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Friday, May 24
The Indiana Daily Student

Family farm uses distinct practices

The Howards wake up with the sun.

Mist rolls over the hills surrounding Maple Valley Farm, and their house glows warmly through a pre-dawn dark that smells like rain. In the field in front of the house, a rooster crows.

The front door to the house opens, and light spills out. Three blonde children — Ethan, 12, Elena, 10, and Grant, 8 — stumble into the morning, in rubber boots and cargo
pants. It’s time for morning chores.

Under fluorescent lights in the barn in front of their home, Grant clambers over a fence and into the pig pen where a mother pig and her piglet live. She had a litter, but accidentally killed her babies except for this one, the size of a football with a curly-q tail.

The Howards had problems in the first few years with all the animals on their farm. After decades of industrialized farming, the animals had been bred out of their natural instincts, from what to eat to how to parent.

The mother pig is the latest animal to join the farm, and she’s still learning. Confused, she sat on her newborns, suffocating them. Pigs in mass farms sometimes live in pens too small to sit, and their piglets are usually taken immediately after birth. She hadn’t known any better.

The way the Howards run their farm — without supplements, antibiotics, filler feed or help when the animals get sick — they hope that she, like the others, will re-learn.

While Grant feeds the pigs slop, Ethan fires up a tractor and drives out of the barn, toward a field near the road. The tractor’s puttering is the only sound as he drives past the laying hens in their roost, where Elena walks, collecting eggs. Next to the hens is another sort of open-air barn, wall-less but roofed, with fridges, tables and a fence beneath, where the slaughters are done. The hens live beside where their counterparts — the meat chickens — will die.

Ethan parks the tractor next to the meat chickens’ mesh-and-tin coop, in the farthest field from the house, and Elena and Grant join him. The three children take positions
around the coop, Ethan and Elena on one side and Grant on the other.

“Tell us if we’re gonna hit any chickens,” Ethan calls to Grant.  

With a lurch, the three children pick up the coop and begin to walk. The chickens squawk and run forward on their raptor-like feet, anxious not to get hit as the coop moves around them. Once over fresh grass, the children set the coop down again.

When the sun is up in earnest, their mother, Tina, calls the kids inside from their front porch, to eat breakfast with her and their father Larry. The family links hands and prays before eating.

Though many people might not want to think about where their food comes from, it’s a concept Tina, Larry and their children are faced with every day. Today, they’re eating fresh eggs and fruit smoothies.

The children play an integral role on the farm, maintaining their own enterprises of specific animals, where they make all decisions relating to their assigned animal.

They will lose or make money based on their decisions. They also help with the slaughters.

Sometimes Larry worries how the work affects his children but he knows it’s simply a
part of their lives.

“To us, it’s natural,” he says. “They’ve seen a lot of death.”

As the morning brightens outside, the meat chickens continue to peck at the fresh grass beneath their coop, ruffling feathers and clucking.

During the next few weeks, the chickens will swell in size and reach maturity. Then they’ll be slaughtered, and 8-year-old Grant — now sitting at the table and giggling, eating his eggs sunny-side-up — will be the one holding the knife.

***

Grant’s hands are soaked in blood as he reaches into the side of a trailer and lifts a chicken up by its feet. At first, the chicken flutters, but soon it calms, wings stretched out from its sides.

Boots scuffing across pavement, Grant lugs the bird toward a fence where several metal cones are tied, tip-side down. With effort, he lifts the bird above one of the cones and drops it in, forcing it down until the chicken’s head comes out a hole cut in the bottom.

From the ground, Grant picks up a small paring knife. Carefully, he makes two light incisions on the chicken’s neck, and immediately blood bursts out in spurts, trickling down into the blood-filled trough below.

Larry has taught him it’s important not to cut too deep and sever the windpipe. This unnecessarily stresses out the birds, and everything on the Howard farm is geared against stress for the animals. When they bleed out rather than asphyxiate, it’s as if they’re falling asleep.

