For many farmers, raising poultry is an attractive and marketable option. Not only does poultry require relatively little space, the birds also reach market size fairly quickly. How does that food get to the plate exactly? This is where the challenge sets in: How to process the birds for sale in a manner that allows the greatest benefit for both grower and consumer.
Your average small-scale poultry farmer has two options to get her product to market: on-farm processing or traveling to an off-farm slaughter facility. Because slaughter facilities are out of reach of many small farmers, some chicken farmers simply have no choice but to process their birds on site. State restrictions, however, may limit sales of animals slaughtered on the farm to on-farm sales, as well as the number of birds that may be sold annually.
Many producers thus choose to transport their animals to distant slaughter facilities for the additional sales opportunities it provides. But farmers who transport their birds can lose as much as 15 percent of their flocks due to transportation stress, and they pay a high price for having their birds processed in those facilities.
However, an alternative processing option has many producers joining forces and sharing a mobile poultry-processing unit (MPPU) that comes straight to the farm. While MPPUs range from open-air equipment placed on a trailer to completely contained units, farmers who are fortunate enough to have access to a full-sized, certified mobile poultry unit — such as the one run by The Kitsap Poultry Growers Cooperative (KPGC) in western Washington — have all the amenities of the slaughterhouse brought right to the farm: saving on processing fees, fuel, stress to the birds, and more.
Because the USDA delegates the oversight of poultry processing to state agriculture departments for intrastate sales, laws governing MPPUs vary by state. Working within the regulations set forth by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), the Kitsap co-op’s MPPU offers producers the opportunity to not only share the cost of the facility with other producers, but also to upgrade to the WSDA food processor license by using the MPPU as their certified processing facility. This allows farmers to sell both frozen birds and cut pieces at farmers’ markets and to local grocery stores and restaurants. Without the food processor license, growers in Washington are limited to selling fresh, whole birds from on-farm processing directly to consumers within 48 hours of slaughter.
The KPGC formed in 2009, guided largely by the leadership of founding members Stuart Boyle and his partner Michele Gilles. The mission was simple yet vital: “To support, educate and advocate for producers and consumers of sustainable, locally grown poultry.” Jerry Darnall was the co-op’s first president from 2009 to 2011; Boyle has served in that position since 2011. Not all founding members were farmers. Sixty-five consumer members made small donations to start the cooperative.
At first KPGC did not have funds for the dream of a full-sized certified MPPU. Members pooled their money and then needed an organization to manage it. They turned to nonprofit Northwest Cooperative Development Center (NWCDC) for technical assistance in developing legal documents, a business plan and budget, and establishing a board of directors. Most of that work was done under a USDA Rural Enterprise Grant to the NWCDC.
Because there are no specialized MPPU manufacturers, trailer manufacturers usually build the units according to a buyer’s specifications, which can get expensive. While the co-op got an estimate from a manufacturer for a self-contained unit, a farmer in eastern Washington fortunately listed an MPPU for a considerably lower price.
Boyle got to work finding a source to finance this happy find, and within 30 days he had collected about 50 pledges, then commitments from 36 people who support small-scale agriculture. To handle the money collected for the purchase, the co-op established the Western Washington Farmers Holding Co. The MPPU is currently being leased to the co-op by the holding company until the donors are repaid, and then the holding company will dissolve. The contributors are to be repaid within five years.
Acquiring a truck to haul the mobile poultry-processing unit to the farms is the co-op’s next priority. They hope for a donation of a used truck to the Kitsap Community Agriculture Alliance (KCAA). The person would donate the truck to the KCAA, which would turn it over to the co-op.
The MPPU became fully operational in 2014. In 2013, three producers actively tested the unit and wrote a training and operations manual for users. The co-op also plans to begin growing its membership this year from the current 65-mile radius to a 150-mile radius around Silverdale, Washington.
In the hopes of enticing more participation, they will be changing their name to Western Washington Poultry Farmers Cooperative (WWPFC), since they will be servicing farmers outside of Kitsap County.
While membership is a requirement for renting equipment, this certainly doesn’t preclude other types of members.
Anyone can join, from community members who support locally raised poultry products to farmers and producers themselves. Members who don’t raise their own poultry may receive discounts on products from producers.
Fees pay for the purchase and maintenance of equipment as well as educational programs, including a Washington State University Extension-sponsored “Pasture to Plate” course that demonstrated what it takes to process birds from start to finish. They trained community college culinary students, and they plan to offer future classes on food safety practices.
Members from the hobby level up may rent the portable processing equipment. Farmers who rent the MPPU, however, must have the WSDA food processors license. WSDA licenses each farmer individually. The MPPU is the WSDA designated facility assigned to each licensee.
Boyle and Gilles provide farmers the required one-day training on how to use the trailer, and requirements they need to meet at their facility. To use the unit in Washington, a farmer must have a 220-amp electrical hook-up, waste-water capture and disposal capability, and a concrete pad or gravel area for the trailer to back up to. The WWPFC hopes to have up to six licensed operators actively using the MPPU this year.
All cutting, eviscerating, and chilling birds to a specified temperature must occur in the “clean room” of the MPPU. The physical size of the clean room limits the number of animals that can be processed. Between 150 and 200 chickens, or 75 turkeys, can be processed in the MPPU in a day.
When asked what advice he would give to someone wanting to start a poultry-growers’ cooperative, Boyle said that establishing the community is foremost. He recommends having a small board of directors and seeking out volunteers, since farmers are busy and co-op work does not pay. Focus on the group’s purpose, and know your state’s laws for local processing and on-farm sales. And effective communication is essential.
Access a comprehensive guide to buying or building your own mobile poultry-processing unit at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project website. You can also learn more about the Western Washington Poultry Farmers Cooperative at Kitsap Poultry Growers Cooperative.
Read more: Learn to process poultry at home in Chicken Processing at Home Reinforces Feelings for Processing Meat Myself.
Lauren Turner is a freelance writer specializing in agricultural, environmental and community topics. She retired from a 30-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, where she worked as a wildlife biologist, ecosystem manager and district ranger. An avid organic gardener, she lives in Sequim, Washington, with her husband and their cat.