On Our First Intern Chicken Harvest
[Written June 25, 2016]
Trigger warning: This post contains information about a farm animal harvest and may be upsetting to animal advocates/lovers and non-meat eaters. I’ll put another warning further in the post before the graphic parts for people who have a slight interest but don’t want to see anything too gross.
The internship day I’ve been dreading most was yesterday: our chicken harvest lesson. I overheard some of our supervisors speaking last week so knew it was coming this week, and we were officially told on Wednesday that it would likely happen on Friday. It was almost rescheduled due to a wedding taking place at the farm today, but when we told Bob about this his response was “Fuck the wedding, kill the chickens!” I really love Bob.
I was curious how this harvest would go considering there would be a wedding rehearsal/set up going on at the same time, but it turns out the groom was an intern at Green String and the couple didn’t really care. After our first chicken example, we walked back to the coop to get the first set of roosters for interns and a woman (a wedding planner maybe?) was out front of the wedding barn and smiled and said to me “It looks like you all are on a tour!” I awkwardly replied “Um something like that…” and the groom laughed and told her “They’re slaughtering chickens!!” I grimaced. Not the most ideal verbiage for something that feels so sensitive., even if it’s technically true.
I had been feeling very nervous about the harvest since I applied for the program. I knew it was coming and was unsure how I’d handle it. I was initially told you HAD to take part in the harvests no matter what but found out later that you are allowed to opt out if it is something that really bothers you. I decided if I was going to continue to eat meat, I needed to be able to kill it myself and a significant part of me thought this may be the final nail in my carnivore coffin.
The morning of the harvests the whole farm felt tense (I think the farm staff were stressed about something else, but the intern stress added fuel to the fire), but my anxiety went away. I had asked our grad, Sean, to talk me through the whole process on Thursday so I could mentally prepare, and I went over it in my head a few times that evening and in the morning, the way I used to prepare for surgical procedures when I worked in the lab. I felt prepared and just wanted to be done with it. The hour before the harvest started the scientist part of my brain snapped on and I felt myself going into surgery mode, something I had never noticed I did before. I’m fairly sensitive but I walked over to the farm feeling calm and ready, determined to do the best job possible and put my former surgical skills to good use. I wanted to prove that as an intern I do have something to bring to the table because there have been times where I feel like I am the slowest at some of our activities.
Trigger warning: This is where the details get a little more gruesome. I am putting the graphic parts in italics so you know when to read or not. I decided to write about the entire process somewhat in detail here to prepare potential future students for it, and for people who consume meat products and want to know how they are processed (when done by people and not machines).
Today’s lesson was smaller than a usual harvest because our full harvest isn’t for a few weeks. We were killing roosters from the pullet coop, not our laying coop (though we will be harvesting some of the egg eaters from the laying coop when we do our next big harvest). When you receive baby chicks, they become pullets, and it isn’t clear which chicks are roosters vs chickens for several months. We cull the roosters from the coop because if there are too many roosters vs. chickens the roosters will torment the chickens and fight with one another. The goal is to keep a few badass roosters so they can fight off any threats to the coop but to also keep some of the nicer roosters so the hens aren’t too badly harassed. I’ve learned while here that when roosters mate they can be nasty and grab the chickens backside with their beaks. This results in many chickens having a weird bald spot on their lower back. At Green String, we keep a ratio of one rooster for every twenty hens. Right now approximately half of our pullet coop is roosters who will need to be harvested. PS I’m going to keep referring to the roosters as chickens and probably be inconsistent throughout this post, sorry in advance.
Before the actual hands-on lesson, our coordinator spoke to us as a group. She reminded us that these chickens lead good lives compared to many others, we care for them from the beginning to the end of their lives, we not only raise them, but they also eat what we eat, etc. She mentioned the facts about there being too many roosters vs hens and how culling helps the coop. I wish I could quote the speech back to you because it was better than this and it really did help digest what we were doing.
The lesson started with our teacher showing us how to catch a rooster. Basically, you try to corner it and do a quick sweep to grab it by the legs. Our rooster catching experience was more of a running around in circles trying to corral the chickens and failing miserably to grab them experience. I had my hand on my rooster’s foot at one point but panicked and didn’t grab. Not my finest farm moment. TL;DR It’s really damn hard to catch chickens! We won’t get into how them running from us made me feel emotionally.
Once the rooster was caught, it was taken to the processing area (the side of a barn). The way chickens are harvested is different in each place, but Green String uses a cone method. There are cones nailed to the side of a barn that taper with the large end on top and a smaller hole at the bottom. The chicken is held by it’s feet and put into the cone upside down. The head comes through the bottom hole. According to our teacher, once the chickens are upside down the blood all rushes to their head and they get disoriented. They’re upside down from when you catch them until the cone, so they should be fairly out of it. I am not well versed on chickens and unsure if this is accurate but I hope it is.
