Small poultry farmers grapple with lack of slaughterhouses

Producers in Oregon and beyond can't find places to butcher chickens

  • Alicia and Tyler Jones at work.

    Afton Field Farm
  • Hoop house and chickens at Afton Field Farm in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

    Alice Shelton-Green
  • Afton Field Farm
  • The processing facility at Afton Field Farm is filled with sunlight and fresh air.

    Carla A. Wise
 

On a brilliant fall day at Afton Field Farm, Tyler Jones shows off his butchering shed. Jones' farm in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley boasts an overgrown orchard, a rambling farmhouse and sheds filled with freezers. Jones and his crew will butcher and process between 8,000 and 9,000 chickens here this year, but despite the occasional scattered feathers, the butchering shed looks more like a greenhouse, with concrete floors, big windows and a clear plastic roof. Jones built this facility last year as a solution to a serious problem that stymies many small-scale poultry producers in the West: lack of legal and affordable slaughterhouses.

Nearly all the meat and poultry consumed in the U.S. today comes from just four companies that operate their own U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected slaughterhouses. Of the few remaining USDA-inspected slaughterhouses that serve independent growers, only a handful process poultry. A federal exemption allows farmers who raise 20,000 birds or fewer annually to obtain a state license to butcher their poultry themselves and bypass USDA inspection. But that option is costly and time-consuming: The farmer has to navigate complex permitting requirements and meet both state and federal requirements.

The 30-year-old Jones is a leader in the movement for diversified, pasture-based animal farming for local markets. It's an increasingly attractive alternative to factory meat farms and their tremendous environmental and human health costs. But he's had great difficulty getting licensed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to do his own poultry butchering. The regulatory system is designed for large slaughterhouses that process thousands of animals daily. Regulatory compliance is expensive, and state and federal meat-processing laws are interpreted inconsistently. It all makes it hard for Jones and other small farmers to get their birds to local markets.

From the start, Jones planned to get licensed under the 20,000-bird exemption. After spending 2003 as an apprentice with holistic farming guru Joel Salatin, Jones began farming in Corvallis. He built a screened, mostly open-air butchering shed modeled on Salatin's Virginia-licensed facility, with plenty of sunlight and fresh air to make the process more sanitary and less smelly. In 2008, Jones got his license from the ODA, and soon began getting calls from other farmers interested in copying his design, which was inexpensive to build, energy-efficient and pleasant to work in.

But the following year, the ODA sent Jones a letter saying that his license had been issued "in error." According to Jim Postlewait, food program manager at the ODA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture informed his agency that it had incorrectly interpreted the 20,000-bird exemption: State-licensed facilities must still comply with federal construction and sanitation requirements, and Jones' butchering shed did not. The ODA then determined that slaughter must be done in a building with washable walls and screened glass windows.

At the time, Jones and his wife were buying a farm and planning to build a new open-air processing facility similar to his existing one. What followed was a prolonged struggle between the farmer and the ODA regulators over the new slaughterhouse's design. Jones eventually compromised by building a shed with huge windows that didn't extend all the way to the floor, a clear roof, and a covered cement-slab porch for butchering outside. He estimates he spent between $20,000 and $25,000 on building materials and equipment. He's glad he fought for his original design, he says; if he hadn't, he'd have spent at least twice as much on a less sanitary and more energy-consuming building.

A certain amount of meat-processing regulation is clearly necessary to protect public health. "Some small poultry producers know how to do it in such a way that they are not going to poison their customers," says Oregon State University researcher Lauren Gwin, co-coordinator of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, a national association that assists small- to mid-sized livestock growers. "(But) regulations need to be written for the lowest common denominator." The cost of compliance can make a small poultry operation unprofitable, though, given the substantial expense of raising birds on pasture-based farms and the limit to how much local consumers will pay. (Pastured chickens cost three to four times what industrially raised chickens do.)

Mobile Poultry Processor in Oregon
Derek Brandow
Derek Brandow
Jan 27, 2011 08:39 PM
Hi Carla. I was on the team @aftonfieldfarms this past summer (tall guy with the beard on the kill floor). I just wanted to update you on the progress of a cooperative effort by four farms to build Oregon's first MPU (mobile processing unit) for poultry. Love to chat when you have a moment.
MPUs in Oregon
Carla Wise
Carla Wise
Jan 28, 2011 09:14 AM
Derek, I'd love to hear about plans for an MPU here. No one I spoke with knew of it, but it sure seems like a practical solution. Do you work at Afton Field Farm?
MPU
Derek
Derek
Jan 28, 2011 09:57 AM
I worked with the Jones' all summer, on butcher days. They are good friends. The MPU is relatively new in it's reality, but not new in conversation between us, Pristine Farm, and Provenance Farm. Email us to talk more at ourfamilyfarm.info@gmail.com
Mobile Processing
Gabriel
Gabriel
Jan 28, 2011 10:22 AM
I work for Full Circle, an organic delivery service in Seattle, with a small farm based out of Carnation, WA. We have partnered with a local processor that also has a mobile unit and local beef and pork producers to give our members the option to buy local meats. It seems this is one great solution to the lack of processors for local growers. What, if anything can citizens to do encourage legislature supporting small farm processing?
Mobile Processing
Carla Wise
Carla Wise
Jan 31, 2011 12:07 PM
Gabriel, as you probably know, the regulations and issues vary by state, and by type of animal. It sounds like your area has a mobile unit, which is great for small growers who can use it. It seems like the best ways to support small farm processing include buying from local farms and finding out what your state legislature is doing to facilitate legal processing options for small growers.
small producer/independent slaughterhouses
Robin Tierney
Robin Tierney
Jan 29, 2011 01:16 PM
It is a shame and wrong what independent small producers must go through. Tyler Jones should be permitted to proceed with being shackled by regulations and costly permitting. Such hurdles benefit only the factory operations, which are at the root of environmental and health problems.
Poultry butchering in Oregon
Karen Black
Karen Black
Jan 31, 2011 05:24 AM
I had the opportunity to tour Afton Field's new butchering shed a year ago. It has some very nice features that I would like to have in mine.

I believe that the only USDA-inspected poultry slaughterhouse for small farmers in Oregon is Rain Shadow El Rancho in Scio. There are a dozen or so farms who operate with an ODA License (I am one); some do custom work for others' own use.

Karen Black
Norton Creek Farm
Blodgett, OR