Hell Week. It’s not a pretty name and it doesn’t bring about good feelings or fond memories. Constant soreness, pain, and anger accompany a caffeine-induced existence. In the past, it’s meant days without sleep and arguments so bad that some of my best friends have walked out. This year fortunately wasn’t that bad.
The week before Thanksgiving, for those of you who don’t know, goes by common name “Hell Week” amongst ourselves and our staff. We slaughter and package 1500+ turkeys to be fresh table birds for Thanksgiving in addition to all of the pork, chicken, and duck that our customers need as they prepare for the holiday. Essentially, this has meant that we start at 8am each day and go home once the trucks are loaded between 3 and 5 in the morning.
Two years ago, I remember putting turkeys in bags well into our inspectors’ overtime hours on the Thursday of Hell Week. I looked across the processing area to see Victor in blank stare at a spot on the wall. Several minutes passed as I continued to slip the bags over the turkeys and pass them down the table; Victor didn’t move a muscle. I was running on about six hours of sleep since I had awoke on Monday. I knew that Victor’s number wasn’t a lot different, and I knew that I was going to allow him whatever nap he could get standing up in that open floor space near the labeler. We called it quits before 2am that night with a steep workload remaining for the day to follow.
Victor didn’t fall asleep standing up this year. I’ve slept at least 6 hours each night this week. Best of all, I’m typing this at 10:13pm on Thursday. Jose is cleaning up the rest of the equipment, and all of the turkeys are packaged and in the cooler. (Last year set the record of finished packaging at 9pm on Friday).
We’re getting better at this, and I’m going to spend Thanksgiving enjoying time with my family rather than asleep on Grandma’s floor as I have in the past. The holiday will be what it should, and it will feel like this week was a necessary little stepping stone to making such an occurrence possible for thousands of families across the country. In the past however, I always felt that Hell Week was an iceberg that left me nearly drowning through the entire following week. It was an experience that I would pass by even if it meant that I would not be eating turkey on Thanksgiving and industrialized meat would win its way into the dinners that we would have otherwise filled.
Part of this year’s success was due to some temporary help that we were fortunate to have with us each evening this week. As the last of them, the husband of a longstanding local customer, was leaving, we struck up a conversation about staffing, foreign companies owning the big US processors, market access, approved processing aids, USDA testing, contract growers living below the poverty line, customer apathy toward processing, and a slew of other points that I wanted to spread about from atop my soap box. Eventually, we shook hands and I returned to my office to finish up the regulatory paperwork for the day. I sat down, and realized all that I had said. Every little point that I made about how messed up this industry is hurt more than my aching muscles of years prior. I don’t view Hell Week in the same light I used to as a result. The self-destruction that we’ve put in in the past has been part of an unfathomably intricate bigger picture. A Thanksgiving turkey is one purchase, once per year, that is going to be one portion of a plate that bears, or at least ought to bear, piles of other great food. But, that one bird, that one decision is one that says ”I live by my morals”. I don’t think anything in life is more important.
About 30,000 people will be enjoying our turkeys for Thanksgiving in the US this year. The fact that the majority of the other 300 million care more about price tag or what is convenient than any moral our business is built upon is more draining than was my 45 hour sleepless stretch of Hell Week 2015. I do not want to run all 46 million turkeys for the US through the plant, so I had best not complain too loud, but I would like to thank everyone who considered their Thanksgiving turkey in regards to morals. The energy drinks will help, but you all are the ones who will be pushing me through all of the Hell Weeks to come.
Processing Plant Manager
Allow your passion to become your purpose and it will one day become your profession.
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