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Stepping Up to Production
for a Small Broiler Market:
Thinking It Through

Freedom-rangers

This article was published in the Feb/March 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine. It was posted to the site January 26, 2009.

Making It a Business

The best thing about this venture is that it has benefits no matter what the size of the flock. You can start so small, with such a small investment, and just see where it goes. ~ Chrystal Mehl, Amissville, Virginia

I expect there are many readers of my scribblings in the Poultry section who have largely mastered the challenge of producing all their dressed poultry, year-round. I hope they feel proud—even smug—knowing their families will never again be dependent on the sad remains of concentration-camp chicken in the supermarket.

But perhaps some of those “master flocksters” now yearn to take the next step—increasing production enough to share the best chicken on earth with relatives, neighbors, or some specialty market. Maybe they dream of making a little money with what up to now has been a hobby, perhaps to help cover a new expense like college costs—or perhaps just enough to pay the costs of their flock (and thus “support their habit”). Perhaps they have even been seized with a sense of mission: To help reverse the decline of the diversified small farm, and to proudly offer customers dressed broilers vastly superior to those available in the supermarket.

If you are thinking of producing for a small market, in what ways can you expect your operation to change as you cross that line between producing for the family and producing to sell? What are some of the keys to success? Are there hidden “gotchas” to watch out for? I interviewed a number of members of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association to find answers to these questions. (Please note, there is no higher recommendation I could make for the success of your venture than to join the APPPA.)

The Question of Scale

Some of the producers I interviewed have plans for expanding, others are content to remain at the lower end of the production scale. They have neither the facilities, the space, the funds, nor the inclination to produce at the level of the tens of thousands of broilers per season of a Joel Salatin, but aim to produce hundreds or at most a few thousands instead. All agree, however, that it is important to start small and work up to increased production commensurate with increased experience. There are significant new variables when you start growing to sell—it would be foolish to expand too rapidly without first “getting your feet wet” in the changed environment.

Dean Mullis of Richfield, North Carolina started 16 years ago with 75 broilers, processing them completely by hand. For the next five years, he raised 75-100 birds per year, for a few word-of-mouth customers. For the past ten years he has served a steady and repeat customer base with 400-500 broilers per year, plus 45-60 turkeys for Thanksgiving.

After a recent expansion of her equipment and facilities, Summer Steenbarger of southwest Washington finds production at 1500 broilers a year to be comfortable. She may expand to 2000 birds, but has no desire to increase production beyond that point.

Beth Spaugh of Peru, New York has produced 500 broilers each of the past two years, and plans to increase production about another 100 birds next year. The year she grew 800, however, was rather stressful, and she has no intention of returning to that level.

The proper scale of your enterprise depends on many things: the size of your property, available pasture (you do pasture your birds, don’t you?), amount you can invest in equipment and facilities, whether you have a job away from home, your age and stamina, etc. If you have young children, your commitments to them may limit the size of your enterprise. On the other hand, if your children are old enough, what better strategy, for both you and them, than to let them be a key part of the enterprise? Summer’s oldest child—Adyn, a boy of six—provided the daily feeding and care of her 65 turkeys during the entire grow-out.

Beth’s experience suggests a key to the size of your enterprise: If it stops being fun, perhaps you have become a little too ambitious in your project.

Marketing

You already know you can grow them, but can you sell them? The question of marketing is a critical one, since the one certainty is that you will not be selling in the conventional poultry market, dominated by giant, vertically integrated, million-bird operations. It is simply a fact that “the big boys” have the poultry market locked up, and can outcompete your home-grown birds on every front.

Or can they? While supermarket chicken is cheap and convenient, American consumers have begun to doubt the assurances that their food supply is safe and reliable when E. coli contamination in a single field of spinach in California sickens people in 26 states, causing several deaths; when thousands of pets and hogs die after eating contaminated pet food from China; when hundreds of thousands of cans of meat products are recalled from supermarket shelves in a panic, following botulism contamination in a single industrial processing vat; and when two successive Consumer Reports studies have found significant levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in random samples of supermarket chicken (an astounding 83 percent in the most recent study—up from 49 percent in their 2003 survey).

They have also begun to doubt the basic quality of the food on offer in the supermarket, to wonder about the relationship between our epidemic levels of obesity and heart ailments and cancer—and, most disturbingly, degenerative illnesses among children once thought the exclusive real estate of the very old. More and more people are refusing to buy into the fantasy that these illnesses are simply bad luck, and have nothing to do with the nature of the food we are eating. They are hungry for alternative foods not laced with a witch’s brew of antibiotic, growth hormone, and toxic chemical residues.

