THE SWINE FLU is ripping its way around the globe and when the talk isn’t going toward a deep suspicion of the government and her past sins/omissions, or whether or not to stock up on masks, or who engineered this virus and for what nefarious ends, it is finding its way to discussing CAFOs, or Contained Agricultural Feeding Operations.
The title of this post attempts a joke—as if working in such a place is a real danger to one’s life. It’s not. Not to a human life, that is. Not right away, at least. Especially if you stay away from the septic lagoons.
As much as I love to tell you stories, I’ve searched both El Grito and El Machete and found I’ve not told this story yet. Incidentally, a person would search “Chicken Farm,” not “CAFO” because I’ve not used the acronym until today. Nobody in that town called them “CAFOs”; we called the one nestled down deep in the thick woods of an area that falls between Divine Corners, South Fallsburg, and Loch Sheldrake The Chicken Farm and that’s about it. You don’t see it on any of your trips around any of those towns. Even when you do take that backest of back-roads you have to look for the Farm, and then you see it—or I should say them—through a clearing in the trees.
Them, because Mountain Pride Dairy Farm (as it is properly named) was made of a number of “coops.” And when I say “coop” I don’t mean the kind that you’d see on the Houghtalings’ farm. Those were nice little houses, and the chickens seemed happy and I’m sure they laid happy eggs. No, by “coop” I don’t mean a quaint or cute lil shack with a buncha chickens moseying around and pecking at eggshell fragments.
Its at this point that I’ll warn you not to read further if you don’t want to think too much more about the meat you eat or the situation in general. This won’t be gratuitous one bit, but it doesn’t need to be. Because the way we have created and maintain these systems are not pretty. That’s sort of the point of my writing this post and telling this one in full.
The coops at Mountain Pride were each 1/5 of a mile long. On the outside they were painted a light green. Each coop contained 80,000 chickens and had 5 aisles or so in each one and in each aisle had cages stacked upon each other. They loomed over me, higher than I stood at 16 years old (though I was a pretty short 16 year old) so I had to reach up to get into the top coops. That’s how old I was when I got that job, to oversee the handful of coops at Mountain Pride. I had just moved into my second apartment.
It’s easy enough to tell you that I walked up and down the aisles all day and walked to and from each coop, detangling conveyor belts, clearing the coops of any dead chickens, and otherwise making sure the flow of eggs to the Front Room didn’t get hindered. But it hardly communicates what the experience was like.
This story very clearly isn’t about me. But let me refer to my identity and situation long enough to orient you.
Even as a person who was raised vegetarian until his mid teens, I am not against eating meat in principle. Some who make the argument against CAFOs attach the idea that we should not eat meat. I think CAFOs are a crime. But I do not hold that this means our eating meat is wrong…only the way we are going about it now. That is both unsustainable and morally wrong, to may way of thinking.
Life sustains itself on life. On all levels. When I was a science major, I spent time thinking about this and how many behaviors in fact, are replicated on all levels of scale, and from culture to culture. There is no refuting that this behavior is part and parcel of nature’s systems. And why would it be wrong to eat other animals? I can’t think of a reason. Remember: I was raised vegetarian. I’m not professing an ignorance or lack of opposing argument. I’m just telling you where I’ve arrived after having those arguments with myself and observing life for 40 years. (Maybe in another year I’ll be in another place and if so, count on me saying so!) And for me the issue is not about eating another mammal or an organism that has feathers or fur. The issue is that same issue that is now devouring much of the Earth’s health in other ways. The issue is mindlessness, greed, and disrespect for that which sustains your own life force. And the balance therein.
If you are going to consume another being in order to further your own life energy, you must acknowledge at all moments the sacrifice being made, the gain you enjoy, the reverence that life force deserves. The way we house and neglect and abuse our animals on a large scale is what is wrong, to my way of thinking. And not just morally wrong. It is…unhealthy. And perhaps the Swine Flu is a reminder, in part, of how wrong that neglect is and what can go wrong when you try to shortchange the reverence and respect part of the equation.
