29 December 2011

Farm to Plate: Part III

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when many Portlanders were still lost in the haze of leftover turkey sandwiches, a trio of Portland Farmers Market staffers hit the road for a one of a kind experience: a stewing hen harvest day at Persephone Farm.  We invite you to follow their adventure through a series of posts over the next few days that capture the reality and intensity of life on the farm and the reverence that comes with butchering your own dinner.

Farm to Plate: Part III

By Anna Curtin, Amber Holland and Nicki Passerella

Retired stewing hens awaiting their fate

Small farmers have the good fortune of being selective about which birds to cull.  Age alone doesn’t necessarily mean that the hen has stopped laying.  It’s necessary to take a closer inspection. The hens were turned on the side with wings and feet gently secured to prevent injury or escape while Elanor parted a few feathers to inspect the cloaca (the chicken’s sole exit).  If the cloaca was still pink and moist, the bird was likely still laying regularly and would be spared the harvest.  If a dry, yellow cloaca was revealed, she was a candidate for stewing.

Elanor noted that the Black Australorp, while great layers, are particularly flighty, and she was not exaggerating!  After several instances of being out-maneuvered by this gregarious group of lady birds, the first one was secured.  Eventually, the small cage used to corral the chickens was filled and wheeled just out of the way of the final destination.

When Jeff demonstrated with the first hen, he was gentle, accurate, quick and thoughtful.  He held the chicken on her side, sliding her neck between two nails in a solid tree stump, then elongated her neck by gently pulling the hen away from the nails.  By tucking the wings in and keeping ahold of her feet, the hen was surprising still and calm, just as Jeff told us she would be.  One swift strike of the axe and it was done.

Sharing the burden

Each PFM staffer took a slightly different approach to the actual execution, guided by emotional readiness, the “gross-out” factor, and a gut feeling that it was time.  The PFM trio chose a more collaborative approach, with one person to position and hold the hen and another to lift the axe and strike.  This alleviated the pressure to do it all – or worse, let the hen go too soon – and allowed us to share the emotional burden of the kill.

After beheading, the hen was held by her feet in a 5 gallon bucket so that the blood could drain effectively and the final movements of the animal could be contained were contained. (One fascinating and alarming part of killing a chicken is the activity immediately following death when one might expect the body turns off like a light switch. In fact, this is not the case, hence the saying about running around like that headless chicken.) While the anxiety of the dramatic activity and inexperience faded quickly, the unpleasantness of it remained.

To be continued…