Durham County

From feather to fork: Durham’s SEEDS teaches chicken-harvesting class

Things to do in Durham: Catch a Bulls game. Sip a craft beer. Slaughter a chicken.

Slaughter a chicken?

“People need to know where their food comes from,” said Hilary Nichols, garden manager and volunteer coordinator at Durham non-profit SEEDS.

SEEDS, founded in 1994, is Durham’s outdoor classroom where you can pull spinach and mustard leaves straight from the ground and eat them.

“We teach kids how to grow, cook, and share food,” Nichols, a vegetarian, said. “We shouldn’t stop short of meat.”

It was Nichols’ last weekend, last hours of getting her hands dirty at SEEDS before taking on a job with Raleigh Parks and Recreation. As one of her final public programs with SEEDS, she arranged a workshop to teach the public how to harvest a chicken for its meat.

“We have a choice at SEEDS,” Nichols said. “Raise the chickens as pets … or, when they stop laying as many eggs, we can eat them.”

Durham County Cooperative Extension agent Cheralyn Schmidt-Berry taught the class last month.

“This is done with kindness and respect all the way,” she told the seven attendees, all women. “Some people don’t want to know, and some people are curious about it.”

Where food comes from

SEEDS is no start-up in Durham. The nonprofit planted its flag at the corner of Elizabeth and Gilbert Streets nearly a quarter century ago, when its mission was to transform vacant lots around Durham into community gardens.

The organization now focuses on educating Durham youth about food and where it comes from. The chicken harvest was SEEDS’ first such workshop.

Vera Braswell of Rougemont has three hens at home which she raises for eggs. She had never slaughtered a chicken before.

“I want to know how in case one gets sick,” she said.

Wearing a sun hat, a faded T-shirt and jeans tucked inside a pair of black rubber boots, Schmidt-Berry said she dressed for the work ahead.

She showed the class a chicken cone, which she attached to a fence. The device, shaped like a large funnel, restrains the bird in an upside-down position, with the head and neck protruding from the opening in the bottom.

Schmidt-Berry selected the smallest of three knives she had laid out on her workspace, one with a slight curl in its blade.

“You have to make sure your knives are scalpel-sharp,” she said. “X-acto knife sharp,”

Schmidt-Berry knelt down. Holding the bird’s head firmly with one hand, she used the other to stroke the knife blade across one side of its neck. The chicken bucked inside the cone.

“Sorry, girl,” Schmidt-Berry said.

As the seven attendees watched, Schmidt-Berry held the bird’s head at a angle to allow the blood drain into a bucket below.

The bird, its eyes closed, kicked once, then hung limp.

Schmidt-Berry moved the bird’s body from the cone to a shock bath of steaming water. A moment later she was raking the loosened feathers from the carcass. A whack of the cleaver to remove the head and feet, and suddenly the chicken looked like the chicken we are used to seeing in a grocery store.

“That is gorgeous,” Schmidt-Berry said, pointing out the bright yellow color of the chicken’s fat as she began to gut the bird. “This is one well-fed chicken.”

And then she removed a small, honey-colored oval from the body cavity.

“A forming egg,” she said.


Schmidt-Berry placed the gutted chicken inside an iced cooler for SEEDS to cook at a later time. She then returned to the chicken coop and fetched another bird.

After threading the bird inside the cone, she handed the knife to one of the students. You have to start somewhere when learning to slaughter a chicken, and that somewhere was right there at SEEDS.

With the bird dispatched, the rest of the attendees pitched in with the cleaning and dressing. Before long, the group had another supermarket-friendly piece of poultry in their hands.

“Chickens from the store are young hens,” Schmidt-Berry said. “These (older) chickens – if you cook it low and slow, you can get a beautiful stock out of them.”

Steve Bydal: stevebydal@gmail.com