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Friday
Jul302010

The process of chicken processing

Just a two short weeks ago we processed our first flock of pasture raised chickens this year.  All said and done at 7 weeks our Cornish Cross birds that went out on pasture at 3 weeks of age averaged about 4.5# and we did 150-ish birds...  so doing that math that's over a 1/4 of a ton of fresh, natural, pasture raised chicken!

Chickens heading to processing early in the morning The process is pretty simple and covered in depth all over this site (find it by searching in the upper right of the page) and it's also exhaustively talked about all over the interwebs.  Everyone has their own nuances and changes to the process - but by in large it starts with catching up the chickens either the night before or in the early morning of.  Once caught up the bird is placed in a cone for the exsanguination process (Latin: ex ("out of") and sanguis ("blood")).  From there they get rinsed, scalded (to loosen the feathers) and plucked.

Once the birds are "naked" they move over to the processing side of the line (we have some pretty strict processing guidelines and SOP's we follow - orange knives on the front side of the line and black ones on the back side is but one example out of many).  On the processing side the heads and feet are removed...  heads are waste (some people make soup stock out of them - for us they are just compost)...  this year the feet went to a customer who will be sharing the final product (link) (stay tuned).  This station also removes the oil gland.  To the non-processor - if you look at the top of the tail of any chicken you will notice a small part is missing...  most people never notice this.  It's where the bird has an oil gland sack that they use to preen their feathers.  Not removing it would cause the oil to come out when cooking and most people don't like that taste - so off it comes.

Early morning chicken processing

The next step is evisceration.  It sounds like a lot of work but once thing get rolling I have gotten pretty handy and can get the bird through this step in about 30 seconds.  Part way through the processing day someone made a request for the livers and hearts so things slowed up just a bit there - but we kept the birds moving along just fine.

From here the birds go into a big ice water bath and each bird gets picked up and run through by the QA team.  They look for any pin feathers that might have been missed, they look for any small pieces of lungs that might have been missed or anything else that would not result in a picture perfect (and food safe) bird.  From there, once the bird has been approve, it is rinsed one last time in fresh water and then plunged into a new ice water bath to await bagging.

Bagging the pasture raised chickens

The bagging process was improved this year by a simple invention I whipped up - a chicken bagging stand.  Each bird is removed from the icy water and placed on it's own stand.  The bird drains out while a plastic bag is applied over the top.  The bag is then sealed with a stainless ring and the bag is shrunk tight to the bird protecting it from any threat of freezer burn.  We have stored birds prepared this way for over a year in the freezer and never had an issue at all.

A fridge full of fresh pastured poultry

After they are bagged the get weighed and labeled...  they are then placed into refrigeration and await pickup.  And boy did they get picked up!  At promptly 3pm this year we had a line...  but it was a great opportunity to meet lots of customers and offer tours or just talk about the operation.

This year we got started a at about 7 in the morning and were done, with two 30 minute breaks in there, by noon.  Collectively we had about 12 people helping and this year (oldest was a young 73 and youngest was a mature 11) we even had two guys (thanks Dave and Phil) join us for a single morning apprenticeship.  They got some solid hands on experience under the direction of a crew of veteran processors and got to ask as many questions as they could!  Even better - they properly closed out our processing day by each walking the last two birds through every step of the process, including bagging, and then took that chicken home to share with their family (after joining us for lunch!).

The experience for everyone who participated was positive.  The comments are almost always the same when we are done working and enjoying a bit of lunch...  this almost become more of a social gathering than work.  There's friendly banter, ribbing, great conversations and questions, and the occasional hose fight during the breaks.  In the celebration that represents the end of 150 chicken lives - who lived great lives to then nourish our families - great memories are made and experiences of community are shared.

To us, this is what makes the great local food experience have the power that it does.  While there are some aspects of the process people may claim are not "pleasant" the fact is if you REALLY want to connect with your food you need to know how to kill your food.  Leaving the process out of sight and in the hands of untrusted, faceless people is completely not what we represent.  This year we didn't have any customers visit during the processing but the door is always open - well - actually - there is no door!
A sincere thanks to all who participated and helped so hard (or supported the effort) - we simply could not do what we do without all of your help!

To our customers - we do it for you and thank you for your support and dedication to us and local food!

Reader Comments (2)

Is that Uncle George in the yellow boots?

July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPam

No that's Charlie...

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

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