EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a two-part series. 

MERCER — It’s only 8:30 a.m., exactly one week before Thanksgiving, but already some 75 turkeys have been slaughtered. Just 1,900 birds, more or less, to go.

This week is crunch time for the Greaney family, who have spent many months raising and caring for the turkeys. The children, especially, have done the lion’s share of the work, as their father, Scott Greaney, was diagnosed exactly a year ago with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He has been in and out of the hospital ever since.

Now the family has rented a U-haul truck into which they’ll load small groups of turkeys, drive them from the barn that has been the birds’ home since August, past the big white farmhouse where the Greaneys live, to the slaughterhouse.

“We don’t tell them what we use it for,” Greaney’s wife, Tracy, says of the vehicle, “but I think they might know.”

About a dozen neighbors and relatives have flocked to the farm to help with the slaughter – two days for the family’s own birds, three days to dispatch turkeys for other farmers, and finally a day of deliveries and customer pick-ups in time for holiday dinners.

The evening before the slaughter began, the Greaneys ate the last “real meal” they’ll have time for before Thanksgiving Day; during the hectic week when the birds meet their fate, the family will subsist on pizza, take-out and frozen food.

The Greaneys have been stockpiling ice for days, which they use to keep the fresh carcasses cool, and they’ve stopped feeding the birds grain, as is standard before slaughtering.

Emily, 17, and her brother Ben, 15, skip a few days of school to help out. It’s one of many things the pair have done to keep the farm going. Last year, during a family debate over whether to shut down the farm for a year because of their dad’s illness, the teenagers, along with their 11-year-old brother, Adam, volunteered to raise the turkeys themselves. For them, the week before Thanksgiving is as much about testing their newfound skills and knowledge as it is about the traditional holiday preparations, like baking pies or making stuffing.

“I don’t think we would have been ready for this a year ago,” Emily says. “Last year, we did daily chores, but this year we’ve also taken on the business and pre-planning. All season long, our dad has been coaching us and giving us advice. He’s prepared us.”

Greaney has undergone a tough year of chemotherapy and – doctor’s orders – has spent much of the year out of the barn, where dust and dandruff from the birds pose a risk to his immune system. Also, he’s often been too exhausted to work. Though Greaney is in remission now, the crew at the barn jokingly tells him that they work better without him, to protect his health.

“They won’t let me help,” he says, though he’s still fixing a light at the entrance to the slaughterhouse and driving the U-Haul, delivering birds. “My doctors said I can’t do a lot. But no one defined what ‘a lot’ is.”

MUCK, FEATHERS AND SMILES

The whole family approaches slaughter week with similar energy and enthusiasm. Exhaustion is already setting in on Day 2, as the Greaneys go about their work with muck on their boots and feathers in their hair, but smiling nonetheless.

“I’m exhausted.” That’s the first thing Emily tells a visitor to her mini-office atop a freezer in the back of the slaughterhouse. She is carefully keeping track of each bird’s weight and final destination, and she says she’s been staying up late, unable to sleep just thinking about all the work that remains to be done. The birds slaughtered the day before have been kept on ice overnight, so they’ll stay extra cold while in transit, and they still need to be packaged. The phone is ringing nonstop – customers with last-minute orders call Emily directly on her cell phone. She starts a waiting list.

By the end of Day 2, the last of the family’s own turkeys are huddling in a corner of the barn, where the afternoon sun is shining through cracks in the walls. The birds must be pushed toward the U-Haul. Tracy Greaney calmly counts them as they are lifted, one by one, into the truck, struggling and flapping their wings. When the last has been loaded, the barn is eerily quiet. The water feeders swing back and forth silently, and although the birds are gone, their stench is not. Piles of waste and sawdust need to be cleaned out before they freeze to the barn floor. “It feels naked in here,” Ben says.

In past years, you could usually find Scott Greaney in the “kill room,” where the birds’ throats are slit and the carcasses de-feathered. This year, he floats through the slaughterhouse helping out where he can, while Tracy helps her son do the killing. Emily presides over the opposite end of the building, where the birds are checked for imperfections, packaged in plastic bags, weighed and then loaded into a refrigerated truck for distribution.

