My initial encounter with the birds had come several weeks earlier, while they were still chicks. The farm I work for, Amber Waves, had been considering constructing mobile chicken tractors so that we could get our own birds out on pasture and let them fertilize our soil. This would also allow them to scratch through the dirt and find insects and other organic matter to eat, thus improving the taste of their eggs and cutting down on our feed costs. In order to get ideas we might use we drove to the property on Town Lane in Amagansett that we share with several other local farmers.
After making our way through the fallow fields recently acquired through the Peconic Land Trust, we came upon several mobile chicken units belonging to Sunset Beach Farm that were designed to hold anywhere from twenty to fifty birds apiece. I was instantly drawn to the housing that contained the young “meat birds,” which I knew were going to be processed in the coming weeks.
Meat birds differ from laying hens in that they are engineered by breeders to enhance the characteristics consumers desire when purchasing chicken, such as broad breasts and large thighs. As chicks they can be mangy looking though—many were missing a good deal of their feathers, and yet, they were somehow still quite endearing. Perhaps it was their youth, or their naïveté. A colleague at Sunset Beach Farm who had routinely cared for the birds noted that they were “not the smartest chickens they’d come across.” Indeed, several of them died prematurely as they succumbed to the cold spring nights, unable figure out how to get inside the open coop door. Others fell victim to foxes, raccoons, illness, and even suffocation by their cohorts. All said and done, fifty were whittled down to thirty-three as natural selection played its course.
The trajectory of agriculture on Long Island has run largely parallel to that of the rest of the east coast for the past few centuries; after many decades of incredibly complex crop rotations and cornucopious harvests many Long Island farms have become beholden to conventional potato and corn farming. Examples of the destruction such irreverence for natural cycles can have on the ecosystem include soil thoroughly depleted of nutrients and compromised pest resistance. In fact, decades of monoculture allowed the Colorado Potato Beetle to thrive so completely that eastern Long Island remains the only place in the country where the bugs have developed the capacity for flight, rendering them especially capable of obliterating any crop in the nightshade family, especially potatoes.
Fortunately there has been a resurgence of smaller, more diversified farms that seek to reestablish the idea of an East End capable of food independence. The owners of Amber Waves Farm are especially keen on this concept, and are investigating the viability of growing various types of wheat that can be milled into flour, thus tremendously expanding the possibilities for entirely local East End foods. This year our farm is also growing several varieties of corn for polenta, as well as expanding into dry beans. The desire to restore the entirety of the East End foodshed and diminish our need to outsource production is both a noble ambition and a serious undertaking.
Inherent in this desire for food security—achieved in part through food independence—is the capacity to raise animals for consumption. The acquisition of a trial run of meat birds by Sunset Beach Farm exemplified this aspiration. Polyculture was making a comeback, and I wanted to experience it firsthand.
My fellow apprentice Emma and I arrived at John Wagner and Karin Bellemare’s Sunset Beach Farm in North Haven on a Monday afternoon. The date and time of the slaughter had been postponed several times, mostly because the birds were considered to be on the smaller side, still in need of more fattening. When we got there we were informed that the scalder—which must be kept at 140°F was hovering around 130°F and that we’d once again be waiting.
There was a palpable nervousness amongst the young farmers, most of whom had never harvested anything but vegetables. We discussed the steps involved in the process: pulling the chickens from the back of John’s truck, inserting them into the aluminum kill cones, the slitting of the throat and bloodletting, the scalding, the plucking, the eviscerating, the cooling, the weighing and bagging. We took last looks through the instructional books that were on hand and watched YouTube videos as we tried to mentally prepare for what we were about to do. Yet no matter how many cognitive justification exercises you do and visualizations you run through, there is an inevitable inability to prepare for the moment until it finally does come.