Last week we had the opportunity to participate in a chicken harvest through Pastoral Plate. Regular readers of this blog may already know about our meat CSA from previous posts on meals, workshops and events. For those of you who are new, Pastoral Plate is a meat buying collective based here in the Mission. I want to warn my more delicate readers now, although I am going to be very careful with my words and accompanying photos, this post may not be for everyone.
A little bit of background: The whole chickens we buy from Pastoral Plate aren’t cheap; they are heritage breed Poulet Rouge chickens that mature over 12 weeks, rather than the commercial variety that mature at lightening speed in 8 weeks. These Poulet Rouge birds live like real, traditional, farm chickens. They spend their whole day outdoors, eating grass and bugs and return to their coops each night to be safe from coyotes, hawks and other predators. These chickens are a bit smaller than your average grocery store chicken, the taste is a bit different as is the texture of the meat. These chickens are hands down, the best I have ever had.
What we did: Chicken “harvest” is a kind and gentle way of saying: we slaughtered chickens. We purchased our chickens before we arrived on the farm, which enabled us to participate in the whole experience from start to finish. A small group of Pastoral Plate members came together on the farm to learn about the harvesting process then we all took part in killing, scalding, plucking, and eviscerating our own chickens.
Why we did it: Intern and I made the decision to participate in the chicken harvest because we both wanted to understand where our food comes from, and how it gets to us. We were apprehensive about the day because while we eat meat several times a week, neither one of us has ever participated in the harvest or processing of animals. I do believe it is important to understand where our food comes from; to see it and to know it. I understand the arguments made for vegetarianism and veganism, I also understand that participating in any system that creates products for the mass market comes with its own ethical dilemas. Buying a more expensive chicken means we eat chicken less often than say perhaps a few years ago, but we appreciate it more. Over the last several years, I have been on a journey to understand our local food economy, to make informed choices about where we spend our money, how we spend our time, and what we put into our bodies.
The day on the farm: Although we look weirdly happy and calm in the photos above, we were both pretty nervous when it came time to pick up our chickens and carry them a few feet over to the slaughter area. My hands were shaking and I was doubting my confidence to follow through with the whole process. We were instructed to be calm, and move slowly, to help keep the chickens unstressed and calm as well. The chickens flapped their wings a bit, but once we turned our chickens over and rested our hands on their breasts, they became very calm and quiet. We put the chickens head down into the kill cone, and within a minute or two, we each slit the throat of a chicken with a sharp knife, so they would bleed out quickly. Once the deed was done, I felt relieved because it was easier than I thought it would be. It was quick, and the chicken was calm throughout the final minutes of life.
After the chickens were fully drained, we placed the chickens into a scalding pot for about a minute, to loosen the feathers before we removed the chickens and placed them in a defeathering machine. Afterwards, we all worked to eviscerate the chickens. Probably for me, this was the most difficult part of the whole day. The chicken farmer was there with me for every step, helping to guide my hands and knife, showing me how, and where to cut to remove the internal organs. I was surprised that the process was actually very clean- because of the way the chickens are slaughtered, there is no blood during the eviscerating process, and everything is kept clean and sanitary throughout. After a little while, the process felt more similar to a normal kitchen experience of prepping a raw chicken to roast, and less like removing the organs of a recently living animal.
Final thoughts: It was not an easy day, but I feel more informed about chicken harvesting. The intimate experience we had on the farm is not the average experience for most chickens, or most chicken farms. This was a small operation, run by one farmer who clearly cares very much about the health of her farm, the chickens themselves, and those who buy from her. I did have moments on the farm, when I thought I perhaps wouldn’t want to eat chicken again… but now I actually feel more convinced that when I eat meat, I should be sure of its origin. We have one chicken in our fridge which we’ll cook this week, and the other chicken we slaughtered is in our freezer for another meal later this month. I know we are in a privileged position to make these choices about the quality of the food we eat. Cheap food has many hidden costs, and it is very troubling that culture values cheap over quality, and convenience over health. If you’d like to see more photos of our day on the farm, or continue this conversation, please leave a note in the comments, or send me an email. I am happy to share a private link to more graphic photos of our experience for anyone who is interested.