Director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari tells the story of a Korean family chasing the American Dream in 1980s Arkansas. Jacob Yi, played by Steven Yeun, hopes to one day own a farm full of Korean produce. But as he begins his first growing season, he and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) spend their days at a local hatchery, working as chicken sexers.
Yes, that's a real job title: Chicken sexing is rote but specialized work that involves turning chicks over one at a time to inspect their genitals, then sorting them by sex. Jacob works quickly and almost mechanically, but Monica is still getting her bearings; she brings home boxes of chicks and practices on the floor of their barebones trailer, wrapping her hands around the little birds and flipping them over.
The Golden Globe-nominated film, which opens in theaters and for virtual screenings today, is a heartrending depiction of the hardships that come with establishing one’s self and family in a new country. And it mirrors Chung’s own experiences: Like the Yi family, Chung grew up in Arkansas, where his father did chicken sexing for 19 years while also establishing a farm that grew Korean medicinal herbs. Through this daily work, Minari provides a peek at not just the immigrant struggle, but an essential part of the food system that few viewers may even have been aware of. In 2017, Pacific Standard writer James McWilliams even went so far as to claim that chicken sexers are the “secret weapon” of the poultry industry, because their trained eyes can identify if a chick is “biologically suited” for egg production.
As University of Kentucky poultry expert Jacqueline Jacob explains in the article, the profession is necessary because “a chicken does not have a penis.” Though the organ begins growing in an incubated egg, a cell death protein during the bird’s growth prevents its full formation, leaving just a rudimentary nub that doesn’t look that far off from the sex organs of a female chick. A chicken sexer, however, can tell the difference between “the nearly identical genitalia of male and female hatchlings and, in an instant, makes the call,” McWilliams explains. By squeezing a chick until it releases feces and applying pressure to its rear orifice, in a technique referred to as “vent sexing,” a well-trained and practiced chicken sexer can identify the bump that marks a chick as male, differentiating as many as a thousand-plus chicks an hour with 98 percent accuracy.
As we learn through watching Monica's process of trial and error in the film, venting sexing comes with a steep learning curve. According to the chicken-raising resource Backyard Chicken Coops, part of that comes down to the fact that there “there are just so many variables that can cause a misreading”; 20 percent of chicks, for example, have “not easily recognizable” sex organs, and 40 percent of females possess “similar looking bulb-like protuberances" to their male counterparts. Chicken sexing also means contending with the knowledge of a darker side of the process, one that Jacob alludes to in the film: Because of the egg industry’s low demand for males, it has historically killed millions of male chicks each year. (In 2020, United Egg Producers, an industry group that represents about 90 percent of US egg production, emphasized its commitment to finding commercially viable alternatives to male chick culling.)
The practice of vent sexing day-old chicks first emerged in 1930s Japan, according to a 2010 report from Reuters. Japanese experts trained in the method were hired across the globe, helping to "revolutionize" the poultry industry in the process. By contrast with the Yi family in Minari, who experience financial struggles, international demand for these workers meant that they were historically paid well, had job security, and took part in overseas travel, Reuters explains.
After chicken-sexing certification programs began emerging in the United States in the 1940s, the profession also grew in North America, providing jobs for workers like Chang’s father. But, according to Reuters, the practice has long been on the decline: The increased use of breeds with feathers that are longer on females allow the option of "feather sexing" instead, a method that is not only faster but also doesn't require as workers to have specialized training. And with fewer young people interested in the job, Japan had just a “few hundred” chicken sexers in 2010, as opposed to over 1,000 chicken sexers in previous decades. In 2015, CNBC reported that in the U.K., chicken sexing had become a “$60K a year job nobody wants,” with only 100 to 150 chicken sexers in the entire country.
These days, aside from the profession’s recent appearance in Minari, as well as a 2005 episode of Dirty Jobs, real-life chicken sexers can be hard to find: When McWilliams asked an editor of a poultry magazine to introduce him to a chicken sexer, he was told, “I honestly don't know anyone who has met a chicken sexer.” Many of us probably aren’t seeking out chicken sexers—nor do we have a reason to—but Minari reminds us of something important: Behind everything we eat, there’s probably someone doing something we wouldn't want to do ourselves.
Virtual screenings of Minari can be found through A24.