Today we harvested greens for Parkhurt’s dining services at Chatham’s Shadyside campus. These beautiful greens included arugula, beet greens, claytonia, mâche, tatsoi, and more.
It may be December, but it looks like spring in our high tunnel!
Gaining a better understanding of where our food comes from is one of the major goals of the Chatham Food Studies program. This semester I had the opportunity to do that in a big way by raising chickens, taking them all the way from their second day of life to my own dinner table. While that may have been wholly unremarkable a century ago, few of us get (or would even want) that opportunity today. Maybe it’s obvious to point out that the pale, plastic-wrapped birds in the supermarket meat case were once living, clucking things. And maybe it’s obvious to observe that the price of those chickens in no way reflects the incredible labor and expense that goes into raising a bird in a humane, compassionate way. And surely it’s obvious that to eat meat is to take a life, and that it therefore must be done thoughtfully and respectfully. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.
We just concluded our second round of trials (done in conjunction with Dickinson College, PASA and the Rodale Institute) to test the effects of soy versus non-soy feed in broiler chickens. The trials were prompted by concern over phytoestrogens in food, which could potentially be harmful to certain at-risk populations. As a graduate assistant at Eden Hall Farm, this meant a crash course in chicken rearing. Over the past year I’ve helped to design moveable chicken coops, painstakingly weighed the broilers and their feed, and learned just how much a hundred chickens can poop (it’s a lot). The first batch was sent away to be processed, but for the second round we made plans for a hands-on workshop.
Hands-on, as it turned out, really meant hands-on. Mike Badger, director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, brought his mobile processing unit up to Eden Hall on a sunny Tuesday in late October. After a short introduction and overview of the equipment, we were invited to jump right in. A wash of emotion came over me as I prepared to slit my first chicken’s throat, and it took me by surprise. After all, weren’t these the animals I had been grumbling about a few hours ago when they proved all but impossible to catch and keep on the scale? But I was still taking a life. I was glad that wasn’t easy. And even though some 9 billion chickens are slaughtered every year in this country, at that moment, this one felt awfully important.
After that, the rest of the process came fairly easily. I learned how to scald the bird to loosen its feathers, watched it tumble around in a remarkably simple but effective plucking machine, and clumsily eviscerated and trimmed the birds until they more or less resembled the ones at the Giant Eagle down the road. Now in a familiar form, Hanna and I brought the birds home and set to work. Knowing we couldn’t waste any of it, we fried the livers, made stock from the bones and feet, and made a confit of the hearts and gizzard. The star of the day was a beautiful roast chicken, seasoned only with salt and pepper and topped with a simple pan sauce. The result was a meal peppered with “oh wows” and “gahhhs.” Was it the organic feed and access to fresh pasture that made that chicken delicious? Or did it just taste better because I knew it personally, and knew that it had been raised and slaughtered the right way? Does it even matter? Who knows. It was a damn good roast chicken.
Here are some pictures of the workshop. Though I haven’t included anything especially graphic, you may not want to scroll down if you are sensitive to these sorts of things.
The mobile processor.
Mike gives the group the rundown.
Shauna jumps right in.
Mike shows Sarah how to clean up the bird.
It’s not terribly pretty.
Hanna and Hannah weigh and bag the chickens.
This year amaranth was an important part of the student garden. It provided beauty with its incredible color and height. Now, it will be turned into food through a few local venues. A few students working on the farm with Allen this semester harvested the amaranth last week.
A current Food Studies student took a bushel of our amaranth leaves to the chef at Legume who is interested in experimenting with different amaranth recipes. We are drying the seeds to be ground into flour by the chef at Legume and the Grains class at Chatham this semester.
Below you can see Allen hanging the amaranth to dry the seeds.
The following post is written by Addie Hurst. She is a new student in the Food Studies program and is a Graduate Associate on the farm! She wrote this piece for her Nature Writing class. Enjoy!
As I wait for instruction on my first task as a farm assistant at Eden Hall, I take notice of the garden. Rows of swiss and rainbow chard catch my eyes first, as their bright yellows, reds, and purples stand out against the familiar green backdrop. Small heads of cabbage are forming in rows opposite the chard, and someone has recently harvested fresh broccoli. Cayennes, bells, and banana peppers are intercropped with basil. The tops of the potatoes have dried and are withering away, indicating there’s some delicious tubers ready to be dug from the mounds of earth. Leeks stand tall and in an abundance, and tomatoes of all stages of ripeness hang from their vines.
But today, I won’t be working with the plants. The three-week-old chicks are ready to be moved to their new homes. I help cover the large mobile chicken coops with tarp affixed by bungee cords. The tarp will protect the young birds against the wind, rain, and chilly nights. Entering the chicks’ temporary home in the greenhouse, there’s a smattering of peeps and faint flapping noises coming from their makeshift housing–two wooden oval fixtures set atop tables. The tables had been covered first with plywood, then with newspaper. Large pieces of cardboard are propped above the chicks’ homes to provide shade.
Each chick must be picked up and put in a cardboard box so they can be carried to their new dwelling outside. When my hands enter their space, they flock to the farthest corner away from me, presumably, fearing the unknown, the danger that may accompany this unfamiliar creature grabbing in their direction. Alas, I cannot reach. Katie, who has a few inches in height on me, takes charge of scooping up the birds. She hands them to me, and I put them in the box.
You want to hold a chicken with both hands so that the tips of your fingers rest on their breasts and your thumbs and palms hold the wings close to its body. In the transferring, some of my grips aren’t quite right, and the chicks’ small wings flap frantically in an effort to free themselves. “Shhh…” I say to them and place them gently in the box. Back on solid ground, most of the chicks continue on their business like nothing just happened. Some of them poop and some continue to cry for a bit. “It’s okay,” I tell them.
With six people (including myself), the transfer of ninety-five birds doesn’t take too long, and soon we’re left with the clean-up of the temporary housing. Anyone who thinks of work on a small farm in a romantic, idealized sort of way should go help a farmer clean up chicken poop. It’s not the most glorious, awe-inspiring task. With the poop shoveled into the wheelbarrow, I haul it to the compost pile where it will break down into nitrogen-rich fertilizer to use on future plant crops. I head over to the chicks’ new digs where they’ve already begun to settle in. The feed they’ve grown accustomed to over the past few weeks will now be a supplement to their diet. These youngsters instinctively know what to look for to eat in the earth–insects and worms and the like. They peck at the ground, picking out tasty morsels for a satisfying meal.
I love lots of aspects of sustainable agriculture, but one that’s at the top of my list is the cyclical nature, the balance. Crops take nutrients from the soil but they are inevitably returned with composting the non-edible parts of plants. Chickens may eat some of the earthworms that contribute to good soil fertility, but they also provide valuable fertilizer for the next crop rotation, and you’ll be sure the earthworms will flourish in such nutrient-dense accommodations. Everything that is taken from the earth is returned, and in working to maintain this balance, a farmer is never bored.