Farmers work around challenges in bringing local chicken to market
Dec. 6, 2013
By Candace Page
When Julie Hollenbeck wants chickens for her Shelburne dinner table, she goes straight to the source. She drives out to Maple Wind Farm in Huntington and stocks up on local, pasture-raised poultry.
“They are so juicy and flavorful, you don’t have to do anything special to them,” she says. “Roast one with olive oil, salt and pepper and you have an unbelievable bird.”
Hollenbeck, a real estate broker, is happy to drive to Huntington for her chickens but she says, “I feel like I’m one of the few people who will do that.”
Maple Wind’s owners, Beth Whiting and Bruce Hennessey understood that market limitation, too. But under an exemption from state meat inspection, they could only sell their chickens and turkeys directly from the farm or a farmers’ market. The state exemption limited their flock to 1,000 chickens, and barred them from cutting up the birds to sell as breast or leg quarters, as many customers prefer.
Moving past these limitations by taking their chickens to a state-inspected slaughterhouse was not an option. A state-owned, state-inspected mobile processing unit had stopped making the rounds of Vermont’s small farms. The nearest processing Whiting could find was in Westminster, more than a two-hour drive away.
“We decided it was time for us to step up,” Whiting said.
So earlier this year, Whiting and Hennessey took a big leap. They invested more than $75,000 in a trailer-sized slaughterhouse, wrote a detailed contamination-prevention plan and created a government-approved mini processing plant in which a white-suited state food safety inspector examines every bird after it is killed.
The result: the farm has grown its flock to 4,000 birds and has begun to supply City Market, Healthy Living and other independent grocery stores in Chittenden County with whole and cut-up chickens.
Maple Wind is a tiny entrant in the market for locally raised, government-inspected chicken. It joins another relatively new small producer, Tangletown Farm in Glover, and a poultry behemoth (by Vermont standards), 30-year-old Misty Knoll Farm in New Haven, which produces tens of thousands of federally inspected chickens each year.
More on-farm-processed chicken is likely headed for Vermont groceries: The state Working Lands Enterprise Board will decide later this month on applications from two farms seeking a share of $40,000 set aside for investment in more government-inspected poultry processing.
The high price of chicken
Lila Bennett, who with her husband David Robb raises beef, pigs, poultry and rabbits at Tangletown Farm, said that state inspection — and the expanded markets that come with it — may hold the key to their farm’s future.
“We knew if we could sell more than 1,000 chickens, then we could make more money, support ourselves and have a chance of being successful,” she said. Bennett and Robb bought the state’s mobile slaughterhouse when it was auctioned. The farm raised and processed 7,000 state-inspected chickens this year and sold them all.
Whiting, at Maple Wind, echoed that a wider market for the farm’s chickens and turkeys was an important step in further diversifying their farm, where they also raise beef, pigs, turkeys and organic vegetables.
“We’ve been good at processing poultry and selling it from the farm,” she said. “This new operation increases our productivity and opens up new markets.”
But state Agriculture Agency experts and a University of Vermont researcher warned that small poultry producers face a major challenge: the high price of chicken they produce.
At City Market in November, a standard supermarket whole chicken was selling for $1.49 a pound. Maple Wind chicken was priced at $5.59 a pound or $6.99 a pound for an organic bird.
“Candidly, pastured poultry production does tend to face challenges in achieving financial viability,” Chelsea Lewis, agricultural policy administrator at the state Agriculture Agency, said in an email. “Producers may be having a hard time growing the number of consumers who are willing to pay prices that reflect the true cost of producing the high-quality (poultry) they are selling.”
Mark Cannella, an assistant professor and farm business management specialist at UVM Extension, recently surveyed 25 independent grocers in New England about the market for local eggs and poultry.
“Demand for chicken meat is more price-sensitive than for eggs — buyers felt that consumers would purchase more local chicken if it were available at a lower price,” he said of his preliminary results. “It is great that we have small scale processors coming on, but if the meat comes at a premium we’ll have limited demand.”
City Market invests
While demand may have an upper limit, at City Market in Burlington that limit hasn’t been reached, General Manager Pat Burns said.
“We continue to see more and more interest in products identified as ‘local,’” Burns said. “When we looked at the gaps in what we have available, we found we really didn’t have local organic poultry.”
So City Market, as part of its commitment to support local farmers, provided Maple Wind with a four-year, $20,000, interest-free loan to help the farm install its state-inspected facility. The farm is repaying the loan in chickens (some raised organically, some not) and turkeys.
“And we sell everything we get,” Burns said.
Consumers like Susan Mesner of Montpelier are the reason why. Mesner buys her chickens from Tangletown Farm at the Montpelier Farmers Market.
“During the summer, we pretty much live off Tangletown chicken,” she said. Mesner, the deputy state auditor, said she recognizes that a chicken costing $12 to $20 isn’t within reach of every consumer.
“I understand we are privileged,” she said. “For people who struggle with income, this is priced out of range.” Her own family’s compromise, she added, is to eat less meat but to buy from Tangletown when they do.
A stamp of approval
Like Hollenbeck, the Maple Wind customer, Mesner said she prefers to know that the animals she eats led healthy lives on Vermont pasture.
“I don’t think it is possible to get that wonderful flavor from birds that have been crammed into cages and not allowed to walk around,” she said.
Knowing that the chickens have been processed by the farmers who raised them — and have been examined by a state inspector — is a bonus that should reassure consumers not accustomed to buying locally raised birds, Hollenbeck said.
In fact, the state inspection system on small farms like Maple Wind and Tangletown may give consumers more confidence in local birds than in the mass-produced, federally inspected chickens found in supermarkets, according to Randy Quenneville, chief of the state meat inspection program.
In huge chicken processing plants outside Vermont, slaughtered birds on an assembly line pass by inspectors at the rate of more than 100 a minute, he said. Maple Wind and Tangletown process closer to 50 birds an hour. That allows the inspector to examine for as long as he feels necessary.
“I would argue the poultry gets a more thorough inspection. You can’t help but do a better job,” Quenneville said.
Has on-farm, state-inspected chicken processing been a success so far? That depends on how you measure success, she said.
“The birds got processed, they looked beautiful, the customers are happy. We helped out other farmers and people with backyard birds by processing their chickens. So yes, those were successes,” she said.
On the other hand, while the farm hasn’t yet done its year-end accounting, “This first year was certainly not profitable,” she said.
Nevertheless, Whiting is looking forward to 2014.The processing plant had become a “well-oiled machine,” she said, with the potential of adding to the farm’s bottom line. In addition to processing chickens for other farmers next year, Maple Wind will double its own production, to 8,000 chickens.