Steve Martinez holds the chicken's head and exposes its neck. He thanks the bird as he severs the right jugular, then the left. Blood gushes out, much brighter than I expected, collecting in a bucket below. I'm at Two Boots Farms in Hampstead, Md., helping Martinez process a batch of chickens for the CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) he started this past spring under the moniker Pluma Feliz Farms. Many of the male chickens in his flock are at the preteen stage-between eight and 12 weeks-the perfect time to slaughter.
Martinez takes the dead chicken from the killing cone and moves it to the scalder. Then he puts the bird in the Featherman automatic plucker, then onto the butchering table. He removes the head, oil gland, feet, crop, and finishes with the evisceration. He sets the head, feet, liver, and heart aside for Woodberry Kitchen and tosses the rest into the gut bucket. He sprays the chicken with a hose, inside and out, then puts it in the chill chest before freezing. (Martinez says you have to get the chicken down to 40 degrees F within four hours or it will make you "poop mucus" for two or three days.) This chicken will go to a CSA member that signed up for two chickens per month for five months starting in June of this year.
Martinez, high school English teacher by day, chicken farmer by night, got the idea for Pluma Feliz Farms after he became interested in anti-civilization philosophies. "Industrial civilization takes the fact [for granted] that we can have infinite growth on a finite planet," he says. "I don't believe you can have infinite growth on a finite planet." He says he was particularly inspired by environmental activist Derrick Jensen, who wrote about regenerating prairie land via small-scale family agriculture. Martinez wanted to do something not only sustainable but also rejuvenative, to "fight against desertification," as he calls it. He says that chickens were "recommended as an easy way to get into agriculture."
Martinez wanted an alternative to industrial animal production, which harms the soil. When animals like chickens and cows are commercially farmed, they're packed into houses or lots to the point where they can barely move. They're standing in their own feces for most of their lives, which, in addition to being gross and unhealthy for the animals, is also bad for the soil. All that shit has to go somewhere, so the farmers collect it all and dump it in one place, which leads to water and soil pollution.
Martinez's chickens, on the other hand, live in "chicken tractors," open-bottomed fences with wheels and tarps for cover that are moved at least once a day. The chickens are protected from predators and the elements, and have plenty of space to move around; and their poop is spread out over the soil in a thin layer. "The chickens do a couple of things which are great," Martinez says. "First off, they scratch at the soil, which can aerate it. And people pay money all the time to get their lawns aerated. Aerating the soil introduces oxygen. Two, they drop manure onto the ground. This manure adds nitrogen to the soil. It also adds a ton of gut microbes that come from the chicken."
When placed on a patch of ground covered with noxious weeds, the chickens sit on them and suffocate them. Martinez points out swaths of dead and dying thistle that look like they were mown down, but, he says, it was just the chickens. There are distinct patches from several weeks ago that look like a checkerboard. The spots where the chickens have been are squares of white clover, which helps against erosion and promotes a more balanced soil pH. The chickens stamp out the pushy plants like thistles and grass to give the more soil-friendly clover a chance to grow. Of course, the birds have no idea that they're doing all this. Suffocating weeds and shitting is just something chickens do, and some farmers are taking advantage of this. Martinez moves his chickens from farm to farm, where they earn their keep (he doesn't pay to board them).
The way these birds are raised makes them taste better. They can eat what chickens naturally do: grass, bugs, and seeds, along with the non-GMO feed that Martinez gives them. And they're relatively stress-free, which, according to Martinez, makes them taste better. (Having cooked one and made pâté from the chickens' livers, I can attest to the taste.)
Every other Friday, Martinez brings in a chicken for each member of the CSA to the Union Graze event in Hampden. He includes a recipe, written by a different notable chef each time, with the chicken and key ingredients in the recipe-a can of Union Craft Brewing beer came with a recipe for beer-can chicken.
The CSA membership is closed for this year, but Martinez is still selling individual chickens from his extra stock. As of press time, he has 200 birds, which you can order at the Friday night Union Graze at Artifact Coffee in Hampden. (He accepts email orders at firstname.lastname@example.org.) The CSA starts up again in the spring of 2014, and by then it might be more than chickens. Martinez wants to raise ruminants such as goats and sheep-which don't need any food other than grass-and perhaps even pigs.
Chicken Pâté Pâté makes you feel fancy and is much easier to make than you might think, as I learned when I ended up with a few dozen livers after slaughtering chickens with Steve Martinez. As long as you have a food processor and a dignified event to serve it at, you're all set. Really, all you need is the food processor if you plan to have it for a cultured midnight snack. (I took the recipe from Mark's Daily Apple and adapted and experimented with it.)
1/2 pound chicken livers
1/2 Vidalia onion, finely chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/2 cup Madeira
1 glass Madeira, for drinking
3-6 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter
Rinse off the livers and pat dry. Cut off any white connective tissue with your sharpest knife.
Put the livers, onion, garlic, bay leaf, salt, and Madeira in a saute pan and simmer. Cover it, reduce the heat, and let it go for 3-5 minutes (stir once halfway through). Turn off the heat and leave it for 5 more minutes. After this, the livers should be grayish on the outside but pink on the inside.
Throw away the bay leaf and drain off the extra Madeira. Toss the livers in the food processor, and grate some fresh nutmeg in. If you don't have fresh nutmeg nuts, you can use ground nutmeg. But really, use fresh nutmeg.
Process that shit until it's got the consistency of chopped liver. Then add the ghee (or clarified butter) one tablespoon at a time. Add some salt and pepper if you wish, blend some more, and once it's really smooth, scoop the pâté into a ramekin or two. You can seal it up with plastic wrap pushed down on the surface, or you can be really French and pour clarified butter on top. When it cools, you have made a delicious and practical seal for your pâté.