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SAVOR THE SEASON: Students taught respect during turkey, chicken harvests

September 21, 2018
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - North Country School ninth-grade student Anja Martin stepped over the powered-down electric fence with her two hands cupping a pile of chicken scratch feed. She walked into the center of the pen and began sprinkling the feed on the ground. Dozens of chickens bolted toward the dirt by her feet and pecked away at the grains.

Martin, her fellow classmates and a few faculty farmers have been taking care of these animals, as well as a group of turkeys, for the past 18 months. They collect their eggs, clean their homes, nurse their illnesses and feed them. Pretty soon, the fowl will be harvested for their meat.

Every year, North Country School, a private institution that focuses on both agriculture and academic studies, has a chicken and a turkey harvest. Students take their animals to a chopping block in the woods and hold them down as Farm Manager Joshua Feller chops the birds' heads off with a clever. Though the sight can make some uneasy, Feller described it as a learning process with a lot of reverence and respect for the animals.

Article Photos

A flock of chickens is seen at North Country School in Lake Placid Monday, Sept. 18. Students will harvest the school’s chickens and turkeys for their meat on Oct. 3.
(News photo — Griffin Kelly)

"So we're very intentional about the way that we prepare students for chicken harvest," he said. "We will spend the evening before talking about the process. These are birds that they have raised from a day old all the way to the day they're slaughtered. So we really emphasize reverence. We work to connect the process of what they're eating to the process of taking care of [the birds] and the slaughter itself. It's important for us to be respectful and responsible, taking the best possible care that we can of the animals all the way up to the day that they're harvested."

The harvest isn't meant to scare students or make them vegetarians, but rather to teach them how to be grateful for food. If you are going to eat meat, this is a respectful way of obtaining it that highlights the connection between farmer and animal. It's also a choice. Students don't have to participate if they don't want to. They can do a produce harvest if they're not comfortable with the chickens and turkeys. Director of Admissions David Damico said it's never many kids who opt out, though.

"I would guesstimate about 10 percent [don't participate]," he said. "I've seen up to eight students out of 80 do a carrot harvest."

The actual slaughter is old-school. It's not done with machines in a factory but down a shady path in the woods.

First, the birds are brought to a stump and decapitated. There's plenty of movement after the head is removed, so students have to hold the body in the grass until it's done bleeding out and shaking. Next, the birds are scalded in boiling water. This allows for efficient feather plucking. After that, the birds go to the evisceration station where the organs and giblets are removed. The birds will either be used for meat or be boiled down into stock. Sometimes the turkeys are donated to local food pantries.

"We'll occasionally have people tell us that the turkeys are actually too big to fit in their ovens," Faller said.

It's an intense and cathartic process.

"It's a really challenging activity to participate in," said Elie Rabinowitz, Edible Schoolyard teacher. "For most of these students, this is their first or only place where they're involved in an animal harvest, so there will be a lot of students who are having a clear emotional time. You know it's usually a couple hours of work, and in the first 30 minutes to 60 minutes there are a lot of students struggling emotionally. Their friends will rally around them, support them, give them a hug, some comforting words, and then they'll get back to work after that."

Rabinowitz also noted that while the bird harvests are the most intense versions of the lessons they teach at North Country, the overall goal of building a strong connection between food and people is experienced in other ways, too.

"The chickens and the birds are just the most dramatic of harvests," he said, "but you still see the same respect for food and work when we harvest carrots or work in the garden. The students are still getting that lesson."

This will be Martin's fourth year participating in the chicken and turkey harvests. She remembered back to her first harvest, saying North Country School does a good job preparing students for the slaughter.

"It was hard, and it doesn't get easier as the years go on, taking the life of a bird," she said. "I don't know if I've really gotten used to it, but I know the process enough that I'm not as scared as I was my first year."

The birds have large, open pens in which to roam. The coops are relatively big, too, and look about the size of a basement den. Chickens and turkeys are free to walk about, the sun shines in through good-sized windows, and it doesn't feel crowded. There's a constant chatter of bocking and crowing among the males and females. It almost sounds like they are singing sometimes. The smell is not the greatest. It's far from what cooked poultry smells like.

"We work to keep this place clean," Faller said, "but the chickens do certainly have their own odor. I think, just like anything in animal agriculture, you do become accustomed to it."

He added that a lot of love goes into tending for the birds.

"These kids are waking up, taking care of and feeding these animals all before they do it for themselves," Faller said.

"I've definitely been more thoughtful about the food that I eat and where it comes from," Martin said. "I still eat meat, but I'm trying to be mindful of where I get it. It gives you a nice connection to the birds - to know these birds were well cared for. They were loved. There are students here who enjoy spending time with the chickens. It's good to know that they came from a good background and that they were well cared for right up until the last minutes on Earth."



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