Poultry processing has a new home: on the road

There is a lot of squawking going on lately about local meat production. While access to fresh local produce is now available to many folks in Massachusetts, you will probably find it much more difficult to buy a pound of locally-produced and humanely-raised chicken breast.
The problem is not a lack of animals. People in every part of the state, even urban apartment dwellers, are raising chickens in their backyards and gardens and even porches. But what if you want to sell them? “There are no easy solutions,” says Jennifer Hashley, director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project and co-owner of Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds. “At least not legal ones.”
Small-scale meat producers have it rough in most parts of the country, and especially in Massachusetts. In order for a small farmer to properly market their product, he or she needs to be able to establish a strong brand for their product that is closely tied to its taste, quality and the standards of the farmer, such as humane animal treatment. However, in order to be tied to their brand, farmers need to have control over their product. So naturally, they would like to be responsible for the processing of the meat from their animals, but both federal and state regulations prohibit the sale of meat that is not processed in a USDA-approved facility. These facilities exist, but they are very large commercial establishments. Farmers who bring their livestock there to be processed have no say in how they will be treated and hope the controls are in place to receive the meat that came from their own animals.
This leaves many market farmers in a lurch. They would like to sell their meat, but they cannot sell it if they process it themselves, and it loses its intrinsic value if it goes through an anonymous facility. Many simply do their own processing anyway, sell their product to friends and neighbors, and usually do so without consequence. However, this is a perennially risky endeavor, both for the sake of the farmer and for the safety of the consumer, who could be eating a product that was processed without care or sanitation befitting of strict USDA standards. While the regulations can be a major hassle, Hashley comments that “they are there for a reason.”
Fortunately for poultry producers, the Federal USDA FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service, the agency responsible for regulating meat and poultry sales) has a series of Producer-Processor Exemptions that provide a crucial avenue for the legal slaughter and processing of poultry by small farmers on their property. According to the exemption, you can legally process your own birds that you have raised on your farm provided that the facility and process you use meets all USDA and Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) sanitary guidelines for poultry establishments. This still puts farmers in a tight spot, though, because creating a facility on a small farm that meets those stringent guidelines is economically prohibitive.
And this is where the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project comes in. Teaming up with the New England Small Farm Institute in Belchertown, MA, New Entry has developed, financed, and built a mobile poultry processing unit (MPPU) and associated farmer training programs as part of a statewide pilot poultry program. The MPPU is a state-approved “slaughterhouse on wheels” that can be hitched to a vehicle and moved throughout the state to licensed farms. It contains all the equipment necessary for the processing of chickens while the farmer provides the water, electricity, labor, packing and labeling materials, and cold storage.
However, the MPPU is not an on-demand service. The farmers do the work themselves, and they must also go through an extensive training to be licensed to use the unit, including securing local board of health approvals and applying for a state slaughter license, which can be costly in terms of time and money. Still, short of investing in an on-farm licensed facility, the MPPU remains the only completely legal way for small farmers to process and sell poultry in the state of Massachusetts while retaining their ability to market a high-quality local product. Hashley says that thus far the pilot project has resulted in 8 poultry license-holders and in 2010, the MPPU has three consistent users. New Entry and the New England Small Farm Institute are working hard to bring more farmers on board. It is a matter of time before the state clamps down on small producers who are not in compliance with direct poultry sales. In the mean time, those three users are benefiting substantially from the Mobile Poultry Processing Unit. For a story on Pete Solis of Mockingbird Farm, a new user of the MPPU in 2010, see the feature in the July 31, 2010 edition of the Springfield Republican. http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/07/mobile_poultry_processing_unit.html
Also keep an eye out in the coming weeks for a story on Drew Locke’s work with the MPPU and how he successfully launched his poultry business in Truro with New Entry’s help.
Jeff Hake

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