When I see a Chicken…

I walk to the fridge, pull out a chicken. Do what I’ve at least 47 times since I learned how to roast a chicken. I rinse it (habit), throw out the giblets (gross) and dab it dry with paper towels. Next comes butter, smeared liberally over the breast, and plenty of salt and pepper – a few herbs if I’m feeling gourmet. As I pop it in the oven and rinse my hands, I remember the first time I met a chicken carcass…

Within a year of moving to the homestead, it became apparent that our savings were not going to grant us the luxury of settling in and getting established before starting a family business. We needed income and soon. With a skill set more suited to government offices and big cities, but a determination reminiscent of Shakelton, my Dad set forth to turn our hilltop acres into a Chicken Farm.

A family friend had connections with a chicken farmer in Virginia (the now world-renown sustainable food expert, Joel Salatin) so my dad and brothers visited their farm a few times, we poured over Joel’s book, “Pastured Poultry Profits” as a family, and in the spring of 1997 we ordered our first batch of chicks. A brooder house was built with leftover logs from the log cabin, a propane heater installed, and a bale of sawdust carefully spread. On a brisk day in April, the post office called and within an hour we became the proud parents of 200 baby chickens, just 24 hours old.

Oh, they’re cute when their young. But within 2 weeks, if they’ve survived the fluctuating temperatures of the ancient propane hover-heater, the local rats, and the boot of the loving-yet-clumsy chicken farmer, they start getting ugly. They begin sprouting adult feathers in awkward places and strut around with the attitude of a cocky teenager. They bicker and peck and fight over the smallest things, must be fed 6 times a day, and constantly use their waterer for a latrine.

As the weeks pass, they get uglier and fatter until, by week 8, due to genetic engineering, their drumsticks can hardly support the weight of their glorious, Cornish Cross breasts. But they are happy, because they are grass fed, with new, clean pasture twice a day and delicious, custom mixed feed.

And happy because they don’t know that one sunny day, the Farmer will turn Murderer.

Look out, folks, this is where it gets  messy.

I’m convinced that first summer of chickens, at 15 years old, I suffered from a stress-induced ulcer. I started getting terrible stomach aches at random times, but particularly on processing days. I swear I was trying to be a good girl and wasn’t making it up to get out of a nasty job. But the job was so nasty, my body rebelled on its own, doubling me over with cramps so bad I distinctly remember wishing I could die.

Processing day involved hours of time spent with our hands in the bodies of warm, freshly scalded chickens in our backyard slauter house that didn’t even have running water. I’m serious. The house didn’t have running water – do you think we gave the chickens a luxury we didn’t enjoy? The smell of warm guts and fecal matter and the poop-soup of the scalding pot was enough to swear anyone off of Chicken Soup for life.

The water for processing was pumped by hand into 50 gallon barrels which were used to fill two plastic watering cans. My younger sisters did the honors, swathed in large aprons with bandanas over their whispy blonde hair — when Mom or I finished cleaning a bird, we held it over the sink and called, “Pour!”, rinsing our bird sparingly (remember, the water was pumped by hand!) before dumping it into a 7 gallon bucket of ice water.

I know it sounds unsanitary, but with what we were learning about commercially raised and mechanically processed chickens, we knew we had a superior product, and our customers apparently agreed.

By the end of that summer, we had made significant progress up the learning curve and had plans for a sate-of-the art processing shed with gravity fed running water. I had gotten over my ulcer and was actually feeling some pride at our family’s accomplishment. Within a few years, we had a well-established customer base who drove up to 5 hours for our pastured chicken, beef, and pork. I had learned to eviscerate a bird faster even than my big brother, who had apprenticed at Polyface farm for a year.

Not a stock photo. Those are MY hands!

Best of all, the direct selling that we did — straight from the farm to our customers and at farmer’s markets had finally pushed me out of my painful shyness and helped me discover that I actually liked people. I enjoyed making small talk as I fished their order out of the ice-cold chill tank and double checked my math on the calculator. I loved the satisfaction of providing a product that made people beam (and sometimes even wax poetic). I loved that I finally set aside enough fears so I could start enjoying life. I was growing up.

Maybe I wouldn’t have been so overjoyed if I’d known how many more thousands of chickens and turkeys I’d come to know intimately in the coming years as our business grew and our family helped mentor others in the business and eventually I worked for a farm that grew 10,000 birds each summer. That’s a lot of guts. And this story’s had enough already.

All that to say, when I see a chicken, even if it’s just the cheap {commercially raised, mechanically processed} fryer we can afford from the store these days, I’m grateful for them. You could say I grew up on chickens.

7 responses to “When I see a Chicken…”

  1. Trina Avatar

    Jess – I don't know how you did it. ๐Ÿ™‚ But it was clever

  2. Anne @ Quick and Easy Cheap and Healthy Avatar

    Goodness gracious, I can't even imagine! But you guys made a success of it; that's awesome!

  3. Erin Avatar

    We've helped friends butcher their chickens a few times. Hilarious when you consider the fact that we ate a predominantly vegan diet for 5+ years! It is quite a task. Can't even imagine having to do it on a regular (large-scale) basis. You're my hero Trina! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. ~Jess Avatar

    Ahh…yes…the glory days ๐Ÿ˜›

    For whatever reason I always managed to get out of having to gut or kill the chickens; I strictly scalded and plucked. But oh my….the smell of that steamy, sloppy water.

  5. Katie Avatar

    A few of my yound rooster are going to be meeting the frezer or stew pot soon….

  6. Gretchen Avatar

    I was seriously grossed out eating eggs for a while after getting hens! Now I (once again) eat many eggs each day–I just don't enjoy a lovely friendship with my hens, as some of my friends do. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    Oh man I sounds so gross. I can wax poetic with the best of them about living off the land Nd even want chickens. Reading this gave me one of those nice reality checks, even if I do it. ๐Ÿ™‚ jyl

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *