by Lindsey Webb
Massachusetts is ranked 45th in the nation for the number of chickens and turkeys raised for food, but that doesn’t mean residents in the state don’t appreciate a high quality, locally-raised bird. Being a poultry farmer in a minor poultry producing state like Massachusetts presents interesting challenges, but plenty of room for creativity has resulted in considerable growth and flexibility in slaughter and processing options.
Poultry farmers in Massachusetts can go in one of a few different directions when it comes to slaughtering, processing, and packaging their birds. If a bird’s destiny is to be consumed by the family raising it, that bird can be slaughtered as the farmer wishes. However, if the farmer plans to sell the bird at a farmers’ markets, direct to customers, or to a restaurant, there are economic, regulatory, and logistical considerations that come into play.
Jennifer Hashley is the Project Director for the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an organization that strengthens local food systems by supporting new farmers. She explains that farmers in Massachusetts selling their animals have several options when it comes to slaughter facilities. One is to construct their own on-farm slaughter facility. This can be quite a large investment, but makes sense if a farmer raises enough birds to sell at weekly farmers’ markets. Alternatively, they can transport their birds to a USDA-approved slaughterhouse, like Westminster Meats in Vermont. This slaughterhouse charges $5 per bird for slaughter and processing, making it an expensive but often sensible option for farmers who are comfortable leaving that work to others.
A third option is using one of the three Mobile Poultry Processing Units (MPPUs) in Massachusetts. New Entry partnered with the New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) to fundraise for, build, and manage a mobile poultry processing unit. One other MPPU is run by NESFI alone, and another is managed by the Island Grown Institute on Martha’s Vineyard. With the MPPU option, farmers have control over every step of the process, from raising to selling their birds, without the investment required for an on-farm slaughter facility.
While the New Entry and NESFI MPPUs offer a lower price to farmers than Westminster meats does ($1 per bird and $3 per bird, respectively), there are other potentially substantial costs involved. Large amounts of ice are required to keep the carcasses cool enough. Knives, aprons, buckets, and other equipment must be provided by the farmer using the MPPU. Additionally, a significant amount of planning and preparation is involved beforehand, from getting approval from the Board of Health in the town where the MPPU will be used, to ensuring that there is enough labor available to complete the job. Transporting the MPPU, a very large trailer, can also be a challenge.
For some farmers, like Justin Webb of The Pasture at Pettengill Farm in Salisbury, Massachusetts, all of the planning and legwork prior to using the MPPU is worth it. He used the MPPU for the first time for his own birds this year. “The biggest thing for me is to keep everything on-site, to guarantee that it’s all my product,” he said. He appreciates that he can be there the whole time and know exactly what is going on. Avoiding the stress of transit is also a plus. “If I can not have my birds go through the trucking and all that…I’m all for it.”
Though it wasn’t easy, Mr. Webb got the required approval of his town’s Board of Health, which he says happened after “a lot of education.” He and his crew all completed a one-day training – offered by New Entry in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources – to be legally able to use the MPPU. On the day of processing, a senior inspector from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health was on site from the very beginning until the last bird was put on ice. Mr. Webb is proud to say that his crew scored the highest approval rating on all of the inspector’s criteria, which is not an easy thing to do. He plans to use the MPPU in the future.
Hashley says that economically speaking, the MPPU is best for farmers who have 100-300 birds to slaughter in one day. For some farmers with larger flocks, she says their experience with and knowledge of the MPPU was a “jumping off point” that got them thinking about constructing slaughter facilities on their own farms. Some of them have done it, and may offer their facilities to other farms as well.
Unfortunately, so far neither the New Entry nor the NESFI MPPU has turned a profit. For many, the convenience of Westminster, where everything is taken care of from start to finish by people in that facility, is worth the extra cost. At this point, neither MPPU has been able to attract enough farmers to do more than break even.
That doesn’t mean new Entry’s MPPU is sitting around unused, though. According to Sam Anderson, Livestock Program and Outreach Coordinator for New Entry, three farms have used the MPPU in 2013. They have processed almost 3,000 birds – mostly chickens, but some turkeys – yielding over 12,000 pounds of meat. The finished product has generated approximately $70,000 in gross revenue to the farmers. Importantly, it has provided Massachusetts residents with an alternative to industrially produced poultry and a chance to support Massachusetts farmers.
Lindsey Webb is a second year FPAN student who, for the next three months, can be found drinking tea under heavy blankets, hiding from the New England winter. To learn more, visit our Meet Our Writers page.