ATLANTA (AP) – Georgia is the largest producer of broilers in the country, but small farmers have for years been pushed to the sidelines of this lucrative industry because they lack access to local industrial slaughterhouses. Run by large companies, these slaughterhouses process thousands of poultry per hour and won’t slow down for a small order.
Small poultry producers were therefore forced to withdraw their livestock from the state for slaughter. It costs extra time and money that they can barely afford.
Today, a possible solution is being explored that has spread elsewhere: mobile slaughterhouses – vehicles where livestock can be killed, quartered, packaged and frozen.
Farmers in at least a dozen states have placed abattoir equipment in enclosed trailers that can be transported from farm to farm, processing everything from rabbits to bison. It is mostly an intermediate step, a way to help small producers produce more meat until demand increases enough to merit a fixed abattoir.
“It would be more of an educational tool for these guys to learn, get out and do it right,” said Daniel Dover, the owner of Darby Farms at Good Hope, who now drives 3.5 hours to bring his cattle to a North Carolina slaughterhouse. . He used to use a home-built mobile trailer to slaughter poultry and now drives three and a half hours to get them to a slaughterhouse in North Carolina.
Decades ago, farmers could pay slaughterhouses to process livestock in front of government inspectors, making it legal to sell that meat to consumers across state lines. By the 1950s, the American chicken industry was consolidating into large corporate chains that tightly manage their chickens from birth to supermarket shelves. Due to a lack of customers, independent slaughterhouses closed, creating a vacuum in the market for small producers.
“In Georgia, there aren’t any small facilities where they do custom poultry slaughter,” said Brandon Chonko, owner of GrassRoots Farms in southeast Georgia.
Chonko, who describes his farm as an “artisan” producer of pasture-raised poultry, drives around 600 chickens and 200 ducks every two weeks to South Carolina to slaughter them. It produces too many chickens for a mobile setup, but might consider using one for the duck or turkey.
The mobile slaughterhouse is generally seen as an intermediate step, a way to help small producers produce more meat. If the market grows sufficiently, it becomes possible to build more slaughterhouses.
Mobile installations have drawbacks. Farmers have to provide a large part of the labor force. Although cheaper than a brick and mortar factory, mobile slaughterhouses incur maintenance and transportation costs, according to a 2012 study commissioned by Georgia Organics, a nonprofit group that represents producers and customers.
And wastewater contaminated with blood and tissue would likely have to be collected and treated, which would incur additional costs.
Given these complications, Georgia Organics recommended more lenient on-farm slaughter rules and the addition of poultry lines in existing red meat processors. It also supports the construction of new traditional slaughterhouses. Farmers in at least a dozen states use traveling slaughterhouses, and Georgia Organics recently explored the possibility of operating a mobile unit at a farmer’s market in central Georgia.
“It would bring a new customer base and value to what they already offer,” said Michael Wall, the organization’s director of programs.
Mobile abattoirs can meet traditional facility standards, said Steven Skelton, who oversees a mobile abattoir for Kentucky State University. It can process poultry, game birds, turkeys, fish, caviar and rabbits.
The 200 foot trailer is parked inside a closed building to protect against flies and other pests. Once the birds arrive, Skelton checks that the producers meet legal requirements and that their livestock are healthy. The workers place the birds upside down in metal cones, stun them and kill them by slitting their necks. Then, the carcasses are scalded to detach the feathers, plucked in a machine then eviscerated and refrigerated. Farmers can package and label their products on site.
Skelton said mobile facilities are cleaner than open-air slaughter on farms.
“I’ve been to some of these places and I don’t think I would want to feed my dog this stuff,” he said.
Bruce Dunlop, president of Lopez Island Farm in Washington State, first used a mobile slaughterhouse in 2001. He uses it to slaughter his cows, goats, sheep and pigs and sells models to other farmers . People who might object to the existence of a permanent slaughterhouse in their neighborhood are less likely to object to mobile processing.
“There is very little impact on the neighbors next door,” Dunlop said. “They’re okay with that.”
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