On Friday, I passed a big milestone for me-I attended a chicken processing workshop. For those of you who have been processing your own livestock for some time, or grew up on a farm where this was done normally, it's not a big deal. But for a formerly suburban girl whose family thinks she's just about flipped her lid with this "farm thing", it's a biggie. I wanted to go to learn a skill that'll take me a little further off of the agri-business roller coaster. Just to bring me a little further along to being self-sufficient. I also wanted to go to test myself. To see if I could willingly bring about an end of a life whose sole purpose was to be food. In short, could I truly be a producer, in all senses of the word?
Well, the verdict is in, and yes I can, and I feel that passing this particular test proves to me that I truly belong here, doing what I am doing. I am on the right road at last.
Friday was a good day. Not in the sense of wow, that was F-U-N!!!!, but in the sense that I learned a lot and met myself in a way I've never met myself before. We were a small group in a ramshackle old 4-H building on the local fairgrounds. We were made up of mainly small farmers who were looking to learn the skill to add poultry to our farmer's market tables. The teacher was Jim McLaughlin, from Cornerstone Farms. The man knows his stuff. We started by learning the HACCP rules and regs and what was required for us, as small farm producers, to do to have a legal and legitimate abattoir. It was extremely educational, and I absorbed as much information as I could and asked a bunch of questions. We were not a shy bunch, overall, which was lovely. Lots of good questions were asked.
After lunch came the practical part. I wasn't nervous in the least. When Jim asked who would like to go first, I raised my hand. Might as well jump in with both feet, you know? After he showed us how to mercifully kill a chicken, I went and got one for myself. They were provided by the Cornell Cooperative Extension woman who arranged the day. She had 40 broilers ready to go and we were going to do her the service of processing them in exchange for learning the ropes. The hen I picked up was heavy. I know I talked to her the entire time. When I took her life, I apologized and thanked her. I did not hesitate in my cuts--that would have been an insult to her. I made it as quick as I possibly could.
After that came the processing part, of course. I was fairly stupid about it, using the wrong side of the knife to start cutting to begin with (duh), and causing the poor chicken's head to go flying off 15 feet behind me. And I couldn't find the lungs to save my life. Luckily Jim was processing his chicken at the same time I processed mine, so that helped a bit. He was very patient, and I am grateful for that. Quite a few times I was the only one out of the four of us processing STILL trying to find an errant body part.
So no, I was not a stellar student in the beginning. But I kept at it. By the end of the day, I had "dispatched" four chickens and processed three. I thanked and apologized to each and every one of them. I got much faster by then, too. At the end of the day I think it took me only minutes to process instead of the half hour it took me with the first one. I watched others in the meantime to really get the process down. You know what? It's not as bad as you might think it is. The worst part is the killing, by far. If you farm, it really goes against your grain to take the life of an animal. We spend all our time, after all, nurturing life, not destroying it, so this just goes against everything we do. But if you look at it as though you are helping the chicken do the job it was raised to do (I know that might be morbid), it's not as bad. And truly, if you are going to take a life, being hesitant or weepy about it is just stupid. It does no one any good at all--least of all the animal. The kindest thing you can do, if you really are going to do this, is to do it well and quickly and not have the animal suffer. And I don't think it hurts to thank the animal, either. They're performing the ultimate sacrifice here. The least they deserve is a little thanks.
All in all, it was a good day. It was nice to be in an environment with other people who know what I know. For example, Jim is friends with Joel Salatin. When he discussed how they worked together, we all knew who he was. We'd all seen the same movies (Food Inc and Fresh) and had read most of the same books. Nicest part of the day? When I asked Jim if we were going to do anything stupid like give the carcasses a bleach bath after they were chilled and he just said no. No shocked look and the exclamation of "they don't do that" or "what are you talking about, our food is not bleached!". Just no. Love it. Worst part of the day? The smell. It's familiar to me because I have treated a few animals hereabouts and they all smell the same on the inside, but when there were 40 chickens, it was a lot. It was stuck in my nose the whole rest of the day.
In short, I would not make this a career choice. I far prefer nurturing to destroying. But I can do it and I have learned a valuable skill. One that I know I will use in the future. So yep, test passed. Bring on the next.