Farming livestock is a good way to celebrate life, but it also requires dealing with death. That can be a problem for small-scale and beginning farmers, including the many people who decided to start raising chickens during the pandemic.
“There’s a Facebook group for New Hampshire backyard poultry, and there’s always people, every day, asking, ‘Who can process my birds?’ It’s a hot topic right now, for sure,” said Elaina Enzien, food and agriculture field specialist for UNH Cooperative Extension.
Processing farm animals, whether cows, pigs, sheep or poultry, has long been a problem in New Hampshire because of a shortage of licensed facilities to kill animals, remove their fur, feathers and skin, cut them up and package the meat. Things have gotten harder for poultry farmers because a major state-licensed facility, Granite State Poultry in Milford, shut earlier this year for personal reasons.
“We know lots of folks who don’t want to process their chickens or turkeys, and Granite State was a great resource for those folks,” said Steve Forde of Hop N Hen Farm in Henniker. “The bigger problem is that for there to be more people who can do poultry in New Hampshire – locally raised chicken, turkey, other animals – there needs to be places you can bring them.”
Since livestock can make or break the finances of a small farm, lack of processing can hamper growth in local food production.
The pandemic has produced a burst of stay-at-home workers trying backyard farming, often with chickens. It has been extremely difficult to buy chicks for the past year because they sell so fast.
“Since COVID hit, when you couldn’t find chicken on the shelf for a little while, people started to panic,” said Cindy Shea of Purely Wholesome Farm in Loudon. “The nice thing about meat birds is you can process them within six weeks” of getting chicks, due to the fast growth rate of modern birds. “It’s a quick turnaround investment. But they do eat a lot and the price of grain is going through the roof at the moment so the input cost is starting to creep up.”
Building a new processing plant to meet the need of all these farmers isn’t easy, as Concord learned in 2015. That’s when plans to build the state’s only federally licensed poultry processing plant near Exit 16 was nixed by the city, partly because of neighborhood complaints.
The processing shortage prompted New Hampshire Food Alliance to hold a webinar last month titled “Bottlenecks & Policies, Local Meat in New Hampshire,” in which farmers and regulators discussed the issue. Lawmakers have taken note, too. A bill to establish a committee “to study the shortage of animal slaughter and meat processing facilities in New Hampshire and the implementation of the meat inspection program” seems likely to pass.
Meat processing is covered by a host of laws and regulations relating to food safety, some at the federal and some at the state level. Farmers who want to sell meat need to use the proper facility, which depends on whether they’re selling it themselves on the farm or at farmers markets, or through stores.
Selling in stores requires processing by federal U.S. Department of Agriculture plants. New Hampshire has four USDA plants for beef, pork and sheep but needs more, because aside from Lemay & Sons in Goffstown they are small and usually handle a few farms at most.
The state has no USDA plants at all for poultry, so New Hampshire has an exception and chickens can be sold at stores if they’ve been processed in state-licensed plants. But even those are hard to find.
Hop N Hen Farm is typical of mid-sized and large poultry farms in that it does its own processing of chickens, roughly 600 a year. It sends a small number of turkeys to a plant out of state because they, like geese and waterfowl, are much harder to process.
One solution is mobile units. Small and Beginner Farmers of New Hampshire, a largely volunteer organization, rents out three poultry-processing units for chicken farmers to do it on site, including a 1,500-watt plucker that shakes and washes the feathers off a carcass.
“The ones down here get used almost on a weekly basis, at least throughout spring, summer, fall,” said Shea of Purely Wholesome Farm, who is leader of the group. “Because we don’t have USDA poultry processing, you can sell direct to consumers. The state provides classes that you can take to get a certificate, and then you can sell to restaurants and stores or markets.”
Small and Beginner Farmers of New Hampshire has been passing out flyers and putting up rack cards at Agways and other farm-related stores telling newbies about them, and will hold a class May 29 on how to process your own birds. See the website at sbfnh.org for details.
Purely Wholesome Farm raises Nubian goats for milk and has “about 140-150 birds,” Shea said. They produce around 5 pounds of meat apiece with a wholesale price of two or three dollars a pound, she said, so it’s strictly supplemental income.
“Most of the people I know process enough birds to provide their own meat and sell to a few others, especially at farmers markets,” she said.
Most backyard farmers raise chickens for their eggs, which involves different breeds than birds raised for their meat. But layers die or need to be killed after a couple of years when their egg production declines, so processing is still needed.
And then there’s the problem of roosters. It’s extremely difficult to tell the sex of a young chick and it’s common for people who buy young chickens to end up with some unwanted males, to the annoyance of neighbors.
Old layers and roosters make poor eating so they’re mostly used to make chicken broth or stews.
“If we have an ornery rooster on the farm he usually ends up in the pot,” said Shea.
The reason there isn’t more meat processing around is partly financial, because the equipment isn’t cheap even when dealing with chickens, which are the easiest farmyard animal to process. Other obstacles are a trained workforce and the state’s volume of production.
“The issue right now is getting skilled labor that knows how to break down an animal – not just final cuts, a lot of people do that in stores,” said Eric Sawtelle of Pinewood Yankee Farm during the Food Alliance webinar. He was discussing beef processing but it applies to all livestock. “You need people who want to get the training, and that’s the biggest issue right now. It’s working in a cold environment, a lot of heavy work … Second is finding a training facility … The third is finding trainers.”
New Hampshire’s scattered farm economy doesn’t help. The state has lots of very small farms – more than 4,000 of them if you count everybody who sells at least $5,000 worth of agricultural products a year, and that was before the pandemic. But we have few large farms that can send a consistent supply of animals to a processing plant.
“Livestock production is seasonal; in spring and summer we’re not so busy. It’s not as simple as just getting more processing facilities in the state. The slow months mean they can’t keep labor on and there are limits to cold storage,” said Enzien of Coop Extension. Access to funding is also a problem for building a new plant.
Among the possible solutions being tried around the country are meat processing cooperates, which tend to have difficulty maintaining consistency as compared to a professional slaughterhouse, more and new types of mobile facilities, and the tweaking of rules to allow which types of processing can be used for which types of sales. Meat from rabbits can be sold through stores even if processed yourself, for example.
None of these changes are perfect, however, even if they happen.
“This is going to be a problem for a while, I’m afraid,” said Enzien.