nor effeciently enough to ensure that the process went as smooth as possible. I would make sure the mask was tighter next time, turn the gas all the way up, and René would hold the bird tighter and get it into the chute faster.

It occurred to Chynna and I that it was October 31: Halloween. For this year’s costumes, we would be organic farmers in Austria slaughtering turkeys. We really got into character this year, too.

We were all a little dissapointed that the first turkey had to die that way. We were really trying to do something different here. René and Elke were challenging old farming customs in attempting this humane practice and that first failed attempt was shattering. No one else around us were trying humane methods. Most farmers clock the bird over the head and use the bleed out chute, sans gas, and never worry about how much stress the bird goes under or how much it felt at the end of its life. That’s why the neighbor was smiling to himself and keeping quiet. He was quietly judging the whole operating and how we were doing it differenty then every other farmer had been doing it for years out here in the country.

Elke had many reasons for trying something new, though. As a veterinarian and someone who spent time with the World Wildlife Fund, she had extensive knowledge of the impact that stress has on animals. She explained to us that, beyond the moral and ethical reasons for humane slaughter, organic, humane practices actually produce a much higher quality meat. By the time we de-feathered and gutted the first bird, she took the time to explain to us what was wrong with the meat. She showed us how bloody it was; it was veiny and pinker than it ought to be. That was evidence of the cortisol and stress hormones in the bird and the blood was from it flapping its wings at the end. It was still good meat, and okay to eat, but it would not last nearly as long as the unstressed birds would.

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Slightly morbid, but our axe murderer Halloween costumes were a bit more realistic this year. (No, we didn’t actually use an axe for the process.)

As Elke explained, stress within the meat is one of the main reasons why factory farms have to use so many preservatives to protect the meat. A humanely slaughtered animal does not release stress, or at least not as much, and the meat is fresher and can be kept for much longer without preservatives. We all know how bad stress is on the body and the same is true for animals and the meat that we eat.

We moved the first bird out of the chute and placed it on a line where it could finish bleeding out. When it was done, our neighbor would carry it over to the hot water and defeather it before passing it to the ladies in their Heisenberg suits, who would take it into the kitchen and start processing the meat. Family farm harvest and slaughter days are a true family affair and it takes a lot of teamwork to make it happen. René and I reconvened, discussed what went wrong the first time, and headed back to the barn to grab another bird.

Okay, first we headed to the cellar to grab some cider. We realized everyone could use a drink to calm the nerves a little bit and we were excited to see how the cider was coming along. During our stay on the farm we made several batches of organic apple cider and were now tasting some of the earlier batches and getting a preview of the first one we had made. I brew beer back home but I never had the opportunity to make cider before and René was making some really good stuff.

We toasted with the neighor, prost! (he actually said something this time), and moved on to the next turkey.

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Harvesting apples from the yard to make apple juice and cider.

To think that just a few weeks ago I was shaking dirty vodka martinis in Boulder, Colorado and getting paid handsomely to do it and now here I was slaughtering turkeys, on a farm, in exchange for a place to stay and some food. Funny what the decision to travel can do to a person.

Just a few months prior Chynna and I had made the decision to quit our jobs and backpack Europe for as long as possible. We were supposed to just go on a ten-day sight seeing tour with some friends, but couldn’t convince ourselves that it was worth it to come back to the same apartment, the same city, the same job, and the same life for any longer. Not that our lives were bad by any means. We just felt ourselves playing a part in a real life adaption of ‘Groundhog Day’ or ‘Horrible Bosses,’ and we had always seen ourselves more as characters in ‘Up’ or ‘Indiana Jones.’

Chynna and I were on our first ever Workaway. René and Elke had reached out to us and I remember jumping up in the middle of the night when I got the email, waking Chynna up and telling her, ‘Look! We can live on a farm in Austria! How cool would that be?’

Now here I am, chasing a turkey around a barn to try and get its head covered so that I can calmy grab it by its feet and take it to the tree.

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We slaughtered and processed 12 birds that day. Most of the meat stayed with the family, but a good amount was sold and shared to their neighbors and friends.

That first killing is always a bit of a shock, but after getting it done and drinking a little cider the process was much better. We settled into a solid routine and found ourselves deep in conversation, as we usually were. We talked mainly about turkeys, but we also talked a lot of politics. René is pretty high up in Austrian politics, he works for a political think tank in Vienna, and he knows an impressive amount of world politics, too. It was early in the American election cycle, but René was far ahead of most Americans with his knowledge of the upcoming election. Mixed with a bit of his wit and vulgar sarcasm, it was refreshing to talk to someone who was interested and knowledgable but had very little at stake in our election.

It was our first realization that although we had left America, we could not leave America behind. We would have to be on point and up to date on politics because everyone in Europe is interested and has a question. We had hoped to escape the American election cycle, but it is in full focus in Europe, as well. Our political system affects the entire world, and the world is paying attention. We felt ashamed that we had somewhat removed ourselves from politics because we had spent so much time working to save for this trip that we weren’t following the news or politics very closely. Now, as ambassadors of the States, we were going to be asked incessantly about Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, Bush, gun laws, 9/11, Cold War politics, and the American Dream. We couldn’t escape it; not even on a farm in Austria. Nor should we. If people around the world are paying attention to us then we ought to understand what’s going on in our country better than them.

