Monday, May 22, 2017

Nineteen Chickens and Counting

When I first sat down to write this post, I thought I was going to finally deliver a story that didn't deal with death. But no, this one does too. Death 19 times to be exact. This time however, it was intentional. It was planned. And it should be tasty.

In the past, Ghon had tried to raise chickens for meat, not just egg laying. Tried meaning limited success not at any fault really of his, but of the constant predator threat. Well, not just threat, but the dang critters would kill our birds before we could raise them for slaughter. He was successful one round and we were able to to put 6 or 7 fryers in the freezer.

I'm not sure why I felt compelled to do it this year myself. Maybe it was to see if I could. To try some farm "thing" in his spirit and honor. Or, we like chicken and it felt like the right thing to do.

When Ghon did process the chickens, it was part of a learning experience. He met a couple online via a Facebook farming group. Sharon and Greg were nice enough to let Ghon come out and show him how they handled the slaughter.  Ghon was even more energized by the idea of raising chickens as a protein source for profit. He'd made plans to buy the plucker, talked about where to do the deed itself. He hadn't gotten that far, and in one way, that left me at a disadvantage if I was going to raise and slaughter our own chickens.

Fortunately I was able find Sharon on Facebook, sent a friend request and started messaging. I'd asked if Greg would be willing to help me process if I raised my own hens.  As we discussed options, she offered a few of their large order from the hatchery so I didn't have to order my own.

A few weeks later, the kids and I headed to their farm to purchase fifteen chicks. The hatchery they use also threw in some "bonus birds" which were all roosters. We took five of those too.



What little girl doesn't love a chick?

Transferring the chicks to our box.



We brought the chicks home where the had a short stay in my utility sink. Much happy peeping kept the cats interested and my nerves slightly frazzled. At this point, it's still to cold to put the chicks outside and I didn't have good space set up for them inside. Fortunately, our friends Jason and Rachel agreed to raise them at their house for a few weeks. Again, what kid doesn't love chicks, and with three at their house, it was a fun adventure for them to have around.

Makeshift coop until the transition!

A few weeks pass and it was time to move the birds back to the farm.  Six years ago, Ghon had built a 12x12 chicken coop and later, sectioned off a space that we could finish raising chicks in and keep them safe from the older, larger birds. I put my boots on, my big girl farm panties, grabbed a screw gun and put the plywood walls back up so I could use the pen. I AM FARMGIRL HEAR ME ROAR!

OK, hear me, but don't give me too much credit. I had a problem getting the screw in on one post, but it was secure enough that I rolled with it. Baby steps farm girl, baby steps.

Jason delivered the the chicks and got them settled in their new home. They spent a few more weeks inside until I felt the old flight pen was secure from predators and the weather nice enough. The flight pen has a wire roof, but nothing to protect the birds from rain. We had an old piece of plywood close by, so I was able to repurpose it as a roof. Yep, got a little She-Ra action on to lift it over my head and up onto the pen roof.  The grass in the pen was at least a foot high, but I knew that wasn't likely to last!

Since we'd had such issues with predators in the past, I was really nervous that I'd lose some or all the birds. Every morning, I'd look out my bedroom window and see a little white flock pecking around in the pen and felt happy to know that they'd made it another night!

Seven weeks into the adventure, it was time to slaughter. Technically, the roosters, being a different variety as well, should have been held off a few more weeks. Not knowing how I'd handle this whole processing business, I figured I'd better get it done all at one time, and they could be my little single serve almost cornish hens.

Fortunately from the get-go, Jonathan and Genevieve understood that these were not egg laying hens and would not be staying at the farm. That these birds did not get names other than tender, baked, fried, pot pie, soup, and grilled. Their sole purpose was to eat and be eaten!!

Since they were accepting of this idea, they had no issues helping me load them into a cage so I could take them off to Greg and Sharon's farm. Can't say I blame them for not wanting to be there for the slaughter.

Bucket of chicken!


My dad came to watch the kids while I was gone, so he manned the cage door for us.

Squeezing through

I can still remember the first night she caught a chicken!

Excited about the prospect of fried chicken

Bye bye roo-boy!

How Momma does it! Bam!



The last three to load in. Jonathan can't wait for a fried chicken leg, again.
Chickens loaded, cooler and ice loaded - off we go!

