Today I am a farmer. We have started slaughtering the chickens. Not that you can’t be a farmer without killing animals (as plenty of farmers don’t), but we’ve grown crops before. For me keeping a garden is not the same thing as being a farmer. I deeply believe that a proper farm system involves animals to replenish the soil, and if you have animals on a farm you have to deal with killing. I know some people think you can have animals humanely, but the truth is that the killing is happening one way or another, even if you yourself are not doing it yourself. Chickens are born 50-50 roosters and hens, and they cannot exist in a flock that way peacefully and productively. If you buy only hens from the hatchery, the male chicks are often thrown out like garbage, or sent as living packing material to folks like us, who kill and eat them. And you can’t have dairy without babies (be they goats, cows, or sheep), and a farm simply cannot sustain a whole new crop of babies every year, if only for the same reason – they are born 50-50 male and female, but don’t form peaceful adult groups that way. I know that living most of this lifestyle comes pretty easily to me. It feels good, and natural, but killing an animal was the “Big Scary Thing” I wasn’t sure I could handle. So why do my own killing? Because I believe that I do not have the right to eat meat if I am unwilling or unable to take a life. I’ve always been an animal lover, and though I have been a mom for too many years to be overly concerned with poop, and blood has never bothered me, guts aren’t exactly my favorite thing. Neither are germs. But I did it, and so did Shawn.
We put three chickens in cat carriers the night before, before feeding time, so that when it came down to cleaning them out their guts would be empty, and thus less likely to cause problems. Then this morning Shawn taught me how to sharpen a knife, and boy did I ever. A good friend had warned me after her first experience, having thought her knives were plenty sharp… and learning otherwise. So, wanting to make this as painless as possible for the chickens (not to mention safe and easy for yours truly), I sharpened my knife until I could shave my arm with it. Bloody sharp, not to be overly macabre, and I warn you, I’m unlikely to resist the impulse.
So we hung up the kill cone on the shed door, got a bucket to catch the blood, and trekked down to the chicken house to fetch our erstwhile contestants for “Who Goes Into The Freezer First?”… only to find out that one of them had pulled a Houdini, and earned himself a stay of execution. I have to wonder if it was one of the same two roosters who went missing earlier in the season, only to show up inside the chicken house a week later at feeding time. If I knew for sure, I might keep him just on principle. In any case, the other two were hauled up to the shed, and I spread a few cups of grain around on the other side of the house, so as to distract the rest of the flock. Frankly, they don’t need to see that.
I won’t go into the gritty details of it, but I will say that it both seemed to take longer than I anticipated (even though each bird was completely dead in a matter of about 30 seconds, and I would guess unconscious in under 10), and be less violent and less messy than I feared. It was surprisingly simple and easy, and neither animal seemed to be in any pain at all, though we took some care to hang them upside down for a while beforehand, so they were pretty groggy. The most surprising thing? Though it is definitely a solemn affair to take a life, it felt… honest. This, taking the life of my food under an open sky, and saying thank you? It is a feeling of connection I can’t really describe, and though I try to make a practice of being mindful and grateful about my food and the lives that end so that mine can continue, it has never felt so effortless before. I am grateful. I am thankful. To put it plainly, this is not like picking tomatoes or making pickles, it’s a whole other level of connection with my food. And not to sound trite, but it was a pretty sacred experience. That, by the way, is why there are no pictures. I really wanted to be fully present.
We let them hang for a while, as the longer they hang, the less blood is in the finished carcass, and the better the taste. Also, I wanted to be very, very, sure that they were dead before they went into the scalder. We brought a pot of hot (but not boiling) water out onto the porch and scalded them to loosen the feathers. My research led me to understand that 145 degrees was pretty much ideal, and that was indeed my experience. After just a couple of minutes the leg skin could be easily pinched off, and so the birds were removed and the birds were easily plucked on the porch. And by easily I don’t mean quickly. Holy cow. It probably took about 15 minutes to do each bird. When the birds were all plucked, we brought them into the kitchen.
Up until this point, we hadn’t involved the kids, though they knew what we were doing. I really didn’t know how I was going to react, and I didn’t think it would be a terribly good introduction to this aspect of farming to watch mommy throw up all over the ground. Luckily I didn’t. But in came the naked birds, and Susan and Jason snapped to attention. “What’s that Mom… are those the chickens?” asked Susan, quite concerned. Jason ran over, “Lemmesee-lemmesee!! OH COOL!” They looked and looked, fascinated. I was a little concerned about Susan, who’s pretty sensitive, and not all that sure about eating meat in the first place. It’s a hard decision for anyone to make, and I want her to understand the reality of her choice, one way or the other. So I held the bird up, and she got a good look at the whole shebang, bloody sliced open neck and all. She surprised the heck out of me, to be honest, and decided that she wanted to eat it with the rest of the family. Though she did say that the heads freaked her out a little bit, because the eyes were partly open. I can’t really blame her on that one.
So, I washed them in the sink, and pulled out the last feathers. Then they went onto the cutting board, and out again came the knife. I processed them according to instructions in The Small Scale Poultry Flock, which was very helpful, as there were step by step photos as well as written instructions. If you want details as to how to slaughter you chickens, or how I did mine, I suggest you look there, as I am proud to say it went entirely according to plan. The first one took a little time, but the second went quickly enough, and I’m delighted to say that both birds were finished without rupturing their digestive tracts. Jason really loved watching me pull out the guts.
The necks (from the skull to below the shoulders), the feet, hearts, and livers we saved for the stock pot. The heads, neck skin (which also contained the esophagus, crop, and windpipe), and the rest of the guts, including the testicles and lungs, along with the feathers and blood went into a deep hole in the vegetable garden. Nothing left the farm. They may not have been born here, but they lived here, it was their home, and certainly not a bit of them will be wasted or unappreciated. They will be baked, picked clean, eaten as sandwiches, made into everything from chicken salad to chicken pie, then their bones and what’s left will be boiled for stock, and their fat will be rendered for cooking. When they have boiled for two days their bones will be so soft the will be crumbly, and then that too will be buried in the garden. We even eat the skin.
These animals, like all animals, had lives of their own, and because they gave their lives to us so that we can live, it is our duty to waste nothing. I can think of no greater disrespect than throwing ANYTHING in the trash. I have said this for years, but I’ll tell you, nothing in my experience has given me a greater respect for life… than taking it.