by Rosie DeQuattro
I’ve arrived at an age when the idea of “passing the baton to the next generation” occurs now and then, floating in and outof my inner dialogue yet gaining ground all the time. In the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of meeting several young people—old souls, really—who I feel assured can take care of our planet.
One of them is Concord resident Jennifer Hashley, infinitely capable, 35 and director of the nonprofit New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NESFP). This is Hashley’s full-time, 40+ hours-a-week career, yet when she leaves the office every night and returns home it’s to 900chickens, 32 pigs and 60 rabbits. You may have heard of Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, Hashley’s and husband Peter Lowy’s pasture-based animal farm operation, where animals are raised like God’s precious creatures and “processed” (regulation-speak for slaughtered) with as much reverence as practical. Their farm is based at Verrill Farm, where Lowy is farm manager.
At NESFP, Hashley works with an impressive alphabet-soup of government and private organizations, and keeps them all expertly spinning to accomplish her mission. With offices in Lowell and Boston, NESFP helps people with agricultural backgrounds from underserved populations successfully enter into the farming community in Massachusetts. One “gateway,” Hashley says, is poultry raising, a relatively easy business to start which often leads to other small-scale animal farming. A prime example of this progression is Hashley’s farm itself. It started as a chicken egg–producing business, but has expanded to include meat birds, rabbits and pigs. And the market for these products is growing.
Our increasing public demand for local food (predominantly a demand for locally grown produce, but a close second is for locally raised livestock) is expanding to include the demand for locally killed.Many will argue that it is not enough to know where and how animals are raised; for a variety of reasons including health, safety, taste and care of the planet, we also need to trust how animals are slaughtered. (The Washington Post recently published an article with the headline “Locally Killed Is Latest Trend in High-Grade Meat”).
KILL DAY, ORWHAT SOME PEOPLEWON’T DO FOR A NICE CHICKEN DINNER.
It’s 6 a.m. on a clear and warm Saturday in June, the only clear Saturday in a succession of rainy ones. About a dozen folks are beginning to gather in one of the sheds on the Verrill Farm property at the top of Wheeler Road in Concord. There are offerings: coffee, herb tea and perfect blueberry muffins wrapped in a homey tea-towel and tucked in a basket, as if anyone could eat (although I do take one for later), as if the sheer ordinariness of blueberry muffins wrapped in a pretty towel could distract from what the morning was really offering. It’s clear that some folks know exactly what to expect; they are dressed for the occasion with high rubber boots and bandannas covering their hair. Few know each other.Many, like me, wander around trying to look useful. After a few murmurings of introductions we make our way in silence along the muddy tractor path, down, down, down, around an old foundation to a sunless open area the farm uses to stockpile compost, out of sight.
And there it is: theMPPU, theMobile Poultry Processing Unit, a jumble of stainless steel contraptions mounted atop a flatbed trailer with a white canopy covering one end and hoses, tubes, cables, icechests, propane tanks, plastic buckets and bottles of disinfectant arrayed all around. Near the far end of the unit, on the ground, are plastic crates each holding 7–9 waiting, quiet birds. But Jen and Pete are animated. To themthis is what it’s all about. They have 280 big, healthy birds they’ve cared for and pasture-raised from chicks; 280 pre-paid customers who are waiting to pick them up and about a dozen people who have volunteered to help.
Pete and Jen are cheerful and patient with us, teaching us the procedure at each station: at the cones, the scalder, the plucker, the eviscerating table and the chill tanks. The cone station comes first. Pete demonstrates. He takes a huge clucking Cornish Cross from one of the crates, takes it up onto the platform and gently guides its head down into the cone so that it’s upside down, with its feet sticking up out of the wide part of the cone, and its head sticking out through the narrow opening atthe bottom. Pete touches an electrified knife to the neck of the bird and stuns it so it doesn’t feel the cut, then cuts its neck. The bird begins to bleed and thrash around a bit and all the blood drains into a metal trough below. Later all the blood, feathers and viscera (inedible organs) are composted. There are five cones and soon there’s a chicken in every one. Pete lets anyone who’s game try their hand at this part.
It’s a little like a lesson in how individuals perform as a group. Our group of strangers manages well—the more assertive, mostly guys, take over the cones, while I and others like me mill around trying to decide where we fit best. Eventually we manage to sort ourselves out to the various workstations. I end up at the gizzard-cleaning station and after I get over the ew! factor, I get the hang of it. I take a warm gizzard in my gloved hand and first scrape off the globules of fat clinging to it into a bucket that’s later given to a local person who makes soap out of it. Then I make an incision down the middle of the gizzard (easier to do when they’re chilled), just deep enough to get your thumbs in there, and pry it open into two attached halves. Inside is a tight ball of curiously bright green grass, undigested grain and gravel, lots of gravel. We scrape out and discardall of that and with some effort peel back the lining from the gizzard membrane. The goal is to end-up with one whole, crenellated organ that Jen explains will be “packed and sold to folks who like cooking with gizzards—they are pretty tasty.”
