In the market for a slaughterhouse? Apparently, you’re in good company: Last week the website Auctions International logged 241 bids for the sale of Vermont’s only mobile poultry-processing unit.
Think “Pimp My Ride” gone to the birds: Custom designed and built for the state in 2008, the 36-foot trailer comes with kill cones, an eviscerating trough, turkey broiler shackles and a giblet station, to name a few features.
The bidding maxed out on Friday evening at $61,000 — 63 percent of the $93,000 purchase cost in 2008, when the state pooled $85,000 in legislative funding with private foundation money to buy the unit.
Why, then, is the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets unloading the trailer after just three seasons on the road?
That’s always been the plan, according to Chelsea Bardot Lewis, the agricultural development coordinator for the ag agency.
“We were able to create some demand [for the service] and show how a situation like this could work, which will hopefully be motivation to entice an entrepreneur to take it from here,” Bardot Lewis said.
“If I was a little younger, I’d buy it myself,” chimed in Randy Quenneville, the chief of meat inspection for the agency.
At press time, the VAAFM hadn’t yet released the identity of the highest bidder — who went by the name “beefman” on the online auction site — or whether the agency would accept the bid, which it reserved the right to refuse.
But it marks a new era for this local agricultural experiment. The trailer hit the road in 2009, when the state leased the unit to George Eisenhardt for $9300 a year. Eisenhardt towed the trailer to farms around the state, where he and an assistant slaughtered, plucked and packaged local birds.
Eisenhardt has since decided to shut down his business, Spring Hill Poultry Processing. Rather than find a new operator to lease the unit, the state opted to put the trailer on the market. Private ownership, Bardot Lewis said, will be better in the long run for the care, maintenance and success of the trailer.
At an open house for the auction last week, Bardot Lewis and Alison Kosakowski, the marketing and promotions administrator for the ag agency, were bundled up against the cold in the otherwise deserted state office complex parking lot in Waterbury. A few prospective buyers poked around the trailer.
Scald tank? Check. Feather plucker? You got it. Might it be retrofitted to handle small ruminants, such as goats or sheep? The answer, from Quenneville: maybe.
Last year, the mobile slaughterhouse processed 18,000 birds. Running at top capacity, butchers can slaughter as many as 250 birds in one day.
Traffic was light at the Wednesday open house — perhaps, Bardot Lewis suggested, because many potential buyers are poultry processors who have already seen the trailer in action.
Those included Paul Feenan and Tucker Andrews, who stopped by to check out the trailer on behalf of their employer, the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC). The corps used the mobile slaughter unit last year in its farm program for high school students, and the two men said they want to make sure it remains an option.
Before the trailer hit the road, many local poultry growers slaughtered alone on the farm. The few Vermont slaughter facilities that handled birds were either working at capacity or shutting their doors to outside customers.
“The market is there,” Quenneville said. “When you butcher on the farm, you can sell to your neighbors and you can go to the farmers markets, but it still really restricts your growth.”
A state-funded meat inspector supervises every slaughter on the mobile poultry unit. As a result, the birds it processes can be sold wholesale or to retail grocery stores. It also permits farmers to sell chicken parts, such as wings or breasts, and increases the 1000-bird annual limit imposed on farms with uninspected slaughter facilities.
Last year, the VYCC exceeded that number — plus, the program wanted to send some of its chickens to Vermont food shelves. That meant the birds had to be butchered in a state-inspected facility. Enter the chicken mobile.
How, exactly, did a bunch of high schoolers react to a slaughterhouse on wheels? Andrews chuckled. “Some of them were a little grossed out, I would say. Some of them were really fascinated by it … We had one vegetarian on the crew, and he passed a couple of birds in without a problem.”
Back at the open house, Lila Bennett and Dave Robb of Middlesex’s Tangletown Farm stopped by for a look. The couple said demand is high among their customers for chicken, and especially chicken parts, so they’re interested in increasing the number of birds they raise. Bennett and Robb lease their farm, so building a permanent slaughtering facility doesn’t make financial sense for them. The mobile unit allows them to sell their poultry to retail stores, with the added benefit of a state inspector’s stamp of approval on the final product.
“I think it just says something about your commitment to quality, and that’s something that’s important to us,” Bennett said.
Robb and Bennett said that, in general, the lack of slaughter facilities is a problem for Vermont farmers. An increasing number of small, diversified farms are interested in slaughtering animals, and there aren’t enough processors to do it. The issue? Butchers are aging, and so are slaughter facilities. New slaughterhouses are expensive to build and difficult to permit. And, according to Bardot Lewis, the agency has heard, again and again, that meat processors have a hard time finding workers and turning a profit.
Still, there’s growing interest in the industry. When the Agency of Agriculture put out a call for grant applications for meat-processing projects, applicants poured in asking for more than $200,000 in funding, reflecting more than $2 million in potential total project costs. The state could only dole out $50,000, and will announce the grant recipients soon. If the ag agency accepts the bid on the poultry unit, it will reinvest that money into the struggling meat-processing industry.
That’s good news for farmers such as Robb and Bennett, who are frustrated by the lack of available processing facilities. Without the mobile unit, they’d have to ferry their fowl two and a half hours to an inspected slaughterhouse.
“Which isn’t really convenient at all,” said Robb. “It’s not even reasonable.”