First, some background. I am a proponent of raising food animals on pasture on small farms. Specifics about why I believe in this approach are beyond the scope of this post; I was convinced by The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and the Pew Report, also known as “Putting Meat on the Table: industrial farm animal production in America.” One of the main obstacles to success as a small scale food-animal farmer in New England, where I live, is the lack of processing operations (slaughterhouses) set up to handle small-scale farmers. There are plenty of people who want to raise animals on pasture and there are plenty of people who want to buy the meat or eggs, but there is a real bottleneck between the two, and building new slaughterhouses is expensive.
Mobile poultry processing units (MPPUs) are an inexpensive solution to the problem. MPPUs will actually come to your farm or to one near by to process your chickens. There are currently two MPPUs operating in Massachusetts, and more in surrounding New England states. Regulators are still somewhat wary of these units; they understand the need for them, but are more used to applying regulations to large scale plants than to slaughterhouses run out of flatbed trailers. Jen Hashley is the driving force behind one of the Massachusetts units. She has been working with regulators to make sure they’re happy with the unit, and looking for funding for getting more units built.
Recently, Grist reported that Whole Foods is considering getting into the mobile processing business by building their own fleet of MPPUs. Since Jen Hashley’s recent application for funding for new units was denied, this seems at first like a great solution to the problem. However, Whole Foods would allow use of the units only by farmers who have contracts with Whole Foods to grow chickens according to Whole Foods guidelines. Which is just contrary to the whole point of local food: that the farmer has the power to choose how he raises his animals, given his unique personal circumstances and beliefs. The consumer than has the power to choose which farmer to support, based on whether he agrees with that farmer’s choices. Not enough farmers around to allow the consumer to pick and choose? Well, that’s why it would be nice to have more mobile units, available to anyone who wants to pay to use them, to support the existence of more farmers making more varied choices.
Dear Whole Foods: Building MPPUs is a wise enterprise for you! However, you have already been criticized by Michael Pollan, the Foodie King, for your lack of support of local production, in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma and then in your open discussion with him. Allowing only limited access to your MPPUs will not be taken well by the locavore community, who will rightly see the move as an attempt to establish control overchicken production in this region. Why not allow open access to them? You’ll have fewer chickens grown exactly the way you want, of course, but aren’t consumers ready to pick and choose the kind of farmer they want to buy their chicken from? Some of these farmers will raise chickens your way, and you can sell those. Some of them won’t, and you don’t have to sell those — but why not give it a shot? Develop a labelling scheme which presents the relevant specifics to the consumer. On pasture? In a barn? Antibiotics? Organic feed? Different people care about different things. Some of us care a lot about choice.
Meanwhile, in Vermont, Walter Jeffries is responding to the lack of processing options by building an on-farm processing unit for his pastured pigs. He writes in great detail about the reasons he's choosing this solution. It’s a ballsy move. Building a slaughterhouse can cost literally millions of dollars. He has to try to balance doing so affordably, and complying with all the regulations necessary to convince the USDA to come inspect his meat. If the USDA refuses to inspect, he can’t sell his meat by the pound or across state lines. While MPPUs are the answer in some places, they aren’t the answer everywhere, and they are definitely not right for farmers who are raising animals of the four-legged variety.
I have no idea how either of these stories will end. Will Whole Foods’ choices, whatever they may be, support or limit local chicken production in New England? Will Jeffries be able to lure a USDA inspector to his plant when it’s done, or will it languish unused? It’s an interesting time to be watching news about local meat.