18 year old Kaitlyn Winters grew up in rural Huntington County and began raising birds for commercial show about 10 years ago as a part of 4-H, a national youth development program.
“I think I got my first set of chickens was when I was seven or eight,” she said. “I wanted a horse, but my dad got me chickens instead. That really started and took off my first year of 4-H. We did broilers and pullets, and kept it as a project ever since.”
Winters gets chicks that are a few days old in the mail and then she raises them until they’re mature. She leaves the processing of the birds though, to someone else.
“We take them to a Mennonite widow,” she said, “and that’s what she does, up in, I don’t know, northern Indiana.”
Bloomington residents have been legally allowed to keep a small number of birds in city limits for the past five years, but small-scale chicken farming has been a part of rural Hoosier culture since the area was settled in the 1700’s.
Fourteen-year-old Drake Davis of Montgomery County also raises chickens and takes his birds elsewhere for processing.
“We had meat birds,” he said, “and we processed those in Lafayette.”
From Farm to Fried Chicken
In Monroe County, 4-H’ers are encouraged to learn how to process their own birds. Sean McSherry runs a day-long workshop at his farm near Unionville for families who show 4-H broilers and roasters. During the class, he teaches kids how to safely, and humanely butcher their own chickens.
“We understand there is no processing plant in this area,” he says. “You can go to Amish country, but that’s a long drive.”
McSherry says instead, they offer a seminar on butchering, and the day after the teens present their chickens at the fair, they can bring them to be processed.
While regulations prohibit the butchering of animals within city limits, county residents face no such restrictions for non-commercial operations.
“We’re zoned in a type of zoning that has a designation for animal use, so there are no restrictions,” McSherry says.
About 16 families participated in this year’s workshop. Besides just killing the birds, the families participate in all aspects of processing them, from plucking to dressing, so the birds are ready for the freezer or the frying pan.
Differentiating Between Pets and Food
In McSherry’s backyard, he has the processing stations set up in an assembly line fashion. The scalding, and plucking stations are adjacent to the butcher’s block, where an assortment of knives and cleavers are set up to process the birds as efficiently as possible.
According to McSherry, by the time the birds are ready to be butchered, the kids have usually come to terms with the process.
“Most of the kids when they came into the poultry club, they wanted to keep pets. But when they addressed the rooster problem, they started to eat their chickens.,” he says. “When they compete in the meat projects, they have something that’s really high quality meat, why not use it?”
Young Monroe County 4-H’er Eli raises chickens to show at the fair. He keeps many chickens but has to butcher a number of roosters each year, to keep balance in his pen. He says the process really comes naturally to him because he does not consider the birds to be pets.
“We don’t give them names,” he said, “we just name them all ‘dinner’.”
According to the Monroe County Extension office, the agency that runs the local 4-H program, 152 kids participated in the poultry program this year. The 4-H club is not just for rural kids either. Young Bloomington residents who raise chickens in town can join and show their birds at the fair as well.
More information on 4-H programs across the state can be found here.