Processing chickens

I’ve told this story so many times, that I’m pretty sure that it has appeared in my journal before. I don’t want to bore regular readers, so I’ll try to tell a very brief version of it today.

I was seventeen years old. I went away from home to college. Actually, I wasn’t very far away from home, only 80 miles. I had worked summers farther away from home than that. But there was something about going away to college that made me particularly homesick. I think that it was knowing that there was a good chance that I would never live at home again. As it turned out, that was the case. Other than a couple of summers during college, I didn’t ever live in my home town again. Another factor was that I was among the youngest of the members of my college freshman class, I had a roommate with whom I had very little in common, and I was working very hard to keep up academically.

It would have been easy to head home for a weekend. My sister and a high school friend who were at the same college had done that. But I persisted through the fall without going back home. There was one reason in my mind that took precedent over all of the others. I knew that back at home there were chickens that had not yet been butchered and I didn’t know which weekend would be the weekend for the chore. I wanted to make sure that the last chicken was in the freezer before heading home. I persisted. The chickens were butchered without me. By Thanksgiving, I was home for a long weekend.

I haven’t participated in a chicken butchering since. Not that I am without some skill. When we managed a church camp a few years later, we would purchase a large quantity of fresh chickens and cut them up for the freezer, and I’m pretty efficient with a knife and a case of fresh chicken.

I guess I am using a bit of antiquated terminology. These days they call it “processing” not “butchering.” I’m not sure why. I think of butchering as an honorable profession, requiring skill and hard work.

The story comes into play because yesterday was chicken processing day at our son’s farm. They got together with two other families a few months ago and ordered 100 chicks. Our son and his family already had layers and one rooster, so they knew how to care for chicks. Their 33 all survived the brooder and made it to the pullet pen. I built a large chicken tractor for them so after they got past pullet stage they could be outside day and night, safe from predators, but easily moved from location to location each day. 33 birds in a cage will reduce a field to bare dirt in 24 hours. Raising the chickens required dedication and work from our son and his family. The chickens had to have fresh water and feed every day. Before they got to the chicken tractor, the brooder and the pullet pen had to be cleaned and fresh bedding put down on a regular basis. Investments were made in feed and bedding supplies. Their care and hard work paid off. Of the 33 birds at our son’s place, only one perished. It had an injured leg and the other chickens had picked on it pretty bad before it was discovered and isolated. It survived almost to last week, but succumbed to its injuries. Another family in their group lost three chickens to a hawk the same day. The hawk never got into the pen and never got the chickens out, but it was able to reach through the chicken wire somehow to cause the death of three chickens. If you raise livestock you have to be prepared to deal with death. After all, you are raising stock that is intended to become food.

Yesterday was the day chosen by the three families to get together with all of the birds and get them ready for the freezer. They knew that grandpa wouldn’t be participating in the process. I had declined before the chicks arrived. I’m still not much on that part of farming. I did, however, volunteer to come and care for children after church. It is important for our son and his family that the children participate in the life of the farm and that they understand how their food is produced. They wanted the children to be a part of processing chickens, but it is a big job that takes most of the day and probably a bit much, especially for the youngest. As it turns out the four-year-old was the only one who came back to the farmhouse with us. The other two children wanted to stay through the whole process. They carried chickens from the plucker to the processing table and were eager to show me the whole process when I arrived.

I will say that an automatic plucker is an amazing invention. We never had one when I was growing up. That machine takes a scalded chicken and removes all of the feathers in less than a minute. I might have had more tolerance for the process had we had access to such a machine when I was younger. They also had a device that sealed the processed meat into bags. It is another invention that is really useful.

33 chickens is five family-sized picnic coolers of meat. We somehow got all of those birds into the refrigerator for cool down before they went to the freezer. My wife is a very competent refrigerator engineer. My contribution to the process was a bit of doing dishes as every other item in the refrigerator was put into the smallest and most stackable container possible. They will have a chest freezer full of chicken to last the winter. They already have one freezer nearly full of fruit. A third freezer, and a bit of ours as well are being saved for the quarter (or was that half?) of beef that will be arriving soon. It is that time of the year.

I’m delighted that my grandchildren are growing up with the knowledge of farm life and how food makes it to their table. Whatever direction their lives take, they will be grounded in knowledge and skills that will help them. On the other hand, I’m also glad I can provide a bit of a break for the children if they need it. I wouldn’t want one of them to feel that they couldn’t come home for a visit after they go away to college. I’ll make sure they know they can always come to grandma and grandpa’s house if they have a reason to avoid the farm for a weekend.

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