Chicken Processing Class


One day I did a search on YouTube for local food. I came across a video of a discussion lead by Russ Henry about breaking gardening rules. One of the attendees said there was a farm that taught how to process chickens. I did a Google search on Callister Farm and found they were offering a processing class the next weekend. Without a second thought I called and put my name on the list.
I love to eat meat. I have enjoyed eating meat my whole life. Fried chicken, steak, ribs, bacon, hamburgers… juicy, sweet meat! I have hardly thought that I am eating an animal. I even when I did, the thought would pass when I got hungry or I would look for a way to detach myself from the animal.
Here is the truth- I AM A WUSS! I have never hunted. I can’t stand fishing or eating fish. I have a hard time buying whole chickens at the store and cutting them up to fry them. The whole chickens feel like babies. They have skin and bones and arms and legs and blood… I bought a good chicken at the co-op months ago and I have not taken it out of the freezer because I know I will have to run my knife through its little body.
With wanting to be an urban farmer I knew I had to learn how to process an animal. A chicken was a good animal to start with. I couldn’t imagine how to kill a goat. I felt a responsibility to kill and clean animals. This would be a small class on a good farm taught by farmers. I didn’t have a choice, I needed to go!
I found myself on a chicken farm/processing Plant in West Concord, MN. Lori and Alan Callister gave me and two other young guys a tour of their place. They have: laying hens, free range birds, free range geese, and birds in coops that are naturally raised. They are one of three processing farms in Minnesota that are not fully automated. The process looks very similar to how Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm processes chickens.
At this point I was very anxious. I had been thinking about this class almost nonstop since I signed up for the class four days before. I knew I was going to have to cut a birds neck. I tried calming myself by listening to “A Country Boy Can Survive,” thinking of how farmers have done this for centuries and thinking of urban farmers like Novella Carpenter learning to do this before me. I felt mildly nauseous and didn’t look like I wanted to pick up a knife.
We got all suited up in knee high boots and water proof aprons. Lori walked us to the processing room than the kill room. Lori and Alan talked us through the killing process and Alan demonstrated. The two other guys were planning on processing thirty of their own chickens the next week and they jumped right in. Both of the other guys looked like hacks compared to Alan who has done this thousands of times.
By the time the knife was passed to me we had three chickens silently flopping around in upside-down traffic cone with the tops cut off. It took the chicken about one minute to fully die. I was told they lose conciseness when their jugular is cut. They bleed a lot less then I thought, far less than one pint.
I took the knife in my hand and tried to grab the chicken head. I tried to grab it in the wrong spot a few times and the chicken got away from me pulling its head into the cone like a turtle. I asked Alan how to grab it and he showed me. I got a hold of it this time and without a second thought I stretched its neck out. I put the knife ½” behind the birds ear and doubled checked with Alan that it was the right spot. He gave me the ok and I made a cut. I cut down to the bone and flipped the neck over and made a second cut. It wasn’t as clean as I wanted, but it was done.
The birds head flopped down and I stood back. We still had one more chicken to kill and I was holding the knife. I looked at the other two guys and to my surprise asked if I could kill the last one. I confidentially grabbed its head and made a cut- and another cut on the same side- and another cut on the same side. It wasn’t as smooth as the first bird but I got it. I flipped the neck over and cut the other side. When I cut its vain a surge of warm blood soaked my hand… I was a chicken killer.
From this point on it was easy work. Almost like working in a kitchen. We soaked the birds in 145 degree water and put them in a defeathering machine. After that we cut off their feet and heads. Taking them to the processing room we gutted the birds and put them in ice water.
The birds needed to get to 40 degrees before we packaged them. To pass time we went and sat down with Alan and Lori and they talked about selling their birds at the Saint Paul Farmers Market and the co-ops in the city. The two guys were together and told us how they we getting a pig this week. I was the only one from the city.
Thirty minutes after we put the chickens in the ice bath we went back to package and label the birds. Lori gave us a “Poultry Head Dispatcher” certificate. I expressed my sincere appreciation to the Callister’s and was on my way. I made the hour drive back home feeling more experienced and connected with people who have done this before me.
By the time I got home I knew I was going to suck down a high fructose sweetened pop and eat a cheap pizza that night. There was no way I would have been able to eat anything resembling meat the rest of the day. I got home and had Kristina take a picture of me with the bird I killed and cleaned. Then I hoped in the shower to sanitize myself. I could taste the farm in my mouth and smell it in my nose; I did not want to get use to that smell.
I plan on making a special meal with my bird. I am going to pan fry it. I left it whole so I will have to cut it up in pieces before I cook it. I know it is dead and not a small child. I will have more confidence in cutting chickens up and a deeper appreciation for meat. I am very appreciative of the Callister’s class and their farm. They have the free range eggs and meat I want to buy at the store. For them to open up their business and show us how they process chickens was priceless.

