By this summer, smaller Whatcom County farms will have an affordable option for slaughtering their chickens and getting them to market.
A mobile poultry processing unit - basically a slaughtering and packing house on wheels for birds and rabbits - should be scheduling appointments with farmers by mid-June, said Fred Berman, project manager at the Northwest Agriculture Business Center.
The demand for a mobile unit is coming from two sides. Farmers need someone convenient and affordable to process their chickens (or turkeys, ducks or rabbits). Stores and restaurants, such as the Community Food Co-op and Ciao Thyme in Bellingham, want to make locally raised food available to their customers.
Larger-scale poultry producers such as Draper Valley Farms in Skagit County can slaughter their own chickens cost effectively. Costs that include liability insurance and building construction make in-house processing too expensive for the small farmer, Berman said.
"Anywhere under 5,000 birds, it really isn't cost effective," he said.
Melissa Moeller of Misty Meadows Farm, which processes about 600 chickens a year for online customers and grocers, said getting insurance would have been "ridiculously expensive" for such a small number of birds.
When the mobile unit is operating, Misty Meadows probably will expand its chicken business, Moeller said.
"There's an increasing interest for pastured poultry in the grocery store," Moeller said. "We eat a lot of chicken in Whatcom County, and you can't find locally grown, organic, pasture-raised."
The Community Food Co-op has a reliable source of chickens in Draper Valley's free-range brand. But if the co-op could get even more chickens, it would sell them, said Ted Devine, assistant manager of the meat department in the co-op's Cordata store.
"With the smaller guys it's tougher to keep their stuff on hand, so hopefully with the mobile unit that will be taken care of," Devine said.
The announcement of the mobile unit's pending arrival coincides with a controversy in the county over large-animal slaughter, which was approved last year for agricultural sites.
Tip Johnson, one of three Whatcom citizens who have filed a challenge against the new ag-slaughter rules, said mobile processing could be safer but poses risks. Slaughter waste will be disposed of on farm pastures, and it's unknown how much the ground can absorb before the waste becomes harmful.
"It all has potential to go in the water, and these are the limits we don't have a handle on," Johnson wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald.