It's A Process

While this may be still tentative, I am so happy to let you all know that we survived our first processing day!
The day was incredibly taxing, and was probably the hardest emotional and physical challenge I or Shae have faced in this endeavor, but we made it.

Essentially, I completely underestimated how long it would take us, and as a result the day was a whirlwind of rushing and multitasking that was only made possible by having Shae’s mom Ja Neva, step-father John , brother Mekye, brother’s girlfriend Jenny, and John from Santa Cruz work a 10 hours day with us.  It’s more than I could have asked of any of them, but because they were there, we got the job done well, and for every challenge or blunder on my part, there are also plenty of things that went great.

Right away, the chickens are amazing.  The quality, texture, flavor, and juiciness of the chickens is out of this world.  It was clear with just the first few birds that we had really hit the mark.  The fat on the birds was a beautiful yellow, colored primarily by the beta carotenes (among other nutrients) that are found in the grasses.  I had thought that moving them twice per day would end up being more important for the land, but it really looks like they doubled their grass intake.  Back at Polyface we jokingly called this “sunshine fat” because it was a sign of the richness of the vitamins and minerals you would see concentrated in the few birds that really were intensive grazers.  However, when you double the amount of grass they eat, they all become intensive grazers!

Here are the first two birds we’ve roasted at home.  One was made with this amazing dry brine my sister Korin makes (and that we now sell on the farm!) and other was just with salt, pepper, rosemary, and olive oil.  They were spectacular and I am quite excited that we are raising something that will be such a delicious and healthy staple in our diet.

However, along with these healthy birds came a lot of meat.  We had expected our birds would average around 4 pounds, and instead we are looking at around 5.  This doesn’t have any real consequences, because we sell by the pound, customers are actually getting a higher meat to bone ratio and thus a better deal.  However, in the future we will be either processing earlier or restricting feed in order to hit that 4 pound mark because I think it makes the birds more affordable and accessible if people with larger families can choose to get a larger bird or more birds if they want more meat.

In terms of our equipment and labor, the processing facility we setup and the crew we had were awesome.  John from Santa Cruz came to our rescue (again) and designed and helped us build a very lightweight, but strong portable shade structure for the processing facility.  The structure is made of bamboo and shade cloth, and is…I kid you not… on loan from a friend of his that uses it as an administration tent at Burning Man.  The actual facility was also an all-around winner.  Shae’s portable decks did a great job at letting water drain on to the pasture, and the layout of the stainless steel tables and equipment allowed us to scrub everything down at the end of the day and arrange it all so there were no dark wet corners that the sun and fresh air couldn’t purify for us.  There are a few adjustments that have to be made to the layout of the hose and power system, but the structure is efficient, safe for workers, clean, and will be easy to relocate when we move it for the second batch.

The biggest thing that will have to change is the schedule.  As I mentioned at the top, I had underestimated how long the 185 birds would take, and consequently I didn’t have any time with customers.  While Shae’s mom did an amazing job at the sales desk, I really get a great deal of inspiration and energy from working with customers.  Any sustainable model for a processing/pick-up day will have us done and cleaned up before customers arrive so I have time to take people on tours, talk about the product, answer questions, and just get to know the people who are making our dream possible.

We have a few plans for how to make this all work, but we also realize that this (like everything else on the farm) is just the beginning of a process that will see us constantly question and improve our methods.  In fact, yesterday (this is why I didn’t post this sooner) Shae and I got back on the horse and processed 53 birds on our own.  It went very well and smoothly.  In about 3 hours we got all the birds into the ice baths.  After cleaning we were able to take a leisurely lunch with our neighbor Jack the Garden Coach who came by to see how we process and keep us company during our experimental day.  What all this means is that Shae and I have a very real option now of simply processing over the course of more days so we don’t end up with a single overwhelming day.

Ultimately, all of this was very hard and at times pretty scary, but we made it.  Like everything else so far, we only made it through with the help and advice from our family and friends.  We also know that we have to approach this as a prototype.  While our egos and spirits have mended very well, our muscles are still completely out of service.  However, from all of this we know now that our methods and efficiency will improve and we just have to build in more time and money to allow that process to take place.