Early one September morning, before dawn, I set off on an hour-long commute out to the modest family farm where my old college roommate, Shawn, currently lives. This was no ordinary social call – Shawn had invited me out to help him and his wife process a batch of 40 Cornish Cross chickens that they had raised for meat.
My experience processing chickens up to this point had been the two times when my wife Brooke and I had culled the roosters from our flock of backyard laying hens, but ultimately we were too attached to them as pets to try to butcher and eat them.
Helping Shawn offered me the chance to get hands-on experience with someone much more knowledgeable on the topic than me, while also ideally normalizing the whole process by doing it with others. The promise of a fresh whole bird for me to take home as payment for my help was pretty attractive, too.
I was a little nervous going in, but by the end I was really glad that I participated. So what did I take away from the experience?
1. Killing doesn’t have to be ugly, messy, or cruel.
When I arrived I found Shawn behind the garage on a porch he had specially prepared, and he was already busy processing the first chicken. I met his friends, a couple from a nearby town with an interest in food politics, who would be working with us.
My very first impression was a feeling of relief as I looked around and saw the setup that Shawn had assembled for this day.
I wasn’t totally sure what to expect in terms of what we’d be working with, but Shawn had clearly done his homework and acquired all the pieces necessary for a very professional chicken processing enterprise, like stainless steel tables and tools, as well as an impressive water system for rinsing the carcasses and tables continuously throughout the process.
To begin, the chicken is placed upside-down into the so-called “killing cone,” where a quick incision is made to open up the jugular vein and allow the chicken to bleed out into a bucket below the cone.
By killing in this way, the bird becomes unconscious almost immediately, but its heart continues to pump blood until there is none left in the carcass. This is very important for ensuring a clean butchering.
It’s not pretty by any means, but when performed correctly, this method is quick, painless, and efficient, and that’s the best that you can ask for when taking the life of another creature.
2. Processing chicken carcasses is actually pretty simple.
After the blood is drained, the carcass is dipped into a vat of scalding hot water until its feathers begin to loosen, and then it is dropped into a homemade plucker to remove all of the feathers.
I had never seen one of these machines in action before, and to be honest it’s a little bizarre – the carcass flails around wildly inside of this spinning barrel lined with rubber fingers, to the point that it almost feels disrespectful to the newly deceased animal. But there’s no denying that it’s an incredibly efficient tool, and it certainly shaved off hours of plucking by hand from our work load.
Once the feathers are gone, the head and feet are removed, and the carcass is cleaned out. Incisions are made at the base of the neck and the pelvis, and the skin of the pelvis is opened up in order to remove the innards. First out is generally the heart and liver, followed by the digestive tract, and finally the lungs.
The digestive tract was the trickiest part, because even though the chickens had been taken off of feed at least 12 hours before, there was still, err, “feed” making its way through when we began, so it was especially important to keep the whole system intact to avoid contamination issues.
After the carcass is cleaned, it is briefly soaked in cold water before being placed on ice, where it must rest for a few hours before it is officially ready to be called food.
3. Providing meat for your community is a sacred act.
When I asked Shawn how he got into raising chickens for meat, his answer was simple: he wanted to provide his wife and children with the highest quality food he could get his hands on. His friends who worked with us that day offered pretty much the same answer.
As for the other folks who had purchased the birds ahead of time, it turns out that many of them were also friends and family with young children who were dismayed by the conventional food options available to them. This gave me a lot of hope for the next generation, but also left me with a great sense of responsibility.
In Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren argues that one of the biggest challenges facing male culture around the world is learning to accept all children as our own children, because one day they will all inherit the Earth from us.
Brooke and I don’t have any kids yet, but it fills me with pride to know that my work led directly to feeding the most nutritious food on the planet to growing children who are learning about real food from an early age.
In our division of labor, I ended up spending the majority of the time in front of the killing cones. I used to have a very hard time accepting that eating meat means killing animals – that’s the biggest reason I was a vegetarian from childhood until my early twenties – so I feel very grateful that I was given the opportunity to come to terms with this fact, in this manner.
