Chickens, frozen

Chickens in the freezer

There they are: 38 newly processed chickens, freezing solid in the chest freezer (39 minus the one we took to roast fresh). It’s the last stop before the table on what was a pretty fine meat bird run.

Like everything else on the tiny farm (and in life in general!), when you get down to freezing chickens, there are the details. What I noticed this year is the amount time it takes to actually freeze chickens solid. This wasn’t quite as apparent last year, when we started with under 20 processed birds. Here, checking out the new freezer’s manual, I loosely followed the advice against freezing too much at once. I put in half, around 20 chickens, for a few hours, then added the rest. I’ve also been rotating them—they freeze faster when they’re exposed—but after a day, they’re not all rock hard.

I have it in mind that the faster you freeze stuff, the better it is when you thaw it out: firmer, not mushy. Something about smaller ice crystals doing less cellular damage. Sounds plausible to me!

Luckily, the chickens came heavily pre-chilled from the processing house. Processing your own in any sort of quantity, I imagine you need a fair bit of refrigerator space to cool them down, or a walk-in cooler, or lots of chest freezers. Another thing to look into for…the future!

Of course, the whole freezing thing is another puzzle. It’s quick and easy, and works really well for all kinds of food. Newer chest freezers seem quite energy efficient: this 15 cu ft one uses 400 kWh a year, which is like keeping a 60W lightbulb on for 9 months (at current electricity rates around here, that’s about $50). Doesn’t sound so bad, and there’s room for lots more in there. Still, we’re trusting a lot to yet another plug…

FINALLY, there’s the sticker, another fine feature of commercially-processed chicken. The meat is Ontario government-inspected (a provincial inspector is always on-site, that’s the law), which is indicated by a little logo on the label. Plus you get the date, weight down to two decimal places of precision, AND a price-per-pound of your choice. I picked $4. These birds are for our own use—not for sale—but it’s always fun pulling out an EXPENSIVE farm chicken for dinner, as long as it’s priced kinda within reason…

Chickens to meat

Chickens in trailer at processing house

The White Rock Cornish X meat birds are now…meat! Today was to-the-processing-house day. Up at 5:15 a.m. to get them rounded up for the trip. And it seemed to be a pleasant one for them. They arrived looking laid-back and content after a breezy 35-minute drive. This was gonna end up their “one bad day,” but so far, so chill.

To save an hour plus round-trip  drive to pick up cages from the processor, we decided to load ’em directly in the trailer. The original idea was to cover it with a tarp, but I waited till the last minute (this morning at dawn) to fit it, and there was no easy way to get the tarp secure. So, a last-minute solution that turned out great: snow fencing and wire.

Three sections were cut from a roll, overlapped, and fastened with twists of light-gauge electric fence wire. Really quick, secure, easy. Perfect! At the processor, I helped hand off the birds right through the slaughterhouse door. And that was it: back at 5:30 p.m. for the pick-up.

The trip was smooth, but the end was still a little impersonal: in one processor house door, out the other. I hope to fill in that last killing step soon.

So there we are,  39 free-ranged chickens, after what seemed to be a happy, active, fast-growing, 11-week life, are now government-inspected, weighed (average about 7lbs/3kg), packed in plastic, and pre-chilled for the freezer. This seems pretty close to sane meat production. Chicken dinner!

Drizzly days

Weeding onions in the drizzle

It’s been cloudy a lot this season, but the rain has kept pretty much to a reasonable number of rainy days and single downpours—it hasn’t been too WET. So, not that much fieldwork called for rain. Today was an exception, with a steady on-and-off drizzle from early morning that kept things watered down.

Lynn came out around 8:30 am to weed. Since it didn’t look like the sun would be showing up to dry things out, she finished a bed of onions (these are the last-planted onion seedlings, a fair bit behind the rest) and we called it a day for weeding.

In general, we try not to handle plants when they’re wet so as not to spread any sort of disease. This is a common caution for, for example, beans, and I’m not sure how it applies across the board to all garden veggies.  Still, since wet work in the field is seldom fun anyway, it seems like a good rule in general: No weeding when wet!

So it’s…colors!

Purple Haze carrots, Chioggia beets

Cloudy, coolish weather continues, and the growing’s so slowwww…  At the farmers’ market today, instead of all-new main season veggies, it’s kinda more of the same. No super-early tomatoes (Stupice!), not even BEANS (not even the super-early yellow wax beans…). But the root crops are doing well with the rain, and their colors are…refreshing. Here, purple Purple Haze carrots, and radish-red Chioggia beets, freshly misted, drenched with…color. That’s nice… :)

Packing shares: done!

