One of my personal tasks for this year is to interview farmers who are working to take control of the way in which their animals are killed, butchered, and distributed. You may say these farmers are 'vertically-integrating', meaning they are taking on some of the tasks that they normally would pay another company to do, such as the meat processing, and therefore earning more of the consumer dollar. Usually a desire to control the humaness of the slaughter and the quality of the process, while also maximizing the value of each and every animal are the driving factors in why farmers decide to build their own slaughter or butchering facilities.
Last year I met a couple of tenacious farmers, Renee Kreinbring and Mary Wilson, who were going through the motions to build a Washington State Inspected poultry processing plant in Centerville, WA. They too wanted a better, more humane option for processing their own birds, but also a place that local farmers, homesteaders, and hobbyists could bring poultry, rabbits, and even ratites (emu, ostrich) to be killed in a clean and affordable manner. At the time I met them, Renee and Mary were seeking funding from various economic development agencies, with a local agricultural lender Centerpointe Bank coming through with a loan to finish the building of this facility. In May of this year, the Little Farms Inc. poultry processing facility opened it's doors to their first customers. I had the pleasure of interviewing Renee for a couple hours on a bright, crisp fall day last week at the new plant in Centerville (near Goldendale, WA).
Renee Kreinbring welcomes customers into the small office with an intake form, hot coffee, & a warm smile.
A little background: Little Farms Inc. is made up of two indepedent, woman-owned Washington farms that have come together to co-market their meats, eggs, and value-added food products. They sell via a meat CSA and at farmers markets around the Columbia River Gorge and the Portland/Vancouver region. More nuts n' bolts about the Little Farms Inc. story will be found in my forthcoming book "The New Meat Market" (sometime in 2015). Here, however, is a snippet of Renee and my conversation (paraphrased, not verbatim):
What was the motivation and impetus to build your own poultry processing plant?
We had a horrific experience a few years back bringing our heritage turkeys to a USDA-exempt plant in Oregon. Unlike chickens where they put their heads through kill cones and slit the jugular vein, this plant stepped on the turkeys, pulled the necks, cut their throats, and then let them flop all over the ground outside. We couldn't believe our pasture-raised, heritage birds that we had come to love were treated so poorly at slaughter. We could not return to that facility. We had to make a change. Unfortunately, there were no other inspected poultry plants anywhere in our part of SW Washington that we could go to. So we began to look into building our own so we could control quality and humane handling.
What regulatory steps or hurdles did you encounter?
We had to get Klickitat County (WA) to approve the building plans and the health department to approve the water and wastewater systems. The Health Department was the most challenging to deal with- at first they did not want our wash water to be spread on our nearby pastures, calling it "industrial waste". They also wanted us to conduct expensive water testing for what they called a "Group B watersystem", testing for all kinds of minerals such as maganese and iron. Those two minerals are naturally high in our groundwater, thus we had to install a water filtration system costing over $1,000. Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) was easy to work with- friendly, clear, and responsive. They told us the only water testing needed for a poultry plant was to find out the levels of E.coli in the water to be used inside the plant. They came and inspected the almost finished plant, told us a few minor improvements we still needed to make, and approved the facility that day. Between applying and approval, it took the WSDA only 7 weeks. It took our county over two years. We still only have a temporary occupany permit good till January 2014 because we are finishing up the grading and paving of the driveway and parking lot. Washington State Department of Ecology and USDA APHIS were also involved but reasonable to deal with.
Roughly, what did all of this cost you and where did you get financing?
$110,000, not including the cost of the land which we already owned. We (Renee and her husband) did most of the work ourselves and where not paid for any of the construction costs. This price reflects the cost of materials, electric, water, and wastewater systems, and used stainless steel processing equipment.
We initially were awarded a USDA Value-Added Producer Grant for $49,000 to pay for some of the initial operating costs. The rest of the funding came from our own savings and a business loan from Centerpointe Bank.
What is the capacity of this plant and what is the breakeven volume you need?
We can process up to 200 broiler chickens a day, less with larger birds such as turkeys and geese. We are allowed to process all types of poultry, as well as rabbits and ratites (emu and ostrich). We need to process at least 100 birds a week to break even. We are doing less volume than that right now, but we just opened this summer and are still getting the word out to farmers and backyard producers. If you live in the SW Washington or Columbia River Gorge area and want humane, quality poultry processing at affordable prices, give Renee a call at 509-225-0371. Note: Oregon farmers can process their birds at Little Farms, but it will not have the USDA stamp allowing sales into Oregon. As a WSDA approved facility, the birds are only licensed for sale in the state of Washington. Little Farms may seek USDA inspection at some point in the future when the demand increases for their services. Most of their facility and quality control processes would readily pass USDA inspection.