This is the part of the harvest when I started crying. It wasn’t even necessarily the inevitable killing that was about to occur, but that the rooster sat in the cone for several minutes as our teacher explained to us what to do (more on that in a second). We have two vegetarians and one vegan in our intern group. All opted to come watch but not participate (one was a maybe for participating but we only had enough chickens for those who had said a definite yes). Our Buddhist intern touched each rooster before the cone and said a prayer. She continued to bow her head and pray throughout the entire process, touching each rooster in the same way and it brought me some comfort. At one point, as the instructor held the chicken and explained some things, she stayed next to it with her hand on it’s chest and her head turned away. I thought I heard her cry and my empathetic side kicked in and that’s what initiated my first tears. It turned out the noise I heard was the rooster crowing, which didn’t help much. One vegetarian did cry during some parts of the harvest, and it really hit me emotionally more than the actual harvesting process. I’ve never been able to watch another human cry without crying along with them.
Now for the gruesome part. Once in the cone, a partner holds your chicken’s feet and you hold it’s head still by putting one finger on the beak and another on the back of it’s head to keep the head still. It’s important to pay attention to the placement of your fingers so you don’t cut yourself. Once the head and feet are secured, you use your hand to locate the jugular (probably if you’ve done this a lot you just know where it is), you use a very sharp knife to make one cut through the jugular. The goal is to use the entire length of the knife and make a movement that goes in and then upwards. You do this on both sides of the neck. If you’ve done this correctly the blood leaves the chicken fairly quickly. The most upsetting part, which I am used to from my science days, is that the chicken’s muscles react to the blood loss as it’s ion channels change and react which causes muscle spasms. This is why you hold the feet. The chicken kicks a bunch, sometimes stopping and starting again within a minute, so you hold it for a while.
After watching the example rooster go through this process I was unsure if I’d be able to do this. I almost didn’t but in the end decided it was my carnivorous duty. I ended up not cutting deep enough on the first try, cutting to exactly where I’d need to in order to do surgery without killing the rooster (I was always skilled at opening necks to expose nerves without hitting the jugular) and had to do a second swipe. I was upset because my goal was to get it over with as quickly as possible for the rooster’s sake. It wasn’t much longer than necessary, but it wasn’t ideal. Our instructor said that everyone did great for our first time.
Once the rooster has stopped kicking, you boil it in a pot of water that is 140-150°F for ten seconds (one one-thousand, two one-thousand, etc). We use this temperature because it is hot enough to assist with de-feathering, while being cool enough to not begin cooking the chicken. After ten seconds you test a tail feather to see if it is easily removed. If it isn’t, you count to five and try again. Once the feathers come out easily, you immediately want to cool the chicken to prevent it from beginning to cook. This is done with a hose. For our de-feathering process, we have this weird machine with little rubber protrusions, you stick the chicken into it (ideally 2-3 at a time) and it turns on and spins them around removing the feathers. It’s kind of gross but it saves a ton of time.
You then take the chicken out of the machine and remove any remaining feathers by hand. At this point, your bird looks like what you’d buy in a store, albeit with a head and feet. Which brings us to the next step: You remove the head and feet. Our process is different than what you would do if you were going to sell the chickens, the industrial way was explained to us but my brain didn’t retain it. After the head is removed you start the evisceration process by cutting a small opening and remove the crop (a muscular pouch along the esophagus that helps soften food and regulate it’s flow through the bird’s system) from the inside of the neck. Then you make an opening in the chest cavity and remove the organs, then the lungs (which are super weird and confusing to find initially). If you want to keep the gizzard, you cut it in half from the side and remove whatever may be inside it. You then peel off this weird yellow layer on the inside. Some folks opted to keep their hearts and livers, and some classes have eaten the testicles (supposedly they’re similar to scallops?) but I only kept my gizzard out of culinary curiosity.
Once you’re done with all of this, the chicken gets sprayed down and put into an ice bath, then bagged and frozen/refrigerated. The meat has to rest for 24 hours for it to be good (by the way, please don’t harvest a chicken using this as instruction, as this is a pretty TL;DR explanation).
So we survived the harvest. The only really difficult part for me was the initial kill step. I am not sure if I will be participating in that part again during future harvests, but do feel like I will be helpful for eviscerations and that should make it okay.
Our next harvest will be bigger (approximately 40 roosters) and probably more intense. We still have a mammal harvest later in the semester, but we just watch that one so I hope it is less upsetting, though I kind of expect that one to be a little more traumatic. Time will tell.