Knowing where your food comes from is a popular theme these days as you stroll the aisles of your grocery store, gather fresh produce and value-added goods at the farmers markets and sit down to eat in many restaurants that buy heavily from local growers and producers. Most people are fine with this; a lot of people love this – but how many can keep from folding when it comes to where and how their meat is brought to them?
It is my personal opinion that if you’re going to eat meat (and I’m ALL FOR eating meat!) you should at least see and witness how it’s done – from seeing the animal in its natural and preferred environment, to understanding how to set up killing cones/butcher station, to catching the critters (be they birds, rabbits, goats, sheep, cows, fish or wild game) to viewing the actual process of taking the life (usually slitting the throat for smaller animals and some sheep and goats, shooting is usually necessary for larger animals) and preparing the carcass for consumption. Even if it’s no “your thing” I believe you will at least appreciate your food and the portions of meat you eat that much more. And be able to take comfort in knowing that throughout the animal’s long, natural, pastured life, it really only had to have one bad day.
Slaughtering and butchering animals for consumption is also something I value highly as a dying art of traditional knowledge and wisdom that we’ve let large companies behind closed doors take over for us. Even with all the expose films in circulation now like Food Inc., and Fast Food Nation, large corporations like Tyson and Foster Farms are still mostly hushes, whispers and secrets in white washed buildings. But an answering call came from the Shenandoah Valley in VA, from Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, a radical, honest, passionate and evangelical mover and shaker who popularized doing things locally and sustainably on his farm. Just check out the way he processes his chickens – in the great outdoors, in the open, no walls, no hiding. And his processing environment is virtually germ-free. (I think a lot more people can appreciate that stat after the recent salmonella scare and recall on all those Iowa eggs.) Knowing how to provide more than just garden veggies and orchard fruits for yourself and family takes knowledge and skill; and the ability to look another life in the eye, respect it, thank it even and then take it.
That’s exactly what a small crowd of people came to do on Spring Rain Farm the other day. Seventy broilers (chickens bred specifically for meat, not egg-laying) were on the schedule to be processed and frozen for home use and local customers who had bought themselves whole chickens in advance. Among the group of people were a couple interested in starting a small flock at their home, some friends who had helped with this sort of thing before and a handful of interns from a few of the other farms in the area who were getting a “field day” experience.
After catching the birds and carting them over to the trailer in cages, killing cones were set up above a wheelbarrow lined with sawdust, the chicken plucker that John had been working on all week sat next to 2 camping stoves heating water baths to 150 degrees, while the table we built for the 17 foot long stainless steel countertop was set up with knives, scissors, bleaching spray bottles and a hose.
The process is rather simple and straightforward: grab a bird by the legs from the cage, stick it upside down in the killing cone and slit its neck with a very sharp paring knife (there’s an artery that runs along the left side of the bird’s neck and swiping it through clean will make for a very quick bleed-out). After the bird has given a few shudders and shivers and is thoroughly dead it can be removed from the cone and held in hot water for up to a minute to loosen the feathers, then it’s into the chicken plucker (unless the chicken plucker is out of commission due to various breaking parts – but it’s nothing a few trips to the hardware store can’t fix) to run the birds through 2 at a time letting the rubber fingers lining the inside of the barrel do their job of picking clean almost every last feather.
The next part can be fairly intimidating – the bird’s legs must be broken at the joints, its neck cut off and its insides taken out. And eviscerating all the viscera must be done with care not to rupture the intestines (‘poop veins’ as one intern called them) or the gallbladder. After the cuts have been made and the bird hollowed out, it’s a good idea to trim off the top of the bird’s tail where the 2 oil glands reside; these only serve to taint the flavor of the meat when it’s cooked. The liver and heart (and sometimes the gizzard) are kept out of the slop can to either be placed back inside the bird or sold separately and everything is bagged and frozen immediately.
The whole lot of 70 chickens took us from 9 in the morning til 6:30 at night and before the day was done customers were already coming out to the farm to pick up their fresh, fresh meat. One mother even brought her young daughter, apparently right from ballet class too, and was eagerly showing her around the place from the butchering table to the plucker and even right up to the killing cones, explaining how the process was done and how the bird gets turned into meat for the table. The girl had the tutu of a ballerina, and the stomach of a ninja; she was fascinated and asked if she could watch us do it! That’s not an experience every 4-year-old has today.
And so, our day of slaughter over, I’m thankful to have the opportunity and know-how to provide healthy, local, fresh and organic meat for others and myself. To be able to complete the process from watching eggs hatch, to building a chicken coop, to moving the chickens to new foraging and pecking ground every week, and finally to taking their and nature’s hard work and energy and harvesting it, gives me satisfaction in a long-term job well done and the practice of husbanding animals so that they only ever have to have one bad day.