Photo courtesy of NABC

Another seminar I enjoyed at Focus on Farming was getting to tour the new mobile poultry processing unit owned and operated by the Northwest Ag Business Center (NABC). I had heard about this, but it was neat to see it in person.

The unit was funded by grants, and the idea is that it will facilitate more people getting into raising poultry on a small, local scale here. The “if you build it, they will come…” theory. Processing is a barrier for most people. Not a huge one, as our state has fairly lean and low-cost requirements for small processors. But nonetheless, you have to have the equipment, a covered area set up for it, the hot water etc. NABC also has for rent the smaller-scale plucker/scalder equipment set, so some people can use that if they have the rest of the setup, and the labor and know-how to process and package the birds.

But this thing is pretty slick. The truck comes with a trained crew. So the farmer only has to load the birds on the back tailgate of the truck in crates; and pick them up out of a little door in front of the truck, after they’ve been processed, chilled, packaged and labeled. If the farmer wants to participate in the processing, he can, and gets some price credit for that.

They can currently process 250 chickens per day, and he claimed it’s possible they can get up to 300 once they gain more experience. They also do ducks, turkeys and rabbits. Fees “start at” $4/bird for whole-packaged birds. I think what was said in the seminar is it’s $400 min for the truck to come out. So if you had fewer than 100 birds, the price per bird would be higher. Turkeys cost more, obviously. The truck is organic certified.

The truck is split into three compartments, with little pass-through windows between.The back is where live birds come in, they are killed, scalded and plucked there; then kicked through an automated door into the next compartment. In that second compartment, evisceration happens, and the birds are hung in a cooler to air-chill. (There may be some controversy over whether air- or water bath-chilling is better; I don’t know enough about either to comment on that, though.) When the birds have reached the proper temperature, they are passed through to the front compartment, where they are cut up (if desired), weighed, packaged and labeled. Then they are put in trays and passed out a little door where the farmer can retrieve them.

The truck requires a 220V power connection, and potable water; so I know that has been a barrier for some folks already who are on rural farms that lack power, or have untested well water. You have to have a food processor’s license, farm liability insurance, and a way to compost the offal. One interesting element is that the service “breaks the chain of custody” – meaning that it serves as an independent processor of the farmer’s produce. If someone potentially got sick from eating this poultry and tried to sue, the farmer may have more protection since he didn’t process the chickens directly; and they were instead handled by a licensed, insured, inspected and trained third party. Not that anyone can ever feel relaxed about not getting sued, but it’s something.

$4 per bird seems like a lot. But I heard plenty of people quoting a $5/lb price as the going rate for local, pastured poultry. I don’t know a lot about how much it costs to feed broilers, but a quick web search implies maybe $3-6, accounting for different types of feed. Buying the chicks is probably a few bucks per bird, for small batches. So if a 5-pound bird sells for $20-25, that’s not too bad a profit margin for an 8-week crop. (It’s not making millions either: that’s about a $3K net profit on a batch of 250 birds. Which would be a lot of work to care for in their eight-week lifespan. Plus the time spent with the processor for a full day, and interacting with customers to sell them.)

I think it seems reasonable and probably worth doing. I know several of my friends are considering it. I feel like I don’t yet have enough free Saturdays to add this to my schedule. But it’s nice to know about for the future!