Strengthen Local Agriculture with a Mobile Slaughterhouse

Before jumping into building a mobile slaughterhouse business, consider the economic sustainability of your initiative.

Chickens

Using a mobile slaughterhouse eliminates the stress and expense of shipping live animals, and brings clean, professional slaughter services to small farmers.

Photo by Fotolia/flucas

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In The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse (Storey, 2013), Ali Berlow provides a solution to the lack of good slaughtering options for small-scale chicken farmers. A safe, clean, mobile slaughterhouse returns autonomy to the farmers, as well as minimizing the stress and expense of transporting live animals. The following excerpt is from chapter 2, “Money In and Money Out.”

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse.

"The other birds that you can buy in the supermarket are based on overall efficiencies. And those efficiencies are based on price point. My efficiency is based on an ethical system." — Jefferson Munroe, The Good Farm

Is a mobile unit or a small slaughterhouse economically sustainable in your community? If so, what business model in this agricultural environment makes sense for today and for the future, accounting for growth? Where will you sell the product, who is going to buy it, and for how much?

At IGI [Island Grown Initiative] we have found that the mini version, a Lilliputian MPPT [Mobile Poultry Processing Trailer], is the perfect answer in terms of size-appropriate technology to jump-start production of local poultry. In the first year of operating the MPPT under permit #417, $80–90,000 circulated locally; the second year, $120–140,000; the third year closed out at around $200,000. these approximate numbers reflect:

• money earned by the Crew
• slaughterhouse processing fees that would’ve otherwise gone elsewhere (just hypothetical because there isn't a poultry slaughterhouse in our region)
• the sales of chickens (farmer revenue)

These are dollars that didn’t exist in our community, prior to the mobile slaughterhouse.

Figuring Out Finances

If sustainability is the ongoing goal, and fair food is one of the philosophical pillars of the food system you want to create, then you must support paying a fair wage and asking a fair price along the chickens’ food chain. A new program will need subsidization at first but should not be overly dependent on outside sources.

Wages

What are comparable hourly wages in your community? IGI developed a pay structure for the Crew that was commensurate with competitive local jobs, such as landscaping and catering.

Though farmers think in terms of cost per bird, IGI strategized an hourly rate for the Crew, not a per-bird rate. This established a high safety standard, based on animal welfare and quality of work, instead of processing the highest number of birds in the shortest amount of time.

Once processing flow was up to speed, IGI could shift to a cost per bird without subsidies. When you remove the financial incentive for speed, you decrease potential harm to people and birds. This does not, however, create disincentives for efficiency. Speed is a path toward bad practices. Efficiency implies that animal and human welfare and food safety are the primary concerns.

Farmer Fees and Responsibilities

The farmer always owns the birds. Neither IGI nor the Chicken Crew ever takes ownership of the birds, alive or dead.

The farmer pays the manager of the Chicken Crew directly. The manager then pays out to the other Crew members.

If something goes wrong with the equipment or there is a delay in processing and the Crew is on site for an extra 2 hours, who is to pay for that time? These are scenarios that should be discussed, prior to events. In IGI’s case, the onus is on the Crew manager to ensure that a processing goes on despite, for example, a mechanical breakdown of a piece of equipment. On the other hand, if the farmer is responsible for the delay, he would have to pay an added “penalty” fee to the Crew for their time.

A farmer should be pretty well prepared, ready to go and on time, barring all unforeseen circumstances.

Taking Stock at the Start

Once you have an idea of how many broilers are being raised in your community — or how many birds could be raised in your community — you’ll be able to determine what kind of mobile option you need to jump-start poultry production.

This is a risk-assessment type of situation. How much money are you willing to risk on poultry that may or may not have a place in your current food system now — taking into account where, if any, slaughterhouses exist in your area, while considering the farmers?

In 2007 there were only 200 meat birds being raised on Martha’s Vineyard: effectively, zero. Zero is a good number to start with. You can only go up from there. Zero also meant that we had to meet our community where it was and not overbuild. Hence, we built size-appropriately for zero-plus growth. We built a mini.

Purchasing Equipment

Buy the best equipment you can afford. When all was said and done, the MPPT cost IGI around $20,000, and that included training the Crew. The equipment itself cost approximately $15,000 in 2007. IGI incurred no major outlays for improvements or repairs in four years of running the equipment.

The self-timing, stainless steel Poultryman Rotary Scalder is worth its expense because of its steady, reliable rotation and efficiency.

Otherwise a vigilant member of the Chicken Crew would have to be on scalder duty. The Poultryman Plucker, also stainless steel, is an enviable workhorse that produces a gently plucked clean bird. Have these two pieces of heavy equipment modified with welded-on wheels for easier off-and-on maneuverability from the trailer.

Finding Funding

State and federal funds are available to support local agriculture and the building of infrastructure such as slaughter and processing solutions for communities. There are also private foundations interested in jump-starting local agriculture via infrastructure. The IGI mobile slaughterhouse was supported by private donations from the local community — an angel donor, a building company, a grocer, a local foundation, and T-shirt sales.

