Part 2: Chicken Processing, the Rusty Clippers, and Thanking Your Bird

As mentioned previously, Chris and I recently attended a poultry processing workshop, held by Distelrath Farms (aka my new favorite people/place). The fine people at Distelrath just posted photos, so I thought I would share a little more of our experience.

While I don’t think the photos are anything to get queasy over (especially not compared to what “processing” means for the vast majority of chicken consumed in this country), this post does contain chickens in various states of undress. And, let’s face it – my bar for things to get queasy over might be slightly more elevated than some.

Step 1: Catch the chickens. Chris hopped right into one of the moveable runs they had out in the pasture, but I let the first gal who hopped in grab one for me. Hey, I chase after chickens all the time in the backyard, and she seemed quite good at it. I figured I’d expedite the process.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

Step 2: Get a good knife sharpening lesson from Andrew as he preps the knives, water, buckets, etc. While getting this lesson, freak out internally and hide the fact that you keep thinking to yourself, “Am I really doing this? CAN I really do this? OMG, I really hope I can do this. Breathe. Breathe.”

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

MOO! MOO! Oh, you’re processing chickens today? Hmmm, haven’t seen any. Have you checked behind the shed? MOO!

Step 3: Hang chickens up by their feet, take more deep breaths, get a lesson in knife work and how to cut the jugular, and then… do it. The chickens became very calm the second we hung them up and started closing their eyes – which helped with the whole mental/psychic part of this. We paired up, and since I had the knife in my hand, I went first. Gulp.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

This is my less-than-thrilled face re: what is about to occur. In Andrew’s words: “I’m not going to lie: this part sucks.”

Step 4: Learn how to process the chicken from start to finish! They don’t have a plucker there, so we learned how to skin the chicken and part it. Here’s Andrew showing how to remove the legs (I think). For me, this is where all those biology dissection classes kicked in (I also can’t help but think of all the chicken parts I uncovered every time I rub Dino Puppy’s belly or Beaker’s chest – creepy, I know. Don’t tell them).

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.Step 5: Actually doing it! At the beginning, I did a lot of patting the (now dead) bird and saying, “Thank you, bird.” For real, I did.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

Ah, those rusty shears. Here I am in the process of skinning the bird and about to cut off the head.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

I think I was trying to figure out what was needing to be pulled out and what needed to stay in at this point.

Step 6: Chris gets his turn.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.Step 7: Rinse, clean, quality control, wrap up your birds… then pose proudly with your fellow bird processing partners in crime!

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

What a great experience. If anyone has specific questions about the process, I’m happy to go into tons of detail. I just didn’t want to belabor the whole thing too terribly much. Anyway… ask away!

Part 1: Chicken Processing, the Dungeon, and a Pig Named Pat

And now for something completely different: today, I learned how to kill and process a chicken from start to finish (in other words, from feathered friend poking through the dirt to wrapped-in-freezer-paper carcass in my fridge ready for dinner). It was a strangely amazing, empowering experience, and I really think anyone who eats meat should learn what we learned today.

Distelrath Farms put on the workshop, and I am a new huge fan of the place and the people. Seriously, I want to work for them. Andrew taught and demonstrated and guided with humor, respect, and expertise, while Rachel snapped photos and offered good company and words of encouragement. However, the really cool thing for me about the place, which launched in February, is their passion for education and bringing young kids out in the dirt. It reminded me of my days working for the park service and non-profits in the Bay area, teaching kids about the animals and ecosystems right in front of their noses. This is going to be a place to watch in the coming years, Indianapolis – heck, I know I will be. And they have a “rescued” potbellied pig named Pat (after the SNL character) and Jill, the nicest donkey I’ve ever met, so what’s not to love?

summer 2002. this kid was rad. i was giving her some tough questions before she got her official jr. ranger badge.

Ten years ago, my second summer as a ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park.

There were eight of us attending the workshop, and we established a certain camaraderie early on just by the very nature of what we were about to do, I think. Some had laying hens or home flocks, one fellow was looking into buying a farm in Kentucky and starting a pastured broiler operation, another was a member of the farm. When we first called to register, Andrew’s response was, “Cool! [Long pause]… So, are you ready for this?” I think my response was an uncertain, “Ummm… I *think* so!”

And, frankly, I still wasn’t certain I was ready for it as I stood under the trees holding a very sharp knife, standing next to a calm chicken hanging from his feet, one hand looped gently around my Rhode Island Red’s beak and comb, preparing to cut his jugular vein on both sides. The anxiety of NOT MESSING UP was strong. Usually when you mess something up, you fix it or it sucks for a while until the pain wears off or it ends up not being nearly as big of a deal as you thought. With this, though, I wanted very much to dispatch this creature as kindly and humanely as I could. I missed the jugular on one side but managed to get it without much of a problem on the other side. Andrew referred to the otherwise lovely spot under the trees as “the dungeon.”

It is true that chickens’ nervous systems kick in when they die, which is where the “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” thing comes from. I didn’t realize, however, that you have about 20-30 seconds after severing the jugular before that occurs. I held the chicken’s head gently to help the blood drain for a bit before flapping occurred. Then we let them bleed out while we got the rest of the processing stuff ready to go (basically, a knife, a table, a water source, and a bucket).

Next up: processing the birds. I’m going to wait, though, until Rachel uploads some photos to share more. For now, I am so glad that I took part in this. I think if more people were exposed to learning events like this, they would slowly begin re-thinking how they live, how they eat, and what their relationships are or should be with the rest of the living creatures in this world. I also feel a little like I can conquer the world, too – or at least someday maybe have a broiler operation of my own.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' chicken processing workshop: Chris' chicken.

Chris’ chicken, which was a male Leghorn. We’re trying beer can chicken, then I’ll turn the leftovers into probably the best broth ever.