Stuck in the Pasture

Laura Haverland

Laura Haverland › Laura Haverland is a beginning farmer in coastal Rhode Island. After years living in New York ...

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Americans love chicken. In 2012, the USDA forecasts that we will eat 240% more chicken per capita than we did back in 1965. With our appetite for chicken strong and growing, it’s no surprise that enterprising farmers, large and small, want to get a piece of the action. Behemoths like Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride largely have a lock on the factory-farmed chicken sold in supermarkets. But these days, there is also growing demand for poultry raised in a way our great-grandparents would recognize: pastured poultry that roam outdoors, eat worms and grass, and live their short lives without needing to be treated with antibiotics.

So, how do small farmers break get into the action and supply consumers who crave a better chicken? As luck would have it, raising pastured poultry is simple: get some baby chicks, give them food and water for as little as eight weeks, move them to fresh grass a couple of times a day, and voilà: a quick turnaround for your investment. Moreover, finding customers isn’t much of a challenge; where I live, in Rhode Island, and near many urban centers, farmers easily get over $5 a pound for frozen birds at farmers markets.

But to get a pastured chicken onto your table, there is a big piece of the farm to table equation that’s missing: small farmers in many parts of the country, including much of New England, have nowhere to slaughter their birds that allows the chicken to be sold. In order to sell chicken to a grocery store, at a local farmers market and especially at any markets out of state, regulations require that the birds be slaughtered and processed (plucked and cleaned) at a USDA-inspected facility. And in New England, there are hardly any: the nearest USDA-inspected poultry slaughterhouse to our area is in Vermont, more than three hours away. As one of my farmer neighbors said recently, what’s the point of raising your birds humanely if you then have to stress them with a long drive to slaughter? With the cost of gas, at least a day or two away from the farm, and the strain on the chickens, it’s not worth the trouble. The end result: most farmers in New England don’t raise meat chickens, even though they know there’s a surge in demand.

The Rhode Island Association of Conservation Districts, an organization with a mission of stewarding the state’s natural resources, is currently conducting a survey of farmers in New England to explore the idea of a shared farm equipment bank. Becca Buckler, who is leading the interviews for the Association, thought she would hear from farmers about the need for larger tractors or specialized ploughs, but instead what has come up over and over again is the need for poultry slaughtering infrastructure. Buckler said, “I’ve been talking with farmers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and everyone has said they would raise more meat birds if they could sell them at farmers markets or to restaurants or grocery stores. The demand for local poultry is really present and growing. The market demand is there, and the growers are there, and what’s missing is the piece in the middle: facilities and regulations. We have a system of regulations that’s geared towards the large factory farm setup, and it leaves the small producers behind.”

In response to Buckler’s ongoing research, the RI Association of Conservation Districts is considering spearheading an effort to fund and build a state-certified mobile poultry processing unit which could be hitched to the back of a truck, brought to individual farms, and provide a solution for farmers who want a legal way to process and sell their chickens without having to travel long distances. Massachusetts now has two of these units that have proven very popular, providing a local example of what is possible.

Ultimately, a mobile processing unit is probably not the long term solution to the lack of poultry infrastructure for small farmers in New England. But building one could help establish enough growers in the local poultry market that a private business owner might see the opportunity to build a larger, permanent USDA-inspected slaughterhouse which could serve a broad customer base. As Buckler said, “The best case scenario would be for someone to recognize this as a business prospect, take the idea and run with it.”

One solution may already be on the horizon: the largest poultry producer in Rhode Island, Baffoni’s Poultry Farm in Johnston, has applied for USDA certification for their on-farm slaughterhouse and is working towards an approval date of July 2012 with the USDA. A family-run business, Baffoni’s currently operates under the USDA’s Producer/Grower 20,000 Bird Limit exemption, which means they can’t process more than 20,000 of their own birds annually, and they can’t sell out of state. Today, the farm also offers custom slaughter services, which means that anyone with a few backyard birds can have their chickens processed at Baffoni’s for a fee, but that poultry is not legal for resale. By gaining USDA certification, Baffoni’s would achieve two major goals. First, they would be able to sell their own chicken across state lines (a critical option for a business in such a tiny state), and they would be allowed to expand production past 20,000 birds if they decided to do so someday. Second, and most important to the farming community, Baffoni’s would be able to offer a USDA-certified slaughter service to other farmers, enabling those growers to legally sell their chicken.

Don Baffoni explained that one of his major motivations for getting the USDA certification is to help other small farmers get a foothold in the market. “We want to focus on providing full service for all these small farmers until they get up and running up to a volume [where it makes sense] to put in a small processing facility for themselves,” he said. Baffoni is confident there is ample space in the marketplace for more local chicken, since he constantly turns down customers who want to buy his product due to lack of supply. He estimates that upgrading his facility may cost up to $50,000, but he feels the investment is worth it to allow his business to grow and support other farmers.

So, things may be looking up for aspiring pastured chicken farmers in New England; if Baffoni’s getting their USDA status allows other farmers to legally market their poultry far and wide, a mobile unit may not be necessary. Eventually, we may see individual farmers decide to take the plunge and make the investment in small mobile processing units for their own farms. Whatever the case, there’s room for growth, and here’s hoping that more of the chicken we eat comes from farms instead of factories.

Has this issue come up in your area? Was there a successful resolution?