Romaine In Our Lawn

As a young homeowner I was excited about my land. I would take the girls out to the lawn in the evening, just to lie in OUR grass and talk. This is my spot in the world. The first year of owning our home I mowed the lawn twice a week. Since, I have mowed a lot less. Now I get upset when my neighbors mow every two weeks and I have not, it makes my lawn look worse. These past few weeks have been different though. I have not mowed because I don’t have the time or that I am lazy. I have not mowed because I have been eating plants from my yard; Dandelions and Greater Plantain.
My view on foraging has changed since we started our garden four years ago. Before that I never viewed plants as food. Even plants that are food I never viewed as plants. For example: corn on the cob, potatoes, sunflower seeds, apples and lettuce. I thought they were magically and safely made for human consumption. Plants that you eat seemed wild and risky. Not something you would do unless you had to.
When I started learning more about types of beneficial plants that we could grow from our land, I came across medicinal plants. Mainly herbs, very similar to cooking herbs, which you could use in teas. Things like mint, chamomile and echinacea. We have tried growing different herbs and using them in teas. This seemed safer than foraging for food in the wild. We always bought chamomile tea at the grocery store now we can grow it just like squash or tomatoes.
My gateway foraging plant was the raspberry plant. I have raspberry plants in my yard and there are wild raspberry plants that grow in Saint Paul. Picking berries out of plants in your yard is very similar to picking them in a park. Last year I took Aurelia to help me pick so we could get more berries. We had quart mason jars and filled them to the top. Our hands were stained with the color and smell of the berries. We were able to bring them home and cook them into a jam.
I bought foraging books and dreamed about going to foraging lectures. The more I learned about our food system and the more my views on how I eat changed; the more I became comfortable foraging for my dinner. Here are some of the main reasons I enjoy it: Self reliance, knowledge of your environment, sustainable, low cost, a connection to our ancestors and being disconnected from our industrial food system.
I have mowed my grass once this year. We went through and weeded the gardens, pulling up dandelion roots for roasting. Last week something clicked for me while I was looking at the dandelions in our front yard. My thought was, “We have hundreds of lettuce plants in our grass. We don’t have anything from our vegetable garden yet and I want to live off our land.” I went out and picked a salad bowl of dandelion leaves, cleaned them and tossed them in with our store bought lettuce.
Earlier this week I learned about broad leaf plantains. I had sandwiches on the menu for dinner and I wanted a vegetable besides salad so I went out and picked plantains. This weed is more common in my yard then dandelion and I never knew it was eatable or medicinal. I picked a bowl full that I cooked up and served with dinner along with a couple dozen fried dandelion blossoms. It made for a great meal.
I am a very novice forager. For some people this is crazy, to other people I am a complete poser. I am comfortable eating plants that I am very familiar with and if I have the foraging spirit. Plants are food. We should be appreciative of what we have and what is around us.
I want to give a couple easy recipes. Cooking is not always technical and you don’t always need instructions in front of you to do it. I wing a lot of stuff. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but most of the time it does. Both of these dishes are a good starter foraging dishes because they are cooked or fried with oil and topped with salt.

Broad Leaf Plantain Crisps:

Pick a bowl of young plantain leaves, maybe 4-6 cups. Your compost will be hungry for what you don’t cook.
Clean them real good. I use a salad spinner and rinse them three times.
Put them in boiling water for 15 minutes.
Drain them and let cool.
Spread them out on a cooking sheet and sprinkle with oil. I use coconut oil; you could also use olive oil.
Bake them at 350 until they are crisp. Do not overcook.
Salt and enjoy.

Plantain Crisps

Fried Dandelion Blossoms:

Pick at least 2 dozen good looking blossoms
Rinse well with water.
Crack an egg into a bowl and beat it.
Pour 1/2 cup to 1 cup of flour into another bowl depending on how many blossoms you have.
Heat a small pan with oil to medium. I use my 8″ cast iron skillet with 1/4″ of coconut oi at the bottom.
Dip the blossoms into the egg than the flour.
Shake off any extra flour before frying.
Fry blossoms around 12 at a time.
Fry on one side till golden and flip. 2-3 minutes per side.
Take out when golden, put on plate with napkin to soak up extra oil.
Salt and enjoy.

Fried Dandelion Blossoms

The Y-IS-ARD!

