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Know the West

Small poultry farmers grapple with lack of slaughterhouses

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


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.)

Bernard Smith, a small farmer in St. Paul, Ore., says the cost of processing may force him to give up raising chickens altogether. This year, his 4,000 broilers were processed at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse that charges $1.50 per pound, and Smith had to raise his own prices higher than his customers were willing to pay. "I'm sitting on about 2,500 chickens in the freezer that I can't sell at any kind of profit," he says. "I'll end up selling them at a loss, and next year I won't raise broiler chickens to be sold at markets." Smith estimates that building a slaughter facility and getting it licensed by the state would cost $50,000 to $100,000 -- more than his small operation can afford.

Growers who raise from 5,000 to 20,000 birds each year may find it cost-effective to build processing facilities that meet state licensing requirements. For very small growers, though, this is not the case. Recognizing this, the USDA allows another exemption under which a farmer may butcher up to 1,000 birds a year (either on farm or at a "custom" slaughter facility) and sell them without federal oversight. But not all states recognize this exemption, and how it is regulated varies widely. Oregon, for example, does not recognize the 1,000-bird exemption, although Washington, Montana and several other Western states do. In some states, regulators aren't interested in small growers who sell 1,000 birds or fewer. Others, however, require a state license -- which effectively makes the "exemption" another permit category. "One of the problems (small growers) have," says Gwin, "is that there's not consistency among inspectors in different states, or even consistency in state-level inspectors."

It might help small, independent poultry growers if there were more USDA-inspected slaughterhouses available to serve them. But in order to get USDA approval, a slaughterhouse must navigate a costly and complex permitting process and adhere to strict regulations involving the number of hours worked, the way the birds are gutted and other issues. Many of the requirements involve extra expense, such as hiring assistants for federal inspectors. Despite these challenges, this fall Joe and Karen Schueller began operating the first USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in Oregon especially for independent poultry growers, after a five-year building and permitting process. The Schuellers are charging $5.50 per chicken. That may prove too high for some small farmers, but as of early October, about 30 growers had scheduled slaughter dates at the new facility south of Portland.

Meanwhile, some growers are successfully navigating Oregon's state licensing process, and regulators are trying to make it easier to do. Twelve state-licensed poultry slaughter facilities now operate under the 20,000-bird exemption, says Postlewait; seven of these were licensed in the past two years. And now that Jones' facility is licensed, "anybody could come and copy what we've done," Jones says, "(because) we've got that golden stamp of approval."

In September, ODA released a new set of guidelines on how to build and operate a state-licensed poultry-processing facility. The guidelines, which cover details ranging from floor materials and water supply to equipment locations for scalding and plucking birds, should clarify requirements and increase consistency among Oregon's 33 food safety inspectors. Jones acknowledges that it's improved the situation somewhat. Still, he remains frustrated with regulations he sees as a "horrendous hurdle" for small farmers.

The ODA is taking other steps to help small poultry growers, says Postlewait. To increase consistency, the agency has designated two staff members to handle all small farm licensing questions, and Postlewait says they work continuously on the goal of "complete harmonization" among food safety inspectors. The agency is determined to communicate more effectively with farmers, Postlewait says, noting that, "ODA inspectors dedicate a substantial portion of their time to trying to educate small, inexperienced processors without processing or food safety background."

Mobile poultry slaughterhouses may also be part of the answer for small growers. Several have been licensed by Western states, including Montana, Washington and California. These abattoirs-on-wheels move from farm to farm, operating under the 20,000-bird exemption. Unfortunately, they're expensive to build, and currently none are in the works in Oregon.

Gwin, who has been working with the Oregon Legislature to get the 1,000-bird exemption passed, predicts it will become state law in 2011. That would benefit people like Clare Carver and Brian Marcy of Big Table Farm in Gaston, who raise about 150 birds a year along with pigs and cattle, and also make wine. Carver provides eggs and wine to restaurants, but she can't sell her poultry because there are no slaughter options available that are both legal and affordable. Mark Anderson, who farms chickens in St. Paul, Ore., says that if the exemption passes, "you're just going to see an explosion of these small poultry farmers doing 1,000 birds, so it's on the verge of completely changing everything."

Back at Afton Field Farm, it's a mid-October Wednesday -- slaughter day. Tyler Jones and his crew of 10 men and women have 400 birds to kill and process today, and they've been working steadily all morning. The odor, even outside, is strong, and the bright-red blood is plentiful as the birds' throats get slashed. A cheerful call goes out when the last chicken is dispatched. It's hard, messy work, even without the regulatory hurdles, but Tyler Jones is convinced it's those hurdles that are slowing the birth of new farms like his. "There are literally 100 other people in this state who, if it was even minutely more easy to do," says Jones, "would be in the business as well."