Whiz by it on Route 2 between Richmond and Bolton and you might think it was an abandoned rail car, a housing unit for migrant farm workers, or a storage shed. Bland and inconspicuous, the boxy structure doesn’t look like it has the potential to re-shape Vermont’s local food scene (or at least make it easier to purchase and cook pastured chicken).
A similar structure is nestled on a sweeping hilltop in West Glover, next to an old dairy barn being retrofitted into a brooding house. This structure looks like somebody’s trailer, too, but in fact, every Monday it houses a small flock of people breaking down whole pastured chickens into parts.
These units are small-scale poultry slaughterhouses—the first of their kind in Vermont—and if you love local chicken, you might look upon them as shrines. They’re allowing pastured Vermont chicken to be sold in stores, for the first time in years, and it’s being sold in parts, something that will be appreciated by anyone who’s intimidated by whole-bird cooking.
“It seems there’s a pretty big section of the population that doesn’t know what to do with a whole chicken,” says Randy Quenneville, head of meat inspection at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. “It’s pretty surprising when you think about it, but that’s how it is.”
The two farms operating these new slaughter units—Maple Wind Farm and Tangletown Farm—already have their parted chicken in stores in Burlington and Montpelier, at farmers’ markets, and at a handful of restaurants.
Farmers Lila Bennett and David Robb of Tangletown Farm bought the unit in 2012 from the State of Vermont, which funded its construction intending it to be a mobile processing unit that traveled around the state serving farmers. It was mobile for a year or so, but after it became apparent that it was financially unfeasible for the leasee to operate, the state sold it to Tangletown. (The farm uses it as a stationary unit, not a mobile one.)
If you’re wondering why Tangletown and Maple Wind need these slaughter facilities to sell their chicken in stores, it has to do with state and federal meat regulations. All poultry sold in stores must be slaughtered in a facility that meets certain standards of cleanliness, and all birds must be examined by a meat inspector as they’re being processed. Vermonts’ slaughterhouses can provide this service but farms that have their own unit can save on processing and transportation costs.
Farms that don’t want to invest in their own slaughter unit, or don’t want to take their birds to somebody else’s unit, can sell chicken, of course, but only at farmers’ markets, from their farm, or to restaurants that indicate on the menu that the chicken was uninspected. These farms can only sell up to 1,000 uninspected birds a year, and they have to be whole, not parted—a regulation that’s in place because, as Randy Quenneville of the Agency of Agriculture says, “Every time you put another cut into a chicken you increase the chance of contamination.”
The two new slaughter units do, indeed, meet the state’s cleanliness standards, and state meat inspectors are present on slaughtering days. But the units are expensive to buy, which is why small-scale farms have been reluctant to purchase them. Maple Wind had assistance from a grant from Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Fund and a 5-year, no-interest loan from City Market, to be paid back in product. Tangletown received a low-interest loan from a loyal CSA customer.
Lila and Dave at Tangletown say they’ve learned a lot from the state inspectors with whom they have worked.“ They want to see you succeed and grow,” Lila says. “They’re not waiting to punish you.” She adds that it’s reaffirming to have an inspector praise a certain bird or flock of birds. “It’s great to have somebody in there encouraging you.”
At Tangletown, processing takes place each Monday inside the 36-ft. by 8-ft. unit. They are long days. Lila and Dave are on their feet most of the time, and though the atmosphere can be jovial (and there’s a nice view of the farm through the window), the work can be repetitive and demands concentration. Roughly 200 birds are processed each Monday.
Tangletown and Maple Wind—roughly the same size and both guided by a belief in the value of pasture-based agriculture—keep in touch and share information. And both farms say there is room for more local chicken on store shelves; their birds alone aren’t going to meet the current demand for pastured, parted, local chicken—or at least the growing curiosity about it.
“A lot of families aren’t really sure about this whole pastured chicken thing,” Lila says. “But now you can buy some chicken parts and try it out.”
Pastured poultry from Tangletown can be purchased at the following stores and restaurants:
Hunger Mountain Co-op
Newport Naturals and Tasting Center
Hen Of the Wood
Montpelier Farmers' Market
*Excerpted from Caroline Abels, "Pasture Poultry in Aisle 9," Vermont's Local Banquet, Fall 2013.