When we moved, I realized how spoiled I’d become when my searches for pastured poultry at farmers markets left me and my crock pot empty-handed. So I started making phone calls, and Jeff told me he sells chickens for a couple months out of the year. After I expressed interest in ordering a couple, and knowing that raising our own meat birds is something we want to do sooner rather than later, our conversation took a little turn:
Me: (stuttering a bit) Do…do you mind if people watch you process the chickens? I mean, can we come watch?
Jeff: (probably expecting a different answer) Well, no…no. I don’t let people watch me process the birds. But you can come help!
Me: (flabbergasted and excited) Really??!! We’d love to! When do you start?
A couple weeks later, Byron and the kids and I pulled up to Jeff’s farm. We were banking on the kids entertaining themselves, which they did for the most part. I had to call for Akea – who at the moment is obsessed with Charlotte’s Web – to stop letting herself into the pig pen a couple times, but other than that the kids played while we, um, killed.
Jeff was very gracious in explaining and demonstrating the whole process to us before we began. He has a wonderful stainless steel set-up, but explained to us that there is less expensive equipment available for people like us who will be a bit smaller scale. And certainly, we’re not exactly ready to feed the entire neighborhood. Basically, he has cones that the chickens go into head-first so they can easily be slaughtered and bled, a temperature-controlled tank to loosen the feathers, and a cylindrical de-featherer. After that they go onto the eviscerating table (yup, that’s where you take the insides out), and finally, the chill tank.
We had to actually catch chickens and put them in a cage, and Byron ended up with a pretty decent scratch on his hand. Not surprising that he volunteered to help Jeff slaughter the chickens as soon as we had lugged the birds back to trailer bed that housed the equipment.
Now, I’d been planning on participating in every aspect of the process, but the closest I got to slaughtering a chicken was watching and then slowly making my way toward the eviscerating table. For whatever reason, I couldn't bring myself to do the deed. So after watching Jeff eviscerate a couple birds, I gave it a shot. Jeff, who’s been doing this for a long time, quizzed me on the identity of some of the innards and cleaned out two birds for every one of mine. But I think I got a little faster as the morning wore on.
And wear on it did, though we kept very busy. I was hungry, and the sun was slowly baking us all, so I’m not sure if it was the environment or the eviscerating that brought on a slight wave of nausea. I had fleeting thoughts of becoming a vegetarian again. Chickens are far from humans in intelligence and complexity, but they were living things a few short moments before they reached my knife…something I was acutely aware of the entire morning. The whole process isn’t mechanical enough yet for me to push these thoughts away, nor am I sure it should ever get to that point. I would imagine that getting used to slaughter – even if it is just a chicken – is somewhat unhealthy for the soul.
Comic relief came in the form of a "phantom squawk." Let's just say that some of the lungs of the dead chickens still had air in them, so as I went about my business eviscerating, sometimes the air was filled with an unexpected, low "squaaaaaaawwwwk" that was at the same time creepy and humorous.
Jeff gave us a chicken for our help and we bought another from him. We ate one the next day, and I had some difficulty stomaching it, though it was delicious. I suppose I’m a tenderfoot who’s never been this close to her food before, but I’m glad for the experience. And eating the leftovers wasn’t quite as emotional.
To boot, Jeff gave us a tour and some good advice that has us re-thinking some of our plans. While we were used to having frozen, pastured chicken available to us from a local farm 365 days a year, we may not have that luxury anymore unless we raise a lot of birds and freeze them (a deep freezer is on our purchase list as soon as our other house sells...did I mention we have two mortgages at the moment?). As a society, we're used to getting whatever food we want whenever we want it; the idea of eating seasonally is very much a thing of the past. But it's not something that's necessarily bad, especially if we want to be more self-sufficient. So what if we eat chicken in the summers and beef and venison during the colder months? It might give us something more to look forward to as the seasons change.
Jeff also reminded us that monocultures are bad. Basically, that means that we need to have more than just chickens in our livestock menagerie. We mentioned wanting to get a milk cow, and he quickly told us that cows are herd animals and that we'd be better off getting more than one. From the research we've done (he loaded us down with books and magazines) cows can get depressed if they're left alone, which can lead to behavioral issues. So we've been tossing around the idea of getting two cows or even a couple goats. And Byron, who thus far has been opposed to getting a horse, is actually thinking that a work horse may be an option. Too bad I sold my saddle a couple years ago to buy my grain mill!
Jeff invited us back to help out again, which we hope to do in a couple weeks. Right now the contractors are at our house and Byron has to insulate the crawlspace and install plywood over the new joists in our parlor. In the meantime, we have a lot to chew on as we digest everything we learned from our day spent processing chickens.