CSA shares

CSA shares are packed for another Monday of on-farm pick-up! It’s one of those great hits of momentary satisfaction to see them all, 100% absolutely and finally done, waiting to be collected. Mel, Jordan (above), Michelle, and Tara were all in the field, and the whole harvest went by kinda quickly, maybe three hours. I’m also figuring out the easiest ways to use different spots around the new farm. Today, as a temporary improvement, we moved the long screen table into a tree-shaded part of the drive, allowing us to line up the bags in one row, instead of grouping them on two smaller tables indoors in a shed (it’s all in the details! :). Keeping the packing space uncluttered is kinda critical if you don’t want to spend half your time rechecking shares to make sure that they’ve got everything. When the set-up works, filling shares is really suprisingly satisfying.  On the tiny farm, assembly lines can be fun!

In the share: baby leaf lettuce salad mix, baby zucchini, cauliflower, garlic scapes, young carrots, beets, new potatoes, curly& flat-leaf parsley.

Working the new potatoes

Scrabbling for new potatoes

Another installment in the crazily labor-intensive tiny farming techniques series: Andie and Jordan in action, hand-digging for new potatoes without uprooting the plants! This one is hard to top for stunningly low hours-to-yield ratio. It makes picking peas and beans seem like something that goes by quick. Of course, for all its slowness, it has its rewards: beautiful little, amazingly fresh and tasty, new potatoes…and the plants still get to grow some more! Plus, if you don’t have to do it forever, it’s a lot of fun…

New potatoes: red Chieftan and Penta

The “technique” is simple (and well-suited to the home veggie garden, but not too scalable). Gently feel around the base of the plant for anything that’s golf ball-sized or bigger (this batch is golf ball to XL egg). Stick to the surface, don’t dig too deep, and try not to break the single roots connected to other, littler, potatoes (you’ll easily feel the stringy roots). When you’re done, hill up the earth you’ve moved aside, and it’s on to the next one. That’s our method. ;)

Yield today was pretty good, about 2-3 per plant, and about 40 lbs (18kg) in all. Won’t go into the time per plant and the weight per tater…because I didn’t. Maybe a peaceful hour or so, with three people. We only did this for a CSA share treat, because today it worked out that we had the time. There are red skin/white flesh Chieftan, and yellow-flesh, Yukon Gold-like Penta.

The only downside to the hand scrabbling method: the delicious, delicate skins get quite roughed up. We’ll soon start pulling whole plants for young potatoes, and that tends to leave the skins in better shape (and goes MUCH faster).

Anyhow, slow food, for sure. Tasty!

Weighing chickens

Weighing chickens

Booked a chicken processing date today: slaughterhouse day is July 29. They’ve been looking good all along, but suddenly, the White Rocks are seeming especially mighty tasty. I keep remembering one of them hurrying by with a long worm trailing from his beak, then quickly slurping it down. The last batch was raised just on feed, but these guys have foraged for a varied diet, literally free-ranging (no fence!) for most of their lives. Along with feed. Should be a delicious combo.

On this, only my second flock of meat birds, I’ve noticed a new feeling for food animals. The first round was a novelty and a learning experience, now, it’s a comfortable routine. I observe the chickens…appreciatively. I like them, talk to them (although, not about much), hang out with them when I have time, but I also clearly see their demise and transformation into FOOD as I  look out for their comfort, well-being, cheerfulness every day. No pet-based sentimentality, instead I am grateful. The I-raise-you-then-eat-you feeling may sound harsh, but it feels…natural.

Weighed a few for the first time today, using a hanging scale and a trug (flexible plastic utility bucket). This can-do set-up works just fine for spot checks. With the handles pulled together, the top of the trug is pretty well closed, so the chicken inside tends to sit still for a while before starting to look around…

At 9 weeks, most of them are around 7-8 lbs (3.6 kg). About 6-8 of the 39, like the one in the pic, are visibly a little smaller: they’re around 6 lbs (if you’re checking the scale in the pic, the outter measure is kgs, inner is lbs, and the trug = 2 lbs). Overall, that seems good! According to the hatchery catalog, the White Rock average is 6.3 lbs (2.7 kg) at 7 weeks, and that I assume is confined with constant feed. These guys are out and about—exercising—and I let the feed empty for 4-5 hours every day, so the lighter weight seems to make sense. A couple more weeks and they should be suitably White-Rock-plump, still healthy and happy, and…supertasty!