This is a guest post from Bethany McDaniel of Primal Pastures. Learn more about Bethany and Primal Pastures at the end of this article. Enter Bethany…
I still remember the first time I killed a chicken. I had watched it happen hundreds of times (my family runs a small pastured livestock farm in So-Cal called Primal Pastures). I’d even helped out with all of the other steps involved in chicken processing (scalding, plucking, eviscerating, and packaging), but I couldn’t quite bring myself to take a knife to a chicken’s throat and end its life.
I had no problem eating chickens that someone else killed. I’m not terribly freaked out by blood. And I had already gone through the gutting process more times than I could count (which is way gross-er than killing).
After about a year of helping out with processing days, I decided that it was time for me to kill a chicken.
So I finally did it — I cut into it’s throat so hard with a knife that the whole head fell right off. And much to my surprise, I suffered no emotional scarring, haunting chicken nightmares, or anything of the sort. It was merely another step in the process — a necessary part of producing food for my family and our customers to enjoy. And personally going through all of the steps involved in taking a chicken from pasture to plate in the most humane and safe way possible gave me a new sense of confidence and pride in my ability to provide food for myself — something I never knew I was capable of doing.
But not everyone sees it this way. I can’t tell you how many friends have asked me (with a horrified expression of disgust), “Wait – you actually kill the chickens?” As if this were some sort of barbaric act that any “normal” person would never take part in.
You can’t really blame them. Because of the horrific slaughter conditions of factory farmed animals, people often think that chicken processing is gross, mean, cruel, and inhumane. But in reality, animal slaughtering can be done in a way that is extremely quick and humane. And although it’s (sadly) not even close to being a common practice, it certainly is (and has always been) an extremely normal part of the circle of life.
This Used to Be Common Knowledge
In the early 1900s, chicken keeping was extremely common. Processing the birds was simply a part of life — and most people not only knew how to do it, but also processed chickens themselves on a regular basis. It was even normal for young children to help out with the chore under mom or grandma’s supervision.
But today, the thought of killing anything has become so taboo that many would rather believe their meat was grown in a plastic package at the grocery store than associate it with a once living, breathing animal.
Liz Wolfe sums it up beautifully in her book, Eat The Yolks:
Unfortunately, many of us are educated about animals by the entertainment industry. And through that lens, we acquire an image of nature that is wildly and tragically inaccurate. It’s an image with a rosy filter, one that ignores the fact that nature itself is, and always has been engaged in a cycle of life and death. A cycle that seems cruel and violent, rather than innate and natural when we’re raised on Disney instead of Discovery.
The outlook described above is convenient, but couldn’t be more distorted. And it’s left us lacking in our knowledge of meat and where it comes from — which is terribly unfortunate. Everyone has the right to learn and understand the work that goes into taking meat from its natural habitat to our plate. Without this understanding, we’re robbed of the appreciation and wisdom that comes from knowing how it all works.
Processing a Primal Chicken
After experiencing the life-changing effects of killing and processing chickens ourselves, we decided to start offering processing workshops to give others the opportunity to see and experience it for themselves as well. During these workshops, we provide participants with instruction and supervision as they go through all of the steps involved in taking a chicken from pasture to package, ready for the freezer or dinner table.
The workshops focus on the 5 stages of poultry processing: killing, scalding, plucking, eviscerating, and packaging. Each workshop guest has the opportunity to get hands-on experience with each station if so desired. They also have the option to slaughter their very own heritage breed, pasture-raised, soy-free, beyond organic meat bird, package it, and bring it home for their freezer.
We don’t require attendees to get hands-on with the processing and guests are always welcome to simply watch and learn. Either way, attendees end up walking away from the experience with a new outlook on food. Roberto (who attended our last workshop) said, “I grew-up hearing stories of my grandmother’s chickens and how she would make fresh chicken meals at a moment’s notice. After attending this workshop, I feel that I’ve matured in way that is analogous to a toddler learning to feed himself. This workshop helped me take another step towards becoming a fully matured meat consumer.”
His wife Dawn had a similar perspective. “I think everyone should be conscientious about where they get their food. People are afraid to know where their food comes from because of the horrors they hear about and see on television/the internet about factory farming. Taking the workshop from Primal Pastures gave me a sense of pride in being a meat eater.”
We realize that attending one of these workshops isn’t possible for everyone. But just knowing the process is a huge step in the right direction. So here it is – primal chicken processing in 5 steps (complete with photos from our most recent workshop):
To start the killing process, birds are transferred from the pasture to a “kill cone” (pictured) and placed upside down, head out. Chickens enter into a natural trance state in this inverted position, which makes for excellent meat quality — the less stressed out an animal is prior to slaughter, the less adrenaline is released into the meat (adrenaline is what causes meat to become tough and chewy). Many CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) birds miss this step entirely and end up meeting their demise during the scalding step — a terribly inhumane way to die.
Birds are already dead before moving on to this step in the process. Scalding involves dipping the birds in hot water in order to loosen up the feathers. There’s a very fine temperature range that works in conjunction with the next step, plucking.
When the feathers are fully loosened up from scalding, the plucking machine takes them out for good. The chickens are spun around and sprayed with water to remove the feathers during this step. Many who see our plucking device de-feather four birds in 10 seconds are amazed, as this process would have taken your great-grandmother 5-10 minutes for just one bird. Want to see the contrast for yourself? Check out this video of hand plucking and this one of a plucking machine.
During the eviscerating step, we gut the birds and take out their insides. Almost every part of the chicken is saved and sold to customers. We sell the livers, hearts, gizzards, feet, and heads. Other parts (like the oil sack and intestines) are fed to our guard dogs. This is one part of the process that you just can’t learn without going through it a couple of times.
During this step, the whole carcass is placed inside of a bag, zip tied, and dunked into boiling water. Heat-shrink packaging gives the finished products a professional look and an air-tight seal that makes long-term freezing easy. The air leaves the package through a small hole which we cover up with a Primal Pastures sticker.
We truly believe that if more people had the personal experience of processing at least one animal in their lifetime, it would change our entire country’s food system for the better. If you’re interested in joining us in Southern California for a processing workshop, farm tour, or potluck, check out all of these events on our website by clicking here. If you can’t get to Southern California, Eatwild.com has a great list of pastured livestock farms throughout the United States that may offer similar events.
This was a guest post from Bethany McDaniel of Primal Pastures — a small, beyond organic farm in Southern California that raises pastured chicken, lamb, turkey, and more. Bethany works on the farm with her family and runs the Primal Pastures blog, From the Pasture. Follow her blog or keep up with her on Instagram for useful and entertaining information about farm life, real food, wellness, and everything else that makes up her primal lifestyle.