Farmer Duane Smith of Riverbend Heritage Farm in Stanley, North Carolina, had planned to have his pasture-raised turkeys processed on the Monday before Thanksgiving. Although he had booked the appointment at Cool Hand Meats six months in advance, he discovered in October that the plant had suddenly closed. Smith had just a few weeks to find a place to process 100 turkeys, 30 geese reserved for Christmas dinners, and 200 broiler chickens.
“My customers had paid a $25 deposit and I had nowhere to take them,” recalls Smith. Otherwise, he says, “I would have to wait until the beginning of next year. But the market for turkeys goes down a lot after Thanksgiving.”
Since 2012, Cool Hand Meats formerly known as the Foothills Pilot Plant, had provided affordable, Animal Welfare Approved slaughter at their U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-permitted processing plant in Marion, North Carolina. The facility processed chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese for 300 to 400 independent, pasture-based farmers across six states. Because there was a daily USDA inspector who examined the birds for disease, the farmers were allowed to apply for and receive authorization to use special claims such as “local,” “free range,” and “Animal Welfare Approved” on the meat they sold.
When the plant closed, Smith and his neighbors joined farmers all over the country who often have to scramble to find a way to process pastured meat. As the meat industry has consolidated, small-scale slaughter and processing infrastructure has become increasingly rare. According to the National Center for Appropriate Technology, there are only 11 USDA-inspected small poultry processing plants in the entire country.
In North Carolina—ranked second in turkey production and third in total poultry production in the nation—there are 20 USDA permitted facilities that process only commercially raised chicken for large companies such as Perdue, Pilgrim’s, Tyson Foods, and Butterball Farms. Although local meat sales bring $20 million to the state each year, that’s a small slice of the $36 billion the industry in the state brings in as whole. In just one example, the Prestage Food plant in St. Pauls, N.C., has processed as many as 10,000,000 turkeys a year.
Whenever a plant aimed at small producers closes, it leaves independent farmers like Smith without many other options. In the case of Cool Hand Meats, there were 55 farmers spread across North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee who might not have been able to deliver their 2,500 pasture-raised turkeys to their customers.
The response in North Carolina was a coordinated effort to fill this unanticipated need for pasture-raised turkey processing. The partnerships between farmers, independent farming advocates, and the state agriculture department illustrates how one state has begun to put the pieces back in place to make local, pasture-raised poultry work for both farmers and consumers. But it also raises larger questions about the resilience of the local food economy, including whether independent farmers in the surrounding states were as able to quickly recover, and about the future for independent meat producers in the U.S.
A Coordinated Solution
Farmer Ben Grimes of Dawnbreaker Farms in Hurdle Mills, N.C. found himself in a better position than most of his fellow pastured turkey producers when the news about Cool Hand Meats arrived. Grimes had taken advantage of the fact that North Carolina, like many states, exempts small poultry processors—those that slaughter fewer than 20,000 birds per year—from a federal requirement that slaughter and processing must take place in a facility with “continuous” USDA inspection. (The exemption allows independent farmers to process their birds on their own premises for sale within North Carolina state lines.) He had also received a county-level grant in 2015, and a grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) in 2016.
The funds and the exemption made it possible for Grimes to install plumbing, electricity, and state-of-the-art slaughter and processing equipment into a 650-square-foot renovated tobacco barn. He named the operation Dependable Poultry Processors.
When Grimes learned of the closing of Cool Hand Meats, he wanted to be of service to his fellow pastured poultry farmers. However, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA) clearly stated that his on-farm facility could not slaughter or process another farmer’s poultry. But when Grimes looked up the rules, he noticed that they read, “unless the State Director of Meat and Poultry Inspection grants an exemption.” So he made some calls.
Soon, the request reached Dr. Beth Yongue, the Director of Meat and Poultry Inspections Division at NCDA, who was receptive and wanted to help. “Within the hour, I was on a conference call with the director of Carolina Farm Stewardship and other advocates to discuss the response,” recalls Grimes.
On October 27, Yongue granted a temporary widening of the exemption, “due to the closure of the only small poultry processing facility in North Carolina, and the demand for birds over the upcoming Holiday season.”
The Benefits of a Strong Network
In addition to the responsiveness of the state, North Carolina State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems has been working to advance local and niche meat supply chains since 2011 with a program called NC Choices. The Sarah Blacklin, the director of NC Choices, and project coordinator Sheila Neil are on the advisory board of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, a network and information hub for those working to help small meat processors to thrive. This network helped pasture-based farmers find on-farm processors like Grimes to fill the gap left by Cool Hand Meats.
“We are lucky to have that leadership in North Carolina,” said Blacklin.
Thanks to the widened exemption, farm manager Ben Rickard of Fickle Creek Farm in Efland, N.C. was able to bring 100 of his pasture-raised turkeys to Dependable Poultry Processors. He arrived early in the morning last Thursday and they had been processed by 2 p.m. “It was more expensive to process,” says Rickard. But he was relieved to be able to make use of the animals he had spent time and resources raising in time for the holiday. Rickard was happy not to have to face angry customers at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market this week. As of Saturday, Dependable Poultry Processors had processed 160 turkeys and chickens for six farms.
Duane Smith brought his turkeys to a mobile processing unit at the nearby Western Piedmont Community College, where students can earn two-year applied science certificates in Sustainable Livestock Management. The process was slower because it was done by students—but it was also more affordable. Due to the class schedule, the school had to process his turkeys in two batches. In the end, all 80 birds made it to his customers in time.
Professor Meagan Roberts, horticulture and sustainable agriculture instructor at Western Piedmont Community College in western North Carolina, said the school had processed turkeys for five growers and will be processing more birds on Tuesday.
“They gave priority to processing turkeys over chickens because they know that turkey sales are the bread and butter for local farmers,” said Roberts. The undergraduate students she works with average 20 birds an hour. “They are really careful handling the birds,” she added. “They pride themselves on quality over speed as well as respect for each animal’s life.”
The Year Ahead
Aside from the difficulties of getting the rest of the birds processed by the end of the year, there is even more uncertainty for 2018 when the temporary exemption ends.
“Farmers will be ordering turkey poults in February, and without viable processing options, they may choose not to continue in the pastured poultry business,” says Ben Grimes. Farmer Bob Sykes from Turtle Mist Farm says the upfront cost is no small matter: Poults cost him $13 apiece and only half the animals survive long enough to be harvested.
Grimes wants to see the exemption extended in 2018 and is encouraging fellow farmers to contact their local officials—particularly the NCDA state director—about it. The hope, he says, is that the state can prioritize pasture-based producers until a replacement processing plant can come back online in the region.
This is not the first time that pasture poultry farmers have faced difficult choices in how much to invest in the future. Grimes says that before Foothills Pilot Plant opened their doors in January 2012, a local halal meat company had offered poultry processing for small producers for a few years. Before that, it was another company. He points to the investment of capital needed, and the amount of regulations in place as major hurdles for these companies. “In order to remain financially viable, these facilities need to be open seven hours a day and have enough birds to process every month,” he says.
The challenge, he adds, is that producers need to know they have a place to process the birds before they invest in raising a significant number of them. For that reason, and others, he hopes that federal and local policymakers can begin to look for ways to offer pasture-based producers a little of the same support that large, industrial producers benefit from. “I’d like to see that same flexibility and awareness of the pastured poultry producers going forward,” says Grimes.