US - Two poultry processing plants and a slaughterhouse dedicated to red meat – are slated to open in Maine in the next few months.
According to Portland Press Herald, Maine producers of livestock and poultry regularly grumble about how hard it is to get their animals slaughtered and processed in a state that has only a dozen federal- or state-inspected facilities.
Whether it’s pigs, cows or chickens, a date at the abattoir often has to be booked months in advance. But three new facilities inspected by the US Department of Agriculture – two poultry processing plants and a slaughterhouse dedicated to red meat – are slated to open in the next few months.
Farmers and advocates say the new facilities are a major step in the quest to grow Maine’s food economy both in and out of the state. A 2014 survey by the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service found that nearly 80 per cent of Mainers say they want to buy local, but local meats are not always readily available or at the right price points to drive sales.
Growing the number of federally inspected facilities in the state could increase supply and allow more Maine meat to be sold across state lines.
"On a national scale probably nobody else would notice," said Tori Jackson, associate professor with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension and the author of a 2013 report stressing the need for more slaughterhouses. "But for us, it is a really big deal."
Today, there are five USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in Maine, but none for poultry. Just one of seven state-inspected facilities processes poultry.
A new facility in Gardiner, a conventional poultry processing business where the birds will be killed and processed for sale, is slated to open 1 January, according to owner and builder Bill Lovely.
He will lease the building to Ryan Wilson and Gina Simmons of Common Wealth Poultry, who are working in collaboration with one of Maine’s oldest and biggest poultry farmers, John Barnstein of Maine-ly Poultry in Warren. The birds processed there will be barn-raised and grain-fed – local, but not organic.
By 1 February, Lovely also hopes to have a slaughterhouse geared toward beef open to serve Northeast Meats, his Gardiner facility where red meat is packed for sale. That slaughterhouse also would kill lambs, sheep and pigs.
Tide Mill Organic Farm is planning a third facility, slated to open 1 March. But Carly DelSignore, who runs the family farm in Edmunds with her husband, Aaron Bell, are still raising money for the project.
Tide Mill started an Indiegogo campaign last week to raise $25,000 of the $100,000 it needs to finish the building and upgrade equipment (in three days they had raised over $6,500). Ms DelSignore said she’s ready to shift production from the chilly 8-by-20-foot trailer she and her workers use now.
"I can’t believe my crew didn’t call in sick today," she said via phone from Edmunds on Tuesday, as a nor’easter was blowing through the Down East region. "Water was freezing on the floor. I have to buy toe warmers in bulk so everybody can have multiple pairs."
Killing chickens and processing them is a miserable business on any given day – as Wilson said drily, "It’s not like working at a coffee shop"– but Ms DelSignore and Wilson of Common Wealth have their eyes on their version of a prize: improved facilities that would allow them to grow their businesses reliably.
Both said that becoming USDA-certified represents the best chance for that. They now operate under state guidelines for what’s known as the 20,000-bird exemption. Farms can process their birds, up to 20,000 annually, for direct-to-consumer sales and wholesale, but can’t sell the meat outside the state.
There are limited opportunities for farmers to have someone else process their birds. Lovely said he is taking two or three calls a day from people eager to bring theirs in to his new poultry facility.
In the 20th century, Maine was a serious producer of poultry. In the 1940s, Belfast was home to companies like MacLeod, Maplewood and Penobscot Poultry that processed as many as 250,000 chickens a day, according to some historical accounts. (Those same accounts of less regulated days talk about how handy it was to dispose of chicken guts in Penobscot Bay.)
As recently as 1987, Maine produced 13.7 million broilers a year. The last big producer, Penobscot, closed its doors a year later, putting hundreds out of work and marking the end of an era.
In 2007, the USDA Farm Census recorded just under 20,000 broilers sold from Maine farms, all of them from small-scale operations growing fewer than 2,000 birds.
As the eat local movement kicked into full swing, those numbers have shot up radically. Small-scale poultry farming is considered a good entry to farming or addition to other farming operations, with minimal infrastructure costs.
By the 2012 Farm Census, 417 Maine farms sold 138,857 broilers in a year.
At Common Wealth Poultry, Mr Wilson and Ms Simmons would be happy to push those numbers higher. They’ll start by processing Maine-ly Poultry’s birds, but Wilson said he hopes to start handling poultry from other farms and eventually process more than 100,000 birds a year.
He and Ms DelSignore said selling out of state would be a bonus, but that is not the main goal in opting for USDA certification rather than state inspection.
"I am not doing it especially to sell out of state," Mr Wilson said. "I am doing it for security … I want to be more legitimate and have a more legitimate business."
Mainely Poultry struggled this spring after failing inspection for wastewater issues. "I want a state-of-the-art facility where I can really make a high quality product and not worry about anything," he said.
Thirteen USDA inspectors operate within Maine and travel to other states in the Northeast region. The federal agency would be prepared to add an inspector if needed.
State-inspected facilities were phased out as of 1983, but the state relaunched its programme in 2003 in response to a demand for more slaughterhouses. Producers complain about a backlog of inspections by the state’s five inspectors.
"I have a lot of concerns about whether there is the capacity" in the state system, Ms DelSignore said. "I feel relatively assured through the USDA but through the state of Maine I have not."
Tide Mill recently started delivering its fresh chicken to the Portland area, including to the new Portland Food Co-op this month. The trek is worth it to reach a market for fresh organic, local chicken that Ms DelSignore feels remains largely untapped.
With the year-round facility, she said her processing costs will drop from about $7 a bird to $4. She hopes the new slaughterhouse will encourage more farmers to raise organic chickens Down East and bring their birds to her for processing.
"I want to be promoting a model where farmers are actually making money," Ms DelSignore said.
Neither she nor Mr Wilson are strangers to delays, but Wilson said he’s been told that, once he completes a certification process for the Gardiner slaughterhouse and finishes a management plan, someone from USDA can be there within a week. Then it is full steam ahead.
"I want to grow food for people without the government getting in my way." Then he laughed and added, "And it turns out that the best way to do that is have the government help me."
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