The chicken shudders, spraying blood over Grant’s clothes and face, where it falls starkly against his white-blonde hair.

The slaughter is the first and simplest step when it comes to harvesting the
chickens.

Today, a sunny day in October, the Howards are harvesting 83 chickens outside in a sort of open-air laboratory, with a freestanding roof protecting metal tables and refrigerators. Several visitors have paid to participate and learn how to butcher chickens. The way the Howards do it, there are five steps.

First, a chicken is put into one of the cones, has its throat slit and is drained of its blood. This takes about 3 to 5 minutes.

From there, it goes to the scalder, a machine full of water kept at a precise 148 to 150 degrees — hot enough to loosen the skin and feathers without cooking the chicken.

After the scalder, the chicken enters the plucker, a contraption the Howards made themselves. It’s a metal basin filled with rubber tendrils that scrape all of the feathers from the chicken with the assistance of a hose, manned, for the most part, by Ethan.

Next comes the butchering, where the volunteers are stationed. Here, the head is torn from the chicken’s body by bracing the chicken against the table and ripping the head down over the edge.  

After this, the guts are removed. The feet, heart and liver are kept for human consumption. The rest is fed to their work-dog or composted.

Tina and Elena stand at the last table — the final and cleanest step. Here, the chicken is inspected and packaged.

The whole process starts around 9 a.m. and continues for hours. Within minutes of beginning, the wet smell of poultry floats through the air, tinted with the copper scent of blood.

Eventually, a neighbor comes to pick up some chicken he’s ordered. He stays for a while to chat, but upon leaving, says, “I’ll take my chicken livers now, so that nobody else gets ’em.”

Everybody present laughs. In the background, Grant goes into the trailer to retrieve another chicken.

***

Several times every day, Larry and Ethan trudge the steep path down to a ravine behind their house to check on the larger animals. When time comes to move them to a new pasture, they roll out sections of electrified fence around the new field.

The fence serves to keep the flock protected from predators, and it keeps the animals inside their enclosure. The fence is only 5,000 volts, like a strong static shock.

On the day of a move, the animals watch from their old pasture, disinterestedly, until Larry opens up a section of their fence into the new field. Then, like a war cry, he cups his hands around his mouth and yells, wiggling his tongue: “Oodloodloodloodl!”

The animals charge forward single-file — first the sheep, then the cows, then the goats. Upon entering its new domain, one goat promptly turns his face toward the sky, squats and takes a piss.

“It’s like if you get a bunch of children and yell ‘ice cream,’” Larry says, grinning as the animals hustle past him.

Larry and Ethan watch, smiling, both with hands on their hips as they watch the animals tear at the foliage.

These animals aren’t slated for slaughter quite yet. Those that have been chosen are sequestered up to a smaller field, near the house.

Larry would like to do all of their slaughters on site like the chickens, but at this point it’s impossible, because they don’t have the right facilities.

Instead, the animals are loaded into trucks and driven to Rice’s Quality Farm Meats in Spencer, Ind. For most animals, it’s the first time they’ll leave the farm.

After a week or two, they’ll come back as food.

***

The chill isn’t immediately overwhelming at the butcher, but the smell is.

It’s the sweet smell of cold, wet concrete and fresh meat. The main room is kept cold — the kind of chill that creeps in from the feet up. The meat locker is even colder.

A manager in a white lab coat pushes open the metal door to the locker. All the workers wear lab coats, caps and sneakers, which will be soaked with water and blood by the end of the day.

When the worker opens the door, a gasp of cold air escapes into the main room.

Within the locker, racks of skinless carcasses hang from meat hooks, the open necks of the cows nearly brushing the floor. White fat is marbled over the deep red muscle, held together with translucent connective tissue.

The worker slides the front-most rack of lambs out from the fridge and into the main room, along a ceiling track. The lambs swing on their hooks, and tags dangle from their front legs, tied together as if they’re praying. The tags contain the animal’s serial number and the family name: Howard.