“Everyone has a job,” Emily explains. “That’s the most surprising thing I learned. I used to think that if you were the boss you have to know everything. Now I know to let people do their jobs. I don’t have to know every single detail. I can say ‘Go ask Adam,’ or ‘Go ask Dad.’ ”

Though the final bird is packed on ice at around 6 p.m., the stress isn’t over.

“Now we are really getting judged,” Scott Greaney says, “because now our turkeys are going to our customers.”

The Greaneys sell turkeys to eight stores in Maine and about 100 individual customers.

“Everybody loves a fresh turkey,” says Janet Spear, who owns Spear’s Farm Stand in Waldoboro with her husband, Bob. The couple has driven an hour and 20 minutes to get to the Greaneys’ farm for 75 birds that they’ll sell to their customers. The Spears passed other turkey farms on the way, but say the Greaneys’ birds are worth the extra drive. “It’s the quality of the product,” Janet Spear says. “That’s what we come here for.”

Inside the slaughterhouse, the crew – made up mostly of teenagers and 20-somethings – is celebrating the packing of the last turkey. It’s a bittersweet moment.

“I feel like I’ve become part of the family business,” says Ashley Doucette, 23. She’s been working on the farm for about six years. “The first day I was here I wouldn’t get out of the car, but now it’s something I’ve been doing for years. It’s kind of upsetting when it’s over, because we have so much fun doing it. It’s like a big ol’ family get-together.”

Emily, Ben, Ashley and the rest of the slaughterhouse crew aren’t squeamish. They kill the turkeys in the most humane way they know, hanging the birds upside down to calm them and stunning them with an electric shock just before their throats are slit so they feel little pain. The crew says they’ve all gotten used to the constant smell of blood, and the camaraderie seems to get them past any uneasiness.

The money the family makes will mostly go toward buying next year’s grain and chicks and paying the workers who help this week. Add in the Greaneys’ own labor, and they’re barely making a profit. That doesn’t faze Emily, despite her yearlong immersion in the business of farming.

The work is as much about filling a need in the market as it is making money, she says. She stands while eating lunch, a pulled-pork sandwich her mother makes every year at this time – a tradition – as she talks about a different one: “Thanksgiving is an American thing, and turkey is an important part of that tradition. To allow people to have that tradition is nice.”

THANKSGIVING DINNER

Exhausted, the Greaneys were in bed by about 7 p.m. the night before Thanksgiving. For the first time in months, there is no pressing work to be done.

By 10 the next morning, their own 21-pound turkey is in the oven. The Greaneys spend part of the morning in the barn, sweeping and cleaning up. Inside, Tracy Greaney’s parents and brother are in the living room watching football with a family friend. Like moms all around America, she is in the kitchen mashing potatoes and putting the finishing touches on the meal. The family jokes that the kitchen is a “do not enter” zone while she is cooking, but as soon as the bird comes out of the oven, they crowd around to sample it, Ben snacking on the skin and Scott Greaney going for the white meat.

Meanwhile, Emily – her hair long and loose for the occasion (when she’s doing chores in the barn, it’s held back in a ponytail) – sets the table. There’s a ceramic turkey in its center. It’s already clear that, given all the food and guests, it will be a tight squeeze. There are mismatched chairs pulled from elsewhere in the house, and everybody laughs when Adam sits on the chair lowest to the ground, putting him at eye level with dinner – carrots with honey and butter, corn, peas, squash, stuffing and, of course, turkey.

The family takes a moment to talk about what they are thankful for, mainly that the hard work of another year is over and they can spend the day relaxing. They’re pleased Scott’s health has improved since Thanksgiving one year earlier. Last year at this time he had just been diagnosed, and shortly after, he was hospitalized and unable to help with the pre-Christmas rush. It was the first time Emily and Ben ran the slaughterhouse on their own.

In the days to come, Scott Greaney will make the trip to Boston for chemotherapy. But it’s Thanksgiving, so the family focuses on the business at hand – enjoying each other.

“Now I remember this chick when it was running around the barn,” Scott Greaney jokes as he slices the bird.

About the birds, the family is not sentimental. It’s about time, they agree, as they devour the feast.