Local Birds from Start to Finish

A Tufts program is helping bring poultry farming back to Massachusetts
running chickens
White Cornish Cross and red Freedom Ranger chickens roam the grass at a Concord, Mass., poultry farm. Photo: Alonso Nichols
May 31, 2011

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There used to be chickens at the Perry farm—thousands of laying hens and broilers on land in the hills of Truro, Mass., that the family had been farming since 1862. The Perrys became known for their fresh eggs and their tasty chicken pies.

But times change. By the late 1970s, restructuring in the poultry industry and new federal regulations were making it difficult for small operations like the Perrys’ to turn a profit. And then there was the lightning storm and the fire that claimed 500 meat birds. So Stephen Perry quit the chicken business.

Now times have changed yet again. The chickens have returned to Perry Road, courtesy of Stephen’s grandson, Drew Locke, who launched his own small-scale poultry business last year.

“My family was worried about my doing this because of what they went through,” says Locke, who represents the seventh generation of Perry farmers on Cape Cod. “But I told them about the Tufts program, and the new age of farming. So they let me go with my idea, and the turnout from people wanting these chickens has been great.”

Jennifer Hashley, director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming project, and her husband, Peter Lowy, would like to see more farms like theirs across the state. Photo: Alonso NicholsLocke’s success is due, in part, to the Friedman School’s New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which helps people with limited resources get started in agricultural businesses by offering training in farm planning, techniques and management. In Locke’s case, it provided him—quite literally—with the vehicle he needed to get his chickens ready for market.

When New Entry started, its participants focused on raising produce. And while the great majority still do, others are branching out into livestock. Chicken farming is a natural starting point, says Jennifer Hashley, G06, New Entry’s director.

“Poultry is the gateway enterprise for livestock,” Hashley says. “It’s not hugely expensive or complicated, although it is labor-intensive, and there is a huge learning curve. But you can recoup your investment in eight weeks, and you can make a profit in one season or less.”

Old Is New Again

Locke’s story is one that’s repeating itself often in the food industry: the success of a seemingly new product—in this case, grass-pastured, heritage-breed poultry—that’s in essence the restoration of something that was once commonplace. The trend began with artisanal cheeses and heirloom produce, which have become mainstays of farmers’ markets and upscale greengrocers.

“There is a new sense of trying to do something to change the quality of our lives; a push-back against mass-produced food,” says the Tufts historian Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, who teaches a course on the history of food and clothing in the School of Arts and Sciences. “The great change that is happening in America is the rise of the farmers’ market.”

The next wave is meat—not just poultry, but also beef, lamb and pork—from breeds generally bypassed by the large commercial enterprises. They are usually raised on grass pasture using traditional techniques and without antibiotics and hormones.

This approach has provided a way for small farmers to maintain a toe-hold in a field dominated by huge corporations. It also offers an alternative for consumers concerned with the possible health risks, environmental impact and ethical implications of eating factory-farmed meat.

But the return to old-time chicken farming, particularly for those raising meat birds, isn’t without stumbling blocks. And, as Drew Locke found out, they can be harder to overcome than family opposition. Yes, weather and predators can take their toll. But the hardest problem was finding a place where chickens can be processed—slaughtered and prepped for market—so that they can meet regulatory standards for retail sale.

“When I first considered raising meat birds, I thought I couldn’t do it, because there was no place to process,” says Locke.

He was not alone. “We had a lot of farmers who were interested in New Entry and wanted to raise chickens,” says Hashley. “And I had to say, ‘That’s great, but unless you sell them live to customers, there are not a lot of legal options for having them processed.’ ”

Over the past several decades, processing facilities in Massachusetts have shut down as one small poultry farm after another went out of business. “In the ’70s and ’80s there was a sharp drop-off in poultry farming in New England,” says Chelsea Bardot Lewis, N10, who researched issues related to meat-animal processing as a student at Friedman. The poultry industry adopted a model of “vertical integration”—with the same corporations controlling hatching, breeding and processing—and moved south.

As the scale of poultry production grew, the federal government began requiring more regimented processing requirements, which made sense for plants that handled thousands of chickens a day but were difficult for small farmers, like Stephen Perry, to comply with. “The whole food system shifted over the last 30 years, and the infrastructure [for small-scale poultry farming] disappeared,” Hashley says. And so, those who once ate chicken from Truro now ate chicken from Tulsa.

Processing Bottleneck

The world of poultry production regulations is complex. Large poultry producers—those who handle more than 20,000 birds a year—must use USDA-inspected slaughterhouses. There is an exemption for lower-volume producers that leaves regulation up to the states. The result, however, is a crazy-quilt of 50 different sets of laws concerning poultry processing, and a great many of them are not amenable to the realities of the small producer.

Many poultry farms that do manage to run their own licensed processing facilities—such as mid-sized operations that also do hatching and breeding—don’t provide slaughter services for outsiders because of biohazard concerns, Hashley says. And many farmers who raise free-range, grass-pastured birds, which fetch premium prices, are reluctant to relinquish quality control to get them processed.

“That’s been the real challenge,” says Hashley, who, in addition to her work at New Entry, runs a livestock farm that includes chickens in Concord, Mass., with her husband, Peter Lowy. She has experienced the “processing bottleneck” first hand.

