by Sam Jones
Farming is hard, especially when animals are involved. Sam Jones recounts her time working on a chicken and pig farm in Colorado where only the fearless survive.
I am a white female, five-feet-three-inches tall, weighing in at a whopping 115 pounds. I spent my summer wrangling hogs and killing chickens. The following is a harrowing account of my survival.
My first day of work at Jodar Farms in Fort Collins, Colorado involved kicking a rooster in the chest, learning how to drive a manual truck with the back window blown out, and navigating 50-mile-an-hour winds while trying to fill five-gallon buckets with pig feed. It was everything I could have hoped for as a job-seeking college graduate.
While the demands of the job remained the same throughout my five-month stint, they did become less taxing over time. Upon arriving at the farm around sunrise, I would immediately open the doors to the five chicken coops scattered across the farm. Releasing thousands of chickens into the great outdoors with a buffet of chicken feed waiting was how I pictured Black Friday. That is, thousands of hungry consumers bottlenecking at the doors to paradise, some of whom are inevitably trampled in the scuffle.
It was this first duty of the day that already indicated to me that chickens are stupid creatures. All of you animal-rights activists out there—bear with me. Every day, with the rising of the sun, chickens are prompted to wake up and find food. On a free-range chicken farm like Jodar, these chickens knew, at the very least, that food laid just on the other side of those wooden doors. What they were repeatedly unaware of was that piling on top of one another was not a good solution to their problem. Alas, human intervention was all that could spare them from suffocating one another to death. For those that didn’t make it, I merely tossed their sad souls into the dumpster—and on an empty stomach no less.
Next, I would check on the brooders. These are essentially stacked metal cages attached to a source of heat that give young chicks being raised for meat a better chance of survival during their most fragile life stage. Refilling the feed and water trays and verifying that the heat was set at the right temperature would have been my favorite job had it not been for the poop trays. That’s right: six massive cookie-sheet-like trays onto each of which the feces of roughly 86 chicks collected. As I mentioned before, I am only 5′ 3”, which was incidentally shorter than the top two trays. Slowly and methodically, I would slide one poop tray out with both hands over my head, carefully lower it to a trash bin, and fold the underlying newspaper in a way that prevented the poop from breaking through the paper and onto either the tray or my hands. Finally, and with much satisfaction, I would roll the steaming wad of poop into the bin. I repeated this glamorous task five more times, every day.
Now, about kicking a rooster in the chest. If you have ever been exposed to the wrath of the rooster, you might sympathize with my aggression. The chickens were fed twice each day, which I accomplished most efficiently by carrying one five-gallon bucket of feed in each hand and dumping them into the feed troughs. Perhaps due to my size or the scent of fear emanating from my pores, these roosters went into full-on Kill Bill mode every time they saw me. They chased me and trapped me in the back of the coop while I collected eggs. And at feeding time, while my hands were filled with buckets of feed, the two black and white speckled roosters (whom I affectionately named Umbridge and Voldemort) would stand up straight, flare their neck feathers, and charge at me from behind. Despite kicking Umbridge (out of self-defense) so hard that he developed a limp, I still sustained many above-the-knee bruises in the shape of a chicken’s foot—farming is dangerous business. To add to my bruised legs and ego, I learned that I was the first and only employee at Jodar to be attacked by these roosters. The problem became so cumbersome that my boss and coworkers rounded up all the roosters on my day off and gave them to a neighbor just so they would stop karate-chopping my kneecaps. I am eternally grateful.
Another of my glamorous duties included collecting the eggs of roughly 2,000 laying hens, which amounted to 1,600 eggs daily, give or take a few hundred. This was my favorite job (once the roosters were voted off the island) because I always felt like a toddler on Easter Sunday. Some eggs were blue, pink, brown, or white. Some were massive double-yolkers while others were the size of a gumball. The only downsides to egg collecting were the incessant screeching of thousands of chickens, the occasional chicken jumping on my back while I was bent over, and the necessity of yanking three or four chickens out of a lay box by the neck just to see if there were eggs to collect. Otherwise, this duty was by far the most enjoyable.
Compared to the hens and roosters, about whom I had unwavering opinions, I developed a complicated love-hate relationship with the pigs on par with the one between Americans and democracy. First, Jodar’s pigs lived outside in the mud and pasture, so the smell typically associated with pigs was not a factor in our love story. I loved these pigs because they were smart. I lost count of the number of times the pigs got out of their pens by busting through weak wire or finding a malfunctioning section of electric fence. Rounding up pigs at 9 o’clock at night is maybe the most frustrating thing I have ever done. At the same time, the ridiculousness and humor of the situation reminded me how lucky I was to work outside with cute animals every day. On hot days, I would use the hoses to spray them down and create cold wallows—it was the closest thing to a wet t-shirt contest I’d ever seen.
The hate part of this love-hate relationship can actually be blamed on the poor infrastructure that was set up for feeding. Most farms have one large trough or automatic gravity feeder for their pigs, but not at Jodar. Not even close. I filled five-gallon buckets with feed and beer byproducts (which we called brew), lifted the buckets over to the outside of the pigs’ fence, set them down, climbed over the fence, bent down to lift the buckets into the pen, then proceeded to walk to all of the small feeders scattered around the large encampment. All the while, the pigs became unbelievably and unmanageably excited that it was breakfast or lunch time. And there I was in the mud with them—a small, helpless, feed-hauling mammal. It should impress you to know that they only knocked me to the ground once in my five months of feeding them. I’m pretty proud of that.
Lastly, the most memorable job was the weekly chicken slaughter. Every Tuesday, the person with the closing shift would accompany our boss, Aaron, in rounding up the fattest 250 broilers from the oldest of the four chicken houses, each containing 500 broilers (give or take the few temperamental birds that lost their will to live at some point in their 10-week journey to slaughter). My wrists would be so sore the next morning from repeatedly grabbing three chickens by the legs in each hand (the guys could lift five), that the only way to drink my coffee was to perform a graceful tipping bird motion of my face onto the rim of my mug, and slurp.
On Wednesdays, we hung the birds by their ankles on metal hooks that closely resembled the large paddle attachments for an electric stand-up mixing bowl. They became rather calm and limp as they lay upside down, blood rushing to their heads as they glimpsed the ominous black bins below, with the sun beaming off their white feathers.
First, one of my coworkers would painlessly zap each chicken in the neck with a stun knife that essentially put them to sleep. Then, my other coworker (both of them men—actually all of them men except for me) would follow by slitting their throats with a knife, allowing the blood to spill into the black bins underneath. Once enough blood had been spilt, the chickens were placed 10 at a time into a hot water bath and rotated on a timed cycle until they were properly sanitized.
This is where I came in. First, I removed the steaming chickens from their bath and placed them breast-side up on the plucking machine. Then, I would lock the door of the plucker and slide the birds into a cylindrical basin fitted with black rubber fingers that spun the birds at high speed before the machine automatically unlocked and flung the chickens onto a metal catch. My sexy job in this process was to pluck the few remaining feathers off the chickens’ armpits and butts. Lastly, several Hispanic women processed the chickens until they eventually resembled the whole chicken you buy in the store and roast with a salt-brine and a few sprigs of rosemary. From start to finish, including cleaning, it took 10 people about three hours to slaughter 250 chickens.
Not too shabby for a hard day’s work.
Sam Jones is a first year student in the AFE program who worked on farms for two years after graduating from the University of Puget Sound. Her interest in agriculture began in the summer of 2012 when she WWOOFed in France and Scotland. She likes to cook, be outside, drink wine, and dreams of one day living in Italy.