However, I do not take this argument into the personal and specific because I know that sometimes you do what you gotta do and paying for a cheap chicken dinner is what is going to enable you and yours to eat at that moment. (I do still eat meat, though not indiscriminately.) The point is, this is a problem that needs to be addressed at the top level and your going hungry at the moment won’t change things for those chickens or the meat-eating public.
When I got the job at the Chicken Farm, I was 16 years old. I was not living at home. I had quit high school. And I was living with another person in an apartment in a small town a few miles away. I was in a tough spot and needed to come up with rent, and there you have it, if you ask yourself in the following passages why I kept the job past the first day—or why anyone would. The people who generally take jobs like this one have restricted options for one reason or another. At least I can’t imagine wanting that job.
In the Front Room of the Farm is assembly. Conveyor belts shuttling eggs to workers who box them. Within that room is a smaller “Egg Room,” which is dark and wherein you “hold a candle to” the egg to see if there are cracks or breakage, or perhaps something else that would make the egg unusable—such as a misshapen shell, or guts dried to the egg itself. I’ll get to how that happens soon.
In that room, too, are (ocassionally) Health Inspectors. But the Inspectors are announced, and there is the general pre-Inspector shuffle wherein anything that would prove undesirable is hidden or removed or changed. I, too, know about this dance as I became a Public Health Inspector for that same state of New York, but about a decade later. And yet, the farm as-is clearly provides no challenge to the laws. These things are part and parcel of our agricultural system today.
Stepping from that big, open, Front Room into the Coops immediately provided a change of atmosphere. A dimmer, ranker, noisier, lonelier one.
The Coops were my domain. They were not filled with people, but instead with chickens. And one other person: me. They are filled with a literal cacaphony of sound, a tumbling, battered, always scrambling, overlapping, clattering, clashing of animal vocalization and shuffling and clawing on cages. They are thick with the suffocating stench of urine and chickenshit, for under the floor are massive vats of it filled by the chickens simply defecating and urinating through the “floor” of their coops’ wiry bottoms, and into the openings in the floor beneath them. These rectangular openings in the floor stretched the length of the aisles, of course.
Again, walking end to end of one coop took you 1/5th of a mile. Walking back to the other end via the next aisle over took you another 1/5 mile. So walking the entirety of one coop was about a mile. And I oversaw a few coops. And walked them all day/evening. When I found eggs stuck and piled up somewhere, I fixed them, When the belt got flipped over, I fixed it. When I found a chicken dead in its coop (which happens all day because of the heat and the conditions and the number of chickens), I reached in and pulled it out and dropped it on the floor there. When the chicken was dead from pushing out an egg so big it ripped out its intestines, I had to pull all that out of the coop. I had gloves on, and sometimes it dries around the wire and it gets tough to do. Especially with all the chickens in the vicinity screaming at you and flapping about.
I’ve been trying to tell this factually first. To lay out the area, the sound, the smell, the duties. But already it is morphing into the real story, which is the emotional experience of it. After all, when you add all the conditions together, you dont have a list of those conditions. Instead, like a recipe, you change the entirety with each new ingredient. Until by the end of it, you have another reality entirely.
I say the chickens were “screaming” and it sounds kind of funny. It wasn’t funny. And I’m not sure even how metaphorical it is. Working alone in a place like this, well. It’s actually easy to begin to go a little mad. All alone with your thoughts and an ever-tumbling, mashed up garbage box of barky sounds stabbing at your ears in Dolby Surround and for 8 hour stretches. You begin to get angry. To feel hounded by the noise. Maybe you are angry that you have to keep the job. Maybe the relentless rain of sonic aggravation symbolizes the difficulties falling upon you and your path, a hail of instances from which you cannot duck and that make it necessary for you to show up each day at such a place. Whatever it is, you begin to resent the fact that you cannot get away from the horrible sound. You begin to assign intention to the Chickens’ cackling. Pacing up and down day after day, you wonder who is the caged one. The wash of noises, tones, clacks, chatters and screeches begin to take shapes, borrowing from the containers in your mind. You hear strains of talking in the ocean of noise. You hear strains of songs. You can’t tune it out. It weaves into your head as relentlessly as the stink soaks into your clothes.
Ah, yes. The smell. Then there’s the smell.
