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Farm to Fork: The chicken story

I bet when the chicken crossed the road, she never dreamed of all the atrocities which were awaiting her on the other side. Otherwise, the wise chicken would have stayed put, where she was safe and sound.

I bet when the chicken crossed the road, she never dreamed of all the atrocities which were awaiting her on the other side. Otherwise, the wise chicken would have stayed put, where she was safe and sound.

Many of today's "broiler" chickens - those raised to make a short appearance on our dinner plates - are raised in such a way that they never get to experience what it's really like to be a chicken.

They never get the opportunity to feel the sun's warmth against their feathers.

They never get the chance to take a dust bath or eat insects.

They never get to understand the natural social order of their group.

And they never get to move more than a few feet - if they can even move at all.

Broiler chickens are most often destined for a horrible life, simply in order to provide us with a so-called "tasty" meal. Though over the past few decades, with massive growths in demand for chickens, these birds are raised to maturity in almost half the time it used to take for a chicken to fully mature. Taste and nutritional value are compromised in the name of "quantity and profit."

Simply put, the more chickens a company can pump out in a quicker amount of time, the more money that goes to feed the bottom line.

But not all hope is lost for the broiler chicken, or our taste buds.

There are still the lucky few chickens that are raised in farmyards or in pastures, where they are free to live their lives in a most natural and stress-free way, scratching the ground, bathing in dust and eating insects.

Birds raised in their natural environment not only taste better, but they are higher in nutritional value. Given the fact we live in a nutrient-sparse world, filled with convenience "franken-foods," higher nutritional value is a good thing.

As further luck would have it for these birds, there is a growing demand for so-called pasture-raised or free-range chickens, as more and more people become socially conscious of where their food comes from.

In the immediate area surrounding Carlyle, few people raise chickens in this pasture-raised manner. There used to be more, but as times changed, many left the life behind.

Jamie and Warren Neuman's quest is therefore, unique.

A few years ago, the young couple - he from the Alameda area and her from Gilbert Plains, Man. - decided to purchase a quarter section of land 10 miles south of Carlyle. Their dream was to create a small, family-run farm, focused on growing high-quality and nutritious food in a sustainable and ethical manner.

Before long their farm was flourishing with organically-grown vegetables, pasture-raised pork, pasture-raised poultry, and free-range eggs.

Every animal is treated in the most humane way possible on the Neuman farm. The animals are fed a high-quality diet, which in turn produces a high-quality - and not to mention great tasting - end product.

This farm couple's desire is to ensure people in Southeast Saskatchewan have access to this type of high-quality product. And as farmers, the Neuman's would be the first to say people should know where their food comes from, and how it came to be on their plates.

For many, the chicken came from a grocery store.

It travelled many miles to arrive there, and then travelled some more to make it the consumer's home, where it was then prepared and served for dinner.

The slaughter-house details of how birds are butchered and prepared for the store can cause one's stomach to turn. As can the details of how these birds are forced to live in the confinement of battery cages or warehouses where the odour of feces and urine stings the eyes and makes it difficult to breathe.

Chickens raised humanely in pastures - like ones on the Neuman's farm - have a different story to tell.

The Neuman's presented me with a unique opportunity recently. As a born-again omnivore (I had been a vegetarian for the eight years previous), I had developed a keen interest as to how exactly my food made it from the farm and onto the end of my fork.

I had seen where their chickens lived their lives on the Neuman's farm - in a wide-open space outside on fresh grass, contained in movable fences which provide the birds with protection from predators and access to fresh grass daily - so they invited me to see how their chickens spend the last moments of their lives, as they were butchered and prepared for pick-up by their customers.

I curiously took them up on their offer.

Truthfully, I had no idea what would await me.

Would the stench of entrails be more than my stomach could handle?

Would the last sounds to escape the birds' mouths bring me to tears?

Would I be able to complete the task given to me on the production line without falling too far behind?

Only time would tell.

When the morning arrived, I showered, pulled on an old set of clothes and left my Oxbow home, bound for their farm. It was about a 20 minute drive to the Neuman's farm and, as I could see it was a sunny day, I feared the heat might make this experience intolerable. (Later in the morning when I arrived, I learned the reason they butchered chickens in the morning was to avoid the afternoon sun).

Upon arrival, I was met by a few friendly faces. Some I had met before, while others I was meeting for the first time. There were three travellers staying with the Neumans at this time, and two of them were new to this, just like me.

Throughout the summer, Warren and Jamie host travellers at their farm, and in return the travellers volunteer some time and learn about farm life.