About this time last year, we took our VA tags off the truck and put farm tags on it. This restricted our ability to drive the truck, but with over 285k miles on it, it needed a ton of work to pass inspection. I haven't driven it much since Ghon died. This was the longest drive - and appropriate farm use.

As part of the deal for Greg to process the chickens, there were a few expectations set for me. I was asked to watch, learn and help, or at least provide entertainment. I assured Sharon I would watch what I could and whatever I couldn't - well, that in of it's self would be the entertainment.

Once I arrived, I recognized all the equipment from when Ghon shared his experience with me. Now for those of you that are squeamish or wondering if I have pictures of dead or dying chickens, the partial answer is yes. But not to worry, the dead chickens look no different here than they do at your grocery store. If your curious to the process, keep reading.

To get started, Greg already had a pot of soapy water starting to boil. This is to scald the birds, which helps get the feathers off. But, before you can do that, the first step is the actual slaughter.




We loaded six birds into the yellow cage seen above. One at a time (up to three), Greg would put the chicken in the cone, head first, get it snug, hold tight, and very quickly, cut the head off. Before the first, he was kind enough to ask if I was going to be OK with this part. I gave the honest answer - that I had no idea, but felt I needed to see at least one and then we'd go from there. Fortunately, I did just fine. I didn't watch intently every single time, but I also didn't get squeamish or running off crying.

After the birds rest a few minutes, the next step is scalding. The water has to be a a magic number and holding the bird by the legs, Greg dunked, dunked, and dunked the bird to help pull out oils from the feathers and make them easier to pluck. Then, enter the wizbang plucker. A contraption Ghon thought about getting many times before.


Making quick work of plucking feathers!

The bird is dropped into the blue barrel. At the bottom is a metal plate that spins around. The chicken bounces around and the black rubber fingers pull the feathers off. A little water is added from the top. Quite an interesting little machine and it did an amazing job.

Once all 6 birds were slaughtered, it was off the butchering table. Once again, Greg did a great job teaching me about the process, the steps he takes to clean out and do the final prep on the bird. My job was to perform quality control. I checked over the birds and pulled any feathers left behind and rinsed the inside cavities out, pulling out anything that didn't look like it belonged. Once that was done, it was off to the ice bath to chill. We repeated the process until all 19 birds I brought were complete.

19 birdies all ready to go!
If you're a math person, you probably realize we are one bird short from our pickup. One hen did die as a chick before making it back to the farm. It happens.

Once we were done, I helped clean up the butchering area and anything else I could figure out. Greg was super patient with me, taught me a lot, and may be able to help me out with some other farm needs - or need nots. I'm thankful and grateful for his time, talent and the conversation we had Sunday.

As I drove away, with a now flat crate and a full cooler, I asked Ghon what he thought of that. Even I was a bit stunned at what happened. It was truly a team effort and I had a lot of support along the way - but I had just raised chickens for the family, took and sorta helped with the processing, and was carrying them around like it was nothing. Not to bad for a city girl from Baltimore.

The next step is to vacuum pack the 16 birds and toss them in the freezer. Yes, math folks, I dropped three more. One of the cool things I get to do as a pseudo-farmer is barter. I gave my dad a hen for watching the kids. Our neighbor and friend Daniel helped me get air in the truck tires so I could actually drive it to a shop to get new tires put on - I gave him dinner and a jar of honey. My friend and co-worker Joey gave me the tires that I needed to get on the truck so I could take this little adventure - and he got 2 chickens in return. And they've already been turned into soup! Barter all the things, all the time!!

Chicken not yet noodled soup!
So there it is - finally, a farming story. A farming story that required the death of 19 chickens, but gave so much more. I did a farm thing. (yes, that's technical farmspeak). I did a farm thing almost on my own; something Ghon would have loved to have done and I imagine is proud of me for doing. It's something he wanted to do more of and sell. And while I don't think I'm going commercial, it is pretty neat to say I will be cooking and eating chickens I raised. A farming story that proved once again there are a lot of good people out there, good people willing to lend a hand when needed with just about anything (thank you friends!!). Hopefully, I can be just as good and helpful when someone else needs a hand. Or a chicken. Or eggs.

If you've made it this far - a hint was dropped in this post about another farming adventure Ghon started and I'm completing. Hopefully, I'll have that one written soon. In the meantime, anyone have any good chicken recipes? And Eric - slop does not count.

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