The Yard

On a romantic May weekend in Rochester, Kristina and I found a dead grape plant that has changed our lives. Looking for something to do in Rochester we took a trip to the Home Depot so we could walk hand in hand down the aisles. It was to enjoy the freedom of not having the kids with us; it’s what we happily refer to as being “kid-less!” We came across a grape plant in the garden center. We were thrilled because we didn’t know you could grow grapes in Minnesota. We picked up two and went to ask a team member about buying them. She told us the two sticks poking out of the soil were dead and brought us to the live plants. We grabbed two beautiful plants that had two foot green vines and large leafs. By the time we came across a Honeycrisp apple tree there was no stopping us. We grabbed a tree and a dozen packets of seeds. We paid for our magical plants that grew fruit and took them out to the parking lot not knowing how we were going to get a tree back up to St. Paul. We were able to jam the tree in the van and take it home safely.
I will explain the 99’ Ford Windstar. We paid $2000 a few years ago to get it off a couple of good friend’s hands. We don’t have a truck so the van does all the hauling for us. We have taken that thing to the nursery and packed it with trees, plants and our kids. I took it to the country and found a REAL farmer and loaded it up with straw.
A few years ago we drove city kids to church events in the van. That’s the nice way of putting it. Everyone else that volunteered to drive kids to our church events were single, had cars and said they could take no more than one or two kids to the events every week. We were more easygoing and took all the kids that needed to go. So we would drive to the homeless shelter downtown Minneapolis, load up a dozen inner-city kids, have half of the kids had to sit on someone’s lap- including our kids. We would drive through North Minneapolis hoping we would not get pulled over.
The van got vandalized one night and got all the hub caps stolen, it was broke down in our back yard for six months, I rolled on a flat down Lake Street stuffing my face with Popeye’s chicken, it lost a wheel while I was driving down the road, it got stuck in our garden…We lovingly refer to it as: Ghetto. Ass. Piece of Shit, Van.
At the time we found the grape plant and Honeycrisp apple tree I was parking my work truck straight in our backyard, redneck style. I was planning on making it into an official parking spot, but it turned into a perfect garden space.
We knew very little about gardening. We tried to buy a dead grape plant! We bought a few books and decided to make a 12” deep vegetable bed. So I dug it out by hand, it took a few days. We planted corn, peas, pumpkins and lettuce; your typical Burpee vegetable seed mix. Our lives were consumed by gardening. Not no ornamental garden either. We were gonna we live off our land. If we could grow it in our zone, I wanted to buy it. We went to Home Depot every other day just to look at plants and buy whatever else we could pack into your yard.
Kristina had this crazy idea. She told me I couldn’t go “overboard.” She thinks when I get into something I’m 110%. She wanted the garden to save us money on our grocery bill. Yeah… that didn’t happen. I went to Wal-Mart and found a pear tree I couldn’t pass up for $18. We found out that you need to have a fruit tree to pollinate another fruit tree. So we had to go out and buy another apple tree and a pear tree. We went to the real nursery where they had older fruit trees for $60. By that time we had 5 grape plants, 4 fruit trees, dozens of strawberry plants, 6 raspberry plants, and 3 dozen packs of seeds… That first year we had 60 different types of edible plants growing in our yard. Overboard my ass!
In St. Paul we have a lot of Hmong immigrants. They are authentic. They know very little English, dress funny, walk around the neighborhood talking to themselves, pick weeds in other people’s yards, forage for dinner on the side of the road, squat in open lots to build community gardens, making real basic garden fences with dead sticks and snow barrier mesh; real, rural Asians.
We have several Hmong families on our block. One of these families has kids our kid’s age. The kid’s parents are my age and the kids grandparents live with the family too. We call the grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma is cool, her real name is June. She doesn’t know too much English and she used to farm for a living in Thailand. She has several well kept garden beds in her yard. She butchers whole pigs in her kitchen and makes a super good egg roll.
When we planted our garden we walked down and got Grandma to ask her for advice. She walked down to our yard not knowing what we were talking about; she saw our garden then understood us. I felt very American and white. I feel like I have two strikes against me being a white American. It may be because I grew up in a prejudice town or because people from two different cultures don’t always live well side by side.
Grandma looked at out under kept yard and told us to put a fence around the garden. Her beds are totally enclosed. At that time we just had tilled soil. I was sort-of let down. I was hoping for some good Asian gardening secrets and a fence is all she told us. Grandma walked back up the alley and I told Kristina I was gonna put up a Hmong fence. I went out and got mesh snow netting. I almost bought the neon orange one but decided it was best to get the green. I put up the fence. Made a gate for the fence and a grape arbor by hand. It was my way of showing respect and support to the Hmong community in St. Paul.
Our yard was changing. Just to the east of us we had a neighbor whose house was in the same family for decades. In the past the North End neighborhood of St. Paul was a European- American working class neighborhood. Our neighbors were good people but had a harder time dealing with the diversifying of their neighborhood. I flat out told them I support our diverse neighborhood and I was very accepting of our kids marring outside of our race. Her young daughter was expected to marry a white guy. That year we had a shooting on our property by our black neighbors on our west side. The white neighbors on our east side moved the next year.
By the end of that first growing season we had over twenty pumpkins! We got some corn and lettuce, zucchini. I packed some Asian vegetables in there too. But our enthusiasm about garden work slowly died. Our backyard looked like the Amazon. We had 14ft tall sunflowers, 20ft long pumpkin vines, several tomato plants, 3ft long Asian pea’s pods, zucchini plants… It was awesome! We got noticed by the neighbors. Most people said they liked it but I think they were being polite. Our garden took up most of our back yard open space. I made a large compost bin I threw all our yard crap in. We started to kitchen compost. I would have Kristina cut my hair in the backyard and throw the clippings in the compost; Asian immigrant style!
By the second year we started to understand what a perennial plant and an annual plant were. We have had chamomile growing in the same spot in our garden for the last four years. Perennials are easier. The raspberries, trees, strawberries, some herbs, and bushes- they are less work. We extended the main vegetable garden the second year and bought more plants to add to our collection. We have rhubarb, blueberries, black currants, more grapes and a family rosebush. We tried growing potatoes and onions. Again, whatever we could pack into the yard and was edible we would try to grow.
