Unlike many small producers elsewhere in North America, here in BC it is illegal for us to sell any meat that has not been processed in an inspected facility. So my post isn’t going to show you pictures of my cones, my plucker or the eviscerating station, sorry. For us, chicken processing day is an entirely different kind of day than what other producers go through to get quality meat ready for their customers.
Our day starts just like theirs: good and early (330am) to load the birds into transport crates. But no heading back to turn on the heat for the scalder. Instead I head back in to grab a couple travel mugs of coffee and stick them in the van we rented. Then we load the crates into the van (cargo area covered in tarp to protect the floor from all the poop!) and off we go.
It’s a one hour drive to the only inspected poultry processor on the Island, called Island Farmhouse Poultry. We’re fortunate – the facility was only built about 5 years ago. Before that, for a couple of years if anyone was producing chicken they either processed it illegally or had to take it over to the Mainland for processing (ferry trip one way for 1 pickup and driver – $75). Prior to that, there had been a processor, but it was a Lilydale plant, controlled by the industry, which meant that custom (small) batches could only be processed when the industry didn’t need it.
I book processing dates as soon as I know the arrival dates of chicks I’ve ordered. Custom processing happens twice a week through the summer, less often outside the peak season, and is limited to turkeys only just before Thanksgiving. Custom days can book up fast. For orders up to 100 birds, the processing cost is $4.10 per bird this year. That makes a BIG difference to how much profit I can make on broilers. The only consolation is really that everyone else in my market area has the same cost. I’ll talk about that another time.
We’ve learned over the years that the chickens generally go into the facility in order of when they arrive, so we try to get there early. Yesterday morning we were third in line, which is not too bad. The two orders ahead of us were about the same quantity as us, so our birds probably went in the door by 8am, meaning they wouldn’t have to sit out in their cages for hours. We unloaded our crates onto a pallet, tagged them with our name and phone number and waved goodbye. Time 6am. Coffee long gone, we hunted around the area for somewhere open for breakfast – unsuccessfully. Back home by about 730, we got the other chicken chores done, and rewarded ourselves with a big breakfast and lots of coffee. He headed out to work. I took a nap – the 330am start was bad enough, but I was up early the previous morning to pick up new chicks from the post office, AND I’ve been pitting and freezing plums late at night. Whine, whine…
I headed back up Island at 2pm to pay for and pick up the finished birds at 3pm. Things were more relaxed at the facility and I got to chat to the manager a bit (who looked every bit as tired as I felt). They did 2500 birds that day. On a commercial day, they do 5000. They have about 15 or so people involved – one or two to do the throat slitting, a couple to manage the scalding/plucking, a couple more to cut the cavities, and a couple more to monitor the automated evisceration process (!!). Couple more to unload the birds for blast chilling. The inspector wasn’t mentioned, but was presumably involved somewhere. They all have lunch together, and then everyone gets involved in bagging and boxing, which has to be done by 330pm, the official pick up time. I didn’t ask for a tour, but my husband has been shown around on a previous visit. Staff are cross trained so that no one is stuck on one part of the line for a whole day. They’re a friendly bunch, and proud of where they work.
My chicken in boxes, all loaded up in the front part of the van, I went round back to pick up the (ucky) crates – nicely piled, thankfully. There were probably 15 more piles of crates, a huge variety of industry standard to home made ingenious. Once home, we unloaded all the chicken to the freezer, except for the 8 utility birds, which I cut up for home use. It was younger daughter’s turn to learn how to do that – and we always start off with the youtube video of Daniel Salatin demonstrating how he does it. She did 4 of them herself, and did an awesome job, so now both girls know how, I can delegate next time (maybe!).
It was a long day of driving, about 4 hours. I know it’s a much longer, harder day for those who process the birds themselves (we do our spent layer hens ourselves, so I have an inkling). I’m grateful that since we have no choice but to use an inspected facility, that we have one within reach that caters to small producers and is a decent, clean, friendly place. Ultimately, our processing day ends much the same as those doing their own processing – that full freezer is a deeply satisfying sight, all that really excellent meat for ourselves and others, it is the culmination of 7 weeks of nurturing birds from birth to maturity in as healthy, sustainable, and natural a way as possible. It feels pretty good.