Montana Chicken Processing & Job Creation

I recently toured the Montana Poultry Growers Co-op Facility in Hamilton, MT. A little background on this facility…until the Co-op built this state certified processing facility, there was no chicken that was (with the exception of the Hutterite Colony birds) raised and processed here in Montana. None! And my refrain always when telling this story… “and Montana is an agricultural state!”

With the creation of this facility, Beau and Christopher of Living River Farms were able to take their vision of raising pastured chickens to our local markets. But when I asked Beau a few years back, why they embarked on this quest, he said that their primary objective was to create vocational opportunities for under-served populations. Workers at the facility rise early each Wednesday to be part of the team bringing pastured raised chicken to our Montana tables. Not all of the part-time workers are special needs, or adults with disabilities, but many are.

A worker showing off his rubber apron. I wish I had these for processing at home!

A worker showing off his rubber apron. I wish I had these for processing at home!

Since I have slaughtered chickens since I was a pre-teen (alongside my grandmother in the beginning), I have always processed outdoors in the summer. And when Micah and I were new to Arlee, we joined with several friends each year to process eighty chickens… in one day! I was tired!

But Beau, Christopher and the team in Hamilton have a tidy, well-lit facility and often process 400 chickens in a single day! Not only that, they have refined their process over the last few seasons and have achieved a lot of efficiencies.

It’s still a hard, messy job, but I was able to see how each step at the facility is completed. One fellow manages the chickens in crates, bringing them two at a time to the slaughter area. Beau then uses a special electric knife which both stuns the bird and cuts the artery to begin bleeding. Tracy manages the flow of birds, and after the heads and feet are removed, they are transferred to a rotating scalder to loosen the feathers. They are then placed in the plucker. The plucker has rubber “fingers” and looks like a top-load washing machine on spin cycle. Once free of all feathers, the birds are transferred to a separate room and await evisceration.

In the next room, Christopher oversees the birds as they are hung by hooks for the gutting process. (Since I only eviscerate once a year, I am painfully slow myself at our farm processing, but this team is efficient and effective and made it look easy!) All of the insides are removed and each bird is rinsed and lightly sprayed with a hydrogen peroxide mixture. After this, the birds look very much like what you expect to see of raw chicken at the store. They are then immediately chilled in ice baths and will be bagged and frozen that afternoon.

While Beau and Christopher are the largest farm utilizing this state licensed facility with over 10,000 chickens this year, other farms across the state can use this facility for their home use or birds for sale.

Admittedly, chicken processing isn’t glamorous business. Although we have raised our homestead chickens nearly ever year for ourselves, Micah and I have never looked forward to the day as “fun.” But it’s rewarding, it can be anatomically interesting and any friends that come over to help for the day have come away from the experience less grossed out and more informed of the process than they expected.

I had planned this tour ahead of recent news of the federal immigration authority raids on poultry processing plants in the southeast. There are many injustices to the workers of these corporate facilities, and this is just another reason I want to support local farmers and local processing of the meat our community eats. Living River chickens are now sold throughout the state and I’m happy to have Meat Share subscribers support this farm’s success over the last two years. Christopher and Beau really like the work they do, have fun with their team and encourage other businesses to consider employing under-served populations in their organizations.

Past Blog Articles:

About Living River Farms

Handling and cooking your chicken

About Big Chicken- the book

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ChickenJennifer Knoetgen