After a decade dabbling in pastured poultry and non-inspected processing under Vermont’s thousand bird exemption, we reached a point where we were either going to get smaller or expand. We decided to expand and now our farm includes a small on-farm USDA-inspected poultry processing plant.
The path to the on-farm processing plant began with a dramatic increase in pasture-raised broiler chicken and turkey production that started in 2013. In 2012, we produced 750 broiler chickens and 200 turkeys on pasture, and processed them non-inspected on-farm. In 2016, we had 18,500 broilers, 750 turkeys, and we processed an additional 8000 birds for other farms.
Our decision to grow resulted from several opportunities that made the growing our poultry operation attractive. Those factors included:
1. An opportunity to buy property debt-free, through the Vermont Land Trust, with easy access to markets and better land for larger scale pastured poultry.
2. The sale of the Vermont State-Inspected Mobile Poultry Processing Unit created a significant loss of local inspected chicken to the Vermont market.
3. Processing Infrastructure. The availability of a low-cost “containerized” turn-key processing plant for small farms.
4. Production Infrastructure. Innovations to mobile field shelters for pastured poultry.
5. The State of Vermont’s Farm to Plate initiative had begun to invest in local farms looking to expand to meet anticipated local and regional demand for Vermont grown products.
How it Started
To give you some perspective, our home farm sits on a hilltop bench above the Huntington River Valley. While it has great pasture and beautiful views, its elevation and colder climate zone along with steep hill access and isolation from anything remotely thought of as a population center makes it less well-suited for any kind of processing site, not to mention pasturing poultry.
Since poultry is part of our farm business, we ventured out to rent farmland that was closer to people and offered a better climate for poultry. The Andrews Farm just outside of Richmond, VT fit the bill. It was close to town and nearby Burlington, with a large, flat bottomland field featuring well-drained soils. For eight years, we leased the Andrews Farm and its facilities, which also contained a non-inspected poultry processing space, a large walk-in cooler, heated office space and bathroom, poultry brooding area, large dry storage space, and a small, newly-renovated farm store section all located in the main barn.
Then in 2011 the Andrews Farm came up for sale. This was a major turning point for us and our farm. If we didn’t purchase Andrews farm, it would have amounted to making a decision to get much smaller, relegating our farm activities to homesteading and necessitating a move toward off-farm employment. In order to buy Andrews Farm, we spent two years working with Vermont Land Trust to sell the development rights of our home farm, using the proceeds to purchase the Andrews Farm. The deal also left us with additional money to invest in new infrastructure at the Andrews Farm.
Around the same time that the Andrews Farm was put up for sale, the Vermont State-Inspected Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPPU) closed and was sold at auction to a private entity. For several years we had used the MPPU’s services to increase the number of chickens we produced each year to 2500 per season. The inspected product could be sold to stores and restaurants which expanded our access to new markets.
When the MPPU stopped operating we were limited to Vermont’s 1000-bird, non-inspected limit, as were many other farms in the state. In all, losing the MPPU represented a loss of 30,000 inspected birds (many of which were pasture-raised) from the Vermont market per year. We saw this as an opportunity and started to look into inspected processing for the farm.
Getting to USDA-inspected Processing With a “Plant In A Box”
Our research turned up a company that was focused on getting small farms set up with inspected plants. “Plant In A Box” or PIB was started by David Schafer in Missouri. David had a company called Featherman that specialized in low cost poultry processing equipment for the on-farm processor. Now he was offering a poultry processing plant designed to be a turnkey USDA-inspected facility built inside an 8’ x 40’ shipping container. Once the plants were built they could be transported to the farm, set up on a foundation and hooked up to electricity, propane, and wastewater infrastructure. The cost in 2013 was $75,000, well below estimates to build something similar using traditional building methods. The only stumbling block was that the fledgling PIB company, despite a working design, had never built a Plant in a Box before.
With the additional money available from our development rights sale and a Vermont State Working Lands Enterprise Grant of $15,000 dollars, we had the ability to purchase the PIB and could afford the site and utility work necessary to hook up the unit at the Andrews Farm. In addition, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture agreed to design and pay for 80% of a wastewater system to handle pink water coming out of the plant. We also had the Andrews Barn which already had the required office, bathroom, and cooler facilities we needed to get started. In late spring of 2013 the plant arrived and we were able to hook up the utilities with little problem.
