Dinner, Plucked from the Farm

[image]Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

Georgia Ranney, left, and other workers at Kinderhook Farm eviscerate the chickens.

I like to think of myself as a locavore. If I feel like having a bagel I go to Tal Bagels around the corner. Dean & Deluca, Pain Quotidien, and William Greenberg Desserts are all on my route home from the park after a morning run, in the event I’ve earned a breakfast pastry. If I’m feeling especially virtuous, I’ll have Mueslix and milk with sliced bananas, all three ingredients sourced from the D’Agostino’s a block away.

In other words, I have trouble taking the organic, locally sourced, slow-food movement—or any movement, for that matter—entirely seriously. (And some might argue my health, as well.) So one might wonder what I was doing at an upstate abattoir on a recent summer morning observing as meat hens were humanely slaughtered—though “humanely” may be in the eye of the beholder, especially if the beholder is a chicken—and prepared for sale at the farm’s stand.

I’d probably have to chalk it up to morbid curiosity.

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Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

Mimi Beaven and Lee Ranney with the prepared chickens as they are taken to a cooling unit on the farm.

The process was well under way at Kinderhook Farm in Columbia County when I arrived, with somewhat more than trace amounts of apprehension, around 10 a.m. I’m a carnivore. But I believe that in the best of all possible worlds, no animals would be slaughtered—humanely or not—to feed us. My hunch and my hope is that a hundred years from now, if our own species hasn’t been thrown into the maw, we’ll have weaned ourselves of meat.

So why don’t I start right now, the animal-rights folks might justifiably ask? It’s because I enjoy the taste of the stuff and, especially when my body feels depleted and seems to be sobbing for a juicy burger, one senses that there’s some biological rationale for why we’ve evolved as omnivores.

In the meantime, however, it’s heartening to witness an operation where the animals, and the food they’re shortly turned into, are treated with dignity and respect.

The process started with the birds—at that particular moment handsome Barred Silver Cockerels, but other species including Freedom Rangers, and 150 hens in all, would be slaughtered by the end of the day—being placed upside down in snug metal cones, only their heads protruding from the bottom.

“It’s amazing how calm they are when they’re upside down,” stated one observer.

And they were, seemingly unaware of their fate. However, some of them complained when Hugo Benjamin Lopez, a farmhand, lifted them from the crates that were used to carry them from the pastures where they had been grazing.

Harold Lobdell, another Kinderhook Farm employee, then went from bird to bird and zapped each with a stun gun. The gun had been approved by the organization that had awarded the farm its “animal welfare approved” designation for raising its animals under the highest animal welfare standards.

Nonetheless, the weapon packs a punch. “It will break your hand,” if it comes into contact with you instead of the bird, Mr. Lobdell explained. “It’s got a lot of zap to it.”

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Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Ranney with a chicken that will be ready for sale in two days.

Once the hens have been rendered unconscious, Mr. Lobdell goes from animal to animal and, with a single expert stroke, cuts an artery in their neck that bleeds the bird. Then he places several birds at a time in a “scalder”—essentially a giant pot with 155-degree water—where he dips them for a few seconds, then removes them, then dips them again, repeating the process five times to loosen the birds’ feathers.

“Harry does a beautiful job,” explained Georgia Ranney, who runs the farm with her husband, Lee, and was one of five women cleaning the chickens at an adjacent table. “If you left them in the water too long the skin would be all puckered and torn. They look horrible when that happens.”

From the scalder, the hens are placed in a “plucking barrel” that rotates at high speed. I’m not sure how it works, but rubber fingers in the barrel throttle the hens. When it stops the birds are perfectly nude and featherless, liked a plucked comedy-prop chicken.

From there the ladies took over, cutting off the heads, carving an opening with a sharp knife around the cloaca, the highly versatile hole through which chickens urinate, defecate and lay their eggs, and sticking in a hand to scoop out the insides. Nothing is wasted. Mr. Lopez eats the gizzards; the livers are sold; the coxcombs can be fried up; the feet “make the best chicken broth known to mankind,” according to Lee Ranney; and the feathers are composted.

After they’re cleaned, the birds are air-chilled in a refrigerated trailer, rather than soaked in water. It’s a process known as the French Label Rouge Free Range Program “You pay for the water,” Ms. Ranney explained. “They stay nice and dry.”

The following day they’re weighed and bagged in heated vacuum bags that form around the chicken. “It makes for a nice presentation, and we’ll sell them fresh this weekend,” Ms. Ranney added.

The chickens sell for $6 a pound and average between 3½ and 4½ pounds. The health and spiritual benefits aside of eating birds that you know were allowed to forage and raised on sunlight, fresh country air, seeds, insects and fruit from the farm’s trees, you can appreciate the amount of work that goes into preparing each bird. I know. I cleaned one myself.

“It’s a lot of work to do well by hand, so it’s not 99 cents a pound,” Mimi Beaven, another worker, explained when she eventually relieved me of the bird and discovered that I had left behind its lima bean-size lungs.

She recalled the ’20s political campaign promise of “a chicken in every pot.” “It was a luxury item,” back then, she noted. And so it is again.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com