Driving up to Whiting Farms is pretty much like driving up to most farms in Colorado: a lot of barns with silo-type feeding devices attached, open space and a smattering of farm equipment. There really is nothing to suggest much on the outside except bits of hen and rooster hackle blowing in the wind. On the inside, however, it is a whole different ball of wax. The first barn we visited was where the little chicks spend the first few weeks of their lives. Chicks are hatched at another facility that is part of the farm system and then transported to the first rearing barn. Open the door and you are hit with a hot, humid, ammonia-smelling thunder cloud of high-pitched peeping. And I mean high decibel peeping. In this barn, the chicks are organized by sex and type and also fed a lot of food and water to help them grow. They spend about two weeks there.
Chicks then move into their own individual rearing cages. They receive some inoculations to prevent common poultry viruses and infections. Large long barns are stacked with rows of duplex cages. There is a lot of clucking and crowing going on in there. Imagine a chorus of 500 roosters shouting at the tops of their lungs. These guys are noisy. Each chicken has its own pen to live in, undisturbed by the others. Well, except for the noise part. Depending on the breed, hens and roosters have about 7-12 months to mature and then they are euthanized. There was no culling going on the day I visited, but I assure you that it is done humanely and respectfully.
The pelts are then cleaned, de-greased and sorted. This process is a Whiting Farms proprietary secret, so I cannot divulge anything about it. Next the necks and saddles are trimmed to shape. The pelts that will be dyed head to the dye-master. The natural color pelts are sorted and stored in bins in the warehouse.
The dying process is a multi-step event. Skins are further washed and de-greased and dyed in small batches. There are innumerable potions of liquid and powder lining shelves and skins are treated to slightly different procedures depending on the color. For example, a given color may set better when cooked in a warm dye-bath, and may require a particular mordanting (setting) agent. It seems that each color has its own particular procedures and it all involves some knowledge of chemistry and a touch of alchemy.
After the skins are dried they are graded by an expert cadre of trained “graders,” then placed in their particular bins and shelved. When an order comes in from a shop, the particular necks and saddles are picked, packaged and labeled and move to the shipping department. The order is then out the door and into the truck. Next stop your local retailer.