There exists a bottleneck within the meat and poultry industry: while consumers want the food and farmers are more than able to supply, new slaughterhouse conglomerates offer less and less capacity for production. The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse (Storey Publishing, 2013) offers a solution. Ali Berlow, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard and owner of a mobile chicken slaughterhouse, writes about the impact her small business has on the local farmers and quality of poultry produced. In this excerpt from “Start Here, Get Organized,” Berlow lays down the basics of starting your mobile chicken slaughterhouse, from establishing a nonprofit to meeting local farmers.
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A mobile slaughterhouse can be a private enterprise, or, as a different model, some states own mobile slaughterhouses and run them in collaboration with nonprofits.
Island Growth Initiative (IGI) took on the Mobile Poultry Processing Trailer, or MPPT, as one of its programs. The initial investment was high, but over a few years and as the program solidified its place in the community, the intensive day-to-day behind-the-scenes work diminished.
The Nonprofit Route
Start your own nonprofit organization or, better yet, find a fiscal sponsor. Investigate nonprofits in your community that may be a good fit for your budding program and can shelter your program as a fiscal sponsorship.
Or you could file for your own not-for-profit or 501(c)(3) status. As mentioned, the MPPT described here was run by a nonprofit. As odd as that first seemed to the agencies, I believe the Mobile Poultry Processing Trailer’s success is largely attributable to the fact that it was run by a local, community-based nonprofit organization and not a private enterprise. IGI’s only skin in the game is supporting farmers; it isn’t a farmer itself, a farm, a processor, or some other related agriculture business. Trust developed.
Tread carefully, though: starting a new nonprofit is a big undertaking. With good stewardship it can be functional and fiscally responsible. Act with prudence at the beginning of your development so that you don’t overreach your capacity as an organization or create expectations that aren’t attainable. Avoid making promises, especially to farmers, that you can’t keep. As always, be transparent along the way.
Recruit the right board members for your organization. Strong and resilient nonprofits have a diversity of voices and depth of expertise on their board. But that doesn’t mean too many people. Seven to eleven tops.
Major donors should remain and be respected as donors. They should not be officers of the board. Otherwise you run the risk that a major donor drives and controls the board and the agenda with the power of money — like the way Big Ag does in the world of political lobbying and policy influence. Diversify your board, open it up to eaters, and commit your program to transparency.
Employ from the get-go a code of conduct that includes language about conflicts of interest and term limits. Robert’s Rules of Order, though seemingly unyielding and out of character for a small, developing grassroots organization, will help provide the structure and formalities that encourage civil discourse among the group. That way, from the most introverted to extroverted, all have a chance to speak safely and be respected by the group.
The Mobile Poultry Processing Trailer as a Private Enterprise
So you want to run a mobile poultry slaughterhouse as a private business? Do the numbers, research the permits. Buy the equipment, lay the groundwork with your regulators, and get the word out that you’re open and ready for business. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to build and run a slaughterhouse.
Depending on your circumstances it will most likely take a good six months to a year to get a poultry program or the MPPT in full swing. Permitting may take longer. In the meantime, keep raising birds if you fall under 20,000 per year as a grower/processor and keep raising awareness, money, and confidence in your community.
Gathering the Players
You won’t have a mobile slaughterhouse if you don’t have farmers who raise livestock. What are the steps in pulling together the active players?
For a robust and festive beginning, host a Farmers’ Dinner. This event is specifically for the farmers and backyard growers in your community so you can ask them their opinions, share your developing plan, and get your survey back. Invite all farmers whether they raise chickens or not. Listen hard and take good notes.
As said, transparency is key. Work openly and respectfully with the farmers and the regulators in your community. Most likely they are your neighbors. You’ll run into each other on the soccer field, at the bank or farmers’ market, or in the grocery store. The end goal for everyone is safe, humane food. Understand that from the farmer to the grocer to the eater to the regulator, they all approach the goal of safe chicken through different emphases and missions.
Since you come from a solid place of conviction — the right to create or support a local food system and to eat the food you trust and believe in — transparency and respect will strengthen and embolden your efforts as you proceed down the path of the permitting process.
At the beginning of your program, you will create three to six part-time jobs because of the MPPT. Here are some steps in your hiring process.
Look for a Crew manager right away, someone with good communication and organizational skills. He or she will schedule the slaughter and processing dates with the farmers and work with local and state regulators as necessary. The manager maintains an online calendar accessible to local and state inspectors so they may see where and when the MPPT is in use. IGI pays the Crew manager a monthly stipend for these duties.
Determine pay structure for the Crew. Humane slaughter and processing of livestock is a skilled job with enormous responsibilities. Pay worthy people well.
Crew wages and farmers’ fees are closely tied together, of course. Consider that a farmer must determine her processing costs as accurately as possible. IGI’s cost-per-bird fee system was based on equivalent wages for the Crew and the general efficiency of a processing. IGI established this over the first few seasons and tinkered with it as the Crew faced different regulations, as well as the obligatory monitoring of paperwork throughout the permitting process.
Place ads in local newspapers for fair-wage poultry processors. Look for online listings and young farmer initiatives.
Prepare to train the Chicken Crew to run the MPPT, schedule the equipment with farmers, and maintain the equipment.
Even when you’ve made an excellent plan, barriers will rise. Are MPPT systems up to food safety standards? Are the workers safe and fairly paid? Who are the managers? Who will inspect? Are you setting up your systems with a paper trail of information that can be passed on in a coherent, consistent way, or is it all in your head?
The USDA is mandated by law to inspect four-legged livestock, but federal inspectors are stretched thin. A grower/producer is required to use an USDA-inspected slaughterhouse for poultry in order to sell across state lines. Do you really need to cross state lines?
To establish a paper record, keep every e-mail used in correspondence with regulators. After phone calls or face-to-face meetings with them, write up your notes and send a copy to the regulator(s) for record keeping. This keeps all participating individuals abreast of changing situations, conversations, the clarification of terms, definition of regulations and exemptions, as interpreted and agreed upon by the stakeholders, as your program begins to grow.
For us, these results unfolded over four years as we negotiated with the state to obtain the proper permits. The goal was to enable farmers to sell their chickens wherever they wished: farm stands, farmers’ markets, restaurants, boardinghouses, grocers, even institutions (like schools and hospitals). As advocate, Island Growth Initiative worked to make all outlets available and let the farmers decide how to engage those markets. Some were all set with their own farm stands. Others wanted to diversify their paths to market. All we wanted to do was to provide safe, affordable, clean, fair-wage, accessible, size-appropriate, humane, permitted slaughter and processing. That’s all, and that’s everything.
The agricultural community will soon outgrow the Mobile Poultry Processing Trailer. The demand for the equipment, the wear and tear, will soon cause it to reach its maximum capacity. And that’s the point. It’s a bridge piece of infrastructure. We had to start somewhere, and it had to be affordable.
So how do we move forward, collectively, serving the non-negotiable mission of safe food, with ever-decreasing budgets, onerous policies, growing consumer demand, and increasing mandates for regulatory implementation? This is the ongoing dialogue and the challenge we all face as we move with our small business toward more regional, smaller food hubs.
Reprinted with permission from The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse: Building a Human Chicken Processing Unit to Strengthen Your Local Food System by Ali Berlow and published by Storey Publishing, 2013. Buy this book from our store: The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse
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