'Chicken Day' at the Farm of Many Faces

Reveals how a couple working 50 hours a week for six months
on 8 hectares can NET $25,000.

First of two parts. . . .By George DeVault


Above: The assembly line on one of the 4 "chicken days" that happen each month during the 6-month season


From late May through early October, the Salatin family slaughters up to 8,000 broilers on their farm in the scenic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Today is another 'Chicken Day.' Seven workers gather in the farm's open-air processing pavilion. They are eager to start, because the driver who will deliver the freshly dressed chickens to gourmet restaurants in cities 80 to 240 kilometers away will arrive in just two-and-a-half hours. Besides, it's cold and windy this morning. The workers need to keep busy to stay warm.

The group represents three generations of the Salatin family: Matriarch Lucille Salatin, her son Joel, his wife Teresa and their two children, 16-year-old Daniel and 10-year-old Rachel. Then there is Joshua 'Cowboy Josh' Griggs, a 20-year-old from the state of Washington, who is living at the Salatin farm for a one-year apprenticeship. (Another apprentice, Daniel Bergen, left that morning to return to his home state of Maine after spending two months on the farm.) Pat O'Connor from Florida just happened to be in the area. He stopped for a day to learn by helping.

Polyface Farm has become a Mecca for beginning farmers who want to follow in the Salatins' pioneering footsteps. The farm is called Polyface -- 'Farm of Many Faces' -- because, unlike most American farms, it is highly diversified. Instead of producing only grains, milk or meat, Polyface offers beef, eggs and poultry (broilers and stewing hens), turkey, pork, rabbit, firewood and other forest products and even some vegetables. All of the animals are fed on pasture as much as possible rather than on grain.

'I am the privileged third generation to continue the principles based on the belief that God created the Earth and established humanity as its steward, to nurture, protect and embellish. This philosophy precludes the use of toxic chemicals, debasing substances, and erosive practices, and instills instead an insatiable thirst for agricultural truth,' Joel Salatin wrote in the introduction to his popular 1993 book 'Pastured Poultry Profits.' The book explains, step-by-step, how a couple working 50 hours a week for six months on just eight hectares can net at least $25,000 a year with an investment equivalent to the price of one new medium-sized tractor. 'Seldom has agriculture held out such a plum. In a day when main-line farm experts predict the continued demise of the family farm, the pastured poultry opportunity shines like a beacon in the night.' A former newspaper reporter, Salatin has also written a book on his 'Salad Bar Beef' and produced a video on the entire farm.

Consumers also flock to his farm. Polyface Farm now has about 400 regular customers who want to buy fresh, more nutritious meat, eggs and vegetables directly from the people who produce it all. Many consumers drive more than 200 kilometers to pick up their meat and produce at Polyface Farm. They pay $3.19 per kilo for broilers and $2.97 per kilo for the larger 'stewing hens,' which have been laying eggs for the past two years. Those customers will begin arriving midday. They will be gone by 5 p.m. And so will all of the 250 broilers that still must be killed and cleaned -- in just the next two hours.

Slaughter begins promptly at 8:30 a.m. The goal is to be completely finished by 10:30 a.m. O'Connor, the least skilled of the workers, manhandles the first of 30 crates of birds from a stack on a tractor-drawn trailer outside the pavilion. The birds were taken off of feed and crated about 12 hours earlier so that their craws would be clear for slaughter. He grabs the birds by their feet. Wings flap. Eight white chickens are up-ended in the galvanized metal 'killing cones' at the far end of the processing line. Razor-sharp boning knives flash in the early morning sun. The chickens' throats have been slit. Bright red blood flows down a metal trough and into a large plastic bucket. In a minute or so, the chickens are 'bled out.' They're moved on to the next station in the processing line. And a fresh batch of birds is inserted into the cones.

There is no stopping the line now. No wasted motion. No idle chit-chat. What little conversation there is centers mostly around the unseasonably cold, breezy weather and the proper techniques for dressing the birds, quickly and cleanly. Everyone is wearing rubber aprons and rain pants to help stay dry. Lucille and Teresa are also wearing hooded sweatshirts -- with the hoods up.

