In “Dispatches From the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.

—–

chickens
A trailer load of chickens.
Photos: Ariane Lotti

In the cold and dark that is 5:30 a.m. in North Iowa these days, I go out with Jan and Tim of One Step at a Time Gardens to load 129 sleepy and reluctant chickens out of their pasture pens and onto a make-shift chicken trailer. At nine weeks of age, the chickens are about to make the hour-long trip to Martzahn’s.

At 7:30 a.m., Tim and I pull up to Martzahn’s Farm Poultry Processing in Greene, Iowa (where the King Corn guys grew their acre of corn), with a trailer of now wide-awake and squawking birds. One of the few small poultry processing facilities left in Iowa, Martzahn’s processes approximately 300 hundred birds per day in a “facility” the size of a small house with the equivalent of a garage space as the kill floor.

Ardy, the co-owner of Martzahn’s, greets us as we load chickens into the cages where they’ll wait until the seven-person crew is ready for their second batch of the day. I don’t catch much of what she’s saying as my full attention is devoted to moving these five-to-seven-pound Jumbo Cornish and Rocks cross-broilers without getting splattered by the liquid excrement the birds release after a bumpy ride in the trailer.

chickens
Martzahn’s Farm Poultry Processing facility.

With our task done, the chicken processing can begin. Tim and I watch as the man who slits their throats sharpens his knives, takes a chicken from the cages (turkeys are too big for the cages, so killing them requires catching them first), and puts it in a restraining cone. He slits the throat, the chicken bleeds, and the corpse is put into a scalding bath to prepare for plucking.

With the pores now open from the hot water bath, the corpse is placed in a hands-free poultry plucker. When a handful of corpses is in the plucker, a series of rubber “fingers” spin around the corpses and pluck them clean. (A note about this fine piece of equipment. I have plucked and gutted chickens, and have had to overcome considerable natural instincts telling me not to pluck — or even touch — a moving headless corpse. These mechanical poultry pluckers increase efficiency by decreasing time spent fighting mental objections and avoiding stomach queasiness. And they get the job done in 30 seconds.)

The corpse gets passed to the state inspector of the facility, and before removing the legs and the head, he makes sure the bird doesn’t have any deformities or bruises. Between him and the ice water bath, the corpse will pass through five more sets of hands that gut (including with a vacuum-type apparatus — another huge time saver and queasiness avoider), clean, and inspect it.

chickens
Restraining cones.

Despite several invitations to join in on the processing, Tim and I go to downtown Greene to eat something. We return to Martzahn’s several hours later, after the corpses have cooled in an ice bath for a couple of hours. Loading processed chickens into coolers is a lot easier than moving live birds, and I listen as Ardy talks about the summer slow down.

Normally open five days a week, Ardy has only had business enough for two days a week. People just aren’t raising chickens anymore, she explains. She thinks it is related to high corn prices and the going-out-to-eat culture that now defines a large part of American eating rituals. She wonders out loud whether next year will be more normal, but is clear on the fact that if there is not enough demand for a small-scale bird processor in rural Iowa, then she will close the business.

Jan and Tim have a vested interest in keeping Martzahn’s open; without Martzahn’s they would not be able to process the 900 birds they raise on pasture every summer and sell to their CSA members and to customers at farmers markets. They easily sell all of their chickens to people who want to eat meat that is sustainably and humanely raised and processed and that does not come from factory farms that treat animals like machines, the environment like a garbage disposal, and rural communities like petty annoyances.

Places like Martzahn’s are crucial components of the infrastructure that supports an alternative, sustainable food system. Jan and Tim raise far too few birds to have them processed in a larger, industrial facility, let alone having objections to how animals are treated in those facilities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau [PDF], there were only three poultry processing facilities in Iowa with fewer than 20 employees (Martzahn’s has seven) in 2002. Of the over 9.5 million broilers that were sold in Iowa that year, only 100,000 — about 1 percent — came from farms like Jan and Tim’s that sold fewer than 2,000 birds, according to the 2002 Census of Agriculture. Without places like Martzahn’s, that percentage will be even smaller.

chickens
The hands-free poultry plucker.

But there is hope. The 2008 Farm Bill now allows the shipment of meat and poultry from small state-inspected processors such as Martzahn’s across state lines, which should help farmers that raise livestock on a small-scale to meet demand from online businesses and other out-of-state markets, and create more business for processors. Guides and how-to books for processing, such as the Iowa Meat Processors’ Resource Guidebook [PDF], help entrepreneurs start up new processing businesses.

Short of raising and killing chickens on your own (which really only takes some feed, a patch of grass, an ax, and some strength of stomach), you have a vested interest in keeping places like Martzahn’s up and running. Because without small- and mid-scale processors, distributors, and equipment, there won’t be the small- to mid-sized farmers who produce the locally-grown vegetables, vine-ripened heirloom varieties, grass-fed beef, and pastured-raised poultry that underpin a sustainable food system.