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To Kill a Turkey
If you're going to eat animals, shouldn't you be willing to do the deed?
Ken Wulf: 'There's nothing more good for your soul than to put on your plate food you
grew yourself.'
Ken Wulf: 'There's nothing more good for your soul than to put on your plate food you grew yourself.'
Credit:Linda Falkenstein & Bill Lueders

Ken Wulf told me exactly what to expect. I'd hold my bird's head and body down to the ground. I'd put a paring knife in its mouth and cut the back of its throat. Then I'd hang on - "a turkey is a very strong animal," he warned - while its lifeblood spurted out. "You'll be able to feel it," Wulf said. "When the last heartbeat goes, you'll know it's dead."

Wulf imparted this information casually, across his kitchen counter. The Dane County poultry farmer, whom I'd called out of the blue the day before, readily assented to my request to "process" my own Thanksgiving turkey. To him, it made perfect sense.

To me, it was a harder sell, despite being my idea.

I knew if I planned to have turkey for Thanksgiving - or on a sandwich for lunch - it was appropriate that I do this. All my life I've been having others kill the animals I eat. I try to buy meat from organic farmers, but I'm not a vegetarian. Animals die to feed me. They die in places I never look, and try not to think about.

Once, in a supermarket parking lot, I saw a truck with a bumper sticker that asked, "What's more ridiculous than a meat eater who doesn't hunt?" I trotted after its owner, inspired to make a wise-guy reply: "A hunter who doesn't eat meat." On reflection, I concede the guy's point: If you cause the death of animals through your dietary choices, you ought to be willing to pull the trigger.

But for a nonhunter and self-proclaimed lover of animals, the cognition comes easier than the, er, execution. There's a reason people like me let others do their killing for them. We're cowards and hypocrites.

Not to mention fools. Our urge to look away when someone else kills the animals we eat is so great that our heads stay turned while their genetics are scrambled and their bodies are pumped full of chemicals.

My will to kill was inspired in part by Michael Pollan's great book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, where he slaughters chickens and hunts a wild pig. A photo of him beaming proudly over his fallen prey later moves him to revulsion: "I felt that I had stumbled on some stranger's pornography." Yet he eats what he kills, just as he's eaten hundreds of animals killed by others.

What I set out to do this Thanksgiving was to know the animal that ended up on my table, and play a direct role in putting it there - beyond slathering some oil, sprinkling some salt and sticking it in the oven at 325 degrees.

In the process, thanks to Ken Wulf and others, I got an education in poultry farming, organic and otherwise. One thing I learned is that, for most turkeys and chickens raised in America, there are worse things than death.

Turkey, anyone?

In the modern American diet, poultry is king because it's cheap. You can buy whole chickens for about a dollar a pound; turkeys in season are even cheaper. Annually, the United States consumes 10 billion chickens - that's not a typo - and about 300 million turkeys, including 45 million each Thanksgiving.

Wisconsin, it's safe to say, eats more birds than it produces. The last agricultural census, in 2002, showed the state raised just 33 million chickens and six million turkeys. Only 600 of the big birds came from Dane County.

Almost all poultry served in the U.S. comes from huge operations like Butterball, Jennie-O and Tyson. The market for organic chicken, while growing, was measured in 2005 at 10.4 million birds - about .1% of the total. That year, just 144,086 turkeys (.05%) were certified organic.

Some years back I drove past a turkey farm in Minnesota. You could smell it from a mile away but there wasn't a turkey in sight. The birds - thousands of them - resided within long white enclosures. You'd never know they were there, except for the odor.

Commercial turkeys live in darkness and filth, with hardly more space than they need to stand. Their beaks and toes are lopped off at birth, with no anesthetic, to keep them from hurting other birds in close confinement. "They're foragers, and if they don't have anything to forage, they end up pecking at each other," explains Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns in Virginia.

The genetically modified birds are given antibiotics to boost growth and prevent disease. It's been calculated that a human baby that grew as fast as a commercial turkey would weigh 1,500 pounds at 18 weeks. Some turkeys get so big they can't support their own weight, and use their wings in pitiful attempts to walk.

All commercial breeding turkeys, Wulf says, are artificially inseminated. That's not just for convenience but necessity. By the time the birds are sexually mature, they're too heavy for normal sex. One article I found said a two-person team can inseminate 600 hens per hour, or ten per minute. That involves presenting the animal, exposing her oviduct (vagina), inserting a tube and squeezing a trigger. Talk about sex without romance.

The factory farm environment is not conducive to tender treatment of animals. A undercover video taken by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) at an turkey farm in Minnesota shows a man bludgeoning birds with a metal pipe and wringing their necks with his bare hands. The local district attorney declined to prosecute.

