Counting Their Chickens
Misty Knoll Farms in Addison County has emerged as a poultry-producing powerhouse
Written onDecember 01 , 2010
Yes, there is a knoll—
and it’s misty.
At least it was on the day this past October when I visitedMisty Knoll Farms, Vermont’s largest chicken producer. Standing on the small rise at the eastern edge of the farm in New Haven, facing a swath of Addison County dairy land below and the spine of the Green Mountains beyond, I spotted a light fog in the valley that looked misty enough.
“There are wealthier farmers who have more than one knoll, but we have only one,” quipped my tour guide.
He was Rob Litch, farmer and part owner of Misty Knoll, and I was to become familiar with his droll sense of humor during my visit. But although there’s only one knoll on the farm, Litch and his business partner (and uncle), John Palmer, can boast of having something far more valuable, something the majority of American poultry farmers do not have: total control over how their birds are raised, processed, and marketed.
At their 412-acre farm, located on the sites of two former dairy operations, there are barns that house tens of thousands of chickens and turkeys—Rob and John decide exactly what those birds are fed and how they’re housed. There’s an on-site slaughter facility staffed by a USDA inspector and a series of rooms where 18 employees (a mix of local residents and Jamaicans with H2A guest worker permits) transform whole birds into parts—Rob and John oversee these parts of the operation, too. They also decide how much to charge for their poultry and where to sell it.
Contrast this with most poultry farmers in America, who must follow the dictates of the large agribusinesses they work with—Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride. These corporations often own the birds even as the farmers raise them and take on the debt of building the infrastructure to house them. The birds must be grown to the corporation’s specifications; they are then trucked miles away to slaughter facilities the farmer never sees.
“We don’t have someone telling us exactly how we’re gonna do things,” Rob said as he stood in a light rain beside Misty Knoll’s compost pile, where 90 percent of the farm’s barn and processing waste is put. “No one tells us exactly how much they’re going to pay us, or tells us when our product is good enough to go to market. We make those decisions ourselves.”
Misty Knoll must be making some good decisions, as it is far and away Vermont’s largest producer of chickens: 225,000 are raised there annually. According to the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, the next largest farm raising broiler chickens sold between 2,000 and 16,000 birds; all the other farms raising broilers in Vermont were raising less than 2,000. As for turkeys, Misty Knoll raises 30,000 annually, a number rivaled only by Stonewood Farm in Orwell and Adams Turkey Farm in Westford.
Adding to its clout, Misty Knoll’s products are sold at nearly all the food co-ops in the state, numerous health food stores, some supermarkets, and in restaurants as varied as corner diners to classy white-tablecloth establishments. The poultry is also served in the dining halls at UVM, Champlain College, and Middlebury College. Three-quarters of Misty Knoll products are sold within Vermont.
“Rob is a really good businessman,” says Allen Matthews, a program coordinator at UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture who has served with Rob on the board of the Vermont Fresh Network, a nonprofit that connects farmers and restaurants. “He works and thinks long term. He also knows he is supplying a really quality product that there’s not much competition for right now.”
That lack of competition, though, means that if it weren’t for Misty Knoll, there might not be much fresh Vermont chicken to offer shoppers in this state. While many small farms sell their chickens through CSAs and at farmers’ markets, or sell whole frozen birds in stores, Misty Knoll is able to provide a large volume of fresh chicken throughout the year. It also sells much of its chicken in parts—breasts, thighs, and legs—which smaller farms tend not to do.
Beck Norman, the meat and fish buyer at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, praised Misty Knoll’s products and service, given that there is such high demand for fresh chicken at the store. She told me she wishes she could buy chicken from additional farmers but wonders if they could provide as much as the store needs.
At Hunger Mountain in mid-November, a fresh, whole Misty Knoll chicken was fetching $3.69 a pound. Organic whole chickens from smaller farms tend to be between $4 and $5 a pound. (At Shaw’s supermarket in Montpelier, there was no Misty Knoll chicken, but the fresh, whole chicken from Tyson Foods was $1.29 a pound)
Why is Misty Knoll poultry less expensive than that of smaller-scale farms? With size comes efficiencies, for sure, but there’s also the fact that Misty Knoll poultry is not organic (although the corn-and-soy feed given to the birds is antibiotic free). And Misty Knoll chickens are not free-range (although the turkeys are).
Instead, the chickens—Ross-Cobb crosses—are kept in barns at all times. Rob declined to let me into a barn with chickens in it, citing biosecurity concerns, but he did show me an empty one that was awaiting a fresh shipment of chicks. The empty second-floor space, roughly the size of a very large living room, was clean, odor free, and covered in fresh bedding of pine shavings. But it was hard to imagine a couple of thousand chickens in it. I asked Rob if he thought the birds might enjoy more room.
“I haven’t asked them,” he said with a laugh. Then turning serious, he said, “In terms of space they have more than an adequate amount, in my opinion.” He added that if the birds weren’t treated humanely they wouldn’t taste as good as they do. Later he pointed out that the farm’s stocking density—the amount of square feet provided for each bird—is around 1.75 feet. While that’s low compared to what pasture-raised chickens enjoy, the average stocking density for factory-farmed chickens is .75 feet per bird. In essence, Misty Knoll is providing more than twice the room that industrial facilities do.
Rob, who was an economics major at UVM and once harbored dreams of being a stockbroker, said this is the growing model (and price structure) that keeps his farm competitive. He is also dubious about the term “free-range,” saying it simply means that birds have access to the outdoors. “If there’s no chance they’re going to go outside because it’s snowy and cold, then it’s misleading to the consumer, and that doesn’t add to our integrity.”
That said, Misty Knoll’s turkeys are free-range because they’re slaughtered by Thanksgiving, before the weather turns. A flock of 5,500 turkeys—of the Hybrid breed—were strutting around on the ground floor of a 200-ft. by 100-ft. barn on the rainy day I visited. The turkeys had access to a large pasture out back that is bedded with hay when the grass gets worn down.
By offering a middle ground between factory-farmed chicken and pasture-raised chicken, Misty Knoll may be a potential model for future Vermont poultry production. According to a forthcoming report on Vermont meat production, to be included in the “Farm to Plate” report that the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund will be submitting to the state legislature, 1.4 million additional chickens would have to be raised in Vermont if the state were to provide for its own chicken needs at current levels of consumption.
If all those chickens were pasture raised, that would mean a lot of open space; perhaps one day there will be enough farms to provide it. Or perhaps six more Misty Knolls will need to open, raising chickens in barns or perhaps offering a more pasture-based product if Vermonters were able and willing to pay for it. Rob said that if there was more demand for free-range chicken, “I could accommodate it at certain times of the year,” but he said this would require a complete change of his farm, requiring him to build more one-story barns and to obtain more land.
The 41-year-old farmer, who has run Misty Knoll with his uncle since it opened in 1991, is now immersed in his latest project: building a new three-floor chicken barn that will partially house chickens destined for Whole Foods supermarkets. Rob approached Whole Foods when he heard it was going to launch a Burlington store (it has yet to open). The chain has already been selling some Misty Knoll turkeys in New England.
As construction workers drilled and hammered inside the new building—already dubbed “the Whole Foods barn”—Rob stood in the light rain and described his work as exciting. “Don’t get me wrong: when you’re processing, it’s repetitive work, and it’s very boring. But I’m not stuck going to marketing meetings every day. I’m not stuck driving a truck every day. I’m not in a processing facility every day.”
He turned to admire the new barn. “Do you think it would look better with some cupolas on it?”