October 12, 2011

Something to squawk about

As demand for local meat rises, Mainers who raise poultry chafe at state rules that affect how they process and market their birds.

When Steve Hoad and his daughter Rose began producing as many as 2,000 to 2,500 chickens and turkeys on their Windsor farm, they thought it might be a good investment to build their own slaughtering facility to process their birds for market.

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Steve Hoad, who owns Emma’s Family Farm in Windsor, stands near some of his pastured poultry that he raises for meat. He and his daughter, Rose Hoad, who manages the farm with him, looked into building an on-farm processing facility, but were deterred by the cost.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Steve Hoad shows one of his processed chickens, vacuum sealed and ready for sale. It was processed by Weston’s Meat Cutting in West Gardiner, which is the only poultry processing facility in Maine with on-site state inspectors.

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Under state regulations, they would be able to sell the birds at their farm, through community-supported agriculture, or CSA, programs, and wholesale to restaurants and stores.

But after doing a lot of research and crunching some numbers, the Hoads concluded that the project didn't make sense financially.

"Yeah, we could build a garage and slap something in there, but that's really not doing it right," Steve Hoad said. "We estimated it would take $39,000 to $55,000 to build a facility that would be reasonable and we could keep clean. Then you would also have the issue of labor."

The Hoads ended up going to a state-inspected facility in Monmouth. When that closed earlier this year, they started taking their birds to Weston's in West Gardiner, which is now the only poultry processing facility in the state that has on-site state inspectors.

It's a more expensive way to bring their poultry to market, and for producers who live more than 50 miles away, it's impractical -- and more stressful for the birds. It doesn't help that there's a shortage of inspectors, although state regulators say they do their best to accommodate farmers' schedules.

"People Down East are having a real hard time," Hoad said, "because unless they are doing (processing on their farm), they have to haul all the way down to West Gardiner."

Poultry was once a major part of Maine's agricultural economy, said Mark Lapping, executive director of the Muskie School of Public Service and a professor who has studied food processing issues in the state.

"We've always been a very, very important chicken state in terms of meat," he said. "In fact, in Belfast, a lot of people think that the facilities at the harbor was for this or that, but it was for the export of chickens. Belfast was a major chicken exporting area for Boston and other areas as well."

Today, with more people concerned about the country's industrial food system, the demand for local meat has skyrocketed. More Mainers are getting back into farming, and those small farms are starting up poultry operations.

But getting their products to consumers can be challenging.

"Right now, given what we have in infrastructure and inspection, it's really hard to see the sector really growing significantly," Lapping said. "I suspect a lot of folks would like the state to get involved in helping put together a strategy or more facilities, and at the same time they don't want the state to regulate it."

'A BIT TOO SMALL'

Hal Prince, director of the Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations at the Maine Department of Agriculture, says local poultry production has grown to the point where the state could probably use several slaughter facilities dedicated to poultry, "but it's still a bit too small for that to become a reality."

The state currently has 3½ state inspection positions, and has just been given approval to hire a fourth. There's enough work for probably double that number, Prince said.

There are 18 facilities in Maine licensed to process poultry. In addition to the Weston plant, where birds are individually inspected by a state inspector, there are 13 facilities like the one the Hoads wanted to build.

Those facilities can process up to 20,000 of their own birds a year, but are not allowed to process birds from other farms. They are allowed to sell their birds retail at their farm or through farmers markets and CSAs, and they can sell wholesale to restaurants and stores.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Chickens at Emma’s Family Farm seek shelter under a tarp. The farm produces up to 2,500 meat birds a year.

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Turkeys at Emma’s Family Farm in Windsor will be ready for the table by Thanksgiving. The challenge is getting them there, farmers say.

 


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