When the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project in Lowell, Massachusetts wanted to help beginning farmers earn a steady, reliable source of income and improve the quality of their soil, chickens were the logical choice.
Chickens take only six to eight weeks to grow from chicks to full-sized birds, so producers can earn income quickly and with reduced risk. Chickens can also be raised on fallow cropland, building soil fertility for the next season.
Unfortunately, Massachusetts has no USDA-inspected processing facilities, leaving producers with few ways to get their birds from the farm to consumers. A poultry producer herself, New Entry's director Jennifer Hashley knew the challenges of the poultry market. So New Entry partnered with the New England Small Farm Institute to propose a mobile poultry processing unit, which travels from farm to farm to process birds.
With funding from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, administered by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the groups pulled together staff from the state's Departments of Public Health, Environmental Protection and Agricultural Resources and local boards of health to develop a process for licensing and regulating the mobile units. Shortly thereafter, USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service released guidance documents on mobile meat and poultry processing to assist other states in drafting these kinds of regulations.
Hashley's group first built an open-air unit with processing equipment mounted on a flatbed trailer. The unit was used by 8 different producers during the first three years of the pilot. With support from USDA Rural Development, a larger, enclosed unit was built for use in all kinds of weather. Now dozens of producers are using the mobile units across the state and at least 8 other producers have either modified or developed their own on-farm processing facilities under the state licensing process.
To ensure that producers using the mobile unit are properly trained, New Entry secured a second grant from USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to develop trainings that cover food safety and business model development. The group also built an economic calculator to help producers estimate costs and revenues.
The results of the project have been significant for farmers, consumers and the community:
Increased revenues. Producers accessing the mobile units generally produce between 400 and 2,000 birds per season and can charge between $4 and $7/lb for fresh, local, pasture-raised, and/or organic poultry. They can gross up to $30,000 per year through direct marketing.
Consumer access. Processed local birds have become more widely available in the state.
Jobs. Processing poultry requires 5 to 10 workers during the season. With dozens of producers now using the mobile plant, job opportunities in processing have increased.
The project has also helped build a stronger connection between poultry producers and consumers. "We've seen a growing number of consumers wanting to connect directly with their food," says Hashley. "With this project, farmers retain quality control of their birds from chick to plate and many recruit their customers to help with poultry processing. You can't get more transparent or connected to your food than that!"