I started thinking more about medicinal plants: dandelion, types of mints, different herbs and traditional medicine. Then I began to get upset I couldn’t grow weed. Screw the government for telling me I can’t grow medicine in my yard and responsibly use it. I have only smoked maybe six times and not in twelve years. But I want my freedom to do it if I want. Obviously there is a huge gray area there and I haven’t ever needed to use weed but I support the use of traditional medicine.
The second year we wanted to grow watermelons but were running out of space for more plants. I read we could make “watermelon mounds” on our lawn and grow the seeds in there. So I made 4- 150 pound manure piles in our front yard and planted watermelon seeds. The watermelon plant vines along the grass and grows in the lawn. Our mounds have been growing the last three years, but I have only got one small watermelon from it. I just like telling people I am growing watermelon from four mounds of shit in my front yard.
At the beginning of our third year we had a bad incident with our Honeycrisp apple tree. Aurelia and I went on a walk and left Annika and the punk neighbor boy out in the yard playing. It was real early spring and the trees didn’t have their leaves yet. Annika and the boy were playing with sticks. We got back from our walk and I didn’t notice anything at first but then I saw the destruction that two- six year olds could do. They chopped down our Honeycrisp apple tree. Cut it in half! They were hitting other trees too, but the Honeycrisp took most of the beating. I almost threw up I was so sick. I knew it was the punk neighbor boy but Annika helped. For her punishment I told her she had to help me plant a new tree and she was not to play with sticks for a year. And I was STRICT with it. 11 ½ months later she looked at a stick and looked at me and I would shake my head no but then allow Aurelia to play with the stick. I laugh thinking about it. I love Annika, she’s a wonderful kid.
I ended up moving the Honeycrisp to the front of our yard near the side walk and transplanting two of our fruit trees to allow more garden space. Then I went out and got an heirloom apple tree and Annika and I planted it in the front yard. That leaves a total of 5 fruit trees: 3 apples and 2 pears. The Honeycrisp grew that year, but we still haven’t got any fruit from it. Hopefully this year we will.
We have wanted chickens and a couple of goats. We would get eggs and milk. I never had a farm fresh egg or had goat’s milk so it be a change for me. But I could make cheese, yogurt and ice cream. In order to do this we would need four things to happen.
First, we would need to get our trees trimmed. We have three mature trees in our yard. We have two in the back. The good tree in back we would trim the branches a good way to the top. The bad one is half dead and we would cut it down to the top of the trunk. In the front we have an overgrown Silver Maple, we just found out we can get syrup from. But it is clobbering the house and it needs a heavy prune. That would give us a lot more yard space to garden. Second, we would need a fence. Third, we would need a permit for the chickens and one for the goats. To get the permits we would need permission from our neighbors. Fourth, we would need more discipline.
Half way through our third year we let our garden go. There was a couple week period we didn’t weed because it was too hot and there was too many bugs. I didn’t want to weed by hand. I ended up going to Sears and spending $300 on credit and got some gas powered yard tools. I got a Mantis. It is a small tiller and cultivator. I love it. But by the time I took it to the garden it was too late. Our garden was the typical overgrown jungle our neighbors have come to expect and we just let everything grow to see what fruit we would get; Not much from the vegetable garden. We got a lot from the perennial plants. We made a lot of jam and got a good crop of heirloom tomatoes. I told myself in order to bring animals on our property we would have to keep the garden up for a year.
We have been learning how to use our crops too. We never had a zucchini before we planted the garden, now we love them. It‘s great to eat fresh salads from the garden. We have learned to can pickles and green tomatoes. We have come to a spot were the garden is not as much for show but to make a stand against our food system. We were a lot of talk and not a lot of walk. We are starting to come around. The first year we didn’t can anything. We planted all Burbee seeds and didn’t save seeds. We have started to use more of what we grow, plant heirloom vegetables and save seeds. This year we have put $110 into the yard, which is way down from previous years.
We have dreams for our house. We have a 1 1/2 story with 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. We want to make it a two story, four bedrooms and three bathrooms. Replace the garage with a two story garage to have a greenhouse on top of the first floor. Turn it in to a true Urban Farm. Dreams! It will never happen.
This year has brought changes. We are in the middle of a short sale on our house. We bought in 2005 for 170, we now owe 160 and our house is worth around 55. We want to go back to school and can’t have our cake and eat it too. So we decided to give up the house. We are not sure when we will be moving. I was going to put down grass seed after taking out the Hmong fence but I decided to plant the garden. We used the whole garden. We have a total of 1,288 square feet of garden. Our lot is a total of 6,944 square feet. We didn’t pack plants in, giving everything its appropriate space. I planted a lot less veggies this year; pumpkin, zucchini, cucumber, summer squash, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, dill, a lot of basil, cilantro and greens. The garden looks very nice. The perennials are doing great. I added to the manure mounds in the front and planted some watermelon seeds.
We threw around several ideas where to move; Oregon, California, to a farm in Wisconsin… We are planning on staying in the Twin Cities. Probably in the city and hopefully a house with a yard. We are tempted to take all our plants with us. We have dozens of raspberries and strawberries, 7 grape vines, 9 blueberry plants, 2 black currants, 5 fruit trees, perennial herbs and flowers, and a family rosebush. At the least, we will take the Honeycrisp tree which was cut in half; it’s about three feet tall, and the family rosebush. We have spent hundreds of dollars on the plants but we have had them 2-4 years and they have matured. To start over would be hard due to the amount of time the plants need to grow. But who digs up five trees and throws them in a G.A.P.O.S. van when they move? Tom Miller does, along with his super nice toilet! Overboard my ass!
I don’t know what this year will look like. I might have to trespass on lawn after we sell to harvest fruit and veggies. We are not sure the extent of gardening we will be doing next year in a rental house. I can say we have more experience, patience and discipline. I love to garden we hope have chickens and goats someday. Our view on self reliance and our culture has changed. It’s not about our half-assed effort with our yard. It’s about respect for culture and our community.

