Turkeys on Dawnbreaker farms in Hurdle Mills. A shortage of poultry processing facilities motivated one group of farmers to establish a mobile processing unit.

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Ben Grimes processed 10,000 chickens, turkeys and ducks on Dawnbreaker Farms in northeastern Orange County.

He invested in the processing equipment and developed the skills to get his poultry from farm to table — and recognized that other small-scale producers needed help to do the same. 

The poultry processing situation in North Carolina became dire when Foothills Pilot Plant, a poultry processing facility in Marion inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, closed in 2017.

Not only was it the McDowell County facility the lone federally inspected poultry processor in the state (and one of just 30 nationwide), but the next-closest options for poultry producers are in Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio.

Options exist for pork processing, Grimes said, but the shortage for poultry farmers created difficulties through the supply chain.

“A lot of (pastured poultry producers) got out of it when Foothills Pilot Plant closed,” Grimes said.

“I think that … a lot of those were farmers who weren’t getting by, and when their processing partner shut down, they threw up their hands and walked away, (but other farmers) said, ‘Let’s figure it out and find alternatives.’”

Finding or creating alternatives

Farmers without access to a plant have few alternatives. Poultry producers can purchase equipment to process birds on their farms or rent one of a handful of mobile units scattered throughout the state.

After the Foothills Pilot Plant closed, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services passed a special exemption allowing producers with on-farm processing facilities to process poultry for other producers.

Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, estimates seven farmers have applied for the exemption. He believes “it has been it been a solution that people have had to depend on since the Marion plant closed,” but without a USDA-inspected poultry processing facility, producers cannot ship poultry across state lines.

“These are not long-term solutions,” he said.

Equipment for on-farm processing can cost upward of $10,000, and processing requires extra hands. The investments for equipment and wages to cover skilled labor are out of reach for most small-scale operations. The lack of access to capital and labor prevents farmers from scaling their businesses and meeting consumer demand.

Grimes applied for the special exemption and opened Dependable Poultry Processors. He needed a processing option for his own farm, and it proved to be a valuable service. But Grimes has a 200-chicken minimum, which he admits, “eliminates 95% of poultry producers in North Carolina,” which are too small to reach those numbers.

The Tar River Poultry Initiative had a different solution. Four Franklin County farmers — Julie Gupton, Patricia Hill, Tay Brown and Analee Thornburg — received a $10,000 grant to build a mobile poultry processing unit. Before the unit was built, Thornburg was processing chickens on the tailgate of her truck. 

“There was a need to have processing equipment that was sanitary and efficient, but it wasn’t in the budget for me,” she said.

Farmers can rent the unit for as little as $100. It’s a much less expensive option than building on-farm processing facilities, but, despite the low price, “it’s not economical if you only have a few birds,” Thornburg said.

Few processors, fewer farmers

The lack of processing options affected the number of small-scale producers raising pastured poultry, according to McReynolds.

“There aren’t any statistics on the number of pastured poultry producers or volume of broilers that are raised now compared to when the Marion plant was in operation, but certainly (the numbers are smaller) than they were back then,” he said.

“Many producers who were using the Marion plant chose not to raise broilers anymore; some very small and diversified operations … process (poultry) themselves, but that’s not a long-term solution, even for those operations, because it’s challenging work.”

NC Choices, a program of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. State University that supports the local, pastured meat supply chain, explored options for establishing a new USDA-inspected processing facility in North Carolina, but no actions have been taken.

If a new facility were built, McReynolds thinks it might face some of the same struggles, including high costs, low margins and lack of skilled labor, that led to the closure of the Foothills Pilot Plant.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, pun intended, for an investor to open up a plant,” he said.

“They need to know that there is going to be a steady, reliable and substantial supply of animals from independent poultry farmers in order to make those investments, but farmers aren’t going to invest in the systems, housing, food and the management of poultry if they can’t be certain that they’re going to have a place to get it processed.”

Even if a new USDA-inspected facility opened, McReynolds thinks farmers require greater technical support to successfully raise pastured poultry in the hot, humid North Carolina climate to build the numbers of pastured poultry and support the entire supply chain. 

Achieving scale also brings the cost of processing — and the retail cost of pastured poultry — down while helping farmers achieve greater margins. Expense, Grimes said, is one of the biggest reasons a USDA-inspected facility is not the answer to the processing problems.

“We have a customer base that’s used to chicken being a commodity on the menu; a $25 chicken is a hard sale, so the poultry farmer is coming to the processor and saying, ‘We need it cheap, cheap, cheap,’” Grimes said.

“So, we’ve got issues in terms of the ability to process a large amount of (birds) in a day and issues because the producer wants (processing) to be cheap … and issues because the producers aren’t producing at enough scale … and issues that there aren’t enough producers. If it’s going to work, it’s got to work it through the poultry exemption.”

Earlier this year, the state Department of Agriculture threatened to end the special exemption, according to Grimes. The decision would have forced an even greater number of producers to shutter their operations.

The department did not respond to Carolina Public Press’ requests for comment.

Most of the people for whom he processes for would not keep going if the exemption ended, Grimes said.

Organizations like the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and NC Choices are working with producers to explore models for building a sustainable and functioning pastured poultry economy in North Carolina. Public support is also essential, according to McReynolds.

“The flywheel can’t get going on its own without a push to balance out these challenges between the infrastructure of production and the infrastructure of processing,” he said.

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Stanly County. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her or any members of the CPP news team.