I wrote earlier that you could barely see the Chicken Farm regardless of what road you drove upon. So why did everyone know it by name? Because you could smell it for miles away. It was really only over the small mountain (forested hill?) in back of my parents’ cornfields. And even those cornfields were sprayed at times with chicken “manure.” Ugh. It’s really one of the worst smells I’ve found. Especially wafting on such vast sheets of air that tend to lift off a cornfield and sail around.
But it’s also an entirely different smell than that you’ll experience inside The Coops, where the waste is concentrated and found in hundreds of gallons at a time, if not more. Even with seven foot-tall fans built into the exterior wall of the coops, the smell inside is so strong that first it is experienced as a shock to the nose and throat; a momentary physical assault. Then, it quickly becomes a powerful, ammonia-like miasma, and soon (it’s not long before your olfactory nerves are taken out) it winds down into a pervasive, foul stink that cannot be separated from any other thing or fabric or object in the room. Finally, you can hardly smell it at all—until you walk out into open air and begin, again to be able to separate smells. At which point you realize that you won’t have a friend in the world until you get home and shower for almost an hour and hide your clothes in a sealed box in the laundry room.
The septic lagoons were surreal, the whole place was. And after this job, I veered away from eating chicken. After the Farm job, I wouldn’t have it, couldn’t see it on my plate. And yes, I’ve lapsed since. And tasted that awareness in each hastily swallowed mouthful. The place never left me…but now it’s come to life with this latest crisis in the food supply.
To be honest, I’m not sure that if you removed the dead body collection part of the job I would have recoiled so much, then. Although there is plenty there to inspire such a reaction, and not just the septic part of it. Just the sight of how very strange and forced and gross that situation is for those animals makes an impact. But I was younger, and what really affected me more than anything else was that part of the job. It was gross, it was creepy, and it turned my stomach. The crunching when you had to rip them away from the cage. The soft, heavy thud on the floor and then another and another. And at the end of the night, I’d make rounds up and down aisles, bagging them all and leaving the bag full of chicken bodies at the end of each aisle for the night person. The warm, rotted rush of air that blew out the top of the bag when you sealed it. Holding your breath. One time I stepped on a dead chicken and it squawked from the lungful pushed up through the head. And I just about had a heart attack.
Now that I think of it, I bet those chickens died from pushing out massive eggs because they were being fed something to encourage larger eggs. This was no “organic” “free range” farm (not that you can trust those phrases, either.) Just your run-of-the-mill CAFO.
Anyway. After all the corpse stuff, I couldn’t bear to eat chicken anymore. Yes, these were egg-laying chickens, not chickens anyone would ever eat. But I could now recognize all pieces of the bird from my work. On my plate, saw them as deadparts. All gussied up with gravy, maybe. A zombie form of the animals I used to tear out of cages, come back to remind me of their unfair demise.
Nor do the beige or white and smooth, clean egg surfaces tell the story of the dark rooms that they must first pass through to reach our tables. A simple, quiet, smooth egg that was born in a dim, stinking, intestine-encrusted, excrement-laden, egg factory packed wall-to-wall with the cawing static of discontent.
Clearly, the Swine Flu has not a little to do with the types of conditions we expect we can cram our animals into. The CAFO is a terrible thing. It’s a silent bargain that we accept as part of the cost of having so much food wherever and however we want it. I read recently someone on Twitter talking about the hypocrisy when US citizens deplore animal cruelty in other nations. Due to the fact that these people are often seen ignoring the case of the CAFO right here in our own nation. And I have to say there is a valid point to be made there. (And it’s not that these people ought not make the case for animals in other lands!)
Will the Swine Flu be a wake-up call for the government, finally? That a different system is needed? That our current output and mass production rates are an illusion built on dangerous processes? A Wall Street Meltdown of the agricultural system that teaches us we cannot sustain ourselves with a structure that lacks integrity and tries to compensate with superficial means/appearances/marketing? I wonder. Judging from how the government addressed the banksters, I hesitate to offer an optimistic statement on this.
You think we’d learn. It’s that same problem again. The mindlessness, greed, and disrespect for our world and what sustains us.