In case you hadn’t heard, Farmstead Creamery & Café is closed on Mondays. We call it the “barn muckin’ chicken pluckin’ hay-balin’ day.” Well, today was one of those days in the chicken pluckin’ department—aka, chores reduction day.
It really starts the day before, when you skip feeding the tractor (movable pasture pen/shelter) of chickens that have grown to maturity, which usually leads to a grumpy reception from the plump, white bodies with bobbing, red heads. “Excuse me, chores-ster, didn’t you forget something?”
Skipping feeding for the day isn’t about me being stingy with the grain. There’s still plenty of grass and clover with the twice-daily chicken tractor move, as well as bugs to chase and catch. Withholding feed is the poultry version of GoLightly treatment before a colonoscopy. It helps get everything cleaned out, which means much less messiness on their big day.
That evening, the lightning flashes, the thunder crashes, and even the National Weather Service calls our house to warn about the storms that rage in a ragged band across the state in a line that reaches all the way down to Texas. Of course, always, right when you first introduce those four-week-old chickens to life in the tractor (vs life in a more protective coop), something happens with the weather—like the raging wind storm that whipped out of nowhere right after the PBS filming that tried to blow away the chicken tractors. But now, here we were one night away from butchering, facing the grips of another storm.
Fortunately, the cooling effects of the Chequamegon National Forest sliced a window of green in the radar rainbow of yellows and reds, and we passed unharmed. No trees snapped in two and no power outages to keep us up all night. The chickens by morning were still eager, dry…and hungry. Sorry about that part kiddos.
The preparation is almost the biggest part of butchering day. There’s the hoses to round up, and the extension cords. There’s the scouring and placement of tub sinks, prep tables, and buckets. There’s putting up the canopy and tacking drum liners into place. And then there’s the cantankerous scalder.
Now, our chicken butchering methods have taken great leaps and bounds from 15 years ago, when we butchered the first 27 Cornish Cross meat chickens. Back then, we had a hatchet, a stump with two nails, a large pot of water boiling over an open fire, and our fingers. These days, we have a cone system (like Joel Salatin uses in the documentary “Food Inc.”), a propane scalder shared with another farmer, a drum plucker, and a lot more experience. If you’re feeling a little lost in all this jargon, don’t worry, Spellcheck has no idea what most of these words are either!
Let’s walk through the butcher station system in a friendly way. We actually encourage folks who order chickens from us to come and see the operation and learn how it’s done. Most who are brave enough to take us up on the idea whip out their cameras, pull the kids out of the back seat of the car, and wonder at the humanity and science of the affair in comparison with the nightmarish trauma of commercial poultry processing. It’s important to take ownership of where our food comes from and how it is produced. If you’re not ready for this story, though, I’ll see you next week.
First, there’s the catch pen. This is where, after taking a ride in the back of my utility golf cart, the chickens lounge about in the shade of a balsam, pecking at the grass or watching for bugs. At this point, life is still pretty nice in the land of chicken. If they do understand what is happening beyond the world of their catch pen, they don’t exhibit any signs of distress or anxiety.
I catch a chicken, place it head-first into the upside-down road cone, and Grandpa removed the head with a knife. No running around headless, since the bird is confined within the cone like a tight hug. This also prevents bruising of the meat. After the bird has been sufficiently bleed out, it’s time for a hot bubble bath. This is where that renowned scalder comes into play.
Here’s the science part. Feathers don’t want to come off a chicken—they’re there to protect the feathered beastie from cold, heat, wet, and dry. If you’ve ever tried to pluck a bird without any treatment after death, you’ll know it’s not easy! Therefore, to get that nice, clean, creamy-colored skin everyone likes to see on their chicken, it’s necessary to shock the pores of the bird’s skin. This is accomplished by dunking them in hot, soapy water (about 145 degrees F) for close to 50 seconds, followed by plunging the chickens in a bucket of cold water. The soap cuts the oils on the chicken’s feathers, allowing the hot water to penetrate (scalding), while the quick change from hot to cold prevents the skin from cooking. Now the feathers will pull out easily.
But if the water is not hot enough, the feathers won’t come out, and if it’s too hot for too long, the skin will start to cook and tear easily. Trying to maintain a standard temperature over an open fire proved to be near impossible and more liable to melt the toes of our shoes as we leaned precariously over the pot to dunk soggy chickens. It’s amazing how much they weigh when soaked in soapy water! This is why a thermostat-regulated propane scalding tank works considerably better.
Getting the poultry jacuzzi to light can sometimes be an interesting ordeal, laying on the ground with a lighter while holding the magic (though very hidden) red plastic button to ignite the pilot light. But once it gets going and regulated (even if that means wrapping the scalder in insulation on freezing butcher days), the scalder is one of the most important tools in the process.
The next phase is the plucker. That used to be us. Originally, it was optimistic to do four to five chickens an hour when everything was by hand. Tail and wing feathers are the worst and must be tackled first before the bird cools too far. But today, with the drum plucker Grandpa made from a Whizbang kit, we finished 50 birds in a couple hours. Two birds at a time are placed inside a half-barrel lined with rubber fingers. The bottom disk spins on a motor, and the chickens bounce around inside. The rubber fingers pull at the feathers and the centripetal force flings them out the bottom between the rotating disk and the side walls. When the scalding is just right, there’s only a few pin feathers and a little on the tail that needs hand picking. It’s amazing!
Mom and Kara are experts at the leg and neck trimming as well as evisceration. Knives whirl, hoses spray, and the hearts and livers are saved for the giblet bags. Then we all chip in on pin feathers (quality control), while the birds chill in tubs of cold water. Then they’re bagged, weighed, labeled, and tucked in the fridge while the whole system is scoured and put away for another day. The catch pen is empty, but in its place are 50 beautiful, clean frying or roasting chickens for folks to enjoy at their table—real food from a real farm where the chickens had real chicken lives.
So, if you really did make it to the end of the article and didn’t “chicken out” at the title, here’s a pat on the back for you. For those of us who choose to eat meat, being knowledgeable and responsible about how it is raised and prepared should be part of the “noblis oblige” of life as an omnivore. When we own and respect it, then there is dignity. When we ignore or divorce ourselves from it, that dignity is lost, and we can easily become pray to corporate manipulation. When was the last time Tyson invited you to their butchering day? See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com