Grit Blogs > Domestic Episodes of a Rodeo Princess

Raising Chickens Triggers Conscious Consumer

A photo of Shirley Rodeo VanScoykI believe that every decade or so I should really look at my life. That’s usually because I have spent the previous ten years making a mess of it. So, on the day I turned 30, I was standing in the grocery store looking at a pack of chicken. I was figuring out, as it lay there with the plastic wrap snuggly clinging to its pinky, salmonella-infested moistness, that it just didn’t look that tasty. It also did not look like an animal. Because I am not one of those blessed with a mind that can take such information and just move on, and because it was my 30th birthday and I wasn’t feeling particularily moved by anything else about the day, I set myself a year long goal of really figuring out whether I was: A) an insatiable omnivore opportunity eater who just grazed my way mindlessly through life, or B) a Conscious Consumer who thoughtfully chose what she put in her body as a statement of her political, ethical, moral and spiritual beliefs.

It was the 80s. Most people remember the 80s as a-ha and Air Supply on the radio and the slow return of conspicuous consumption. For me, it was a decade of soul searching manifesting itself in an odd melange Joan Collins suits, Princess Diana beige hair and huge glasses. Casual wear was a denim jumper and sensible shoes – a uniform made necessary by our recent move to the farm. Looking bad, I was dowdy before my time.

Back to the chicken. I bought it, but every time I took it out of the freezer to cook, I would find myself staring at it, turning it this way and that. I had to wonder why I wasn’t looking at it and saying, “Yum, I can’t wait to sink my teeth into that.” I had to wonder why I was wondering at all. Bright light fills my head. It’s because I don’t see a connection between this hunk of frozen frankenchicken and an actual chicken.

I spent weeks walking around trying to discuss this conflict with friends and colleaques. Many would say, “I couldn’t eat it if it did look like a chicken!” Then they would relate some story of a grandfather or mother who would chop the head of a hen and let it run around the yard, or a cousin who hunts for all their meat. Maybe they would tell me about some duck or something they got for Easter and gave a cute name only to have it end up in a cassolette. Then, sometimes, something more insidious would happen – someone would tell me about a crazy college kid who gave up eating everything with a face.

So, I started obsessing about this issue and finally one day got tired of obsessing and decided to set myself about solving it once and for all.

I challenged myself: If I can raise a chicken, butcher it and eat it, I will remain a omnivore. If not, I will never eat anything with a face again.

As I said, it was the 80s.

I went about researching where to buy chicks, what to feed chicks and what accessories they might require. I bought little feeders and big feeders, waterers, automatic waterers and a twelve hole nesting box. I decided on a management method and sought out the chicken expert at the local Farm and Tractor Store.

One very exciting day, a big box of cheeping peeps arrived at the post office and My Husband brought it home. The twelve White Cornish Cross chicks lived for several weeks on the table in the middle of the kitchen, in a cage with a towel over it and a heat lamp hanging above. I was the only woman I knew raising chickens. And I was damn proud of it.

Hen momma and baby chicksWhen they were large enough (and frankly, too stinky for the kitchen) I moved them outside. C and I had collaborated on a chicken house – but no run – these would be Free Range Chickens. This was a concept that was considered forward thinking and philosophically superior by those who could afford fencing but decided against it. It was not a concept at all, merely where your chickens were, if you couldn’t.

I think these chickens got to be large enough to butcher in about seven weeks. It was astounding – they became huge, stumbling baby huey chickens over night. I recall that as the time came for the butchering and they got bigger, I decided I did not want to do the actual killing myself. It wasn’t that I was afraid, it wasn’t that I was too fond of them. I very simply was concerned that I hadn’t done it before and I might botch it and cause unnecessary suffering. I had developed, rather than an affection, more of a respect for them.

I found a Mennonite Butchering Guy, boxed them up one fine afternoon, and within half an hour Mennonite Butchering Guy’s wife and daughters were asking me if I wanted them whole or quartered.

