Thursday, July 16, 2009

Chicken Run

Have you ever wondered where your grilled chicken sandwich comes from? Me neither, but I found out last weekend. My stepmom's family has a fairly large chicken operation on their farm. They have a contract with Perdue and supply them with 160,000+ chickens every nine to ten weeks. After a day at the swimming lake, my stepmom's sister thought the boys might enjoy seeing the chickens.

To say I was uneasy would be an understatement. I'm not a vegetarian...never have been, never will be. At the same time, my attitude is that a little ignorance about the origin of your barbecue can be a good thing. I'm not sure what I expected, maybe thousands of chickens crammed into tiny cages. I remember the brouhaha between Pam Anderson and KFC, and I really didn't want to see something awful. I did not bring the subject of Pam Anderson up to my stepmom's family. To compare a life of bouncing one's boobs on the beach to the hard work of eeking out a living on a small independent farm seemed disrespectful to the nth degree, but the thought did cross my mind. What I actually saw was fascinating, not at all horrible.

The chickens come to the farm a day or two after they hatch. Jackie told us sometimes the shell is still attached. The chickens we saw had been there about four weeks, and apparently this is their ugliest stage. They had just lost their chick down, but hadn't filled in all of their feathers yet. Imagine a naked vulture head on a skinny white body, and you'll have the idea. Each of the giant buildings on the farm contains between 20,000 and 24,000 chickens. The chickens are not in cages. They roam freely about the floor of the building, and they were all around us as Jackie showed us his automated feeding and watering system.

The building was dark. Dim lights lined the low ceilings, but after coming out of the bright sunshine it was tomblike. Turns out the chickens like it that way. Bright lights freak them out. Jackie shined a pen light on a group of them and they all hit the deck, flattening themselves against the ground and going completely still. I guess they thought they were hiding from us. My younger son was reminded of the movie Chicken Run.

I've been told that nothing stinks like a chicken farm, but I have to say I've smelled worse. Large fans at either end of the football field sized building kept the air circulating, and Jackie told us the sawdust on the floor does something to minimize the smell. They clean the buildings between each flock and sell the fertilized sawdust mixture to other farms. Those farmers spread it on their fields. How's that for environmentally friendly? Now, lest I mislead you, the place did not smell like a rose garden, but it was tolerable.

The creepiest part of the experience was the sound. The air circulators were loud, but not loud enough to cover the chicken noises. Imagine 24,000 chickens making a low warbling sound. Now add the clicking of their beaks against the bottom of the feeder trays. Warbling and clicking, punctuated by the occasional flap of feathers, as a sea of ugly white birds circled us in the dark. A good start for a story I think.

Jackie was honest and said I wouldn't enjoy touring Perdue's processing plant. I believe him and intend to remain happily ignorant on that part of the chicken's journey. All in all, it was interesting. My boys surprised me by asking a lot of questions, and none of us were turned off by the visit. To prove the point, we returned to my dad's house and enjoyed a delicious meal of barbecue chicken, baked beans, and potato salad.

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