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Notes on my significant relationship with chickens and the beginning adventure of becoming a butcher/Wed. Oct. 31, 2012


“Starry, Starry Chicken Night”
© `penny O’Krebiehl 2005

In 2005, I illustrated a Year of Chicken calendar and did a bunch of portraits of our egg-laying flock.  My egg-laying, soup-stock chickens are long gone, but I still have chicken art available for sale.  I’d been chicken-farming with my partner and his dear mother for about a year and I felt like my experience and adventure as a small, livestock tender was very fulfilling if not peaking.   I spent hours and hours observing, drawing and painting my dozen or so chicken friends, and have a good story to tell about “Johnny Bingo Who Got Away”.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by Mark and Jill Baker to consider visiting and joining them in their “farm school” work, by attending one of their “Anyone Can Farm” workshops on chicken processing.  And, so I did.  Below are my talking to my dear-self notes on some of the experience.

Here’s the introductory info shared with me about what I was about to participate in:

October 28-29, 2012, Bakers Green Acres “Anyone Can Farm” Harvest Days: Chicken Processing

This 1 1/2 day class designed as a quick introduction for those who want to feed themselves and maybe some family and friends. By the end of this mini-course participants have had the opportunity to:

-Pick up chickens to prep for processing

-Discuss various topics about raising chickens for meat and why we do it the way we do.

-Learn how to properly kill a chicken

-Learn the ins and outs of scalding, plucking and eviscerating a chicken

-Discover the ability to use the WHOLE chicken and make full, productive use of what a chicken has to offer.

My time at Baker’s Green Acres began with drive from Traverse City down to Marion, taking up the generous offer by Mark and Jill to attend this “Harvest Day” class in their Anyone Can Farm program.  I’d never been to their farm, although lived nearby in the Lake City and Cadillac area for several years on Earthwork Farm with the Bernards, where I became acquainted with “shaggy cows” aka known as, Scottish Highland cattle.

On the Baker’s farm, the focus for these first Anyone Can Farm classes would be on meat production and processing. The first weekend focusing on chicken, and the second, on pork.  On the one-hourish drive down, I had plenty of time to have a conversation with my dear self regarding a couple of things: Being in a car, rather than on a bicycle pulling a cart; How I’ve come to understand my dietary needs; Why my work continues to be about learning, practicing and attempting to fine-tune ways of living wise and well–even AND especially at this older age; And what it means to walk my talk as a part of the natural world in an artistic, garden-farming, and permaculture student/educator kind of way.

I likely had a few more thoughts running through my  brain too….but that’s where I generally hovered in self-convo and it seemed to have a common theme.  Lately, very much contemplating the “intersection” or in-between this and that edge/zone place of being, and what it means. What action I may take whilst walking along, and the how-to’s and miracle of balancing on that edge.

During the drive, I had already begun the process of shedding some of  my urban-garden-farming realities as I witnessed the expanse of farm houses, barns, out-buildings and fields, and fields, and fields.  I had an aha-moment when I drove by the New Holland farm machinery business with all it’s brightly, polished and very colorful big, big, big equipment.  And I mean LOT’s of them, all lined up, parked in display like a car-lot fashion. It was a shock of color in this late October chilly, bareness. It was also, a loud message and reminder about what the order of business these parts offered and focused on.

I must admit that I was wowed. It seemed almost other-worldly and unbelievable that there could be shiny, new, huge equipment like this still available in such hard economic times.  I’ve really entered into a trimmed-down, hand-tool, city-towny kind of lifestyle to a great extent.  At least that’s what my brain and body is living and accepting.  One big change has been in the works since 2009, as I’ve slowly adjusted and can get by without owning a car/vehicle. Car-sharing with others does work, and I’m grateful for being a part of such a cooperative.  I guess I lumped that experience in with the notion that food and farming can happen with less or little machine equipment, as well.

After several years being separated from farm-life, suddenly this drive brought back vivid memories of early childhood growing up on a hobby farm surrounded by bigger farms, through my teen-years with friend Debbie spending much time at her family farm and being a part of a 4-H group; and onto my Earthworks Farm experience, I was about to find out more about the how-to’s and what-for’s happening on a family farms in the present day. I was already feeling grateful for my first “I didn’t know that” observations.

Joined by a handful of students from the MSU Student Organic Farm, Mark and Jill and their children, began the Harvest Days Chicken Processing experience with a brief introduction and welcome to the farm and then served a fantastic chicken broth and veggie soup, salad and blueberry buckle desert around a campfire.  I didn’t get in on the discussion about breed of bird and basic bird behavior and hope to recap that bit in a later convo with the Bakers’, or do some research on my own.

I did have a first time experience eating a slice of Lardo—cured lard with a salty outer crust—on a slice of hard bread.  I’m a believer and fan of eating fat, and enjoyed the Lardo quite a bit.  At one point, my artist-joy side started to rise up and I was tempted to shout out loud and long in a super-hero speak:  LARD-DOoooH!!!  But I contained my excitement of meeting this new form of a fat friend and nibbled away.  Through this whole experience and storytelling, I continue to have faith that my vegetarian friends will accept and appreciate the diversity I bring into their lives.

After supper, with a beautiful full moon rising, Mark led our group of a dozen or so participants, along with the older Baker children; Joe, Sam, Dorothy, Keith and Rachel across the field to the chicken tractors that were huddled up along the north side of the barn.  All but two of the low-to the ground, covered shelters were empty, with this being the last chicken processing of the year for the farm.  Mark explained the reason for picking up the chickens at night and why they needed to be greeted and handled in a calm manner when they were settling in for the night rather than early morn when they were getting ready to start their chicken day of eating, scratching and filling up their bellies.  The 100+ chickens were placed, a dozen or so each, in approx. 2 1/2 X 4 foot  holding pen.  The holding pens were then transported over near the processing/butchering building for an overnight stay, and we all wandered back to the campfire and/or our sleeping places.