They came home in the back of the truck in black plastic trashbags stuck in buckets. They were incredibly heavy, even without their feathers and their innards. I dragged the bags of chicken into the house and piled them up on the kitchen floor. At that time I had four dogs and they came in to the kitchen and sat in a row, with a demeanor of idle curiosity. They had no interest in the chicken. It had almost no odor.

Shocking Self Realization: I had been eating fetid, germy, bacteria laden smelly chicken my whole life. This was the first clean meat I would experience. I was revolted at what I must have ingested without even thinking for decades. This completely out distanced any anthropomorphic fantasies I had about the souls of the chickens.

I had no problem eating these chickens. I even relished these chickens. I invited terribly good friends over for dinner and we were blown away by the taste. It did taste different! I remember someone thought I should bring their wings cooked in sauce to some kind of function. I would not waste this AMBROSIA on drunk people at a party.

Okay. So, I had accomplished what I set out to do. I had defined myself as a person who was not a hypocrite. I could raise something and eat it. I could not only remain an Opportunity Eater but I was also a Conscious Consumer who chose what she put in her body as a statement of her political, ethical, moral and spiritual beliefs. One step closer to Nirvana!!!

The meat chickens were such a success – and were giving me such great things to talk about with people that I moved on to egg laying chickens, ducks, guinea hens and turkeys. (The turkeys spawned dozens of Domestic Episodes.)

Now before the rescue lady lived next door, her house was occupied by a real gem of a neighbor who enjoyed making my life miserable. Her pool was about 200 feet from my barn. So the progression from the low impact meat and egg production of the birds to installing a pigpen in plain view and smell of her pool house was pretty easy.

I had Chester Whites. This is a special breed of pig genetically designed to have a huge behind. I think I was too, but no one ever gave me a special name because of it.

Pigs are not smart, cute or clean, and they are not friendly, even to each other. They want one thing out of life. They want to feed that huge rear. They will eat anything, in any quantity that can be supplied or stolen. They are such efficient eating machines that they convert almost everything they eat into future meals for people. Smart opportunity eaters down through the ages have capitalized on this by learning to make tasty entrees out of everything but the squeak. They are also very strong and can destroy almost any enclosure, so you have to keep them on concrete with rigid fencing buried in it. If they can get their nose into a crack, they can tear that up. I have seen a pig put his nose down at the edge of an asphalt drive way and plow a trench through it 10 inches deep. There were no truffles under that driveway. Believe me, I looked.

Once, I let the pigs out on the lawn because I thought that would be a kind thing to do. (I don’t go to the zoo any more, because of these overwhelming urges.) After they had wandered around for a while, I thought I better put them back. I had no plan for this. I tried wiggling a bucket of food at them, but that was of no interest because to them, everything is food. I tried putting a lead around the neck of one, but it slid right over his head when I pulled on it. I did finally chase them back in, but not until after one of them had bitten me on the hand, swallowing a chunk out of my knuckle that exposed the bone. No worries, I bit him later.

I was running a piggy version of a Day Spa. It takes about six months to bring a pig up to butchering weight – you do the math. You get them at about a month old and they weigh about 40 pounds. In five months they will have gained about 200 pounds, at a rate of about 1.3 pounds a day. Since the average pig needs to eat between 4 and 6 pounds of quality feed each day to gain 1.3 pounds, and you have 4 pigs ... you will carry aproximately 3100 pounds of food out to the pen. They will also create aproximately half that weight in poopie. Which stinks. They drink about 3 gallons of water a day. I had what is called a Pig Nipple for their drinking pleasure – a hose with something very similar to what people keep in hamster cages. I also provided them with sun-brellas and sunscreen, and I gave them daily showers. All in all, it was not bad to be Rodeo’s pig.

They were all named Spam, at least the ones I didn’t call Freezer Meat.

