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.

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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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While the state must approve of the operations through regular inspections, they are exempt from continuous, bird-by-bird inspections.

There are four facilities that are allowed to slaughter up to 1,000 birds a year. These producers have fewer space and equipment requirements than the 20,000-bird facilities, but they can only sell birds to customers who come to the farm, at farmers markets or through CSAs. They are not allowed to sell to restaurants or stores.

The facilities that can process up to 20,000 birds are "really what small farmers have to go for if they want to have an economically viable poultry operation," said Chad Conley, who manages the Miyake Farm in Freeport.

"If farmers are trying to raise chickens for meat and actually make money on it -- not have it just be this nice thing they do on the side -- it's the only option that allows you to make money, because it costs $4 a bird to have somebody process your bird in a state-inspected facility," Conley said. "And that's basically half your cost of raising the bird, so you can't really make any money."

But setting up an on-farm slaughtering facility, Conley added, could cost as much as $30,000 to $40,000 up front, "and most farms just don't have that kind of money."

Conley is also puzzled by the fact that people who have 20,000-bird facilities must get a separate license as a custom processor if they want to process other people's birds.

"I'm not against regulation," he said. "I think there are absolutely legitimate safety concerns when it comes to handling food, and meat especially needs to be handled properly.

"But the state just goes way too far. It makes it very difficult for people to operate and make money doing this."

DODGING THE RULES

The result, poultry producers say, is that some farms sell their birds illegally or find creative ways to get around the regulations.

"There are actually some farms selling their birds live," Hoad said, "and then the people that buy those birds have to pick them up at the slaughter plant."

Some smaller poultry producers who have revolted against state regulations say their customers know and trust them to run a clean operation, and that should be enough. Last spring, several communities on the Blue Hill peninsula passed local ordinances that would exempt farms from state and federal regulations if they sell directly to their customers.

Shortly after, the state agriculture commissioner asked Maine's attorney general to send the communities a letter informing them that state law pre-empts their local ordinances. The letter stated that anyone who fails to comply with state law could be barred from selling his products or be subject to fines.

Prince said that if people are caught selling illegally, state regulators try to work with them first to bring them into compliance. Only if they absolutely refuse to do anything differently are they subject to a fine, and the amount of that fine would be determined by the attorney general's office.

"But that's not the way we choose to do it," he said. "That's an absolute last resort."

ONE BAD BIRD ...

Not everyone agrees that knowing your farmer is enough to keep poultry safe. Hoad said he and other poultry producers are worried about the farms working outside the law because one bad bird that makes someone sick could bring down everyone else.

"All of these licenses are basically set up to protect the consumer," Hoad said. "And you know, just because the consumer knows their farmer doesn't mean that farmer knows the science. I can raise the cleanest poultry in the world as a farmer, but if I don't know the science about processing and how to control the pathogens that are involved, I can make a mistake at the end as I process those birds that would kill somebody."

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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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