I also watched an online video called "Butterball House of Horrors." One memorable clip showed an employee bragging, "I kicked the [blank] out of the mother[blank]er. His [blank]ing eyeball popped out." The words are so ugly I feel the need to hide them. The act is of course even worse - especially from the turkey's perspective.

Other documented acts of cruelty against commercial turkeys include tearing live birds apart, stomping them, punching them, even sexually assaulting them.

Turkeys raised on these farms are slaughtered at 12 to 26 weeks of age, well short of their 10- to 12-year natural lifespan. They are packed into crates and sent to processing plants, where they're hung upside down by their feet on a conveyor belt. Then they're either zapped with a handheld stunner or dipped face-first into an electrified bath. This is done, notes Davis, "to facilitate feather release," not to incapacitate the birds. They remain conscious as their throats are cut, and sometimes still when they are tossed into scalding water for de-feathering.

Animal welfare advocates want major food sellers and poultry processors to adopt a more humane method approved by the USDA and used widely in Europe. It involves killing birds in their crates by removing their oxygen. There is resistance to this change, although it might save money.

"No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do," writes Pollan in his book. "The industrial animal factory offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism is capable of in the absence of any moral or regulatory constraint."

Raising food

Ken Wulf's lifelong attachment to the land has its roots in a tragic industrial accident. When he was six years old and living in Detroit, his father was involved in a catastrophic tetrachloride spill at work.

Twenty-eight workers died. Ken's father, one of just three survivors, sustained extensive damage to his liver and lungs. He was told that the Detroit-area air might finish him off, so he moved his family to Rhinelander.

The family, which had 11 children, grew much of what it ate in a large garden plot. When Ken was ten, he struck on a scheme that got him started in the chicken business.

It was Easter and the local feed store was giving away brightly colored baby chicks - dye was injected into their shells before hatching - as a promotion. The dye wore off after a few days, and so did people's interest in the chicks. Wulf ran an ad in the Hodag Shopper offering to take them. "I ended up with 480 of the 500 they gave away."

His grandmother, impressed by his initiative, helped him build a wattle-and-daub shed and paid for the birds' feed. At 12 weeks, they averaged five to seven pounds. Then he and his grandma butchered them, about 30 a day.

"Since I was eight years old, I could clean any animal on the planet," says Wulf, now 55. He's raised chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, rabbits, even raccoons. After a stint in the Marines in Vietnam, he became a supervisor at a Tyson plant in Arkansas, a job he left "without regrets."

For much of his life, Wulf worked construction. But wherever he was, he kept critters and had a big organic garden. "There's nothing more good for your soul than to put on your plate food you grew yourself," he says. "That's better than prayer."

Wulf rents land for his chickens from the R&G Miller Farm across the street from his home in East Bristol. He took me on a tour to a barn with hutches, wherein hopped about two dozen rabbits - white, brown, black and gray. Wulf explained how he would stun them with a snap of his wrist, to dislocate their spinal cord, then bleed them to death. At the time, his hand was in a cast from a mishap, so he couldn't demonstrate. I was glad for the cast.

Does it ever bother Wulf know?

"I started so young, it was just a natural thing," he says. "I was taught you kill animals with respect and you do it ceremoniously. If you kill something, you should have respect for the animal."

When the time comes, Wulf will drape a cloth over the hutches, so the rabbits can't see what's going on.

'Everybody gets paid but me'

Wulf mistrusts the government almost as much as corporate food producers. He thinks Congress and the federal agencies in charge of protecting the nation's food supply are "on the take." The corporations dole out money and send in lobbyists, bending regulators to their will.

Why is there a dramatic rise in cancer in the last 15 years, coinciding with the boom in genetic manipulation of farm animals and the wholesale use of chemicals on crops? Why are so many kids being turned into "drug addicts" to get them to behave? Wulf thinks he knows.

"I don't ever order chicken when I go to a restaurant because I know what's in them, and I don't want it in me," he says. Indeed, one main reason he raises chickens is "for my own self-defense."

The problem with my plan to slaughter a turkey from Wulf - whose name I found in a local directory of earth- and animal-friendly farmers - is that, when I called, he didn't have any. He wants to branch out into turkey farming next year, but this year stuck to chickens.

Wulf returned to chicken farming in 2004, teaming up with John Miller to form what's now known as J&K Certified Organic Meats. This year he raised 3,000 birds, the last of which were processed in August. His entire operation is certified organic; he buys feed from the Millers and uses pens designed by Joel Salatin, a Virginia-based organic farmer who stars in Pollan's book. (The pens are moved from spot to spot, serving as mobile fertilizing units.)

