By Jennifer Owens, Georgia Organics
On Monday, March 19th, I left Atlanta, accompanied by my over-caffeinated co-pilot Leah Garces, and pastured poultry producer, Daniel Dover, to visit the newest USDA-inspected poultry processing facility in the SE open to independent farmers. I specifically use the term “independent farmer” because the majority of processing facilities in GA and around the country are available only to farmers on contract with the large vertical integrators – the Tyson’s, Perdue’s and Pilgrim’s Pride of the world.
Why, you ask, did we drive 200 miles at 4a.m. to go see chickens slaughtered and processed? (If you didn’t ask it, my husband did.) Well, GA is in desperate need of a legal processing option for independent poultry growers. On-farm exemptions recognized by other states are illegal here, due to the deletion of the key exemption that allows farmers to raise and process up to 20,000 birds on-farm, under the federal Food Safety Inspection Service sanitary guidelines. While a toe-hold was gained in late 2011 with the state issuing a sub-1,000 exemption, it serves more the hobby farmer than one trying to raise poultry for a viable market to include the farm’s profitability.
So, Georgia Organics is currently investigating other processing options. In 2012, we will be completing a feasibility study looking at the regulatory framework and enterprise opportunity for a mobile processing unit as well as a brick-and-mortar fixed facility that could serve the state’s growing number of independent poultry farmers. We have been working closely with folks from North Carolina, who are really leading in local food production and rural farm economy development, so – off we went to see their newest innovation – Foothills Pilot Plant. (Or as my daughter exclaimed, “Mommy is off to have a meeting with chickens!”)
It is an interesting facility – USDA-inspected, operating on less than one acre, with the goal of processing between 2,500-5,000 birds a week. They also process rabbit, by the way, which apparently is fetching quite a price from local chefs. Farmers, take note.
During our two hour visit, we saw about 200 birds processed. Two things struck me as very interesting: 1) the USDA inspector had a solid 30-45 seconds per bird to ensure it wasn’t compromised or contaminated. That is amazing and no doubt ensures a very safe product for the end consumer. And 2) the processing was being done by prisoners as part of a workforce development program. This keeps the cost of labor low, translating to lower costs to the farmer, and gives prisoners a skill once they return to their community.
The plant was a partnership between the local growers association, some funds from the USDA and a local economic development agency.
With the growth of the local food movement, and a surge of consumer demand for sustainably produced local meats, local abbatoirs are making a comeback. Foothills Pilot Plant, which opened in January in Marion, NC, is serving a unique niche for North Carolina’s producers.
Nothing would make me happier than Georgia having a safe, economically viable facility that would meet the needs of our state’s independent poultry growers. Stay tuned for news on that front. It would open the floodgates for more pastured poultry in the marketplace and ultimately give consumers a lot more choice in the type of chicken they feed their family.