The chickens at Highlands Family Farm in Connelly Springs, about an hour to the northeast of Asheville, appear to be exactly where they should. A healthy assortment of plump white bodies peppers the rolling pasture, their scarlet combs complementary to the green grass underfoot. Pecking and scratching in a ceaseless search for seeds and bugs, these birds have ample opportunity to express what sustainable agriculture guru Joel Salatin calls the “chicken-ness of the chicken.”
At any other time of year, farmer Daniel Wall would agree with that idyllic assessment of his operation. Speaking on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, however, he explains that those happy birds should have been somewhere else entirely: the freezers and dinner plates of his customers. “I’ve got 200 chickens still walking around that should’ve been processed three weeks ago, and I’m trying to find something to do with them,” he says.
The birds gained their unplanned reprieve due to the closing of Marion’s Foothills Pilot Plant, the area’s only U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected small poultry processing facility. Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats, the for-profit business that managed operations at Foothills for the nonprofit Independent Specialty Agriculture Marketing and Production Association, shuttered the plant in late October due to a lack of capital — just as Wall and other clients had planned to start harvesting for the holidays.
Without Foothill’s services, producers across the region were forced to improvise alternative approaches as they filled orders for Thanksgiving turkeys and other poultry products. Although the farming community stepped up to this year’s challenge, the closing raises great uncertainty about the future of pastured poultry in Western North Carolina.
Do it yourself
Wall’s experience after the Foothills closing illustrates the fragility of the region’s pastured poultry supply chain. “When Amanda told me that she was closing, my first response was, ‘Oh no, what are we going to do?’” he remembers. Wall had presold over 300 turkeys to area retailers Food Matters Market and Mother Earth Produce, and to honor those contracts, he had to find another processing option with less than a month to spare.
The next-closest turkey processor Wall found was in South Carolina, three hours away, and it had no openings for additional orders until after Christmas. A facility in Bowling Green, Ky. — six hours away — did have excess capacity, but to move all of his birds in one haul, Wall would have needed to modify his cattle trailer into a triple-decker turkey transport, likely exceeding its weight limit. “It would’ve easily cost me an extra $1,500 in travel, not to mention the cost of those modifications; it really wasn’t an option,” he says.
With commercial processors out of the question, Wall considered killing his birds on the farm. The USDA allows small producers to slaughter and process up to 1,000 birds per year on their own premises, as long as those birds are sold only within state limits. However, Highlands Family Farm hadn’t invested in its own processing equipment, which Wall estimates as a $7,000 cost, not including a building in which to house it.
Thankfully, Wall was able to use a mobile processing unit from Appalachian State University’s Sustainable Farming Resource Program, which set him back just $50 for a three-day rental. “They were a lifesaver — without them, we would’ve been in trouble,” he says. Wall rose at 5 a.m. on the Saturday and Sunday before Thanksgiving to warm up the scalder, the hot water bath that loosens feathers for plucking, and by 7 a.m., he was killing birds.
“My wife and I, my business partner and his wife, my kids and their kids, my parents and two or three other people were there all day,” says Wall. “Even with at least 10 people there all the time, we barely ended up getting all of our turkeys killed and only about 60 of our chickens.”
The weakest link
The lack of processing options for small poultry producers in the region boils down to economics, explains Molly Nicholie, Local Food campaign program director with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. “These plants operate on really tight margins,” she says. “The amount of overhead is very high, and when you’ve got farms that only need to butcher a few hundred chickens, it’s hard to make the numbers work.”
In comparison, the processors that service industrial agribusinesses such as Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods and Butterball cover the costs of machinery and upkeep through massive volumes. For example, the Prestage Foods operation in St. Pauls, N.C., processes up to 10 million turkeys each year, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Carter estimates that the Foothills Pilot Plant processed roughly 60,000 animals in total, including chickens, turkeys, ducks and rabbits, in 2016.
Labor also poses an issue for small poultry processors. Although the Foothills plant attempted to address that concern by partnering with the Marion Minimum Security Prison Unit for work-release and transitional work programs, turnover remained high.
“It’s a cruddy job that no one wants to do, and it’s really hard to pay people a good wage,” says Nicholie. “If you’re constantly having to retrain people and getting wear on equipment due to new employees, it’s even more difficult to keep a plant afloat.”
Casey McKissick, owner and general manager of Foothills Meats (no business relationship with Foothills Pilot Plant), adds that one-size-fits-all regulations on meat processors can have disproportionate impacts on small operations. “If a new rule costs a plant $20,000 a year to comply with, and you’re running 20,000 units a year, it costs you an extra dollar per unit,” he says. “If you’re running 20 million units a year, it costs you nearly nothing — it always comes back to scale.”
Price is right?
Nicholie emphasizes that small-scale production makes more economic sense when customers consider the true costs of poultry. “When you see a cheap price on chicken at the grocery store, you don’t necessarily see all ways that price is affecting animals, the environment and workers on the industrial side,” she says. “Having more transparency in the food system is an important piece of the market.”
The labeling of supermarket birds can confuse consumer perceptions of pasture-raised value, argues McKissick. “A lot of times people think that certified organic means the poultry was raised outdoors, which is not the case,” he explains. “It’s been fed certified organic grain feedstuffs, but it can have very similar living conditions to a commodity bird.” The claim of “no hormones administered” can also be misleading, given that federal guidelines have long prohibited the use of hormones in poultry production.
A former farmer, McKissick notes that poultry is one of the riskier products for producers to grow. “Turkey poults usually cost a farmer $12 apiece, it takes nine months to grow them out, and the loss rate is pretty substantial,” he explains. Compared to beef and pork, it’s also more difficult to process poultry into value-added products that yield more money for the same meat.
Taken together, these factors mean that pasture-raised producers must charge a higher price than many consumers are willing to pay. “There’s a sweet little family up in Swannanoa Valley that brings me their chickens — I know how they’re raised, and they’re the best chickens that money can buy,” says McKissick. “But they’re going to cost you $5.25 a pound, and when chicken that looks the same and has a pretty label on it costs $1.89 a pound, it’s just a tough sell.”
The N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services responded to the Foothills Pilot Plant closing by allowing small poultry producers to process other farmers’ birds. “That opened up more options for folks who didn’t have the facilities or know-how to process on their own farms,” says Nicholie. “Farmers really stepped up and tried to help each other out however they could.”
However, the exemption is set to expire at the end of the year. While the state is exploring partnerships to get the Foothills plant back online, according to department public information officer Heather Overton, no concrete arrangements had emerged by press time.
This uncertainty means that growers such as Wall and Highlands Family Farm are reconsidering their poultry plans for 2018. “Next year, if another processor doesn’t become available, I’ll have no choice but to scale back or just quit doing poultry,” Wall says. “Of all the things we raise on our farm, we make the highest profit out of our turkeys, so it will really put a dent in our bottom line not to have that income.”
Wall remains hopeful that someone will find a way to put the Foothills plant back in business, not only for his own operation, but also for his customers. “I think people deserve the right to buy poultry that they know where it comes from and not buy it from large-scale commercial plants if they don’t want to,” he says. “Not having processing in place really hurts their ability to do that.”