Roving Butchers of Martha’s Vineyard Serve LocavoresAlan Bjerga
The six-person team gathers its equipment and heads out in heavy boots and tie-dyes, moving in for the kill.
Sharpened knives? Check. Scalder? Check. A “kill cone” to drain blood from upside-down chickens? Check.
Towed behind a Ford F-250 pickup, Island Grown Initiative’s mobile poultry-slaughtering unit is on the move in Martha’s Vineyard, ready to feed the growing appetite for locally raised products on the Massachusetts island best known as a vacation playground for the Kennedys.
“Without that unit, I would not be able to farm,” said Jefferson Munroe, 34, who tends a small flock on the north side of the island that provides fresh chicken to local restaurants.
While fruit and vegetable growers can often handle their own harvest needs, livestock requires slaughter -- a messy business that could be unwelcome in affluent communities, where demand for locally produced food is highest. Enter Island Grown, a nonprofit formed by Munroe and others that comes to the farm to slaughter, scald and pluck.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 20 mobile units are in operation around the country. Units from Texas to Alaska butcher birds, cows, pigs and other animals as the market for locally produced food has grown from a beachhead of hippie co-ops and health-food stores to Whole Foods Market Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co.
“Mobile slaughter is crucial” to building local and regional food systems, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview. “It’s still a relatively small piece of agriculture, but what I like about it is it offers local opportunities. You don’t have to be a large operator, or a production-sized operator, to get into this business.”
The department expects the number of units to grow and has provided financial assistance to at least four in the past half-decade, Vilsack said. Along with $17 million in aid to the local-meat sector since 2009, the department has given advice on feasibility and technical assistance. Island Grown received $9,300 from the USDA for education and promotion.
The number of farmers engaged in local-foods sales rose 24 percent to 144,530 in 2012 from a decade earlier, according to an agriculture department census released in May. That growth took place even as the total number of producers fell 0.9 percent to 2.11 million in the same period.
A consolidation of agriculture has squeezed out smaller slaughterhouses that could profitably serve alternative producers. Bigger facilities, which offer economies of scale and advantages in waste handling, can be out of place in upscale areas such as Martha’s Vineyard, 70 miles (113 kilometers) south of Boston, where seasonal visitors include the Obamas, singer James Taylor and moviemaker Spike Lee.
Farmers outside Seattle were early adopters of mobile slaughtering more than a decade ago. Roving units have processed lambs and goats in California, buffalo in Nebraska, elk and boar in Texas, and turkeys, pheasants and quail in Kentucky. A unit in Nome, Alaska, slaughters reindeer.
In New York’s Hudson Valley, mobile operators who slaughtered cows from 2010 to 2012 are considering ways to restart, said Sara Grady, vice president of programming for Glynwood, a nonprofit based in Cold Spring, New York, dedicated to rural preservation.
The unit stopped production after the farmer who ran it built a brick-and-mortar slaughterhouse -- the goal of many mobile operators trying to make local meat take root. The group is now taking proposals to resume operation in cooperation with restaurants and retailers who will cut and wrap the animals they kill, Grady said.
“If we’re going to have a proliferation of independent, sustainable agriculture, we also have to have business people who have the skills to bring these products to market,” she said.
Local-foods businesses tend to work best near cities, where pricey farmland and affluent consumers create incentives for high-value rather than commodity-based farming, said Tom Cosgrove, vice president for commercial lending with Farm Credit East, a nationwide agricultural lender.
As farms have grown larger and food processing has become more centralized, infrastructure needed to make small operations work has deteriorated, in some cases keeping a market from emerging, he said.
“You had less demand for smaller facilities,” said Cosgrove. “You also had more concern with food safety,” with larger businesses better able to absorb regulatory costs, he said.
The USDA inspects red meat and poultry sold across state borders. Food produced for consumption in-state is typically inspected by that jurisdiction and must meet federal standards. Island Grown is visited by Massachusetts inspectors twice a year.
Vilsack said safety is a priority no matter the size of the operation. “One thing that could damage the potential of this market is any sort of food-safety problem,” he said.
Island Grown started in 2007 as a way to jumpstart a local-poultry industry on Martha’s Vineyard -- overcoming the same barriers alternative-foods entrepreneurs across the U.S. face in a food system that isn’t designed for them.
“We don’t fit very well with Tyson and ConAgra, but we have customers who are willing to pay for the meat,” said Ali Berlow, a Martha’s Vineyard resident who wrote a book on how to operate a mobile poultry slaughterhouse and helped design the local unit.
Dripping with affluence -- median home prices in the first quarter of this year were $655,000 for Martha’s Vineyard, compared with $305,000 for Massachusetts -- the island supports a number of upscale restaurants and fresh-food markets.
Vineyard-killed chicken can sell for twice the standard grocery-store price, said Daniele Dominick, owner of Scottish Bakehouse, a local-source restaurant in Vineyard Haven, a town on the island. The BBQ pulled-chicken plate, in some cases from birds that two days earlier were wandering across the street, is a popular item.
“You can’t just buy from everyone who stops by wanting to sell you kale,” said Dominick, 40. “Livestock is an opportunity.”
And Joyce Maxner is taking advantage of it.
On a recent visit, the retired grandmother watched her two-dozen chickens slowly forage across her lawn in the cage-on-wheels her husband made to control their path. The contraption lets Maxner, 69, regulate her birds’ diet, and it’s how they fertilize her yard.
“I don’t get too attached to them,” said Maxner, who also owns egg-laying hens and Curry, a goat named after the farmer’s plan for him (he got a reprieve).
Island Grown spent about $15,000 on a bare-bones processing unit. Equipment added since then has allowed the unit to process ducks, whose waterproof feathers need to be removed with a “dry plucker” rather than a scalder. About one-tenth of Island Grown’s sales now comes from duck.
Since the unit began, the group has seen chicken slaughtering rise from 100 a year to 10,000 annually.
Government policy, now overweighted in favor of large growers of corn, wheat and soybeans, should do more to encourage such local entrepreneurs, said Josh Sewell, a policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.
“The goal of government policy isn’t to support food. It’s to support commodities that can be traded,” he said. Grants for local foods are “a subsidy to combat the effects of a bigger subsidy somewhere else.”
Vilsack said the USDA supports all forms of agriculture, offering technical assistance to small producers and more tailored programs through the farm bill that passed Congress earlier this year.
As the market expands, Vineyard growers have started raising money to build a permanent slaughter facility on the island that could handle four-legged animals, including cattle and sheep along with chickens. That will cost about $800,000 and process red meat as well as poultry during the summer.
Residents have voiced concern about the effect of a slaughterhouse on noise, smell and property values, Munroe said. Island Grown plans to locate the operation as far from neighbors as possible and will enclose the composting unit and possibly cover the slaughter yard.
“If we’re going to do this right, we need cattle,” said Richard Andre, a former coordinator of Island Grown’s poultry initiative. “Whenever we raise something, we find someone who likes it.”