Cooking and Culture

Learning more about our food system and the best ways to support local, sustainable food I have not heard much about preparing food. What do you do with all the good stuff you get from the CSA, farmers market or co-op? It seems like there is more of an emphasis on getting out and purchasing good food than there is on preparing meals for your family.
When you walk into the supermarket you will run into a cooler, not too far from the front door, that has everything your family needs for dinner. This would be something you can throw in the oven or quickly prepare: convenient food. Our culture is drawn to convenience. We want things to be easy, fast and cheap.
When you get food that has basic ingredients it will take longer make a meal. Food from the farmers market or CSA is basic ingredients. Instead of buying a jar of pickles you would be buying the cucumbers, dill and garlic to make the pickles. When you support local food, you are encouraging self-reliance and local food encourages cultural diversity. The pickles that would be made in Minnesota would taste different than the pickles made in other parts of the country. The pickles would not made by multi-billion dollar companies but by residents.
Do most people honestly cook? You can assemble food and heat food up, but do people take what is available to them and prepare a delicious and nutritious meal for their family? Cooking takes time, with our culture can we afford to spend several hours a day preparing meals? Not only once a week but several times a week?
Like I said in my last post I am far from perfect; I am just asking honest questions. People go to the farmers market, to the co-op and participate in CSA’s. That means people have to cook food. You may luck out and be able to go clip some lettuce from you yard and add a few veggies for a meal but on average feeding your family will consume a big part of your day. You need to plan, buy, cook, eat and clean. By coupling cooking and local food you are helping creating a unique culture. To support sustainable food means you need to get your hands dirty and help make meals.