The worker stops the carcasses on the track above a metal table. On a stand above the table is a chainsaw.

The worker takes the first lamb down from its hook and places it on the table, rib cage up. With sure precision, he picks up a knife, curved at the tip, and reaches below the rib cage, between the legs. With one cut he severs two sacks — the testicles — and places them on the table next to the carcass.

Next, he picks up the chainsaw.

It roars to life at his touch. He lowers it down to the base of the lamb’s ribs.

The sound of the saw is a dull roar until it hits the backbone. Then, with a high-pitched squeal, the saw shudders and slows, bone fragments spraying into the air like sawdust.

In just a few seconds, the lamb is severed in two.

He makes another cut with the saw closer to the neck, so the lamb is divided into thirds. From there it’s transferred to another, larger metal table, where three additional workers wait.

Each takes a third of the lamb, and they make quick work of sectioning it further. One of the workers has his earphones in, heavy metal blasting, to help make the time pass quicker. He said he likes to listen to Korn while he works.  

They cut the meat down farther with another saw for cutting bone and knives for slicing tendons. The testicles are brought to the table and cut as well. They’re punctured with the tip of a knife, and then the veined skin is sliced and removed, as if peeling a grape.

They’re tossed into the box of requested cuts of meat. After that, they’ll be packaged by hand for the customers. In a few days, the Howards will come back to pick up their meat.

The way the Howards and the butcher work, humans are involved in every part of the process, rather than machines.

The Howards are with their larger animals until they come to the kill floor, and then the butcher takes control. Though it can be a difficult concept to reconcile, the Howards know the way they do it is best.

“You always think about it,” Larry says. “We always say, you know, they have one bad day, because they have such a great life.”

***

The menu for the night at the Howard household is standard for them: sweet potato biscuits, steamed vegetables, roast chicken and a goat butchered just days before, with the lambs.

It smells like Thanksgiving.

Ethan and Tina take to the kitchen, while Larry helps Elena in the living room with some of her math. She’s currently doing long division, and she sits next to Larry on their couch, her textbook spread over both of their laps.

Almost everything in the meal comes from their farm or farms nearby. Tina sometimes shops at Bloomingfoods or Kroger for things they just can’t get themselves, like butter or occasional treats. Right now, bags of Tostitos chips inhabit their pantry.

Ethan is in charge of the biscuits. The dough on the counter in front of him is a sticky blob, bits hanging from his fingers.

Grant giggles. “I think you need more flour,” he says from where he sits at the dining room table, feet dangling and kicking through the air.

Begrudgingly, Ethan adds some. They use spelt flour from a farm down the road.  
The chicken for dinner was slaughtered two days prior, and it comes out of the oven a deep shade of brown. All of the kids gather close to look at it.

“Do you think I killed it or Ethan did?” Grant asks Larry.

Larry grimaces. “It’s hard to know, buddy.”

“I know I put it in a bag,” Elena says, with a laugh.  

The only difference tonight is the Howards usually only have one kind of meat and no biscuits for dinner, except maybe once a month. They try to avoid too much bread.

Although the children prefer chicken hearts and liver smoothies, tonight, they’ll have to settle for roast chicken and goat chops.

Before dinner, the family says a prayer, linking hands. Then, they grab plates and head for the food.

The chicken falls apart right off the bone, it’s so fresh. The goat is a little tougher because of the age of the goat, but marrow seeps out of the t-bone surrounding the meat.

After dinner, the kids play with toys in the backroom, and Larry and Tina stay seated at the table, dirty dishes in front of them.

Outside the window, the sun sets in front of the house, and the farm’s turkeys are visible, retreating into their roost for the night. In the sky, stars begin to appear.

Tomorrow when the sun starts to rise, the Howards will wake up and begin again.

Follow reporter Hannah Smith on Twitter @hannsmit.

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