It's a hard life. Wulf still owes $1,000 to the hatchery that provided his chicks and $5,000 to the plant that processed them. He's in the process of buying out Miller and converting his company to sole proprietorship.

"Everything I've made in the chicken business goes back into the business," he says. "Everybody gets paid but me."

Wulf does not lack confidence in his product, which he proclaims "second-to-none" and "the best chicken in the world." Having sampled his fryers, I tend to agree. If there's better-tasting chicken anywhere, I've never had it.

But it costs much more to raise certified organic chickens in what Wulf calls "the most humane manner possible" than to give them a hellish existence on big factory farms. Wulf sells birds for $2.89 a pound, some directly to restaurants like Bunky's in Madison, some to grocery stores. He sets up at several local farmers markets and is trying to get into the big one on the Square. He makes cold-call visits to restaurants, urging them to try his product, to see how good it is.

But many restaurants and consumers don't care about anything but cost. About half the birds Wulf raised this year remain in freezers, awaiting buyers. Wulf keeps plugging away, with evident frustration. As he puts it, "It takes a special kind of motivation to get up in the morning and go to work knowing you're not going to get a paycheck."

On the farm

To satisfy my request for a turkey to kill, Wulf offered me one of six Thanksgiving turkeys he'd arranged to get from Elmer Beechy, an Amish farmer.

Beechy raises Nicholas white turkeys, which Wulf calls "a bird as perfect as any we can get." It's a heritage turkey, meaning it's a product of selective breeding, not genetic manipulation. Its lineage traces to the eastern wild turkey.

In early October, my wife Linda and I visited Beechy, just northeast of Hillsboro in beautiful Vernon County. He lives with his wife and 15 children - that's not a typo - in a sparsely furnished home with a large wood stove and small handwritten sign: "Smile, God loves you."

We came upon Beechy riding his horse-drawn buggy to the land he rents to raise turkeys, about two miles away, and met up with him there. He showed us his two flocks, each consisting of 1,500 birds. One flock, in its last ten days of life, was 15-16 weeks old. The other, to be processed closer to Thanksgiving, was a few weeks younger. The birds are sent off to Minnesota or Iowa for processing.

Beechy and his family moved to Wisconsin from northern Indiana in 1996. He began raising turkeys several years later, originally for Organic Valley, now on his own. He sells his birds under the brand name Tilth Farms; some go to stores, most to distributors who take orders from customers. He has no trouble unloading 3,000 turkeys. Once people taste them, he boasts, "they come back for more."

We were invited to wander around and take pictures - but only of the birds, not of Beechy or his family, per Amish sensibilities. When Linda approached, the turkeys waddled in her direction, curious, making rat-a-tat sounds: "hark-hark-hark-hark-hark, hark-hark-hark-hark-hark-hark-hark." They were clearly happy.

Turkeys are friendly and social. In nature, they'll spend their first five months - longer than most of those raised for meat are allowed to live - glued to their moms. They have distinct personalities and can recognize human faces. Ben Franklin touted the turkey ("a true original native of America") over the eagle as the national bird.

Matthew Smith, a farmer in Blue Mounds, raises several varieties of heritage turkeys, about 250 birds a year, most sold directly to consumers. He starts his flock in May and sends them off to a processing plant in November, just before Thanksgiving. His birds are not certified organic, since Smith feeds them "run-of-the-mill" scraps from grocery stores, not just organic grain.

"You get pretty well attached to them," he says. "I talk to them and listen to them. You can see when they're happy, when they're excited, when they're terrified." They go "bonkers" when he feeds them, emptying a 55-gallon drum of old fruit. At night they sleep in the branches of trees, an age-old protection against predators.

Smith likes and respects his birds. "My philosophy is, I want to make their time here as joyful as possible." He would not buy a commercial turkey, because he knows what they go through: "They can barely stand up. They can't stretch their wings. They don't even see the light of day."

But Smith's birds sell for $4.25 per pound, more than four times what it costs to buy a Butterball at the supermarket. And even still, he says, "We're not getting rich off this."

A time to kill

Less than a week after my first visit, I was back on Beechy's farm, opening the hinged lids of two crates while Wulf and Beechy seized turkeys by their thrusting legs. One by one they inserted the birds upside down into the crates. I held down the lids with my feet, as Wulf instructed.

"These are beautiful birds, Elmer," Wulf remarked. "You did a good job." Beechy was matter-of-fact. "Lot of good eatin' here," he said, stuffing in the sixth and final bird.

I fastened the lids with bungee cords and we drove back to Beechy's house. We weighed the full crates on an ancient scale, subtracting what they weighed when empty. It came to 20 pounds per bird.

