North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Butchering Day

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


A Time for Turkeys

The time is nearing for a quintessential American tradition—eating turkey in November.  There is the fuss over the stuffing, the sauces, the mashed potatoes and the pumpkin pie, but the turkey always remains the centerpiece.  Why turkey?  Why not the medieval peacock, skinned, baked, and redressed in its jeweled plumage?  Why not a roast boar with an apple in its mouth?  Why not leg of lamb, studded with garlic and rosemary?

Traditions can be fickle things, but traditions rooted in agrarian rhythms usually stem from something practical.  Lamb has been customary fare for Easter time, harking from an age when lambs were born in mid-winter and weaning was a time to decide which lambs would be kept to enhance breeding stock and which would serve as table fare.  Such is the same reasoning behind “suckling pig,” for once a piglet is transitioned to solid foods, there has to be enough to go around.  If a family would have provisions for only five pigs from a litter of seven, then two would be eaten at weaning—allowing the litter’s siblings to thrive on what was available instead of compromising them all through a shortage of resources.

While chickens were present in medieval Europe, turkeys are native only to North America.  It is not surprising that they became associated with distinctly American holidays.  Turkey poults (chicks) are typically born in springtime, and by late autumn they have matured through their gangly teenage stage into a comfortable body size without being as tough or chewy as older adults—a perfect stage for roasting.

That is why, this week, our family is out in the cold, plucking turkeys with our freezing little fingers.  It’s all part of the process of having farm-fresh, heritage turkeys ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

Butchering isn’t fun.  I don’t think I have met a farmer who particularly enjoys butchering.  Often, it is a sad and sobering affair.  But most folks who don’t give up after the second or third year of processing their own domestic meats hold a respectful appreciation for this part of the agrarian cycle.  If every chicken, turkey, duck, lamb, calf or piglet ever born had survived to old age, there wouldn’t be one speck of vegetation or bit of untamed land left!  If people are going to be omnivores, then butchering is part of the process—but it can be a respectful part.

It starts with the animals.  In CAFOs (Confinement Animal Feeding Operations), breeds are selected for very specific traits—fast growth, heavy muscling, and tolerance of overcrowding.  Genetic engineering is now producing piglets that are perpetually depressed and show little resistance to being trapped in small metal pens all their lives.  Turkeys or chickens who resort to cannibalistic behaviors due to overcrowding have most of their upper beak removed (a cruel process known as “debeaking”).

On many small farms, however, heritage breeds of animals that carry a wide array of bio-diversity and foraging traits still thrive.  They have room to move freely, explore their environment, have plenty of fresh air, and express their innate animal-ness.  Ewes may be selected for excellent mothering instinct and easy births, chickens for winter heartiness and beautiful coloring, hogs for gentle manners and excellent body type, and turkeys for lustrous plumage and pasturing abilities.

The Giant Whites of the turkey industry have one motive—eating.  Their full-time occupation is stuffing their faces as much as possible in order to grow the enormous breast meat that the turkey industry covets.  The poor things hobble about, top heavy with a wide gate, and though they are impressively fast-growing, they are equally lacking in common sense—even for turkeys.  They are poor foragers, have fragile health (especially as poults), and are prone to drowning in thunderstorms.  It is not a wonder that most commercial turkeys are raised indoors in controlled environments.

In contrast, while my heritage breed Jersey Buff turkeys grow slower and dress out with a slender shape, they are refreshingly easier to tend because they are hearty, curious, and tenacious.  These cinnamon-colored birds with long, knobby necks scratch and peck, strut and dance, or fly up onto high roosts—a considerable contrast to the blobby obliqueness of their commercial white counterparts.  Heritage turkeys are able to fully express their turkey-ness, with their luminous dinosaur eyes and eager “Gap-Gap” speech.

Heritage turkeys are also gentler on the land—consuming less grain and more grass in their diet.  Their meat also has unparalleled flavor and texture.  Many of our turkey clients have commented on the deliciousness of our Jersey Buffs in comparison with the meat from commercial breeds.

Choosing breeds responsibly impacts the life experience of the domestic animal.  Their living conditions and care are equally important.  Because I choose to be an omnivore, I also choose to create a nurturing, positive environment for my livestock.  Genetically engineered depression doesn’t sound like a fulfilling meal.  I want my supper to have had a wonderful life with only one bad day (one bad moment, really).  I wouldn’t mind going through life with only one bad day!

And then there is the end-of-life ceremony as well.  I won’t get into the more-or-less gory details, but today’s homestead poultry butchering can be very clean, swift, and respectful.  An example is shown on Joel Salatin’s farm in the documentary “Food Inc.”  We regularly invite our poultry clients to view the butchering process, which surprises them by being more intriguing than revolting.  Often, the cameras come out, clicking away to document the process.  There is no screaming, no headless running, no trauma.  On our farm, we believe that transparency is important for building meaningful relationships with the people who choose our food, which is why we invite such interactions, even during such a physically demanding operation. 

Butchering isn’t something to hide in the corner and forget.  Respecting the process and life of the animals are part of being an honorable omnivore.  Shunning this facet of agrarianism only leaves us vulnerable to disrespectful and un-transparent situations.  In essence, know the animals, know the farmer, know the process—at least enough to make an informed decision as to whether this is the right choice, ethically, for you and your family.

So, returning to the original question, why turkeys?  Eating turkey in November is a way to reduce livestock populations to select breeding groups for overwintering (the hardest time of year, traditionally, to feed large numbers of animals).  Turkeys are also well equipped to supply a larger gathering of family with nourishment on short notice.  They are easier to process than red meats but larger than chickens.  Turkey Toms also show a stunning display—not unlike peacocks—which adds its own sense of regality to the dining affair.  Roast turkey, surely, is a handsome feast.

This November, as you gather with family and kin, take some time to remember the life behind your meal and offer thanks to those who tended it.  I’m off to feed the turkeys.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.


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