Before making each incision I would quietly utter a short mantra, which served to remind me that I was taking life from one so that I could provide life to others.
4. The laws regarding small-scale meat production are insane, on purpose.
Full disclosure: this entire operation is technically illegal. I say “technically” because we were perfectly within our rights to come together, kill chickens, and eat them. The illegal part is when these chickens are sold, which speaks volumes about the current state of our food system.
Now, don’t get me wrong – ostensibly speaking, foodborne illness is the number one reason why the FDA and USDA don’t want homestead-scale operations like Shawn’s selling meat that was processed on-site, and I’m not necessarily opposed to reasonable regulations that govern how the process is performed.
But the regulations standing in the way of small-scale producers are absolutely insane, and they were written that way on purpose to push the little guys out of the market. What we see today is a regulatory system run by the former executives of multinational corporations like Tyson and Monsanto, enacting rules written by lobbyists currently employed by those same corporations.
This “revolving door” of industry leaders and regulatory agencies has been chugging along for many decades now, and shows no signs of slowing down. (See Marion Nestle’s seminal Food Politics for a comprehensive portrait of this ridiculous system.)
What do I mean by “insane” regulations? In order to be legally sold in-state, the USDA requires that all meat be processed at a state-inspected facility. If you want to process your own birds where they were raised, that means you’ll have to jump through all of the same hoops that a large-scale commercial slaughterhouse would – so, tens of thousands of dollars in infrastructure such as a dedicated septic system, five different kinds of sinks, and a special bathroom and office that can only be used by a regulatory inspector when s/he comes to check the place out. Yes, that’s really a real thing.
These regulations were written to favor the large-scale producers raising thousands of animals in massive confinement operations, and frankly, those organizations need tighter regulations because the risk of contaminated food becomes exponentially greater when you abuse animals in this way.
Small-scale producers like Shawn and his wife revere their animals and the land that they graze upon, and go beyond the regulatory standards (where it truly matters) for cleanliness and sanitation because they care a great deal about delivering the safest, highest quality product possible.
At their scale, they can treat each individual bird with the respect that it deserves. If a consenting adult makes an informed decision to purchase one of their birds – which I can assure you is healthier, cleaner, tastier, and more nutritious than anything you’d buy from the big players – then why should anyone be able to stop them?
Oh, right – taxes and subsidies. But I digress...
5. Fresh, pastured chicken some of the most delicious and nutritious food on Earth.
OK, so I sort of already knew this one before I processed all of these birds, but I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note, and this point is worth underscoring: you won’t find a more nutritious, better tasting chicken out there than one that’s been raised on pasture and allowed to graze and forage.
The conventional and organic industries have all kinds of misleading terms, from “natural” to “cage-free” to “free-range,” and none of them add up to simply allowing chickens to express their innate “chicken-ness” on a piece of green pasture.
Chickens love to peck, scratch, and forage for greens, seeds, insects, and microbes – and allowing them to do so means they grow up to be significantly healthier than the poor, over-medicated souls left beakless and wading through a knee-high fecal slurry without enough space to even turn their bodies around.
A chicken raised on pasture will accumulate significantly more vitamin A from foraging, and its fatty tissues will contain much more vitamin D from being under the sun all day (you can tell this is the case by how yellow the fat will appear on the carcass). Moreover, the fat will be composed of significantly less saturated fat, and will be high in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Pastured poultry is also much more flavorful than the conventional alternative. This is partly due to the fact that the animal was simply happier and healthier in its lifetime, but also because it doesn’t go through the disgusting industrial processing protocol of brining the carcasses in a fecal soup, which leads to the meat becoming spongy, discolored, and smelling like, well, shit. And the USDA is worried about foodborne illness from the backyard producers!
Overall I feel grateful to have had this experience processing chickens, and I can say that it had a profound impact on my relationship with meat. It’s a shame that I was never exposed to this side of the meat-eating coin as a youngster, but better late than never.
My final takeaway from the day is that if you have children, teach them about where their food comes from! You could learn a lot, too.