by Tamara Scully
Renee Smith, small farmer and  manager of North Country Pastured, LLC, recently discussed their newly-operational mobile poultry processing unit, as a part of Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County’s poultry panel workshop. The mobile unit is USDA-certified, and operates with a USDA inspector onsite at all times. This distinction means that poultry processed in the unit can be sold in a wider array of venues, including to educational institutions and across state lines, than poultry processed under standard poultry processing exemptions, or in state-licensed facilities. The mobile processing unit was funded by the North Country Regional Economic Development Council.
This is the first fully-certified USDA mobile poultry processing unit in the United States. The unit received its full USDA approval in September, 2013, and has been processing birds, including some of those raised in the CCE’s of St. Lawrence County’s hoop house project. There is only one other USDA certified plant for poultry in the state of New York, which was recently licensed.
Trials and tribulations
Although the plan is to process birds from around the North Country region, they’ve run into some complications which currently limit their ability to do so. The unit is currently parked at Smith’s farm, in Dekalb Junction. But as the unit is a mobile one, it should be traveling from farm to farm throughout the region, cutting back on transport labor, time and expense, as well as decreasing animal distress at slaughter, and increasing individual farmer access to USDA poultry processing.
“We want to be able to go to other farms,” Smith said. But the USDA inspectors have refused to process on some of the farms the unit visited.
If the USDA inspectors see any debris piles of any type, including farm equipment, near the area where processing will occur, they will deem it unsanitary. Dirty birds, or a muddy area around the unit will also disqualify any processing at the site. Water tests have to be completed. Compost management plans must be followed on the farms, including keeping piles 200 feet from any waster source.
One issue seems to be that the USDA inspectors are not familiar with operating a mobile processing unit anywhere except in the western parts of the country, where large ranches are spread far apart on open ranges. The complications of processing on small farms — proximity of other animals, equipment storage, barnyards and pastures — is a new hurdle for the USDA inspectors.
“It’s no joke,” Smith said of the regulations and the standards the USDA inspectors expect to see on the farms. They are working to establish some type of written standards, so that area farmers will know what is expected of them when scheduling the mobile unit. Another related issue is that some farmers don’t want the USDA inspectors on their farms, and therefore want the unit stationed elsewhere, but want access to it.
There is paperwork which must be completed in triplicate for every farm using the unit. A spreadsheet listing the exact weight of every bird is also kept. The goal is to process up to 500 birds in one day, and they will be able to schedule small producers, whose combined bird totals will help to reach the goal. They are currently slaughtering twice per week, when the inspector is available.
How it works
“The USDA inspects every live bird before they come into the unit,” Smith said. They can process layers, meat birds, turkeys and other poultry. “We try to accommodate everyone.”
The unit hopes to process 25,000 birds during 2014. A USDA inspector is present continuously through the entire slaughter process. But each county has different inspectors, so it can be difficult to schedule the unit to travel to different areas, and scheduling must be done four to six weeks in advance, Smith said.
“We’re trying to figure out how to go to the counties, to make it work for everyone,”she said.
The birds cannot be over a certain weight, as the USDA inspector has indicated that the current equipment on the unit is not big enough for larger turkeys. There also isn’t a lot of room on the unit, so handling larger birds is difficult.
The fee per bird is $2.50, with processing costing .30/lb. additional. If the bird is to be cut up, the processing fee is .45/lb., Smith explained. The birds are currently shrink-wrapped, although Smith feels that the storage quality on shrink-wrapped birds is not as high as it needs to be to prevent crystallization in birds frozen more than a month or two, and is looking into alternatives.
The mobile processing unit is stainless steel inside, and is divided into two sections, one for the slaughter, and one for the cleaned birds — where they are labeled, weighed and prepared for the freezer. North Country Pastured has freezer storage capacity available for rent by producers.
North Country Pastured no longer uses an ice bath to chill birds, but use air chilling. With air chilling, there is no water involved, and the risks of cross-contamination between birds is reduced, Smith said. The birds are tagged and placed in their own separate containers, on chill trays. Air flows over the stacked trays. Temperatures are regularly monitored, and the birds typically reach the mandated temperature within six hours, rather than the 16 allowed with air chilling, Smith said.
“We’re all learning this year,” Smith said. “We receive lots of questions from other potential mobile units across the United States.”