Fall is always busy on Western North Carolina’s small-scale poultry farms, but three years ago, late October found growers grappling with an unexpected challenge: The state’s only U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected poultry processing facility for independent operators, the Foothills Pilot Plant in Marion, shut down due to a lack of operating capital. Farms all over Southern Appalachia that had depended on the plant were left with flocks roaming the fields while customers waited for local chicken, turkey and duck just weeks from Thanksgiving.
“There was quite a scramble,” says Sarah Blacklin, program director for NC Choices, an initiative of N.C. State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems that works to support North Carolina’s local, pasture-based meat supply chain. “[The Foothills Pilot Plant] also serviced a lot of the surrounding states — Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia — so it was a huge financial impact, economic impact and also a supply chain crisis.”
A state exemption already in place allowed farmers with inspected equipment to process their own birds, and to address the contingency, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Meat and Poultry Inspection Division created a special exemption in November 2017 permitting farmers to slaughter, clean and package birds for other growers. The two exemptions, both of which are still in place, allowed many WNC producers to rally and roll with a new normal.
Growers now either process their birds at other farms, do it themselves on purchased equipment or rent one of a handful of mobile units available through private farms, the N.C. Cooperative Extension and other agricultural organizations. The NCDACS currently lists more than 200 North Carolina farms processing their own poultry; Blacklin notes that 10 operations, particularly Dawnbreaker Farm and Dependable Poultry Processors in Carrboro, have developed their on-farm processing operations into successful business ventures by handling other growers’ animals or renting out mobile units.
Blacklin suggests that North Carolina farmers are fortunate compared with growers in other states that have neither a USDA-inspected processor nor a state special exemption. Nevertheless, many producers statewide are still putting less pastured poultry on the market now than they were in 2017. “It’s just harder and more expensive, even with the special exemption,” she says. “It requires more labor and more time.”
According to Asher Wright, farm director at Hickory Nut Gap Farm, consumers are clamoring for local, pasture-raised chicken and turkey. The Fairview operation raises 3,500 meat chickens annually, processing on-site in batches of 225 every other week April through October. The farm also produces pastured turkeys — 450 this year — which are presold and distributed fresh right before Thanksgiving.
“We cannot meet our demand,” Wright says of the farm’s chickens, which are sold fresh during peak season. Any birds not sold within five days are frozen. “If we were able to add [more processing capacity] and freeze birds out the gate, we could easily sell them through the winter as whole birds or parts,” he adds.
Before the Foothills Pilot Plant opened in 2012, Hickory Nut Gap processed its own poultry, Wright says, then switched to the USDA-inspected facility due to its convenience. When the plant closed, the farm returned to processing with its own equipment, set up inside a gooseneck trailer under a hoop house. This year, Hickory Nut Gap took out a $12,000 loan for a new on-farm facility with a large pole shed, concrete floor and drainage system.
The farm is seriously considering scaling up its poultry efforts — the broiler chicken operation is its most profitable enterprise, Wright says. But aside from occasionally helping out neighbors in need, Hickory Nut Gap isn’t currently processing for other farms, mainly due to a lack of labor.
Liz Sutter and Hunter Morgan, now in their first serious growing season on their ⅕-acre regenerative operation in Madison County, Small Bean Farm, have pasture-raised and harvested 100 Freedom Ranger meat chickens this year and are set to process 15 turkeys. With 10 years of experience between them working on other farms, the pair knew they wanted to focus on poultry rather than more labor-intensive vegetable crops and were undeterred by the state’s lack of a federally inspected processing facility.
To slaughter, process and package their birds, Morgan and Sutter rely on gear borrowed from a neighboring grower. “We have the exemption for ourselves through his processing equipment. That was nice and relatively easy to get,” Morgan explains.
Although currently hampered by the size of their rented property and the difficulty of accessing more land, Morgan says he and Sutter would like to add a flock of meat ducks and see the farm increase production to about 1,500 chickens and 100 turkeys annually. As the business scales, they have no intention of pinning their hopes on a new federally inspected processing plant.
“I think long-term we would pursue getting a processing station ourselves,” says Morgan. “We really want to make it a whole personal facility where we can not only process and clean the birds ourselves but also package them in ways that we see fit and make them into sausage. Just having more freedom with those options seems really important for keeping us resilient.”
Future in process
NC Choices, Cooperative Extension and other organizations have looked at possible avenues for establishing a new USDA processing facility for the state, says Blacklin; a feasibility study, estimated at $25,000, has yet to be conducted. NC Choices has also provided informational support to owners of red-meat processing facilities who have expressed interest in adding poultry to their operations, but none have followed through.
“Independent poultry processing is a difficult business to float profitably, labor and seasonality of the business being major contributing factors,” Blacklin explains. She adds that only about 30 USDA-inspected poultry processors in the entire U.S. offer fee-for-service processing for independent farmers.
Wright acknowledges that many area growers would be excited to see a new processing facility for the state, but he echoes Blacklin’s thoughts about the inherent flaws of the business model. “How can you keep skilled staff and cash flow to your business throughout the year if you’re only processing chickens for, say, seven or eight months?” he asks. “You’re done after turkeys in November, and nobody can really raise birds outside here in the winter.”
Ultimately, Wright believes supporting and driving expansion of on-farm processing is the most sustainable solution. “Someone like us who has an actual farm business could add an enterprise of processing for people on the side but still be in business with our farm,” he suggests. ”That’s kind of the Dawnbreaker Farm/Dependable Poultry Processing model, and that, to me, seems very viable.”
Wright and Blacklin both point to the bipartisan Strengthening Local Processing Act, U.S. House Bill 8431, as legislation that could benefit both the industry and the supply chain. The bill, introduced in late September by Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine and Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, would provide grant support for small federal, state and on-farm processing operations.
“Exempt [on-farm] operators are critical to our local food poultry market at this time,” says Blacklin. “It will take investment, good data on poultry feasibility and a committed volume of product before we see a new poultry plant pop up, so supporting the exempt processing is a key inclusion of this bill.”
“The demand is there in the region for pasture-raised meat,” adds Wright. “I think there really is opportunity here for well-thought-out business plans and pastured poultry models, if we can tackle the processing component.”
Madison Cawthorn, the Republican candidate to represent Western North Carolina in the U.S. House, “supports utilizing federal grants to bolster meat and poultry processors but cannot commit to full support of the bill at this time,” according to spokesperson Angela Nicholas. Cawthorn’s opponent, Democrat Moe Davis, also voiced his backing for small farmers but said he “would prefer to await analysis from the Congressional Research Service and more input from stakeholders before committing to support this or any bill.”