After a good cup of coffee and breakfast, including a sampling of confit chicken legs, we were getting set to begin our day of processing.  Here’s a little info on Confit:  The word comes from the French verb confire (to preserve), which in turn comes from the Latin word (conficere), meaning “to do, to produce, to make, to prepare”. The French verb was first applied in medieval times to fruits cooked and preserved in sugar.  In this instance, the chicken meat was salted (and seasoned with herbs?), and slowly cooked submerged in it’s own rendered fat, in which it is then preserved by allowing it to cool and storing it in the fat. I’ll say that the little sampling was a fitting, communal and delicious way to begin our work day.

Next I joined the group that had already assembled in the processing building, and found that each of the Baker’s very skilled family members were positioned at a particular station and taking turns explaining and instructing the various steps in the process from killing to eviscerating.

First the layout of the equipment for processing was shared:  the killing station, the scalding tank, the plucking spinner, and the two tables–placed across from each other with a gap for shoving off the innards and keeping the work area clean.

All of the Baker kids were delivering their instructions by respectfully, carefully, and slowly explaining the various steps from how to safely hold the knife for the different tasks performed at each step of the process, to it’s angle, and the grip or handling of the bird.

Joe explained and demonstrated how to lift the chicken from the holding pen by it’s legs, cradling it close to my body—then how to place the chicken into the cone by focusing on keeping the head down and the legs up and out. The next part, which was instruction on where to cut it’s throat was done solemnly and  matter of fact with concern based on efficiency.  Once I had the saber like knife and gripped the chickens head and beak in my hand, I found the right place on it’s neck and said a thankful blessing for it’s life and gift to us humans.  I repeated this silently in my head and heart each time I slit the dozen or so chickens throats.  The knife was very sharp and I was operating from a conscious place of care for that reason as well.

The next step was taking the freshly killed chickens from the cones and placing them upside down, legs gripped in a hanging contraption.  The chickens were then dipped in a tank of 150 degree water, and submerged for a good 45- 50 seconds to loosen the feathers.  Afterwards they were removed from the scalding station to the round, plucking machine, which was encircled inside the 3 foot-wide, drum-like machine with a wall of black, rubber 4 inch finger-like nubs along the inside.  Once the scalded birds were inside—about 8 birds at a time—-the machine was turned on and began spinning like a washing machine.  The birds were bounced around and somehow the rubber nubs and the speed and motion of the machine, plucked out almost all of the feathers on each bird.

For the old-fashioned and non-machine experience, Mark also set us up two at a time, to pluck a bird by hand, outdoors over a bucket with a couple of curious cats watching.

Back inside, Sam taught us how to take the scalded and plucked birds and cut off their feet and heads.  The fine skill of finding the right place to cut and remove those parts was explained, along with consideration for presenation and appearance of the birds when packaged for selling.  As in clean cuts, angled in just the right way so as not to allow for the chicken’s skin to shrink back away from the bones or cuts.

The next part of the process was the continuation of “eviscerating”.  Eviscerating a chicken is the part of the process where you remove the insides.  And, it is one of those things that is much easier to show and feel your way through than write down.  It took me about six chickens before I could find the soft, small lungs tucked in just under the wings between the ribs.  Along with the lungs and in somewhat of a natural order I learned to feel my into the cavity of the bird, and handle or gently-pull out the gizzard and guts, the heart and liver, and the esophagus tube in the neck.

To me it seems like this is one of the most difficult jobs in chicken processing, not because of it being “stinky and gross” which for me it was not.  But because you do, literally have to feel your way through this, and the first time chicken processor may not even know what the true nature of chicken anatomy is.

I appreciated greatly the skilled young-people, that were our instructors for most of the day and who assuredly and gently went over the evisceration steps with me several times.  This included technique on knife handling and cuts, as well as advice on what NOT to cut—as in the tube to the chicken’s anus—and also the small dark, greenish sack that was attached to the liver, which I suppose held something similar to chicken bile in it.  This was also perhaps one of the most time consuming tasks in the chicken process from my observation.

After evisceration, the chickens were plunked in a big barrel of almost constantly running cold water, while we took a lunch break and ate spicy hot chicken wings, and deep-fried and wonderfully crunchy hearts along with another wonderful fresh veggie salad.

The afternoon session focused on both handling and cleaning the hearts, livers, gizzard and feet for use, rather than tossing them away. We also had a hands-on lesson on cleaning, cutting and packing.  Jill taught the ways in which to make basic quartering cuts, along with the technique and labor involved with boneless, skinless breasts, thighs and drums.

We ran out of time, after a very long day of chicken processing and learning to take part in the clean-up and ways in which the farm re-purposes the refuse—as in blood, feathers and guts—and so, I’m hoping on my next “Anyone Can Farm” trip to Baker’s Green Acres I can learn about their compost system and how they apply the permaculture principal of “No Waste” to their meat production system.

I feel good about my new butchering skill, and that I’ve gone a little further beyond knowing where my meat comes from.  I’ve already been called by a friend and invited to put my butchering practice to use on her four chickens.

Now, I’m going to be a fan of the potential that the Baker’s Green Acres “farm school” programs have to offer, and invite others to check it out.  The next offering is to learn how to harvest hogs, and I do feel like this may be a bit daunting….but I’m going to try it anyways, because I like bacon and I love lard!

If you are interested in learning how to harvest hogs—please RSVP….Here’s the link for info: