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.