Urban chicken farmers learn the final truth

Monday, November 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — They were slaughtered, exsanguinated, eviscerated and exposed.

Chiefs vs. Chargers?

No. Chickens vs. Novella Carpenter's urban farming students.

"You always remember your first," says Carpenter, 35, of Oakland, Calif. Carpenter is the author of "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer." She writes about sustainable-food production and was in Kansas City at the invitation of Bad Seed, a local Kansas City organic farm.

As she speaks, five fluffy red hens peck and scratch the ground near her feet.

The 10 people sitting on straw bales at the Blue Door Farm along 55th Street in northern Kansas City, Kan., have all dreamed about raising chickens in their backyards.

Backyard bird fanatics, they call themselves.

But along with the good (eating hours-fresh eggs) and the bad (cleaning out those coops) comes the dreaded day when a chicken might need to be culled.

Nice way of saying killed. For many urban farmers, that's the biggest challenge. But there are many reasons to cull, Carpenter says.

Maybe in the female-only chick batch you ordered online, you ended up with a rooster. (Bad!)

Or maybe there's one aggressive hen picking out another chicken's feathers. (Bad!)

Or maybe you just want to taste the best chicken you've ever had in your life because you raised it yourself.

Carpenter spends an hour covering the basics of chicken keeping. From how to build the chicken coop (with aviary mesh or hardware cloth, not chicken wire, because a raccoon can reach through it) to how to make a homegrown brooder for new chicks (a big box and an old-fashioned light bulb) to the very earthy topic of what to do with all that chicken poop (bury it in the garden).

An average chicken lives eight years but stops laying eggs after two, she says.

She tells the class how chickens will eat just about anything: "I've always felt if I fell down and died, they'd have no problem eating me. That might help some of you today once we get started."

The class groans and laughs a little. Everyone is watching the chickens as they saunter by, wattles wagging, some of them preening feathers even fluffier.

And now it is time.

"There's a million ways to kill a chicken," Carpenter says, "but I like to use these loppers."

The pruners are two feet long, with a bite that can cut an inch-and-a-half tree branch. She snaps the blades in the air.

She looks at her students, notes a few squeamish faces and adds: "Remember to breathe when you do it. This has been going on for thousands of years."

She picks up the closest chicken, turns it upside down and smooths its feathers. At first it squawks, but it suddenly grows calm. She holds it upside down, waiting.

"Thank you, honey, for what you're about to give," Carpenter tells the chicken. She says a little prayer and blows a wisp of sage smoke into the chicken's face. "I burn sage to help the chicken's spirit."

She stretches the bird's neck. Assistant Samin Noscrat, 29, an organic cook from Berkeley, Calif., does the deed with a snip.

The head drops into a 5-gallon bucket with a thunk. The body flops and twists as Carpenter grips its feet, until finally it is still. Some people let a chicken's headless body run around, but Carpenter believes that is disrespectful.

She swishes the chicken in a pot of hot water to loosen the feathers, then moves to a table and begins to pluck. "It has the same feel as plucking your eyebrows," she says.

In short order, the once-fluffy hen now looks like every other pimply-skinned, grocery-store bird, except those mud-splattered yellow legs are still attached.

With a knife, she makes tiny incisions. With knowing hands, she feels for the innards and pulls them out intact. The legs come off, and the cleaned chicken goes into a plastic bag.

Then the students begin in teams of two. One renegade hen squawks and trots into the weeds, where she is corralled and captured.

Season Burnett, 30, of Kansas City, is petting her chicken, whispering to its unblinking eye: "Thank you." And then, "Bless you."

She waves the burning sprig of sage, waiting for her turn. She'll hold the hen; workshop partner Laura Elliot, 40, will handle the loppers.

"These workshops are really becoming popular because there's such a huge disconnect from store-bought to where the food comes from," Burnett says. Last year she fixed a fresh, free-range turkey for Thanksgiving. "I'll never go back to store-bought again."

Her chicken is so calm, it's nearly asleep.

Carpenter turns to Burnett and Elliot, wipes off the loppers and hands them over.

"Ready for our next killer."

Burnett takes a deep breath and positions her hen over the bucket, stretching its neck gently.


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