From our first day in the PIB, we realized we were in for a very steep learning curve. There were several major issues with the plant that plagued us in that first season. Drainage, lighting, handwashing sinks, and separation of the kill area from the evisceration space were all substandard. We had elected to start out with Vermont state inspection rather than USDA to give us time to get these issues resolved before applying for USDA status.
Thankfully, the Vermont inspector allowed us to work through all these issues while we operated as long as he could see we were making steady progress to solving them. In fairness to David Schafer and PIB, once we identified major problems, they paid over $5k to make improvements including a new floor with much better drainage, additional lighting, hands free handwashing sinks, and a wall separating kill area from the evisceration space.
We also had to invest a lot of time and effort to transition from our non-inspected processes and methods to those consistent with inspection. Though I was skeptical going into the season, we soon found that the parameters required for inspected processing result in a much cleaner, higher-quality product than we had produced in our non-inspected days. That year we raised 4,000 broilers – all in 10 x 12 chicken tractors – along with 300 turkeys.
Following that first season, we lost the Andrews Barn to fire in 2014, an event that has spurred us to even greater expansion since. To continue, we needed to rebuild. We were encouraged by receiving an incredible amount of support from our friends, neighbors, and state and local organizations. It’s been a long and rocky recovery, and one that we haven’t emerged from completely. However, in the process of rebuilding, we had the opportunity to expand and innovate around our poultry processing enterprise.
Instead of just replacing our cooler, we added in a blast chiller to institute air chilling into our poultry process. Air chilling the birds after slaughter, as opposed to ice water chilling, reduces the opportunity for contamination, and eliminates water absorption, which makes for a more flavorful and tender poultry product. We were also able to add additional processing space which has made it possible for us to process more birds in a day and cut our processing costs. A major part of the funding for these initiatives came from another Working Lands Capital Improvements grant from the State of Vermont.
More Processing Means More Pastured Poultry
With all this growth, it soon became apparent that raising so many birds on pasture would be a challenge using the standard 10’ x 12’ chicken tractor. Doing so took a lot of labor and made for sore backs and occasionally unhappy birds when inclement weather made those smaller shelters less livable. At the time we had started to work with mobile high tunnels on skids for our layer flocks in conjunction with electric net. Based on what others had done with high tunnels across the country, we decided to invest in mobile high-tunnels with automated waterers and hanging feeders for our broilers. We now have eight 21’ x 36’ mobile field shelters with 45% shade plastic skins. Each shelter can house up to 500 birds, sides roll up and down depending on weather (though chicken wire keeps birds in and predators out) for ventilation, and skids are equipped with anchor points so they can be easily secured in high wind situations. Shelters are moved daily onto new grass using a pick-up truck towing a one ton gravity wagon for feed.
The biggest advantage to these shelters has been labor savings. It takes 2 people 10 minutes to move 500 birds with these shelters, which includes feed out and water check. By contrast, chicken tractor moving for the same amount of birds takes, on average, 35 minutes for 3 people. And during those inclement days when birds in chicken tractors can get damp and cold, the mobile shelters ability to protect the birds from weather and hold in heat makes a big difference. Last May, when we experienced a late snowfall with high winds, the birds remained dry and relatively warm. In the past, a rogue storm like that has spelled disaster for our flocks out in the tractors.
Growing our poultry operation was something we had thought about, but it wasn’t clear when we would take the next steps. The timing of challenges that we faced came together with opportunities and new technology for raising and processing poultry. Now we raise 20 times more poultry than we had been, and can work with other Vermont farmers who want to sell inspected poultry.
For those raising birds close enough to our Richmond, Vermont location consider our services for poultry processing. The cost is $5.50/bird which includes heat-shrink packaging, a label with weight calculated, and access to any market, including those out of your home state. We currently have open processing dates for 2017 and are actively seeking additional farms needing USDA inspected processing.
Stay tuned! We’re going to be back with more information on the Plant In a Box and mobile high tunnels for raising chickens.