Some folks may begin a post like this with a warning about graphic content. I won’t. Farming is not always pretty. I believe the post title says it all. If you are interested or curious I invite you to read on. If not, no worries. It’s my intention to cover farming in Northern Colorado from many perspectives. I hope folks can respect that. Yours in dirt – Erica
Whatever your personal philosophy about eating meat, when thinking about local food, meat is definitely an important topic. I was a vegetarian for almost 20 years. I am no longer a vegetarian, and for various reasons, likely won’t be one again. I think a lot about where my meat comes from, how it’s raised and how it is brought to my table. I believe, as many folks I encounter do, that there is a sense of personal responsibility in how my food comes to my table. In this day and age, in the world of supermarkets and a lack of transparency in food production, that isn’t always easy. Even harder if you live in an urban area. Here in Fort Collins you can have hens, but no harvesting of your chickens.
This isn’t meant to be a political post, or a call to anything in particular. It is however how I came to spend a wintery Saturday harvesting chickens at a local farm. It started with a facebook post from Andy Grant. I have met Andy several times through events at his farm. It was a surprise to see an open invitation to his farm to assist in the harvesting of his chickens and to learn how to process a bird. I have been planning on buying a flock of meat birds in the Spring and have had several conversations with friends and fellow farmers about the processing part. It is intimidating to be responsible for the death of an animal you raise and care for. And by intimidating I mean ending the animals life with the same dignity and respect with which it was raised. Needless to say, I didn’t want my first experience to be with my own flock not really knowing what I was doing.
Well, you don’t find butcher teachers in the yellow pages. At least I don’t think you do. So I was relieved to have an opportunity to be taught by someone who shares similar beliefs. All bundled up with my rubber boots and winter layers, I headed over to Grant Farms to experience local food in a new and intimate way. I met Andy in the driveway when I pulled into the farm. He directed me to a bonfire and told me two women from Cheyenne were there for the processing as well. After introducing ourselves we talked about our reasons for being there and future plans for our own small acreages. I am happy to report there are a lot of folks out there who want to raise their own food. After being joined by three more novices and an assistant, Andy welcomed us and explained what to expect and shared his thoughts on local food, and in particular where the chickens we would be meeting came from.
Once inside the greenhouse, set up for the processing, we began with a prayer of thanks. We cleaned the tables before we began and sharpened the knifes. Then, the learning and the work started. Four chickens were brought over to a wooden structure, in Spring it holds a swing in the garden, where two strings hung down with loops. This is where the commitment comes into play. If I was going to do this I needed to be all in. Not due to any external pressures. It was my own need to face that yes, I am an omnivore. And if my goal is to raise my food, then I needed to face where it came from. So, myself and one other woman stepped forward to learn the kill stroke. With a sharp knife (necessity) we learned to swiftly behead the chickens. I’d like to say I did it perfectly. Close, but not quite. There is no room for hesitation. That commitment thing again.
We then took the birds into the greenhouse to the scalding pot. A huge pot on a propane burner sat between two tables. After dunking the birds for about thirty seconds in water just under a boil, we placed them on the table to begin the work of plucking. The feathers should come out with very little to no resistance. While holding no formal diagnosis, I do believe I am OCD. A little of that is necessary given the amount of small and hidden feathers a bird possesses. I wanted them all off. Once the plucking was done, we moved the chickens to the gutting table. Two of the visitors took to gutting under Andy’s instruction and observation. I will be returning on another processing day to learn the art of gutting. Instead I watched closely, learning the process and anatomy of a chicken. I must say, I regret not being more open to the wonders of biology when I had college zoology so many years ago. The birds were then placed in one of two finishing pots of treated cold water. This is not a clean job. You are faced with everything a living creature has to offer up in the bodily function department.
While I wouldn’t exactly say it was a fun time, even though the company was great as well as the comraderie of us first timers, I can say it was satisfying. Satisfying in the sense of feeling that I was taking full ownership of the meal that would be set on my table. I think that is the thread that runs through the farmers and gardeners I meet. A connection to and accomplishment in engaging in our food production. As I write I can smell the herbs and scents of the culled laying hen that I processed being slow cooked in my crock pot. I am making broth and am cooking down a bird that has a second opportunity to provide nourishment. No longer laying eggs, this bird will provide several dinners for my family. I hate to break it to you, but your normal laying hens, even the organic happy variety, usually don’t go out this way.
A second bird, a meat bird, is in my refrigerator awaiting Sunday roasting. I can honestly say, I will be looking at my food, and food waste, with a new perspective. I am grateful for the experience and even more, grateful for the farmer who offered to share his experience and knowledge. This opportunity will be available again in the future. If you have ever thought about raising your own meat birds, or wondered what to do when your laying hens need culling, I would recommend coming up to the farm or finding a farmer to teach you the process. Even if you just want to know the experience of processing your meat for personal reasons, I recommend it. Our ancestors held a different relationship to livestock and bringing our food, especially meat, to the table. I think the farther we are from that process, the easier it is to ignore those who don’t pay the same care and attention to the sacrifice. We forget the true flavor of our nutrition. It’s also easier for us to not care how the food impacts those who eat it. And if we can’t or don’t care to experience the process of harvesting our meat, I hope we can find the respect and honor for those who do.