A Look into the Modern Farmer’s Movement
Baked, fried, BBQ’d, on a stick, simmering in lemon and garlic: I love chicken. I love chicken in soup, Pad Thai, enchiladas, and cold for breakfast. Until recently however, I honestly could not tell you where it came from. How does it end up in the freezer? Somewhere along the way I’d forked over the money for it. This photo essay explores my newfound appreciation — full and true — with America’s favorite white meat. Because the truth is that there are one hundred steps, both large and small, to get the chicken onto your plate.
Step one did not exactly begin with the chicken tractor you see here, but about seven years ago when my boyfriend Steve began participating in annual chicken butchering work parties. At these butcherings, each participant contributed their time and energy in exchange for chicken. After one or two seasons of gleaning knowledge and experience, and reading up on techniques, Steve built the basic chicken tractor shown here. This is Steve’s fourth year and with a bit of help from myself, we raised 77 chickens. On butchering day, after 8 weeks of the chickens being on pasture, we enlisted a crew of ten hardworking people to help conduct the butchering process. Amazingly, Steve seems to have no trouble finding such people.
This was an unusual year in that, unlike previous years, we were required to transport the chickens to a separate processing site about fifteen miles away. A good friend of ours offered up a basic and incredibly efficient site at Laughing Stock Farm in Loraine, Oregon. Coincidently, this is the farm where our pork comes from. I was able to see the actual pig that Steve and I are purchasing for our yearly bacon, ham, and roast ration.
Steve had to transport the birds. This was by far the most unideal part of the process (ideally we would not move the chickens at all, best for them, best for us), but we recently moved and our new home site is not set up for butchering. Regulations state that a chicken processing site (of 1,000 birds or less) has to be done using a concrete slab for a floor, as well as stainless steel tabletops to ensure proper sanitation. We were fortunate to have the support of Laughing Stock Farm, but in the future would prefer that their full life cycle be on our land — allowing their fertility to return to the soil in the form of compost.
As far as the butchering goes, stoic is how I would describe this phase. It is time to be mindful of the reality that in a few short minutes (after set-up is complete and our help starts trickling in) we will be ending the lives of actual living beings — several per minute. This part is always heavy for me, and isn’t pleasurable for anyone, I assure you. At home in the past I burned sage, but I neglected to bring sage this time and I resorted to soothing baby talk and chants under my breath, like Om Shanti Prema which means lasting peace and love for all.
Four cones hold the chickens in place for the butchering. Steve, myself, brothers Jeremy and Jason, Eric, and Chad (all co-workers of Steve) manned this step on the processing line. Being that I personally helped raise the birds from chicks, watering them daily, moving them along the pasture on evenings when Steve wasn’t home, I felt it was my duty to butcher a few myself. This assures that I am fully aware of what it truly takes to love and consume chicken, blood, guts and all.
A modern farmer, Steve, wearing my Door’s t-shirt. We recently attended a community potluck which started out as the “Young Farmer’s Coalition” but was re-named the “Beginner Farmers Coalition.” While it is true that there seems to be a huge gap in the farming world — old timers on the one side, and recent college grads on the other, the lifestyle is attainable for any person.
The nature of this work will turn off any person who may have a romanticized notion of farming or raising animals. This is because (a) it doesn’t always pay much so you have to do it primarily for love of the lifestyle and (b) the work itself is often backbreaking, requiring stamina, muscle, and an all-consuming dedication.
After dunking the just-butchered birds in 150 degree water, they are then de-feathered within a few short seconds. One of the greatest inventions for the modern homesteader has to be the automatic plucker. Without this important tool, raising even a modest amount of chickens would hardly be worth it. Just another example of community support: Steve rented the all-essential plucker at a reasonable price from our friends at Loud Pond Farm in Noti, Oregon. Although such small farms could be considered competition, or inspire competitiveness, most if not all small farmers (in our area) operate from a mindset of collaboration. It is not uncommon for tools and labor to be bartered.
Finally we have a train of chickens heading to the Evisceration line. This is where all our amazing and supportive friends really get to shine. Showing up at eight o’ clock on a Sunday is not for everyone and I am always amazed at how good Steve is at convincing folks to come down, if only for the promise of a chicken to take home and a cold one afterward. “Evisceration” means removing all the unnecessary parts of the chicken: feet, neck, stray feathers, guts, and offal. This is the most time-consuming part, and that which requires the most skill and attention.
Emma represents the awe-inspiring, rapidly growing female farmer demographic. She is fully employed as the dairy manager for a local family farm. She also has experience with vegetables, urban gardening, cheese-making, dairy, and baking. “Thanks for showing up!” I told her before I took her picture. “Of course!” She replied, as if to say she hadn’t even conceived of skipping out, perhaps to stay home and enjoy a rare day off. It is clear that Emma intends to make her life in farming — a lifestyle that volleys between profession and quality-of-life — with a strong leaning toward quality-of-life. The median hourly wage for a farm hand in Oregon is about $10.15. The perk: access to an abundance, and I mean abundance, of fresh, local food.
We are trying to grow smaller chickens this year, last year we had a couple nine pounders. At $4.50 per pound, that’s over $40.00 for just one chicken. This bird costs $29.70, so that’s large enough. Six hours later (including one long, leisurely lunch break) all the chickens, including Jeremy’s roosters and ducks, have been butchered, eviscerated, bagged, and weighed. What happens next is several bouts of handwashing, clean up, and even more handwashing. One of the riskiest parts of chicken processing (I learned from Emma) is getting sick by failing to be 100% sanitary. Due to this fact, organic-loving Steve is reduced to using bleach, sparingly, and only when necessary.
At the end of the day the goal is to still have happy, smiling people. This I learned from Steve. The goal is that nobody feels overworked, that somebody learned something, and for us, on a personal level, that we mindfully raised a round of chickens from their conception all the way to the dinner table. I suppose the cherry on top is that I get to share that experience with you, as a reminder, to you and to myself, that the chicken you see and buy start out as tiny things, growing quickly yet full of life, breathing and chirping, just like you and me; only to be consumed by fate: America’s relentless appetite for its favorite white meat.