Last night, in the dark, we walked into the chicken fields and started grabbing them. Chickens can’t see very good at night and when they are asleep, they tend to wake up slowly. The chicken abduction process went a bit easier than I thought, and after we got them all crated up, we took them to another small barn on the farm and set the alarm for 4:30 am. Ironically, as the roosters cried out to the impending sunrise we awoke to start the burners and set up the production line. This set up and process may seem cruel, but I assure you, it’s the proper way when harvesting chickens. Before I explain this process I think it’s best if I explain the alternative first. (For those of you that have not scene documentaries such as “Food Inc”) large commercial agriculture has it’s place in the world, but not in mine. Humans are not designed to live in cities with millions, we are tribal, our brain capacity operates at peak levels when our collective group mind is smaller. But the realization of having to feed millions forces the population into operating at extreme levels. This is “Big Ag’. The life of a chicken on these farms is considerably worse, the chickens are forced to live in small cages with many other chickens where they can barely move, their claws and beaks are burned off so they don’t kill themselves or each other. This experience causes them to literal go insane. The ability to simply walk is a privilege they will never experience again. The guy smiling on the commercial while he’s holding his chicken sandwich makes it difficult to see past the illusion and into the truth of the lives these chickens live. At Juniper Hill Farm, their chickens live a free range lifestyle, up until their harvest. This is the soul of the difference that sets organic farming above ‘Big Ag’. The lives of the animals we eat. Do the animals you eat live a life of freedom or slavery before making it’s way to your plate, and do you even care? The Harvest process for the free chickens that live at juniper is simply, and the production line is efficient and moves fast. We operate 6 cones at once, the cone is the chicken’s final resting place before it’s harvested. The cone provides the chicken with a few things, it puts the chicken in a disoriented and calm place before it’s killed, and it keeps them contained as they bleed out. The chicken goes head first into the cone, you fish out it’s neck and hold it’s head in your hand, from there you take the knife and forcefully slice it’s jugular right below it’s jaw line. After the first slice, you quickly and and cleanly make the second cut along it’s neck, at it’s last artery that brings blood to it’s head. From this point the chicken takes about 20 seconds to bleed out. Once you have 6 chickens in the cones, the first 2 are ready for the next step in the production line. You grab 2 chickens, repeatedly dip and twist them in 140 degree water for about 30 seconds or until the tail feathers can be plucked easily. From this point you can either pluck them, or in our case, toss them in the plucking machine, a large, round, rotating steel bin with rubber fingers that separate the feathers. Now you can start the pre-evisceration process by cutting of the legs at the kneecaps, and removing the head and crop, a system of glands and skin along the neck and breast of the bird which also connects to the entrails. After this is complete, the carcasses go into ice water buckets as they cool, and so the production line can continue. Once all the chickens are finished, it’s time to take out the entrails. Cut a horizontal slit across the rear, above the vent (where the eggs come from) then reach in the cavity and loosen the connective tissue. Grasp the center of the mass and pull the entire contents outside the bird.
This process should go fairly easily because of the pre-evisceration done prior. Only a few more important steps, the lungs and sexual organs must also be removed, so Reach back in and pull them out by scraping against the upper wall. Finally remove the oil gland, a yellow spot above the tail and throw them back in the ice water bucket. With the nasty parts done, packaging can begin. The chickens are dried, bagged, and weighed for market. There are multiple styles to butcher a chicken, but properly done, all of them are designed to relax the birds for a humane kill. Holding a chicken’s head as it’s life bleeds out in your hand is hard to describe, in a way, it’s a bit godly. You feel the responsibility of this chicken’s life, but you also know you took all the steps to harvest them properly, and you know you are providing food for your community that can be consumed with a clear conscious. We ultimately harvested 90 chickens today. Not all 90 went under my knife, because the line changes to offer breaks for the more difficult stages, and we often jump around to help others catch up. I have experience butchering hogs, with Matt Keener at Keener Farms, But up until this point I’ve only seen a chicken harvest. You can watch something get done, (even on YouTube) and learn how to do it, but the real skill comes from experience. And I’m happy to say, I’ve got my chicken harvesting patch, and my conscious is clear. But the first chicken life I took, I will never forget. The sympathy and graditude I felt just in the palm of my hand was enough to bring humility and the promise of a Learned skill that I can use to feed my family and loved ones for the rest of my life.