[Caution: if you are squeamish about seeing the steps involved in chicken processing, this post is not for you.]
On Saturday, about a half dozen curious and committed students from Brookings-area Farm Beginnings classes old and new, as well as a few of the instructors and a Dakota Rural Action staff member braved the damp and chill to learn some important sustainable farming skills at Glacial Lakes Permaculture in Estelline, South Dakota.
On the agenda: chicken processing and a farm tour hosted by Karl Schmidt, DRA member and Glacial Lakes Permaculture owner and founder.
The morning started out overcast and not terribly chilly. But it got colder. Then it rained. And there was a bit of a frigid breeze, too. Still, the participants all took turns performing the various steps of the chicken “process.”
Karl had the birds that were destined for “harvesting” penned up in one of the mobile coops, or “chicken tractors.” The low walls made it easier to reach in and grab a bird without chasing them around the bigger chicken yard and stirring them all up.
Once the chicken was selected, it was carried upside-down by its feet to the stainless steel “killing cone.” Yep, that’s what it’s called. It’s basically a metal funnel attached to a post with a bucket placed underneath.
The chicken is placed upside-down in the cone, and then you reach in and pull its head down through the bottom opening.
With a sharp knife, you remove the chicken’s head with a quick, even cut just below the bottom of the cone, and drop it in the bucket. The chicken then bleeds out into the bucket.
This is a heck of a lot neater, safer, and (I think) more humane than chasing the chickens around, catching one, and whacking its head off on a stump, then letting it run around. It also does a much better job of containing the blood and not having it all over the yard.
Once the chicken has been dispatched and has bled out, you take it out of the cone and dunk it in hot water (160-170F) until the wing feathers pull out easily. You don’t want to boil or cook the chicken, you just want to make it easier to pluck.
The set-up for this is basically a propane tank-fueled turkey cooker with a thermometer to check the temperature of the water. That’s it–nothing fancy.
Tying the bird’s feet to a rope suspended from a tree limb with a bucket beneath is a good way to strip the feathers without creating a big mess or breaking your back.
We got backed up at one point in the production and a bunch of us were standing around holding our chicken with one hand and plucking with the other, which tends to tire out your arm pretty fast!
There are, by the way, mechanical chicken-pluckers with rubber “fingers” that do the job quickly, though I imagine they don’t do it as thoroughly as you’d want it done. So, you’d likely still end up doing some of it by hand. It wasn’t really that bad to do it this way–especially with the small number of chickens we had to do.
After cleaning the feathers from the chicken, the bird carcass is washed off and placed in a cooler with chilled water to bring the body temperature down.
We ended up processing about half the chickens to this stage and then realized that we’d better stop killing and plucking the chickens and get to the evisceration stage because there was no more room in the cooler. That, and we were all hunched and teeth-chattering from the cold.
The evisceration seems like it’s the part that would really be the issue for a lot of people–first, cutting off the feet (which apparently make a great soup stock), then cutting open and reaching into the cavity of the chicken and pulling its guts out.
But I think most of us who did not have much or any meat processing experience agreed that, at that point, the bird looked more like chicken (meat) than a chicken (live bird).
And maybe it’s gross to say this, but we were all so cold that the process of reaching (carefully, to avoid puncturing the intestines or bile duct) into the chicken wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
I mean, a mitten is generally preferably–a warm stove or mug of coffee, even–but the warm inside of a chicken wasn’t the worst thing I could think of to put my hand into at that point.
OK–so here’s what will probably be considered the “gross” image:
I guess I saw enough of this growing up in a hunting-fishing-trapping family that I didn’t find it stomach-turning. I don’t think anyone in the group did. We all took turns doing each part of the process, from putting the chicken in the cone to eviscerating the chicken, washing it off, and dropping it into a freezer bag.
And then we had a big salad and roast chicken lunch in the warm and inviting house. Not sure if the chicken we ate was one of the ones we killed that morning, but I don’t think so–not unless someone brought one of the first ones in right away and got it in the oven.
Coming away from this skill session, I feel a lot more confident about raising my own poultry. Readers of my previous blog might remember that I did raise a few ducks one season, but I found myself not really knowing what to do with them in the end.
I guess I thought that once I “made it” through the actual killing of my animals, everything else would come easily. But once their heads were off, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
The process of making meat for the table isn’t just about getting over the fact that you have to kill the animals. It’s about following through with the harvesting in a way that makes them fit for your table–and honors, rather than wastes, the lives that you nurtured to fruition (or “market weight”–whichever you prefer).
In the end, not all of my ducks got eaten, and I felt (and still feel) shame about that. I decided that until I really knew what I was doing, I wasn’t going to attempt any level of livestock production again.
After this session, I have a good sense of the equipment and skills I need to more confidently raise and butcher poultry for my family’s table.
But now, I suppose, I’d better find myself a farm to do it on.
Thanks so much to Karl Schmidt of Glacial Lakes Permaculture for the tour and the skill session, and for allowing us to help with the butchering, which, due to his close monitoring, support of, and advice to the “newbies,” ended up taking him two days rather than one.
Thanks also to Karl’s wife, Nadine, for opening up her home and kitchen to our group (and to my son), and for the awesome apple spice bread.
And thanks to Dakota Rural Action (and specifically Heidi Kolbeck-Urlacher) for helping arrange the tour and providing the non-chicken part of the lunch.