As a student of dietetics, I am interested in eating healthful foods. As a middle-class American, I am interested in eating healthful foods on a budget. During a typical bi-monthly Costco run last spring, I bent into the cooler to pull out my usual Foster Farms Chicken. Their whole chickens looked nice and plump and were more than reasonably priced at about $5.00 each. I noticed next to them in a clever green package was Colman Organic Whole Chickens unreasonably priced at about $12.50 each. I stood there having an internal debate: am I supposed to be buying the organic chicken? What are the health benefits of organic chicken? Doesn’t that just mean the chicken ate all-organic food, I don’t even eat all-organic food. Can the significantly higher cost really be worth it? Regrettably, the organic was simply too expensive so I chose the cheap chicken and went home conflicted.
A following conversation with my hobby-farmer father led to the question- why don’t we just raise our own chickens? After all it would be organic, free-range and much more affordable, wouldn’t it? My Dad already maintains a small flock of laying hens for eggs, so why not grow meat birds as well? No big deal, right? So last spring my dad, brother and I all conspired to purchase 75 chicks with the knowledge that we would one day have to slaughter them, tucked away in a dark corner of our armature-farmer’s minds. In retrospect, I should have asked my husband before committing to this endeavor. He, being less likely to romanticize ideals of self-sufficiency, may have appreciated the opportunity to dissuade me. He did not have that opportunity, so we bought the birds. They were delivered by UPS and arrived cheeping in a cardboard box fixed with air holes and one week’s worth of food. They were adorable.
When the project began I was excited about tracking the expenses and learning how much money we saved by raising our own birds. Weeks and months went by and they required more and more feed as they grew. The empty feed bags stacked up and we developed concerns that we may be spending a lot more money than we originally thought. As they got bigger and bigger we became intimidated by the eventual slaughter day…75 birds, we may have overbought. A few died from predators and natural causes and a few more were sold to a like-minded sucker, then the time came to harvest. In case you don’t know, harvest meant we had to kill these chickens, we still had about 50 of them and I was dreading it terribly. We had to push back the date a few times because of the heat, or a scheduling conflict or whatever reason one of us could think of to delay the messy process.
My Dad knew I was anxious about it so he just called one morning and said- today is the day. I appreciated the last minute notice because it didn’t allow time for a full-scale panic attack, just a quick 30-minute one. We put on old clothes and went over to my folk’s house, my brothers family came too. His young kids were enthusiastic, my teenager was not. We set up a pretty efficient station outside; knives, axes, buckets of clean water, rags, a torch and two tables. It looked like a foreboding scene from True Detective. We were setup near the water pump and a large tree that we used to hang the chickens from as they drained. There was also a big pot of boiling water over an outdoor grill – I learned that quickly dipping the birds in boiling water makes them easier to pluck.
We found the end-product to be disappointing. Unlike commercially raised, these chickens exercised and scavenged for bugs making them small, tough and dark in color compared to store-bought. The flavor was nice but it was clouded by the texture and appearance which were quite different. I took home eight birds tightly sealed in Food Saver bags but have eaten only one so far.
In the end we were sure that we’d lost money so we saved ourselves the embarrassment by not doing the math. What we did gain, was a sense of accomplishment for having done something outside of our comfort zone. We now know that if we ever had to raise and butcher our own food, we could. I think that’s saying a lot about some regular people, raised in the suburbs of Denver.
These days, many people are demanding higher quality food while simultaneously complaining about the high cost of healthy foods. When comparing the sheer amount of work and expense involved in raising these birds, not to mention the full day it took to harvest them, I have a new found appreciation for my commercially raised chicken. Commercial chicken is a consistent, high-quality and abundant product at an affordable price. I certainly couldn’t do any better and learned that maybe some things are best left for the experts.