"Just pay me what you think you can and come out okay," said Beechy, suggesting a price.Wulf topped it, paying $1.80 per pound, more than half what he'll get after processing, when the turkeys will weigh about 20% less.

The caged turkeys seemed calm, their snoods changing color from pale pink to bright red to purple/blue. This is done for show, like a peacock spreading its tail. On the way home I watched them through the rear window; some were blinky-eyed, like my dogs when they're tired.

Wulf's cast came off the day we drove to Beechy's farm, but his hand still hurt and he couldn't firmly grasp a knife. I ran into him at the Northside Farmer's Market near my home, and he suggested we "dispatch" my turkey the following Friday, the last in October.

At 8 a.m., I arrived at Wulf's house in East Bristol. The bird he had picked out for me was in a pen in his backyard, near a table and a pail of water being heated. It was, he said, the biggest and most dominant of the bunch.

Wulf showed me his forearm, marked with deep scratches. My turkey had done this to him the day before, despite all Wulf's experience, when he moved it from the Miller farm to this backyard pen. That's how powerful and unpredictable they are, "twenty pounds of muscle and hollow bones."

There wasn't a lot of ceremony. Wulf grabbed the turkey by the neck and it reacted violently, thrashing its wings and jabbing its legs in all directions. He set it on the ground, holding down its neck with his hand and its body with his knee. He called me over to take his place. The bird tried to push upward and I was astounded by its strength. I had to squat on top of it to keep it still.

A moment later, Wulf was back with the paring knife. The turkey's mouth was open and he told me to insert the blade and make the cut, "from ear to ear."

I knew this moment was coming and thought this was where I'd wrestle with my conscience. I'd tell myself this turkey had an uncommonly good life, on a farm in Vernon County. We should all be so lucky. It was raised for one reason - to be, in the end, "good eatin'." And death would come swiftly.

But could I really kill this animal? And for what? So I could have a tasty meal? My son is a vegetarian; so are some of my friends. They manage to eat without animals dying. Why can't I?

None of these thoughts occurred to me. There wasn't time. I started inserting the knife, then hesitated. "Ken?"

He took the knife from my hand and plunged it in, severing the arteries at the back of the throat. "I don't want the animal to suffer," he said, by way of explanation. He gave the knife back to me and I made another pass. Blood was flowing from the bird's mouth. It stopped struggling almost right away, but I could feel its heart beating against my thighs. Seconds later, it stopped.

It's what's for dinner

We let the turkey bleed into the grass for a couple of minutes, then slung its body on the table, neck hanging down, to bleed some more.

Holding the bird by its feet, I dripped it into the water, heated to 150 degrees. It smelled instantly like turkey soup. Wulf counted out 60 seconds. I flopped it back on the table and we began plucking feathers. They came off easily, but it took a fair amount of time.

We cut off the turkey's head and feet, tossing these into a garbage can. We removed the neck. Next we cut out the anus, being careful not to penetrate the membrane behind it. Wulf had me reach in and pull out the gizzard, which he later sliced open to show me the tiny stones the bird had swallowed to help it digest. With the gizzard came several feet of intestines.

"It's a lot easier going to the grocery," Wulf joked. The notebook I wrote this in is stained with blood.

One by one, we removed the organs: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, gallbladder. "Look at that liver, it's beautiful," said Wulf. It was deep purple, the color of cooked beets. A commercial turkey, he said, would have a pinkish liver, because of all the starches in its diet. And the heart of a commercial turkey would be five times as large, all bound up in fat. This one was small and lean.

One of the last organs to emerge was the testes, indicating my turkey's sex. He'd been too young - "just a young boy," said Wulf - to identify by external organs.

The last step was dropping the bird into a vat of water, to clean and cool it. Wulf kept the neck meat, liver and giblets, having failed to convince me that these were the best parts. Then we bagged the bird, and weighed it: 18.76 pounds. He sold it to me for $3.50 a pound.

We'll have the turkey at my mom's house this Thanksgiving, with my whole extended family, 14 people in all. It will be the first family turkey my nephew's four-year-old son, who has food allergies triggered by additives in commercial birds, will be able to eat.

I'm sure it will taste good, and mean more to me because of what I did to get it. But the experience left me neither pleased nor proud. And when I saw the photos I took of the prostrate bird, blood dripping from its mouth, I felt sickened, and ashamed.

It reminds me of a story a friend told me about her husband, a stockbroker-turned-farmer. He had raised some birds on his farm and slaughtered them, something he had never done before. He didn't like it, and told her so.

She replied in a word: "Good."

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