Government Programs

There are government funds for programs, education, and outreach for new, beginning, and “disadvantaged” farmers. Get to know your regional USDA Rural Development office, both online and in person.

Begin by visiting USDA. Search for “Grants and Loans,” currently listed under “Programs and Services,” then click on “Assisting Rural Communities.” IGI received a grant for educational outreach from the USDA’s Northeast Sustainable Agricultural Resource and Education (NESARE) program. Find information for your region at SARE.

Once you’ve found an opportunity, schedule a face-to-face get-to-know-each-other visit with your public servants. It can do wonders in breaking down barriers and strengthening communication and trust.

Private Donations

Ten thousand dollars were given to IGI by Scott Lively, then-owner of Dakota Organic Beef, located in Howard, South Dakota. This amount was just about all the seed money we needed to purchase the basic MPPT (not including the double-sided sink). So when you’re looking for funds and donations, look into the private food sector as well.

As always, know how your donors like to be thanked and acknowledged. Many philanthropists are low-profile and prefer that their anonymity be respected — but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate (or need for tax purposes) a letter of genuine gratitude.

Foundations

To help locate grant applications from foundations, many public libraries have access to the Foundation Center database. This is an extensive database and it takes some time and skill to sort through it all. Always read up on the foundations’ giving histories. Some have very specific parameters, and there’s no reason to waste time and energy chasing up the wrong tree. A well-written, polite letter of inquiry will clarify whether you and your program are potentially a good match.

Putting the Fun Back in Fundraising

IGI hosted a fundraiser at the Agricultural Hall with the theme “Local Meat Is Good to Eat but There’s More to Life than Chicken.” A local cook roasted up some pigs, chickens, and beef. Scottish Bakehouse gave us a good deal on sides. A live band played, we rolled in the MPPT for people to inspect, and we sold T-shirts.

The event was affordably priced. Its purpose was to raise awareness about the poultry program and some money, too. But the long-term goal was to get the community excited and geared up for the next phase, to build a brick-and-mortar USDA-inspected facility for both four-leggeds and poultry.

Besides accomplishing all that, the event was a huge success and a lot of fun.

Trojan Units

Early in our program, IGI was offered the use of an MSU, a big mobile slaughter unit on a tractor-trailer for four-legged livestock. The donor was enthusiastic and said she would pay to get the unit from the Midwest to Martha’s Vineyard.

I thought we’d hit the jackpot. We could show it off and excite potential donors and eaters. But doubts quickly crept in. It probably would’ve made a great photo op with the smiling donor and smiling farmers and a local leg of lamb or side of pig cooking on the grill. But it wouldn’t have done anything to bring a true and reliable humane slaughter and processing option to our farming community.

No people-infrastructure was in place then and there was no regulatory infrastructure to help us achieve our goal of increasing the number of people raising livestock. We had no business plan, no regulators on board, no USDA inspector (as required for every permitted four-legged slaughter). Certainly there were no logistics in place for a USDA-inspected facility in which the primal cuts could be stored, hung, cut and packed; few ready farms or farmers; and no community buy-in.

The articles cut out from local papers would have have yellowed and become litter for the henhouse long after the MSU was driven back onto the ferry and headed for its next trick. And the naysayers would have been proved right: “Mobile slaughter is no solution at all” or my favorite, “Mobile units belong in the ‘box of things that shouldn’t happen.’ ” Indeed, mobile slaughter does not fit neatly into the regulatory box.

Regulators and Big Ag would sigh in relief for similar reasons and some different ones too. As for the nonprofit, there would have been adverse consequences from a public relations standpoint and for fundraising down the line, because the unit offered no real gain.

The moral of the story: be careful what you jump into. The gift horse, as generous and well intentioned as it may be, could very well create more long-term problems and difficulties down the line, if you are not properly prepared to accept it.

The Consolidation of Slaughterhouses

Small-scale livestock production has declined in our country because the fundamental piece of infrastructure — the slaughterhouse — is not readily available due to cost, geography, and oversized, prohibitive regulations. Meanwhile, factory farms and their counterparts, assembly-line factory-like slaughterhouses, damage the environment, workers, and the food they put into our food system.

A slaughterhouse is “a place that is no place,” writes French author Noëlie Vialles. In our society we have moved the slaughterhouses out of sight, out of mind — literally and figuratively— until an undercover video showing sick and beaten animals hits the Web or there is yet another meat recall. Either way, we look away. We don’t want to see behind those walls where lives are transformed into steaks and chops and drumsticks. Slaughter is disturbing and messy. It makes people uncomfortable. Besides raw milk, no topic is more likely to rile normally sane folk into a fervent rectitude, impervious to negotiation — when they’ll consider the subject at all.

But what have we lost in turning a blind eye?

