To be honest, the Thanksgiving holiday is a little puzzling to us non-Americans. I can understand the significance of giving thanks and have, over time, come to appreciate the value of an annual opportunity to stop and reflect on the good things that have happened in the year. What I don’t understand is the turkey. Apart from its symbolism, is it truly necessary? Friends say that the true delight of a Thanksgiving turkey is in creating new dishes out of its leftovers. I’m still not convinced, but perhaps I just haven’t tasted a really good one.
Which brings us to the turkey producer. Paul Hain is a simple man who was happily cultivating walnuts in the small town of Hollister, just an hour’s drive south of Silicon Valley, when he unexpectedly fell into poultry farming in 2002. His neighbor, Joe Morris, found it difficult to source good quality pasture-raised chickens locally, and ran the idea of rearing chickens past his son, Joe; when he didn’t show any interest, he brought his idea to Paul.
As Paul remembers it, “Back then we had only been doing walnuts, with little livestock experience. I decided to try things out with 100 chickens, which worked out pretty well, and then we raised another 100 that year, and the next year, we tripled the quantity to 600 chickens. We’ve been doing it ever since.”
Now his farm, Hain Ranch Organics, supplies local farmers’ markets with pastured eggs and poultry between May and October; at a high point he was producing 5,000 chickens and 50 turkeys. He’s now scaled back to 4,000 chickens annually, and this year he’s decided to only raise 10 Bronze turkeys for Thanksgiving, all of which comfortably reside in a mobile coop: a 10-by-10 foot floorless structure of wood, metal sheets and fencing wire to contain and protect the birds from predators (he loses about one percent of his flock to skunks and foxes). Each structure is equipped with water, shelter, and wheels, allowing a daily rotation of new pastures for grazing.
“I always invite my customers to come visit ‘Paul’s gym of the outdoors,’” he quipped, when I asked about the frequency of visitors to his ranch. “They’re welcome to help harvest and process their turkeys too, if they’re up to it, but not everyone takes me up on the offer.”
On my last visit to the 30-acre ranch, Wes and Kelly, a father and daughter who lived a few miles away, were harvesting turkeys that Kelly had raised as part of her participation in the University of California’s 4-H Youth Development program.
It was my first experience witnessing the process that would transform a live animal into meat, and I was a little nervous about it. But I recognized that, as a meat-eater, it would be irresponsible of me not to witness or participate in this process at least once in my lifetime.
The whole process is done entirely by hand – from slitting the neck to scalding the bird, removing the feathers, the entrails and packing it. It took the whole morning and the better part of an afternoon before all eight turkeys were properly packed and weighed, with the largest bird weighing in at 45 pounds.
We were almost done with processing all the birds when Paul remarked, “We forgot to bless the birds!”
We looked at him quizzically. I replied, trying to be helpful, “Well, you still have them in the tub over there…,” referring to the “cooling tub” where cleaned and dressed birds are stored at a lower temperature before they’re packed.
“It’s more for us than for the birds, really,” Paul said. “Before processing my chickens I often say a short prayer, thanking them for coming to our farm, for sacrificing their life for our nourishment and hoping that they had a good stay in their short life.”
He looked down, and there was a short pause, before the quiet bustle of feather-plucking and cleaning resumed.
It was significant that my first meat harvesting experience was a batch of turkeys destined for the Thanksgiving table. In confronting my own discomfort about that process of the food chain that we’re so immune to — the part where an animal becomes dinner – I gained a deeper appreciation not only for the food on my table, but also for the work that went into its production and its preparation. Amid the demands of a busy life, it becomes too easy to take our food for granted, regardless of our relationships with the people who produce them. This Thanksgiving, take a moment to “bless the food” before tucking in.