The situation effectively leaves small farmers with no practical, cost-effective options for bringing their fowl to market, unless they move into the gray area of “black-market broilers.”

“What’s happening, in reality, is that there is a lot of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” says Hashley, describing on-farm or custom processing that skirts the law in various ways.

The end result of the work on the mobile poultry processing units. Photo: Alonso Nichols One solution has been the creation of Mobile Poultry Processing Units, or MPPUs, portable slaughterhouses that can travel from farm to farm, allowing several farmers to share the equipment and process their birds to meet state standards for retail sale. MPPUs are operating in several states, as are similar units designed to process larger animals, such as pigs, cattle, goats and sheep. In South Dakota, there’s one for buffalo, and in Alaska, one for reindeer.

Seeing a need in Massachusetts, the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project and the New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) worked together to procure funding from a combination of state, federal and nonprofit sources to buy the state’s first MPPU. In operation since 2008, the unit is owned by NESFI and administered jointly by NESFI and New Entry.

Getting the MPPU up and running wasn’t quick. State health officials had never dealt with anything like it, and a regulatory framework had to be established. Questions about safe food handling and the environmental impact of the solid waste and wastewater from the unit had to be addressed. To check adherence to these standards, the Food Protection Program of the state Department of Public Health monitors the MPPU.

But ultimately, the MPPU is what enabled Locke to get his business, the Hillside Poultry Farm, off the ground.

“I don’t have the funds to buy a whole slaughterhouse, so this unit is great,” says Locke, an agriculture student at the University of Massachusetts who has had his heart set on raising chickens since he wrote a business plan for a poultry business when he was in high school. “The MPPU is great for upcoming farmers to see if they have the market.”

Volunteer Corps

The MPPU used in Massachusetts is basically an open-air trailer with a canopy. It contains stainless steel equipment for killing, scalding and plucking the birds; an adjacent canopied area has tables and equipment for eviscerating. The last step is an ice-filled chill tank in which the birds cool to a safe temperature before they are bagged.

Having the MPPU pull up at your farm isn’t like a visit from the ice cream truck, with the finished chickens served up while you wait. It’s very much a do-it-yourself operation, and there is considerable prep work and some expense involved. Farmers must complete training in food-safety protocols, record keeping and equipment use. They need to have a state slaughter license, undergo an inspection of their farm and flock and obtain approvals from their local board of health. They also have to provide the electrical hook-ups, potable water, propane and a heck of a lot of ice.

They also must supply the manpower needed for processing day, which can mean anywhere from a dozen people on up, depending on the number of birds. Locke depends on friends and family to help with the processing. Hashley and Lowy have recruited a corps of volunteers—a dedicated bunch of farmers-for-a-day who include chefs, culinary students, a kitchen manager, a high school principal, a software engineer and a retired Army Ranger.

The volunteers turn out to help slaughter and process the white Cornish Cross and red Freedom Ranger chickens for reasons as varied as they are. Chef Jason Bond, for example, a veteran of such Boston restaurants as No. 9 Park who recently opened Bondir in Cambridge, Mass., cites the quality of the birds. (Hashley and Lowy offer volunteers the chance to sign up early for pre-sales on next season’s chickens.) Margaret Callahan, principal of a vo-tech school in New Hampshire, uses the opportunity to bring back information on butchering and raising poultry for the students in her school’s food and plant/animal science programs.

“When I help out here, I feel more connected to my food. I have earned the right to eat meat,” says Linda Lee, a repeat volunteer from Lexington, Mass., who has become adept at using a paring knife to pry open a gizzard so that the small bits of gravel inside can be removed. “I started off as a foodie who just wanted a certain quality of meat. But as I learned more about agriculture, sustainability, the environmental side, that became an added reason.”

In general, a “sustainable” chicken—grass pastured, free range, heritage breed or some combination of the above—runs about $5 per pound. That same $5 could buy an entire chicken, fully cooked, at a supermarket.

Yet the market for these specialty chickens appears to be healthy, an appealing prospect for New Entry farmers. Although neither the USDA nor other agricultural or commodity organizations keep track of specific sales figures for grass-pastured or heritage-breed poultry, sales of organic poultry—which attracts a similar consumer demographic—quadrupled between 2002 and 2006.

“There is a strong customer demand,” says Peter Lowy, the Concord farmer. “Originally, we were going to do 250 chickens a batch [for 2010], but we ended up doing 400 a batch.” When the business opened its website in early spring 2010 for pre-sales to new customers, 600 chickens sold out in three hours. (Another 1,200 had already been pre-sold to existing customers.)

Locke, too, says there was considerable response as soon as he started advertising his new business. “I worked pretty hard on marketing, but as soon as people found out, they started calling me,” he says. He sold out all four batches of chickens he processed last year, and says he’d like to be able to process every week this year.

“I’ve been asked if I want our business to get bigger, and the answer is, ‘not really,’ ” says Hashley. She would like to see consumer demand give birth to more poultry or livestock farms like hers. “The point of New Entry is to train many new farmers,” she says. “My vision is to see a lot more small-scale farms scattered throughout the landscape.”

This story first appeared in the Winter 2010 Tufts Nutrition magazine.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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