Before I began my journey down the road of farming, I had never processed an animal of any sort (that is, aside from post-mortem operating procedures conducted on buckets of extra crispy fried chicken). I had grown up around animals, and I was no stranger to chores or hard work. I knew coming into the internship last summer that I would be getting a lot of experience processing poultry, and even more so as I rolled over into the positon of Apprentice. What would I think of it all? Would I be able to do it? What part of the process would I be best at, and what if I couldn’t stand it at all? Lots of questions to answer. I didn’t know if I had the Guts to do it…yes, that’s a processing pun.
With the help of my family, I experimented with 13 broilers that we raised before I hit the road to Virginia. Wow. Talk about an interesting experience. For me, I took no joy in the killing of the birds, but I understood that If I was going to be eating meat, I had to be willing to kill the animal or I couldn’t justify consuming it. I cherish life and view it with sanctity. It has value to me. I don’t enjoy killing, but I have learned to work with it and understand that if I am going to provide people with better food, the animals will have the best life I can give them and the most painless and quick death that I’m able to provide.
Arriving here at Polyface with the grand total of thirteen birds to my processing history, I jumped in with a desire to learn how to process quickly and effectively. In the past year or so I have helped process literally thousands and thousands of birds. I still very much appreciate the lives of the animals that are entrusted to me, and I have become experienced past what I even hoped for. My area of expertise is gutting, and by the end of last summer I was able to gut a bird in an average of twenty to thirty seconds, and able to match Joel bird for bird.
I have had many people ask me to give a short description of what my day as an apprentice looks like when I am processing. What do I have to look forward to when processing time comes around? Well, our processing procedure doesn’t start the morning of, instead it starts the day before we kill the first bird. We want to make sure that their crops are empty, so we pull their feeders the day before we process them. They still have the Salad Bar to feed on, and this time off of food doesn’t hurt the bird at all, it just cleans out its system somewhat which enables us to be more efficient while we work and helps the whole procedure run smoother.
The morning of a processing day starts with us taking our truck and one of our gooseneck trailers out to the pens. We have chicken crates stacked on the gooseneck, and each crate holds twelve to fifteen birds each depending on how old the birds are. We only put ten birds into each crate to ensure that they have plenty of space and to also make keeping track of how many birds we have caught easier.
Once we arrive at the field, we generally have one person loading crates and one person making sure that they always have an empty crate waiting for them and who helps to carry the full crates back to the gooseneck. Once the birds have been caught we head back to the processing shed where there has been someone prepping it and making sure that it’s ready to go. Everything that needs to be wet down has been sprayed, the cooling tanks are set in place, the rubber matts on the floor are in position, and the correct knives have been sharpened and put in place.
The scene has been set, but the action gets paused for a moment while everyone heads off to grab a quick breakfast while the scalder heats up.
If we start chores and catching at six in the morning we can generally have everything caught, prepped, and have breakfast in our bellies and the first birds starting down the line at roughly eight fifteen to eight thirty or so.
The birds start in the kill cones, where the blood is drained before they are moved into the scalder. The scalder water is kept at one hundred and forty five degrees as the birds are rotated in and out of the water by a rotating tray. The birds are then run through the plucker before having their heads and legs removed. After that, the Gutters take the birds and remove the oil sack and then the guts before sending the birds down the table to the Lunger, whose job it is to (whoda thunk?) remove the lungs. The birds are then looked over one last time by Quality Control before they are set in an initial soak tank to begin the cooling process before being moved to one of the chill tanks were they are chilled with ice water. When the crew is in top form, a bird can make it through the entire line, from live chicken to chilling whole broiler, in less than five minutes.
After they are chilled they are then either cut up into parts in pieces (Boneless Breast, Wings, Leg and Thigh…) or bagged to go whole into the freezer. The number of birds that we will process varies week to week depending on the age of the birds that we have out on pasture and how many fresh birds restaurants or customers have ordered for that week. A small day for us would be two hundred or so birds, while a big day would be upwards of seven hundred. Remember, we get everything done before chores, because the eggs still need to be gathered and the cows moved, and life in general continues to move on.
While these days are physically and mentally demanding, they can be very satisfying as well. I know at the end of the day that I have helped to provide better food. Better food that’s not just for me, but for everyone on the farm and for the thousands of people who will be consuming Polyface pastured poultry over the next year.
Does it get better than that? Knowing that you have helped someone out. Giving someone at least the opportunity to eat better. Better for them and for the land. I will never meet 99% of the people who end up consuming the birds that I help process, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not about getting a “Thank You” or a pat on the back. It’s knowing that I’m doing what I feel that I am supposed to. Taking a step towards a future that I think could be much better than the present that we live in. Moving in that direction myself and helping someone else continue their forward momentum.
So, how about you? There are plenty of resources out there on how to raise and process birds. If you are able to, what’s your excuse not to? My encouragement is to give it a shot. See what happens. Who knows, maybe someday soon you could be making a huge difference in both your life, and the lives of those around you.
I wish you Godspeed and the best of luck.
Interested in seeing more of what Tim does? Follow along through the lens of his camera on Instagram, user name MyPolyfacePerspective.
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