Bobby MacDiarmid, a traveller from Scotland, had been staying with the Neumans for a number of weeks at this point, and was therefore experienced in the task of the morning and was enlisted to do the "vacuuming" job for much of the morning.

As a newcomer, I was tasked with "gutting" the chickens. This seemed somewhat daunting at first, as I never liked touching a raw chicken, never mind cleaning out its insides. (One must naturally wonder why on earth I agreed to partake in the butchering process then if I didn't like to touch a raw chicken. I was curious. Nothing more. Nothing less.)

Jamie was my coach for the day, so she showed me how to "gut a chicken."

First I had to cut and loosen all the skin on the bird's neck. I had to ensure all the tiny lymph nodes were removed and everything was away from the neck so it could be pulled from the other end when the time was ready.

Next I had to flip the bird around to make a vertical cut up from the chicken's behind. Once the bird was opened up, I had to stick my hand inside, feel around to loosen everything up and then just pull.

Now even recalling this last moment brings back conflicting feelings. Again, part of me was intrigued by the squishy warmth inside the bird. Another part of me felt somewhat disturbed. But it had to be done.

After I pulled all the guts out, I had to separate the gizzard, heart and liver from the rest. Those organs were saved; the others were tossed.

As I gutted chicken after chicken, I learned a lot about the bird's anatomy - like the fact it doesn't chew its food.

Instead a chicken, when allowed to pasture-graze, eats little pebbles, which are stored in the gizzard, also known as the bird's "mechanical stomach." When the chicken eats its food, it's stored in the crop, a balloon-like organ which expands and contracts depending on the amount of food eaten. Once the gizzard is ready for the food, it travels out of the crop, through the proventriculus and into the gizzard. The gizzard has strong muscles which grind the food and pebbles around to mash it all up.

I also learned more about the time it takes for a chicken to mature without growth hormones and the health benefits involved in raising chickens in this manner.

Generally, pasture-raised chickens are chemical-free. Since they don't have to worry about overcrowding and the rampant spread of disease when overcrowded, these birds are free of antibiotics because they don't become sick in the first place.

They also contain higher amounts of the health omega-3 fatty acids and other essential vitamins.

When the last chicken was gutted, we quickly rejoiced before moving onto the next task at hand. We had to pluck any little feathers from the chickens that were missed during the mechanical "chicken-plucking" process.

So let me back up here for a second.

Before the chicken was even handed to me to gut, someone had to end its life, put into hot water to loosen the feathers, and toss it into the chicken plucker. After this, the chicken was tossed into a tub of water where it waited for one of the women to chop off its head and feet.

Then it was my turn to gut.

Once the chickens were gutted they went into a tub of water where they waited for the Scotsman to vacuum out any remaining guts. After this they came back to our table where we plucked out the remaining tiny feathers.

Next they went into another tub of water where they were scrubbed clean. Afterwards they were tossed into yet another tub, but this time they stayed there for about an hour or so.

During this time we ate lunch together at the table. They had prepared an incredible meal - potatoes and carrots from the garden and roast beef with gravy - which we all enjoyed in a family-like setting. They informed me they do this every day. I found this really impressive because it seems many families don't spend time preparing meals and then enjoying them together, away from the TV.

After everything was cleaned up for lunch, they pulled all the chickens from the tub and placed them on a pre-sanitized cart to dry for a couple hours.

At this point, I kindly thanked Jamie and Warren for giving me this experience and assured them I would be back in a few hours to pick up and pay for my three chickens. I figured if I went through the whole process of gutting a chicken, I better get to enjoy eating one afterward.

Two days later, my significant other (who is a marvellous chef) prepared one of the chickens and cooked it on the barbecue. It was my first chicken in years and it could not have tasted better.

Just to satisfy my curiosity as to whether pasture-raised chicken actually tasted better than commercially-raised chicken, I tried the latter a couple weeks later. Truthfully, there was no comparison.

Besides the fact my stomach decided to wage war against the commercially-produced chicken, it just didn't have the same flavour or texture as the one from the Neuman's farm.

The pasture-raised chicken won, hands down.

Living as an omnivore in this day and age is not always an easy thing. Commercially-produced meat is plagued with chemicals, antibiotics and sickness we just were not meant to ingest.

But lucky for us, there is a choice.

We can choose to eat commercially-raised meat or we can choose to search out local producers, like the Neumans, and enjoy the health benefits of eating naturally-raised and produced foods - just like our grandparents did, many years ago.

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