The rest of the birds went smoothly. Not to say that the emotional impact was less each time, but the process itself was better. There was a remarkable difference between the meat of the first bird and the rest, whom died as peaceful a death as we could make possible. After the birds were hung on a line they were dipped into the hot water bath, which made it easier to remove the feathers. Once they were plucked and washed, the ladies opened them up and started to process the meat. We made turkey breasts, turkey thighs, turkey legs, turkey wings, turkey nuggets, and turkey burgers. What wasn’t quite fit for human consumption we made into dog food. I know some people enjoy the taste of liver, but after having to smell it for a few days in our kitchen and making dog food out of it I can never think of it as a delicacy again.

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De-feathered and ready to be processed. We used as much as of the animal as possible, even making a lot of dog food out of the insides that we didn’t eat.

We also witnessed the full circle of life and the strange intricacies of poultry politics. Chickens, while I usually adore them and I thoroughly enjoy fresh eggs, are disgusting dinosaurs once the harvest starts. They waddle around and peck at turkey flesh on the ground, won’t leave the blood alone, and even committed to cannibalism by eating one of their kin who had died the day before. Chickens are not the most elegant of animals.

The chickens weren’t the worst, though. Twelve turkeys were processed that day, about half of the flock. Upon finishing we realized that we had made one grave mistake: we had only processed the males, meaning the barn was an all-female affair. While it may seem like the feminist ideal had finally come true, males, at least in turkey world, are essential for keeping order. Over the next week the hens attacked each other viciously. They would single out whichever female laid an egg and peck at her, break her eggs, and nearly kill her. We had to seperate several poor hens out, but the group would keep finding the weakest hen in the group and attack her. We were surprised to find how nasty turkeys can get and how complicated animal politics on a farm are.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by how mean turkeys can be. This was not my first time on a farm. Nor the first time that I had killed an animal for food or considered where my food comes from. I grew up hunting, in a community of hunters where everybody hunted every fall. Before I could walk my dad carried me in a backpack, with an orange vest and earmuffs on, while he hunted pheasants. I had lived on and off farms for most of my childhood, including some time on cattle ranches. When I was a kid, I had walked out into the garden and one of our turkeys, which was bigger than I was, attacked me. Scared, I ran back inside and told my dad what happened. He proceeded to grap a shovel and we had turkey for dinner for the next few days.

The first time that I shot an elk had a tremendous impact on me. I remember cresting that hill, with my dad, again just behind me, and walking up on two bull elk walking through the woods no more than 30 yards from me. Shaking nearly uncontrollably, my heart racing, and nervous about missing, even from such a short distance, the release of putting that bull down made me happier and more accomplished than I had ever felt before.

Then processing the elk in the mountains was one of the most spiritual moments of my life. I had killed an animal, a majestic animal, who had lived in these woods for years. Now its blood stained my hands and my clothes and its flesh would feed me and my family for the next year. Once processed, packing the animal out of those mountains was one of the most physically demanding events of my life, something that took five people to accomplish and exhausted every single one of us.

A few years later, that event ultimately lead to me being a vegetarian for a nine month stretch of my life. I had heard all of the arguments before but they had never quite convinced me. Watching videos of someone working at a slaughterhouse, though, where that magical, difficult, spiritual process had been turned into a mechanized, dehumanized, efficient murder that was repeated all day, everyday, turned me away from processed meat. How could someone be numb to something that was such an intense moment for me? Worse yet, why? Why were they numb to it? Was $10 an hour all it took to abandon any sense of dignity?

Those convictions slipped from me slightly over the years. I stopped being a vegetarian, but I try my best to appreciate and understand where my meat comes from and what lead to it being on my plate. I try, although not always as well as I should, to limit my meat consumption, especially from factory producers. I try to purchase meat from local farmers, ones that actually appreciate the process and the life that went into their product.

Chynna came to the farm from a different place, but left with a similiar feeling. It was the first time that she had killed an animal before eating it, other than fish. While I got to grow up on farms as a kid, she had never been to one for more than a few hours. She left the farm appreciative of where her food comes from, but also justified in consuming meat. She got the chance, for the first time in her life, to feed farm animals and then take part in making them into food. It by no means is going to turn her vegetarian, but she openly discusses where her food comes from much than before her time on the farm. It started a discussion and gave a point of reference for her when discussing organic food or farming.

That, ultimately, was the appeal of choosing this Workaway. While most people’s adventures in Europe involve churches and monuments (and they should, they’re amazing), ours included a visit to the source of our food. We wanted to find out how organic, small-scale farms operate and the intracisies of making food. More importantly, we wanted to remind ourselves of just how much hard work goes into the process. If we want to purchase organic, or local, or humane, than we ought to visit these places and lend our support, even if just for a few days out of the year, in order to understand what is going into our food. These are, after all, family affairs, and we ought to contribute some of our time to helping out. Leave the cities and the supermarkets for just a little bit and lend a helping hand to our farmers. Learn to understand and appreciate the process and give thanks for the hard work that goes into it.

Even if you’re just the quiet neighbor who seems to enjoy it all too much.

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Sunset at the Burgruine Aggstein Christmas Market. Photo credit: Ryan Rebhan.

We spent two and a half weeks on René and Elke’s farm and we learned plenty about food, cider, Austria, politics, animals, and life from those two. We got to watch a local football match in Vienna, make an excursion to Krems to visit some vineyards and drink some Grüner Veltliner, and made it to the first Christmas market of the year at the Burgruine Aggstein, a beautiful castle overlooking the River Danube. The slaughter day, though, will always stick with us, just like that elk stays with me, and always remind us of the sacrifices made to put food on the table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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