One of the consequences of the consolidation of food production in the United States is the dramatic decline in the number of slaughterhouses. According to the USDA, the number of USDA- or state-inspected slaughterhouses has declined by one-third in the last 15 years. Conversely, during the last five years, the number of small farmers has increased by 108,000. It is the small farmer who often serves the growing demand for forage-fed, natural, and organic meat and poultry products. To complicate things, the existing slaughtering facilities are already producing at maximum capacity and don’t have the processes in place to handle the needs of small producers.
The decline in slaughtering facilities is bad news for the growing number of urban chicken farmers. Chickens are often the animal of choice to be raised by urban farmers for meat. They require a relatively small amount of space and mature to market weight quickly. Unfortunately, there are so few slaughter facilities that urban farmers may decide that raising chickens for anything other than personal consumption is not economically feasible.
Mobile Poultry Processing
Mobile slaughter units appear to be the most immediate answer to the waning number of slaughterhouses. Mobile processing units are slaughterhouses on wheels and contain all of the tools required for slaughtering. All the farmer has to supply are the workers.
Fortunately for urban poultry producers, mobile processing units for poultry (called mobile poultry processing units or MPPUs) are the most common, because they are smaller and require a lower capital investment. A deluxe model was purchased by the Vermont state legislature in 2008 for $93,000 to bridge the gap for their small producers.
For the economically minded, Cornerstone Farm Ventures, a manufacturer of mobile poultry processing units in Norwich, N.Y., has built a “Mini Mobile Processing Unit.” The processing equipment is taken off the trailer and set up on the ground for processing. It’s small enough to be pulled by a standard 6-cylinder automobile. The unit sells for $10,000, according to the website.
Benefits of Mobile Processing Units
Mobile poultry processing units cost urban farmers much less to build than a permanent slaughtering facility, which results in lower processing costs per bird. Local communities that would normally protest the building of a permanent slaughter facility are more amenable to the mobile units, thus streamlining their purchase and implementation. And urban farmers can ensure that humanely raised birds are also humanely slaughtered with minimal stress.
Operating Mobile Processing Units
Mobile poultry processing units are helping urban farmers meet customer demand and expand their businesses in spite of the slaughterhouse shortage.
Courtesy Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds
Jen Hashley, of Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, says she and her husband, Pete Lowy, have been using a mobile poultry processing unit for three years to process chickens brooded in their Concord, Mass., backyard. The unit is owned by the New England Small Farmers Institute and was purchased using a federal grant from Rural Cooperative Development Grants. This grant is like those given for the purchase of mobile poultry processing units through the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, a USDA effort to create new economic opportunities by foraging connections between consumers and local producers.
Hashley and Lowy are so pleased with the mobile poultry processing unit, they are helping to raise funds to purchase a second, more robust unit for urban farmers in Massachusetts.
“There are no slaughtering facilities available to the small producer in the Northeast,” Hashley says. “It would be very difficult to offer premium, pasture-raised chickens to our customers without the MPPU.”
Volunteers are an important resource for users of mobile poultry processing units. Including customers in the slaughtering process is a way to educate them about the work that goes into their traditional Sunday dinner. Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds use their website to recruit volunteers to participate in their chicken harvest.
Requirements for renting and operating a mobile poultry processing unit vary from state to state and can be fairly complicated. Training and licensing are required. The animals may need to be inspected prior to slaughter, and specific labeling specifications may need to be met. For information about slaughtering options in your area, Iowa State University has a comprehensive online resource, which includes a list of MPPU locations, a training manual, webinars and videos.