I can’t say that I ever used the USDA’s recommended proceedure for estimating the weight of my pigs (take a tape measure and measure their girth directly behind the front legs and multiply by some number). I just got damn tired of all this feeding and sunscreening and called the butcher. There was just one little detail that we hadn’t thought out. How do we get them there?

It never occured to us to hire a professional pig mover. Why would it? We had a standard Ford F150 4-wheel-drive pick-up. My husband built sides for this and rigged up an old barn door as a ramp. We backed it up next to the pigpen, opened the gate and put the ramp inside and waited for them to get curious and climb in.

And waited and waited. Pigs glanced casually at the ramp. Pigs sniffed the ramp and walked to the opposite side of the pen. Pigs walked to the very bottom of the ramp and pooped. But no pig actually got in the truck.

We called a local expert named Dougie. He said, Pigs don’t walk up ramps. Pigs can't walk up ramps. You are going to have to help them up.

Uh-huh.

We tied a lead around the neck of one, Charles pulled, and I pushed, and we did get the pig up the ramp. THE 250-POUND SMEARED WITH PIG FECAL MATTER PIG.

The second one struggled a little more, but eventually Spam 2 was in the truck. Pigs are very verbal. Spam 1 and 2 were shouting advice to Freezermeat 1 and Freezermeat 2 down in the pen. It was earsplitting and annoying. Freezermeat 1 ended up with a bucket pushed on his head walking up the ramp backwards. I don’t have any idea who thought that was necessary.

All this pig tonnage walking up and down the ramp had shifted things a bit and C wanted to make sure that Freezermeat 2 would go in easy so he adjusted it a bit. Enough so that Freezermeat 2 was able to slip between the ramp and the fence and head for the lawn.

And it started to rain.

I was wearing my denim jumper and a pair of muckboots. Charles was wearing overalls and no shirt. We were wearing matching smears of pig poopie. All over. Places you wouldn’t want your own poopie.

We chased that loose pig for an hour. He had amazing stamina for a short, round 250-pound animal. I bet people say that about me, occasionally.

Years later, while looking through the family album, my son remarked that I must have been drunk a lot when he was a kid. Despite unimpeachable evidence to the contrary presented by his beloved Grandmother, he cited incidents like what follows to make his point.

Just as, pig manure smeared and soaking wet, Charles and I sheparded Freezermeat 2 around the corner of the house, My Son, (Now Ripper’s Husband) was dropped off with two of his friends. He took one look at his parents, shook his head and went into the house. His friends (afterall we weren’t their parents) joined us and soon all four of us were wearing that pig down.

The two boys and Charles got the pig to go up a small incline. I was at the bottom. Someone screamed, “BLOCK HIM!” I bent at the waist , flexed my knees and prepared to block. A 250-pound pig running at about 20 miles an hour down a hill.

He caught me square at my flexed knees. The force of the impact knocked my glasses off and parted my knees as he was propelled forward. As though we had practiced for months, I slid over his pointy, wet head to a perfect, although backwards, seat on his back and was carried off across the lawn.

My first thought was: I can’t see where I am going.

Second thought was: OH MY GOD I AM RIDING A PIG, AND I AM GOING TO DIE!

Third thought: I am only 18 inches off the ground. No way am I going to die.

Fourth thought: Well, I am just going to sit here until this pig gets really tired and falls over.

Which is what he did.

It took the four of us to push/drag him up the ramp into the truck with his buddies and soon, slightly cleaned up, we were on our way to drop them off at the butcher.

Getting them out was much easier – they go down ramps fairly easily. The stall where we were putting them had a single lamp in it, and at one point I heard Charles saying gently, “Go into the light…”

I let him handle the details like labeling the pigs with spray paint so the butcher knew who owned them.

The next day I got a call from the butcher. He says, “Your pigs are clean and lean, Rodeo.”

I beam. I say, “So you had no trouble telling which ones were ours?”

He pauses. “Well, yours were the only ones labeled ‘PIG.’”

Oh, Charles. You goofball.