Jen circulates from station to station giving instructions and testing the temperature of the chill tanks and the various ice buckets.We pass a congenial few hours at our tasks and finally weigh and label a total of 280 birds. Pete and Jen are appreciative—they couldn’t have done it without us.
As I drive away and leave the shady den of the “processing” area, I’m delayed by crowds gathered near the sun-drenched fields down the road. It’s a carnival atmosphere at the farm stand with pick-your-own strawberry mania going on. So I take out my blueberry muffin. I need acup of coffee. I think, in the end what really mattered was that a dozen or so strangers, a blogger, an MIT scientist, a photographer, an archivist, an ex-Broadway dancer, among others, gave up their Saturday, the one clear Saturday, to bring in the harvest.
The legal slaughter of chickens raised by small-scale producers for sale to the public is fraught with arcane regulations, ambiguities, “Catch- 22s” and limited options. Not all chicken producers get it right.
“There’s a lot of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ out there,” says Hashley. Regarding her own meat birds, Hashley says she used to take them to a licensed slaughter facility in Chinatown. But there the custom was to leave the chicken’s head, neck and feet attached, awkward for many consumers; besides, the facility was later shut down for salmonella (it has been re-licensed as of this writing). Another resource, a licensed facility in Athol, evaporated when it let its license lapse.
Hashley explains that under a USDA exemption, farmers can legally process their own birds raised on their own farms “provided that the facility and process used meets all USDA and Massachusetts Department of Public Health sanitary guidelines for poultry establishments.” However, when it comes to selling those processed birds, the legal options get murky. Either they had to have been slaughtered in a regulation slaughter house you built yourself—costing anywhere from half to a million dollars—or youtook your chickens and your chances to one of a very small number of licensed custom slaughter facilities. Neither choice is sustainable for a small farmer.
Major international companies likeTyson and Purdue own 95 percent of the poultry industry in the United States—they own thebirds, the processing facilities and all the marketing machines that go along with it.The industry is consolidated in the South—in the Ozarks,Missouri and Alabama, where it’s cheaper to heat the chicken barns. “Basically, they just hire farmers to be contract growers for the poultry industry,” Hashley remarks. All of this consolidation in the South means that small-scale poultry producers, especially in the Northeast—those who sustainably raise and humanely and legally process healthy, safe birds for discerning consumers—struggle with finding legal and economical options for processing their birds. The infrastructure is not here.
“I quickly realized that this wasn’t just about Pete and Jen’s ability to process chickens. It was about our state’s need to have a vibrant local food system. If we’re having this problem, every other person who wants to raise chicken to sell at markets is having this problem,” she says.
In 2000, the New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) in Belchertown began developing a chicken-processing unit that could travel from farm to farm—in other words, a slaughterhouse on wheels. It was originally designed at Washington State University and was used successfullyin Washington state. The unit is called a Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPPU). It comes on a flatbed trailer complete with poultry cones, a rotary scalder, a plucker, chill tubs, hot-water handwash sinks and eviscerating stations. At a farm conference in New York in 2004, Hashley watched one of these units in action and had an aha! moment. She envisioned small-scaleMassachusetts farmers legally processing chickens on their own farms at minimum cost!
Back at NESFP, Hashley did the research to find out what approvals and licenses needed to be obtained to bring the Belchertown unit to eastern Massachusetts. She drove the effort along with the Department of Public Health, the Food Protection Program, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Agricultural Resources. She developed a manual, Handbook for Small Scale Poultry Producer-Processors, which is a step-by-step guide on how to apply for state licensing to use the MPPU.
Long story short, a farm that wants to use the unit to process its own birds for direct-to-consumer commerce goes through astate licensing process to obtain a state slaughter license, completes a training course on how to use the MPPU legally and safely, and then passes an observation by a state inspector who shows up on-site. The farm is then scheduled to use the unit. Currently, the farmer has to drive out to Belchertownto retrieve the unit, transport it to the farm and then return it to Belchertown. The unit has been coming regularly to the Verrill Farm location, where Hashley and Lowy and a group of volunteers process hundreds of chickens about four times a year. Hashley is working at NESFP to raise money for a new unit that will be stored locally and used to service easternMassachusetts farmers. She is also trying to get farmers’ licensing fees reduced since, she argues, the fees (and much of the regulation) are based on the large-producer, bricks-and-mortar slaughterhouse model.
Hashley’s vision of the future of small-scale farming includes more mobile units. The demand is there, she says. As fewer and fewer farmers can afford to own the land they work, and leasing becomes the preferred arrangement, more farmers will be sharing capital infrastructure. The mobile-unit concept fits in well with this new model of farming. Think of a reusable, shared mobile unit traveling from dairy farm to dairy farm milking cows, or processing cheese, threshing wheat, flash-freezing fruits and vegetables or processing bio-diesel.The possibilities are almost endless and the best part is, you can take it with you.
Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds
Concord, MA 01742
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance food writer based in Acton and Charlestown. You can find her just about every Sunday morning this fall at the new Acton-Boxborough Farmers Market down the street from her house. She writes a food blog, Food andWineWith a Story, at rosiedequattro.com.