But then again, sometimes more modern equipment just makes sense. Dan is amazing when it comes to building things- from an actual buildings to auto repair to metal sculptures, he's just very mechanically inclined. We're not opposed to things that make life easier, especially for some of the more unpleasant chores of the farm. So, this past winter season, he spent quite a bit of time modernizing our chicken production.
For the past few years, our chicken has been a very popular item, even though we sell it as a whole bird only, and for more than you'd find in grocery stores. But even so, I recommended customers order ahead of time as we sold out so quickly. Obviously, we were not meeting the demand that was out there. Why would folks be so interested in expensive, inconvenient chicken? Actually, lots of reasons! As soon as our chicks no longer need a heat lamp, we put them in moveable, bottomless pens called tractors. This way, our birds can feel sunshine and a cool summer breeze, and eat grass, bugs, and the natural things they were meant to be eating. This is a huge contrast to factory farms, where the birds are in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions and live out their entire lives without ever so much as seeing the sun .Even if the label says "cage-free", this is the reality- a sea of birds eating and living in their own filth. To survive these conditions, they are fed a steady diet of antibiotics and growth enhancing chemicals, which actually even include feeding arsenic (yep, the poison) to give the meat a healthy, pink color. Then, after the birds are processed, the meat is injected with a "flavor-enhancing" solution of saltwater. It helps preserve the meat a bit longer on store shelves, and you're paying by weight for the meat and saltwater is a very cheap way to make the meat heavier. It is also a huge hidden source of sodium for those trying to eat healthier. Our birds eat good food, and don't need any of the scary additives to thrive because they way we raise them is so different, and so much more natural. And you're not paying for saltwater.
Up until this season, we processed the birds entirely by hand. We joked that one of my titles was Head Chicken Plucker. (In fact, the ONLY chicken plucker, as Dan was busy with the knife work.) I was proud that I could completely pluck a bird in about 3 minutes, as I've had plenty of practice by now. But most places use a plucking machine which saves lots of time- you can pluck 2-3 birds in only 10 seconds or so! Plucking chickens is not the most glamorous or pleasant job, so I really didn't mind outsourcing it to a machine. Plans are available for a very reasonable cost, so we bought one and Dan worked over the winter and assembled the parts. Basically, you've got a big round tub with rubber fingers protruding inside, with a bottom that spins, and also has fingers. The chickens bounce around and the rubber fingers rub the feathers off. I had to admit, although I was excited about my job getting easier, I was also wondering if a machine could really do a better job than I had been doing. Ultimately, the answer has been YES. There have been a few kinks to work out by trial and error, and we have had a few birds that had bad skin tears which we felt were not sellable, but hey, we need chicken for our own freezer, too. The temperature of the scalding water is more important now, but once they come out of the plucker, I can see they are cleaner than I got them by hand, and after just a quick inspection for any stray feathers, they are ready for packaging. This is also a time saver as I had to go over them a second time when I was working by hand. Besides the plucker, Dan also worked on improving the plumbing to the butchering pavilion, meaning we each have overhead sprayers, which also makes things go easier and more efficiently. All of this means we're processing more birds than before! This means we'll have fresh chicken much more often than in past years. We're still asking folks who want to order a quantity of chicken to fill their freezers to give us a heads up, but so far we have felt like this has been a wonderful improvement to our farming practices and we're looking forward to perfecting it as the season goes on!.