Integrity from Farm to Table

This June, my brother invited me to join him and a group of friends for aPastured chickens
“processing day” at Jesse Straight’s farm in Warrenton, VA. Jesse, who trained with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, raises chickens (egg layers and broilers), turkeys, pigs, and a few cattle. The poultry and cattle graze in pastures, and the pigs forage in the woods. This growing endeavor supplements Jesse’s income from his home renovation business to support his growing family, which includes wife Liz and three young children.

After giving up meat for Lent my senior year in high school, I continued to avoid meat throughout college and explored various food philosophies. Necessity and receptivity to hospitality intervened during a year in Africa, and I shifted into a more “flexitarian” approach to food choices. My interest in food systems grew with a peak in food prices during my travels and through my research for the Bread for the World Institute when I returned to the U.S. Processing day would be my most intimate and complete experience of bringing meat from farm to table.

The initial impression was stunning. My brother and I arrived after the rest of the crew had begun their work. Even before Jesse introduced himself, the scene introduced me to crates of chickens awaiting their turn at the first step in the assembly line: the slaughter. With a pause for greetings, Jesse continued to insert chickens head-first into metal cones whose open tips allowed their heads to emerge from the bottom of the cone properly placed for the swift slice of Jesse’s knife across their necks. Crimson blood coated the base of the stand of cones as life drained from the chickens.

Fumbling through a state of shock, I donned a poncho and took my place at a table next to this stand, where a friend showed me how to use a knife and my hands to imitate her demonstration of gutting a chicken. The chickens had already passed through the scalder (which rotates slaughtered chickens through scalding water to loosen their features), the plucker (a converted clothes drier whose spinning motion removes feathers and heads), and removal of feet and any lingering heads by hand and clippers. At sight, their naked, truncated bodies now resembled an item in the grocery store, without plastic packaging; touch revealed the warmth of their flesh. My friend coached me through a few more rounds as I practiced the gutting steps, identified organs by feel and sight, and learned how to avoid puncturing the gallbladder with its toxic green liquid contents.

Within 20 minutes, the shock had subsided, the camaraderie of the group embraced me, and the experience transformed into fun. With the slaughter of more than 150 chickens complete, we bagged and weighed the birds, packed them in refrigerators for market days and restaurant deliveries, and separated the remainders (other than hearts and livers, which go to market) into pig feed and compost material. The guitar players among us rounded out the afternoon before visitors departed and the small farm crew turned to evening chores.

Prior to this experience, I had mentioned my plans to a Franciscan Sister. She responded, “God bless you and your brother for the processing of chickens. It is a very elemental call of the chicken to give her life for the nourishment of others.” Processing day drew me into a sensory, whole-body, relational dynamic of collaborative interaction with the chickens and my fellow human companions. A wholeness and naturalness distinguished the process. A visit from Liz and the Straights’ three- and one-year-old daughters seemed routine. It did not occur to me until I returned home to compare my initial reaction to the sight of the slaughter to the children’s experience growing up on the farm.

More recently, I participated in a retreat on the theme of integritas, defined as wholeness, soundness, and completeness, particularly in contrast with the fragmentation which characterizes post-modern society. Although the retreat focused on spiritual and interpersonal ethical applications, I perceived the relevance for an ethical assessment of our present food system, where fragmentation and isolation lead to exploitation of other species, disintegration and imbalance in our ecosystems, and decline in human health.

In God and the World, a book-interview with Peter Seewald in 2002, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed this concern with particular reference to chickens:

We can see that they [animals] are given into our care, that we cannot just do whatever we want with them. Animals, too, are God’s creatures…creatures of his will, creatures we must respect as companions in creation and as important elements in the creation…. Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that…hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me, in fact, to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.

Concern for the “integrity of creation” within the Church’s teaching implicates our ability to relate in mutuality to human persons and all created matter as a gift shared in community, rather than as an isolated resource for extraction and exploitation. How much have we lost, and how little have we gained, when we separate a species or substance, or even just a part of an organism or chemical compound, from its ecosystem and disregard the health of that ecosystem in order to procure one fragment? What is the integrity of our relationships when we disassociate a processed product from its life cycle? How do we address the connection between the commodification of any living creature and the commodification of human life?

During a webinar on “Industrial Food Animal Production and the High-meat Diet”, presenter Robert S. Lawrence, MD suggested that the deterioration in care of animals in the U.S. food system relates to the decline in firsthand experience with the life-and-death cycle of the meat we eat. Echoing in his own words the insight which the Franciscan Sister expressed, he observed that those who participate directly in slaughtering understand the gift and the value of animal life which nourishes human life.

When a webinar participant asked the presenters to identify the most environmentally-friendly meat to consume, fellow presenter Keeve Nachman, PhD, MHS echoed the wisdom of integritas. Keeve noted that different animal production classes have “similar but varied impacts on surrounding communities, many of those stemming from different animal waste procedures.” Instead of assessing a species in isolation, Nachman suggested that we “speak more directly to the methods of production.” He cited organic methods and the example of grass-fed beef as more environmentally sustainable than meat produced at industrial sites.

Perhaps the distance, whether geographic or experiential, between the slaughter and our stomachs allows us to think of the creatures who participate in industrial food animal production in theoretical terms. Franciscan devotion to the Incarnation defies this denial. When we recognize, with the insight of St. Bonaventure, that “God created the universe in order to be able to become a human being and pour out his love upon us and to invite us to love him in return” (Joseph Ratzinger. ‘In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. 30.), we cannot fail to see that matter matters. God’s embrace of created matter in the Incarnation extends into Christ’s edible Presence with and in us under the form of bread and wine: “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55). The way we treat the “companions in creation” who become our food affects the likeness of God’s love in us. As we discover more and more, we diminish that likeness to our own moral and material peril.

Along with two Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, MN and two Secular Franciscans from the Milwaukee area, I witnessed the integrity of creation through a July visit to Growing Power, which supports Community Food Systems to provide “high-quality, safe, healthy, affordable food for all residents in the community.” At their urban headquarters, Growing Power demonstrates the interdependence and integration of different members of their agricultural ecosystem. Water rich with waste from indoor tilapia ponds feeds hanging layers of tomatoes and watercress, which in turn filter the water as it cycles back to the ponds. Chicken flocks rotate between hoop houses, and leafy greens flourish in the fertilized soil they leave. Food waste from coffee shops, restaurants, and breweries joins a calculated mix of other materials to feed the little creatures who sustain the entire operation: red crawler worms. Each species plays its role in complement with the others.

FAN Staff Christy Elliott and others visit Growing Power

I am grateful for many opportunities to observe integrity in action and for my experience of processing day, which nourished me in many ways. As I survey the effects of disintegration in the relationships between God’s creatures, I receive courage and hope from the witness of Jesse Straight, Growing Power founder Will Allen and his collaborators, and millions of other families and communities who are committed to respecting and working with God’s design in creation.


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