DIY Chicken

DIY Chicken

Two families jump into home chicken processing by Holly Madrigal

After a third conversation between childhood friends, Eryn and Spring, it was agreed. They would do this together: two families including four adults and three kids would raise and harvest thirty chickens. Their spouses, Jeff and Sam, were recruited to help with the project. Could slaughtering their own chickens make better food for their families? This article shares their experience.

Eryn: “It all started for me when I moved from Los Angeles back to the land I was born on in Mendocino County. I went from eight hundred square feet to eight acres. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I yearned for a deeper connection to my food. What started as caring for a thirty-year-old orchard and planting a garden soon grew to building a chicken coop and raising chickens for eggs. The difference in the eggs was profound. I was happy eating these eggs and caring for the chickens was a family event.

“If homegrown eggs were this good, what about meat? I couldn’t shake the idea that I would feel better and be happier with my food if I knew how it was cared for, what it ate, and how it lived. Two years, four rounds of thirty chickens, and a hundred and twenty chicken dinners later, I can’t imagine it any other way. I never buy chicken at the store anymore.

“It has been a surprise how each of the four adults found their role in the process. Each one of us dealt with the life to death trajectory differently. 

“I myself found that I was so committed to the process and idea that the death of a single bird didn’t faze me much. I was grateful for the life of each bird and the nutrition it brought to my family.”

Jeff: “I had not intended to be the chicken murderer of our group. When we first started, the first couple of tries at dispatching the bird was not swift. That was intolerable for me. I stepped into the slaughter role because I knew I could be decisive, calming, and quick. I was soothing to the birds and respectful but it still gave me a crisis of conscience. On processing day I ended up feeling down all day. The process brought heaviness. As a yoga instructor I have studied the teaching of many yogi masters, most who are vegetarian. There is a tenet of Ahisma, meaning non-violence, and though I practice this teaching I also eat meat. I was still taking the life of another for my own.

“The processing was pretty interesting, we learned as we went along. I wanted every-
thing hyper-clean because my family would be eating these chickens. So we researched the best way to do go about it. We scalded the birds in 140-180 degree water, then plucked the feathers. Borrowing a plucker was key. Before, we were pulling the feathers by hand. The plucking machine whipped the feathers off in a matter of minutes. We all got pretty good at it.

“Caring for the chickens was a lot of work. When Eryn was pregnant with our daughter, Cora, we moved the chicken rearing to Sam and Spring’s house. That was great because feeding, tending, and protecting the birds became a round the clock job.

“Despite the conflicts I had with the process, the chicken that was produced was wonderful. Ideally, someone else would raise chickens in a responsible way and we could support them. Juggling teaching at the college and Our Yoga Studio with being parents does not leave a lot of time for chicken raising.”

Spring: “I grew up raising meat birds. I didn’t find much about the process enjoyable, except the fact that our family did this work together.

“So when Eryn and I started talking about chickens, it seemed like one of those things I’d been meaning to do. We were lucky that we kept it simple. This made it possible to get going and not be bogged down in all the little details we didn’t know about yet. Also fortunate was that we did it together. This made the fun-to-work ratio more appealing, which is important for busy families.

“Most things about the process were always the same for me: I found the birds gross. I was somewhat grumpy if Eryn wasn’t around on slaughter day with her often inappropriate humor. And the meat was so far superior to any other I could buy.

“The days we processed the birds I would act as the rover. I boiled pots of water, readied the ice chests, plucked feathers, gutted birds, fixed kid food, and cleaned everything up at the end. I also specialized in cleaning the feet, which I prize almost above the meat, for the gelatin and nutrients they offer when I boiled them with the bones to make stock. You don’t get those in the bag with your chicken at the store.

“All along the way I have been struck by the simplicity and importance of this small project our families did together. Working together, a little harder than we otherwise would, for our food, was radical. To care for the birds and to prepare them for eating we had to pay attention, work diligently, and face directly the way that life is fed by death.”

Sam: “What I most appreciated about our project was living with the birds. I liked the rhythm they brought to my life. Seeing them grow over time, I was fascinated by the moment when I saw that it was time to stop feeding them and allow them to feed me. 

“Even on slaughter day I admired their beauty and marveled at their life force. While we processed the birds I was always on duty to clean the birds. I liked the physical nature of this work--using a knife to care-fully clean the waste from the food.

“I also built much of the infrastructure for processing. A chicken tractor for housing the birds and cones for hanging needed to be constructed. The important part to me was living with the birds and providing nutritious food for our families.”

Kids: Jeff and Eryn’s son, Lars, as well as Sam and Spring’s daughter, Sylvana, and son, Salvio, were around on slaughter day but did not participate. Lars helped corral the chickens but mostly the kids played and entertained themselves in the house.

“I liked the part right after we brought the chicks home and we got to care for them. I liked the night when I couldn’t sleep and I got to help Papa put the chicks to bed.” (Salvio, age 3)

“I like some of the food you cook from our chickens, but I don’t like killing them, I like to have them alive.” (Sylvana, age 6)

The families took a break from chicken raising when Jeff and Eryn welcomed their new daughter, Cora. Both families still have a few chickens for egg laying purposes only. When photographing for this article Eryn stressed that the pictures are of “laying birds, not meat birds.” She has earned her chicken knowledge chops. After interviewing for this piece the group has begun planning to restart the chicken project. They all learned a great deal through trial and error. Sam thinks slaughtering at night might be worth a try. It would be cooler, no flies, and the chickens are calmer that time of day. To a person, they all agree that their home raised chickens were, by far, the most delicious chicken they have ever eaten.