Farming Magazine - February, 2009

FEATURES

Going Mobile

Poultry slaughterhouse rolls into Vermont
By Marcia Passos Duffy

There’s always been small mobile slaughterhouses that cater to backyard poultry operations in Vermont and elsewhere, but when a poultry farmer wants to expand operations to over 1,000 birds, or go beyond selling at the farm or at farmers’ markets, there have not been many options. State-inspected poultry slaughterhouses are far and few between, and, if they exist, are already at full capacity. In Vermont, for example, there are only four state inspected poultry plants, and only one that accepts poultry from other farmers.

Vermont’s state legislature realized that infrastructure roadblocks were preventing many farmers from moving to a higher level of production, so they took matters in their own hands. The state purchased a $93,000 mobile slaughterhouse trailer, complete with a killing room, scalding pot and processing area that will travel along the highways and byways of the state to provide small to mid-sized poultry farmers the state inspection stamp they need to sell birds to local cooperatives and supermarket chains.

“With the ‘buy local’ movement there has been a need for more producers … but, unless the poultry producers want to set up their own processing plant, there have been very little options,” said Anson Tebbetts, deputy secretary for Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

Neither the state’s agriculture agency nor Rural Vermont (a farmer advocacy group) track how many small poultry farmers are operating in the state, but Tebbetts said that judging from the number of inquiries his agency receives, the need for a mobile slaughterhouse for poultry is almost desperate. The plan is to run 8,000 birds through the mobile unit in the first year, although it may end up more than that.

The processing infrastructure problem extends beyond Vermont and even New England. Only four corporations now process 80 percent of U.S. meat. With the increasing concerns about our food supply and the higher demands for locally produced food, the time is right to provide this kind of help to farmers in the region, said Tebbetts.

Photo by Kelly Loftus.
The gooseneck trailer, designed to be pulled by a 1-ton dual-wheel truck, arrived in Vermont from Ohio in November 2008.

Mobile unit to roll in just in time for the holidays

The 36-foot-long, 12-foot-high gooseneck trailer, designed to be pulled by a 1-ton dual-wheel truck, arrived in Vermont from Ohio in November; Brothers Body & Equipment (www.brothersbande.com) of Galion, Ohio, built the mobile slaughterhouse, which can process at least 200 chickens or 50 turkeys per day with a crew of two people. However, depending on how many employees the operator hires, that processing number can go up.

“The design of the equipment can easily handle 400 to 500 birds a day,” said Randy Quenneville, meat program section chief for the Meat Inspection Service at Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Foods and Markets.

The state agency has put the unit out to bid to be purchased by an independent private operator who will handle the scheduling and do the work; the Vermont agency will provide the meat inspection personnel. “We can’t both run it and inspect it because that’s a conflict of interest,” said Tebbetts.

Tebbetts has had a good response in bids, and the agency in the process of selecting a operator. “Since the state purchased the unit, we can keep the initial outlay of cash to run this business down for the operator, who can make payments back to the state at a low interest rate over 10 years,” he said.

Once an operator purchases the mobile slaughterhouse, Tebbetts estimates that the charge to process a chicken would range from $4 to $5 per bird.

While initially the mobile unit will focus on state inspection, Tebbetts anticipates getting USDA inspection credentials as well so that poultry producers will be able to go across state lines to sell their birds. Right now, though, state inspection will help those producers who want to go over the 1,000 birds and will enable producers sell to schools, stores, co-ops and supermarkets, as well as institutions such as colleges and universities.

The market for locally produced poultry is particularly brisk at colleges and universities, Tebbetts added. “The push to provide poultry to universities is coming from students who are asking for more local food in the cafeteria … this is not a fad, by the way. We believe the ‘buy local’ movement is here to stay,” he said.

The state agency has also had requests from large supermarket chains, such as Whole Foods Market, for Vermont-raised poultry. “We don’t have a Whole Foods in Vermont, but we do in Massachusetts and Connecticut … these consumers consider Vermont or New England foods local,” said Tebbetts.

The pressure to produce more poultry in Vermont is not only coming from consumers but from farmers who rightly believe there is a strong market out there for locally produced foods. The hope is that the mobile unit will help small producers get out of the backyard stage and into a growth phase.

“(The mobile unit) bridges the gap until these producers become large enough to afford to put in their own processing facility,” said Tebbetts. In addition to traveling to farms to process poultry, the mobile unit can also travel to agricultural fairs around the state where producers can bring in their birds for slaughter.

Fruits and vegetable mobile unit already on the road

The poultry mobile slaughterhouse is modeled after an already-successful fruits and vegetable mobile unit that was brought out by the state of Vermont this past summer. This flash-freeze unit allows growers to quickly freeze fruits and vegetables for later resale.

“It has been very popular with growers who want to participate in a winter CSA … it is helping to extend the season for them,” said Tebbetts. At the moment, the growers are paying just for the electricity to run the unit. In 2009, when the unit is run by a private operator, the growers will be required to pay by the pound to flash-freeze their produce.

“Vermont needs to take the matter of infrastructure in our own hands in order to build up these markets,” said Tebbetts. He hopes that the mobile unit will put more local food on the table for Vermonters and New Englanders, and will be a model for other states. The agency has already gotten calls from other states such as Nebraska, Ohio and West Virginia who are also interested in putting a mobile unit for processing poultry on the road in their states. So far, Vermont is the first in the nation to have a mobile unit specifically for poultry.

In addition to traveling to farms to process poultry, the mobile unit can also travel to agricultural fairs around the state where producers can bring in their birds for slaughter.

Red meat next?

While a mobile unit for poultry may prove to be successful, it is a different story for red meat. The cost to equip a mobile unit that would accommodate larger animals would be higher—about $250,000—and the operator would have to run a lot of animals through it in order to be profitable. One such red meat mobile unit is already operating in Washington State, where a group of farmers purchased a USDA-approved mobile unit to kill and process red meat; it can only handle five to nine steer a day.

The goal in Vermont is not to create a fleet of mobile slaughterhouses to meet every farmer’s needs, but to focus on creating fixed facilities, said Quenneville. “Maybe in the future we might consider a unit for smaller animals, such as roaster pigs, lambs or goats,” he said. Ultimately, the larger strategy is to create an infrastructure that allows farmers to grow their businesses.

Meanwhile, the mobile slaughterhouse in Vermont will take care of some immediate needs for poultry farmers, but, admittedly, it may not be enough for the future.

“One unit will not be able to reach all the parts of the state,” said Tebbetts, adding that another unit or two may not be enough. The solution is to have enough farmers at an increased level of production so it is worthwhile for an entrepreneur to come along and build fixed facilities. “Mobile slaughterhouses are a stop gap measure … it is not a cure all,” he said.

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H., and a longtime contributor to Farming.