Thursday, February 26, 2015

Raising Chickens

Raising chickens may seem like an odd occupation for a Gnostic. There is nothing more hylic than the little feathered automatons that make up a major portion of our food supply. Per Captia consumption in 2012 shows Americans eat about 250 eggs and 60 chickens per year. So, these little birds are a major reason Americans, at least, have physical bodies at all.

The average american chicken is raised in a factory farm. That means they're kept in facilities like the one in the picture: Long rows of chickens, 5 to 10 hens in each chage, packed as closely together as possible. The facility pictured here is an egg production facility. Hens produce eggs for 1 to 2 years, after which they are processed for dog food or chicken broth, or simply suffocated with carbon dioxide and discarded in landfills. Male chickens are of little utility to these facilities, so as chicks they are sorted, and the male chickens are disposed of in cruel manners. You can find more information about the process here.

Meat chickens are raised in a similar manner. The link above has information about these processes, but the main take away for me is the 'breed' used for meat production reaches slaughter weight in 6 to 8 weeks. Called the Cornish Cross, the birds put on weight at an astounding rate. However, they cannot breed, and in fact, if you keep them longer than 8 weeks, they put on so much weight they break their own bones. They have no ability to stop eating or growing.

This, to my mind, is an example of the problem of evil in gnosticism. We are trapped in an artificial system, most people in ignorance, some people know and are trapped in the system and can't get out, or won't take the necessary steps to get out. We know of one farmer who made a deal with a big chicken producer. The farmer signed a contract, and the producer brought in factory farm production methods, and now the farmer can't stand to go out to their barns anymore, but they can't escape the contract they signed, to mass produce 'organic, free range' chickens.

But to our mind, we need the system because there are no other options. How are we going to survive if we don't keep chicken going. If chicken goes to $8 or $12 dollars a pound, eggs to $5 or $6 a dozen, who's going to be making it, or buying it, how will people eat?

Our cost to raise chickens naturally is high. Chicken feed (especially organic) is not cheap, and we don't currently raise our own food. Natural and heritage breeds take longer to reach slaughter weight (15-20 weeks), so they eat more. Heritage breeds lay less frequently than the factory optimized birds, leading to less eggs. So raising chickens is not a money making prospect for our family.

However, chickens do have personalities. Differing breeds act differently. They are individuals. Limited, true. They're not as engaging or as smart as a turkey, or a dog, or even a cat. And to be honest, I don't want them to be too likeable, as in the end, they are destined for the table. But being engaged in the process of determining where my food comes from is fascinating, and rewarding, and heartbreaking. Animals die, from disease, from cold, from predation, from unknown causes. You keep a distance from the material form of the individual.  The picture below shows two of our chickens, known as the Indigo Girls. They're always in the yard, scratching for bugs, for roots, following their chicks around.

Yet, you are tied into this web of life, this grand dance, that you can't help be involved in. The joy and cuteness of the chicks, the protectiveness of the hens, the preening agression of the roosters, the greed of all the animals when treats are given, the sharing of the parents, the whole panorama of existence is played out in microcosm in the chicken yard. To watch them is to gain insight into our own automatic responses, our own fights for food, for regard, for security.

And all of that is denied in factory farms. If you can, please get to know your local farmers, either in person, or at the farmer's market. It costs more, but the food you receive nourishes more than the body.


Jason Thu said...

1. I did not click the link that you posted re: the factory farming process. I've refused to watch Food, Inc. and similar documentaries. I just want to stay ignorant in that regard, or at least to stay "know about it but have not seen it." It'd be too much.

2. What you presented is so informative and interesting, however. I learned something new.

3. This is one reason that I think being mindful of the food-meat's origin in preparation and consumption, and to bless the meals and be mindful how the meal can give you energy and health to do great works. I think it'd be great to bless the meal, elevate it for a higher purpose through our lives and works, and to pray for the chicken and humans and the sentient beings. If one is into reincarnation, one can pray for and share merits to the particular chicken to ascend through the hierarchy of life and to finally attain Gnosis. This is an idea I have but yet to implement consistently as a practice. Gotta be mindful for the chickens!

4. Also, studying and thinking about the spirit of the dietary laws in different traditions might be relevant in this regard. A part of halal and kosher rules, for example, is to make this ugly work a less ugly work and to elevate the process. Even Buddhism which is typically not associated with dietary rules has certain customs regarding eating and meat and such. (For example,

5. Thank you for this post! Apparently, I received many ideas and information. Maybe I'll turn this into a blog post today. :)

Anonymous said...

One of the best times in my life was being connected to a community that had a dozen chickens. The eggs were delicious; it was almost impossible to get Lyme disease on the property because the chickens were savage consumers of ticks, and appeared themselves to be immune to passing on the disease; and of course the chickens themselves engaged in hilarious antics all over the yard, sometimes submissive to the dog and sometimes chasing him all over.

Truly happy memories. Thank you.

Soror A.M.Y said...

I've seen Food, Inc. and other similar films. They are pretty awful. But I think it's necessary that we know the truth, even if knowing that truth means we will need to make changes in how we view this, how we see animals (as sentient beings versus objects) and ultimately make decisions on where we are going to spend our money. One of the problems with Big Food is that people don't know where their food comes from and thus don't appreciate the fact that these animals are sentient beings and deserve to not die in an inhumane manner. We have chosen to detach ourselves by the lifestyle we choose. Just as easily, though we can choose to be informed and mindful.

Steve Avino said...

I know this wasn't the intention of your post but I think you just convinced me to go full on vegan

Scott Rassbach said...

Steve, I think full vegan has it's own issues. Many of the vegetable protein sources have issues (Seitan, Tofu). If you went whole food vegan (I.e. only fruits and vegetables) I think you would have other issues.

The issue isn't so much what you eat, as where it comes from. A farmer's market chicken is generally a different beast than a Tyson chicken. When you think back to the Sesame Street version of the farm, you think of a chicken running around, eating bugs, in a sunny grassy field. You get that from a farmer's market. Not so much from Tyson.

Food raised according to Organic Principles is often better, but even that in stores has issues, as the 'organic' standards are not necessarily what you think they are. My food purchase hierarchy goes Farmer's Market -> Organic -> Mass Produced. I still eat mass produced food, I just try to eat less.

Jason Thu said...

Hi good Monsignor, your post gave me some insights and ideas, and so I wrote two-part follow-up posts on my blog. And here they are:

On Eating, Part 1:

On Eating, Part 2:

Thank you.