All the action takes place under a processing pavilion that, like most things on Polyface Farm, is simplicity, itself. The pavilion is a simple concrete slab poured around locust posts. The posts and other lumber were cut from trees growing on the farm. The farm consists of about 230 hectares, only 42 of which are open ground. The rest is in wooded hills. The pavilion has a corrugated metal roof and open sides. It is strategically located on the north side of a large shade tree, not far from the Salatins' home. The pavilion has electricity. Ice-cold wash water comes from a nearby well. It is carried to each work station by overhead hoses attached to pavilion rafters.

'I need another crate!' yells Daniel, taking a turn at keeping the killing cones and scalder filled. O'Connor lugs eight more birds in from the stack of crates. They're racing to keep the line going, trying to meet their own deadline -- and beat the arrival of the delivery driver. It's 9:30 a.m. The stack of crates of about half empty.

Once birds have bled out, they're hung upside down in the scalder/dunker. A thermostat and electric heaters hold the water at a constant temperature of 63 C. Four at a time, the birds are gently dunked in and out of the water for exactly 1 minute and 20 seconds. Any longer -- or hotter -- and the skin tears or comes off with the feathers. Any shorter -- or cooler -- and the feathers don't come off in the plucker.

The scalder/dunker is homemade. The foundation is a wooden box built within a box. Salatin added a submersible thermostat and a pair of 4500 watt electric heaters. Then a local metal fabricator covered the whole thing with heavy, galvanized sheet metal and soldered the joints to make it water tight.

'I need another crate!' yells Daniel. It's 10 a.m. The pile of crates is going down steadily, but slowly.

The 'dunker' part of the contraption is a counterbalanced piece of pipe rigged to a geared down electric motor that dunks the birds eight times per minute. The system is governed by a timer and an on-off switch that always lifts chickens out of the hot water before stopping the scalding cycle.

'When Daniel was two,' laughs his father, 'we scalded birds in a big pot over a campfire. He could barely drag two birds behind him. And we did 50 birds a day. That was a big day!'

Now, Salatin processes 250 birds a day. He does that four days every month during the six-month season.

Daniel grabs four birds from the scalder/dunker and plops them into the feather plucker to his right. He flips a switch and sprays cold water into the revolving stainless steel drum as the birds bounce around against dozens of stiff rubber fingers (8.5 cm long) mounted inside. Fifteen seconds later, not a feather is left on the four birds. The plucker will handle up to 400 birds an hour with little or no hand-picking required. (It is made by PICKWICK Manufacturing Company, 1879 McCloud Place NE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402 USA. Phone: (319) 393-7443.)

'I need another crate!' yells Daniel. It's 10:17 a.m. Only a handful of crates remain to be emptied.

Joel carefully but quickly trims off oil glands from atop the tails, opens up the carcasses and eviscerates the birds. Livers, gizzards and hearts go into pots of cold water. Offal fills plastic buckets underneath the metal workbenches as the birds are quickly moved down the line.

'How do you do that?' CJ asks in amazement.

Joel pauses. His motions have become so routine over the years that he has to stop and think for a minute about exactly where he places his fingers and how he moves his knife and hands to make cleaning the birds seem almost effortless.

The Salatin children just smile. Like their father, they have been dressing chickens for so many years that it is all second nature them. As their father explains the routine -- 'I loop my middle finger around the esophagus ... scooping down ... and pulling back' -- the children keep the line moving. Daniel removes four more birds from the plucker and deftly slices off their feet, adding the carcasses to the growing pile of plucked birds in front of his father. At the other end of the processing line, Rachel inserts a flushing-type lung remover (also from Pickwick Co.) into the body cavity of a bird. The metal comb scraper on the device loosens the lungs. Then, with the push of a lever on a hose, Rachel releases a powerful water jet that flushes the lungs and other unwanted matter out of the body cavity.

'I need another crate!' yells Daniel. It's 10:30 a.m. That's the last crate.

The chilling tanks at the end of the processing line are almost full of dressed birds.

'Oh no!' mutters Daniel.

'What?'

'Doug's here,' Daniel groans as a car comes across the new bridge over the fast-flowing stream at the entrance to the farm.

It's the delivery driver. He is early -- a whole half an hour early.