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The Business of Eating Chicken

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By Oscar H. Will Iii | Dec 16, 2009

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Raising chickens at home offers many rewards, in the barnyard and on the dinner table.
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Raising chickens at home offers many rewards, in the barnyard and on the dinner table.

Our 2009 Community Chicken project came to a close last October when eight people gathered at my Osage County, Kansas, farm to kill and clean around 30 commercial-type broilers raised on range for nearly 12 weeks. The event brought together a most unlikely group of editors, spouses, advertising sales people, teacher, librarian and medical intern. Most of these folks had never taken a warm-blooded animal’s life with their bare hands. Most had never been that up close and personal with the animals whose lives help sustain us.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS Senior Associate Editor Troy Griepentrog and I raised the birds and supplemented their diet of bugs and clover with a natural grower ration. We kept the birds enclosed and safe from predators with electric net fences and portable fence chargers. While it’s true that the commercial broilers have had much of the normal chicken behavior bred out of them, they were more mobile than experts said and were able to do a little scratching and jumping for seed to boot. They also grew quickly, but our chickens didn’t die of heart attacks or exhibit any tendon or joint problems as is often reported. Our losses were zero percent.

Killing a chicken with your bare hands is never easy – at least when you don’t do it every day. When I demonstrated a humane way to nick a bird’s jugular, using killing cones to restrain the bird, there was a notable hush among the group as folks reflected on what it means to take a life and accept the animal’s gift of sustenance. When the blood flowed freely, some people turned away. My daughter, Alaina, told me later she thought she was going to cry. To paraphrase Joel Salatin, it isn’t good to kill chickens too often, because you run the risk of becoming desensitized and of taking their lives for granted. That definitely was not the situation at the farm on that Sunday.

It was uplifting to watch committed people help one another grapple with the discomfort and uncertainty of the entire process – from the killing through the scalding, plucking, evisceration, cooling and packaging operations. Folks encouraged and coached one another. Some who had never killed before sought insight and guidance from those with experience – emphasizing that above all else they didn’t want the chickens to suffer. Others who had never come face to face with the insides of any creature sought guidance from those whose hands previously had had the profound experience of holding innards still warm from the animal. The squeamishness expressed by some participants served to remind us that eating meat comes with a price – a price that is sacred to me. As unsettling as the entire process can be, it served to bond our unlikely group and ensured that those 30 birds won’t be taken for granted.

I know I will raise and kill chickens for meat again in 2010; I hope that it will be in the company of similarly committed and caring people as it was in 2009.

Whether you’re planning an upgraded chicken coop, or sledding down an icy slope with your children, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. We’d especially like to know how you plan to save money in 2010. If you keep a country journal and would like to share it through a blog at www.Grit.com, just let me know (hwill@Grit.com).

See you in March.


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.

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