Scott Soares, the former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture, remembers three slaughterhouses in his hometown of Dartmouth, Mass. In the state today, there is no commercial brick-and-mortar slaughterhouse for chickens at all. Not one.

As “a place that is no place,” the MPPT puts slaughter back into full view and on the farm. The size and place of the solution are scaled down appropriately in response to the size and place of the situation. An MPPT is every place and no place: a pop-up slaughterhouse, as it were.

Here one day, transparent, wall-less; then gone. And we repeat, flock by flock, one chicken at a time. The next step in this process will be to negotiate responsive regulations as well.

Rise of the CAFO

The decline of slaughterhouses is in a direct inverse relationship to the rise of industrial agriculture and the CAFOs (Concentrated or Confined Animal Feeding Operations) that define factory farming. The vertical integration and consolidation of agribusiness includes slaughterhouses that are monolithic in the sheer volume of animals processed, the assembly-line efficiencies accounted solely as profit margins but discounting people, environment, and animals. That’s centralized power.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines Animal Feeding Operations (AFO/CAFO) as “agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than  the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.”

A CAFO is not necessarily defined by numbers of animals or size of operation but by the conditions under which livestock are raised. It’s a methodology. A system. It is possible in theory for a “small family farm” to employ CAFO methods. Labels, language, and the lexicon of sustainability (including the very words local food, sustainability, small family farms) are slippery at best, empty at worst, until defined. The MPPT is microscopic in the grand scheme of things, yet roundly magnificent in its impact.

The Chicken Equivalent

The broiler’s version of the steer’s CAFO is the factory-like warehouse in which birds have less than half a square foot of space in which to  live their lives. According to the Humane Society of the United States’ Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Broiler Chicken Industry, “Stocking density, the number of birds per unit of floor space, indicates the level at which the animals are crowded together in a grower house.

For a chicken nearing market weight (5 pounds or 2.27 kg), the average industry stocking density is slightly larger than the area of a single sheet of letter-sized paper, 97.3–118.1 inches squared (628–762 cm squared) per bird.”

The broilers in this production model have also been genetically bred for rapid growth and large breasts (we eaters choose white meat over dark meat) with a fast feed-to-growth conversion (six weeks to slaughter), and any natural activity could slow production growth and schedules. Many birds die due to overcrowding, disease, overheating, and a range of health issues — thanks to heavy body size relative to skeletal structure and internal organs that cannot support life as these animals know it.

Commodity chicken — chicken that is raised in a thoroughly vertically integrated economic model from egg-to-chick-to-feed-to-farmer-to-slaughter-to-marketing-to-product — is at an industrial-strength scale that very purposefully reduces the animal to a cog, a protein unit, in the assembly line, and a sadly efficient one at that. According to the National Chicken Council, which represents the broiler industry in Washington, DC:

“In the 1930s, the hatching of broiler chicks was spread among some 11,000 independent facilities with an average capacity of 24,000 eggs. By 2001, the number of hatcheries had declined by 97 percent — to only 323 — but with an average incubator capacity of 2.7 million eggs.”

Vertical integration at this scale has the potential to reduce the farmer and the workers in slaughter and processing plants to just another variable.

Scoring the Broilers

The poultry industry as a whole is one of the most difficult area of livestock welfare to regulate, according to Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human, Humane Livestock Handling, and other books. For producers, the more densely packed the birds are, especially with laying hens, the more economical it is to raise them. Dr. Grandin gives “market-ready broilers” one of three scores:

1. Not able to walk 10 paces
2. Able to walk 10 paces crooked and lame
3. Able to walk

Witnessing and Reporting

An entire genre of books has emerged focusing on this destructive system. In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a fictionalized muckraking of Chicago’s stockyards and meatpacking lines, which Henry Ford studied to hone his revolutionary method of assembly-line car manufacturing. The book inspired others far and wide to decry the indecencies occurring in these difficult, marginalized, shielded places where we are told, “Don’t look. We’ll take care of it so you don’t have to.” Recent tapings of inhumane treatment of animals, and drives to make video recordings inside slaughterhouses illegal, show how divisive, dangerous, and empowering, depending on which side you’re on, witness can be.

Many books, websites, and movie documentaries have chronicled  the rise of CAFOs and their destructive forces, disease- and pollution-spreading outcomes, and impacts on people, animals, the environment, and food. That story is beyond the scope of this essay, but you can find information at your library, movie theater, or independent bookseller — no matter from what angle you approach the meat bird. Whether you want to learn about the true costs of cheap food, industrial agriculture, backyard farming, the environment, food justice, history, the kitchen, or federal policy and the Farm Bill, there is a book, a film, a website to delight, enrage, enlighten, and edify — to spur your action, from flint to spark to fire.


Reprinted with permission from The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse: Building a Humane Chicken Processing Unit to Strengthen Your Local Food System by Ali Berlow and published by Storey Publishing, 2013. Buy this book from our store: The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse.