Pastured Poultry in Aisle 9
New small-scale slaughter facilities are allowing some Vermont farms to sell pastured chicken in stores
Written onAugust 20 , 2013
Whiz by it on Route 2 between Richmond and Bolton and you might think it was an abandoned rail car, a housing unit for migrant farm workers, or a storage shed. Bland and inconspicuous, the boxy structure doesn’t look like it has the potential to re-shape Vermont’s local food scene (or at least make it easier to purchase and cook pastured chicken).
A similar structure is nestled on a sweeping hilltop in West Glover, next to an old dairy barn being retrofitted into a brooding house. This structure looks like somebody’s trailer, too, but in fact, every Monday it houses a small flock of people breaking down whole pastured chickens into parts.
These units are small-scale poultry slaughterhouses—the first of their kind in Vermont—and if you love local chicken, you might look upon them as shrines. They’re allowing pastured Vermont chicken to be sold in stores, for the first time in years, and it’s being sold in parts, something that will be appreciated by anyone who’s intimidated by whole-bird cooking.
“It seems there’s a pretty big section of the population that doesn’t know what to do with a whole chicken,” says Randy Quenneville, head of meat inspection at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. “It’s pretty surprising when you think about it, but that’s how it is.”
The two farms operating these new slaughter units—Maple Wind Farm and Tangletown Farm—already have their parted chicken in stores in Burlington and Montpelier, at farmers’ markets, and at a handful of restaurants (see localbanquet.com for a full list).
“It’s looking great on the shelves and people are responding,” says Beth Whiting of Maple Wind Farm.
The unit along Route 2 belongs to Maple Wind Farm and is on a piece of property that farmers Bruce Hennessey and Beth Whiting recently purchased in addition to their main farm in Huntington. (Ironically, the unit is next to a barn that once housed a confinement turkey operation.) Bruce and Beth bought the unit from a company in Missouri, Featherman Equipment, that’s hoping to develop a prototype for sale to farmers across the country. They’re helping the company figure out what works and what doesn’t in the new unit.
The other slaughter facility, up in West Glover, belongs to Tangletown Farm, which until recently was located in Middlesex. Farmers Lila Bennett and David Robb bought the unit in 2012 from the State of Vermont, which funded its construction intending it to be a mobile processing unit that traveled around the state serving farmers. It was mobile for a year or so, but after it became apparent that it was financially unfeasible for the leasee to operate, the state sold it to Tangletown. (The farm uses it as a stationary unit, not a mobile one.)
If you’re wondering why Tangletown and Maple Wind need these slaughter facilities to sell their chicken in stores, it has to do with state and federal meat regulations. All poultry sold in stores must be slaughtered in a facility that meets certain standards of cleanliness, and all birds must be examined by a meat inspector as they’re being processed. Vermonts’ slaughterhouses can provide this service but farms that have their own unit can save on processing and transportation costs.
Farms that don’t want to invest in their own slaughter unit, or don’t want to take their birds to somebody else’s unit, can sell chicken, of course, but only at farmers’ markets, from their farm, or to restaurants that indicate on the menu that the chicken was uninspected. These farms can only sell up to 1,000 uninspected birds a year, and they have to be whole, not parted—a regulation that’s in place because, as Randy Quenneville of the Agency of Agriculture says, “Every time you put another cut into a chicken you increase the chance of contamination.”
The two new slaughter units do, indeed, meet the state’s cleanliness standards, and state meat inspectors are present on slaughtering days. But the units are expensive to buy, which is why small-scale farms have been reluctant to purchase them. Maple Wind had assistance from a grant from Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Fund and a 5-year, no-interest loan from City Market, to be paid back in product. Tangletown received a low-interest loan from a loyal CSA customer.
Large-scale farms, however, can usually afford their own processing facilities. Take Misty Knoll and Adams Farm, the only other Vermont farms currently selling chicken in stores. Their slaughter facilities are larger than those of Tangletown and Maple Wind, but Misty Knoll and Adams don’t pasture their chickens, meaning Tangletown and Maple Wind are filling a real niche—selling pastured local chicken to in-store customers.
“It’s adding value for us and giving people what they want,” says Bruce Hennessey of Maple Wind Farm.
On a sunny August morning, six people were working cheerfully inside Maple Wind’s 40-ft. by 8-ft. unit. Bruce was at the back, by the open door, placing the certified organic chickens in cones, cutting their carotid artery, and bleeding them out. He then placed them in a scalder to loosen the feathers and moved them from there into a mechanical plucker, which spun them around at high velocity until they were de-feathered.
After attaching each bird to a metal shackle, he sent them around on a pulley to the front of the trailer, where three Maple Wind interns and one employee (the farm’s poultry manager) eviscerated the birds and separated them into parts. A state inspector carefully laid her eyes and hands on each chicken, making small talk with the young crew only when she was between birds.
Lila and Dave at Tangletown say they’ve learned a lot from the state inspectors with whom they have worked.“ They want to see you succeed and grow,” Lila says. “They’re not waiting to punish you.” She adds that it’s reaffirming to have an inspector praise a certain bird or flock of birds. “It’s great to have somebody in there encouraging you.”
At Tangletown, processing takes place each Monday inside the 36-ft. by 8-ft. unit. They are long days. Lila and Dave are on their feet most of the time, and though the atmosphere can be jovial (and there’s a nice view of the farm through the window), the work can be repetitive and demands concentration. Roughly 200 birds are processed each Monday.
At Maple Wind that August morning, Bruce said 160 birds were going to be processed that day, although the farm’s goal is 200 a day. “Even if this seems like more of a mass production situation,” Bruce said as he moved chickens from the kill cones to the scalder, “I still have respect for the animals, every one of them.”
In addition to processing their own birds—possibly 4,000 this year if all goes well with the new unit—Maple Wind intends to process chickens for other farms, too, possibly 3,000 to 4,000 birds this year. Dave and Lila of Tangletown are holding off on processing for others as they settle into their new property, but say they might re-evaluate that option down the road.
The price of this pastured chicken is certainly more than that of conventional chicken, and more than that of Misty Knoll or Adams Farm. Customers probably know, though, that they’re paying for a smaller-scale, more hands-on farming method that requires more labor (moving the chickens on pasture rather than keeping them in a barn) and more feed (due to the slower growth of the birds).
Misty Knoll used to pasture their chickens and for a few years sold the meat in stores, but a few years ago they switched to a barn confinement model. The farmers at Tangletown and Maple Wind appreciate that Misty Knoll was a trailblazer, getting Vermont-raised chicken into restaurants and people’s homes, even though the raising practices of the New Haven farm are so different from those of the two pasture-based farms.
Tangletown and Maple Wind—roughly the same size and both guided by a belief in the value of pasture-based agriculture—keep in touch and share information. And both farms say there is room for more local chicken on store shelves; their birds alone aren’t going to meet the current demand for pastured, parted, local chicken—or at least the growing curiosity about it.
“A lot of families aren’t really sure about this whole pastured chicken thing,” Lila says. “But now you can buy some chicken parts and try it out.”
Pastured poultry from Maple Wind and Tangletown can be purchased at the following stores and restaurants:
Richmond Market and Beverage
Hinesburgh Public House
Farmhouse Tap and Grill
Hotel Vermont- Juniper Restaurant
Area farmers’ markets
Hunger Mountain Co-op
Newport Naturals and Tasting Center
Hen Of the Wood
Montpelier Farmers' Market