Further, you don’t have to be a vegan or extreme animal-rightist to be outraged by the deplorable conditions under which meat animals in the industrial system are raised and slaughtered. Growing numbers of consumers are insisting that the meat on their tables be from animals that were raised in humane and healthful conditions.

As Beth Spaugh has found, “Customers’ biggest concerns are drugs in feed, humane treatment, and flavor.” These growing concerns about “what’s for dinner” are opening niche markets that anyone with a dedication to produce superior food can exploit.

Take a look at your own area as a market. Are there niches to be exploited? The small producers I interviewed described a number of creative marketing solutions.

Experience selling to restaurants varied. Beth Spaugh has found chefs quite cost-conscious, unwilling to pay an acceptable price for her broilers. They also insist on absolute consistency in size. However, she has found the chef at one restaurant “a great liver customer”—he cannot get chicken livers of that quality from any alternative source. Fred Forsburg, who raises 1700 broilers a year near Livonia, New York, sells to two “high-end” restaurants in Rochester whose chefs assure him, “Your chicken is absolutely the best I have ever eaten!” Recognizing that their success depends as much on quality ingredients as on their skills, and knowing they cannot get dressed broilers of comparable quality from any other source, they are willing to pay Fred a decent price for his birds. Fred’s chefs do insist on uniform size (3-½ pounds for one, 4 pounds for the other), but he simply sorts his broilers to the appropriate weights at processing.

Be on the lookout for opportunities to “piggyback” on existing distribution arrangements. For example, you might find someone with a CSA (community supported agriculture) who would be willing to add in your broilers to weekly deliveries to their subscription customers. Many small producers already serve one or more farmers markets with fresh produce, honey, eggs, etc.—it might be possible to add fresh or frozen broilers to the mix.

Growing on a small scale, you may find you can sell most of your output in a smaller niche, rather than competing in the broader market. For example, Beth Spaugh has discovered that her best market is in a local town with a lot of city families’ summer homes. Many of these customers have developed a greater sophistication about food quality, and are glad to have the access to higher quality fare available near their country retreats.

A particularly valuable market is that among ethnic and immigrant communities. In many cases, these folks have a greater appreciation of “real food” and willingness to make considerable effort to seek it out—in contrast to more established citizens likely to be inured to bland supermarket imitations.

Remember the power of the Internet to enable your marketing efforts. You can post notices about availability of your broilers on local co-op e-lists, local food websites, or even deploy your own website. Summer Steenbarger keeps in touch with her customers via an expanding email list, making the marketing of her next batch of broilers easy: “Each week I send out a delivery email so that they will know what is on its way in our Mobile Farm Store. I put a quiz at the bottom of each email, where folks will win ‘something’ at the farm. This keeps people reading my emails, and learning as they go. This has been a very successful way to keep us all in the loop with each other!” Summer reports that, by the end of a given season, she has half her production for the following year already sold.

Ellen and I are local chapter leaders for the Weston A. Price Foundation (dedicated to food and health issues), and maintain a list of local small producers and the products they offer, which we distribute to consumers eager to get the best possible food for their families. Get in touch with the local chapter leaders in your area—it is likely they maintain a similar list that can assist you.

A major marketing issue is whether to go to the customers, or convince them to come to you. Dean Mullis offers his broilers and turkeys for pickup at the farm only, and reports that he could easily sell twice as many as he does.

Yes, the small producers I interviewed had to find their particular niches in the market. But having done so, they invariably assured me the demand is there, they can sell all they are willing to grow, and hence there is obviously room for entry of other producers into the market. If you are unable to find eager buyers, it may be that you’re just not looking in the right places.

Pricing

In today’s market, the question of appropriate price for any food product is complicated by the fact that we Americans have become accustomed to bargain-basement food prices, with both an expectation that food be cheap, and a resistance to paying higher prices, whatever the quality. Success at selling your birds at a price that rewards you fairly thus means bucking a major trend in our culture. On the other hand, we are not talking about the production of industrial widgets by the millions, whose pricing is straightforward—but about offering a highly specialized product from a living animal and a living farm, to a unique niche market that may not get itself served by anyone other than you. And remember what was said above about the experience of every small producer I’ve talked to, that the demand for high-quality table chicken is growing fast. Realize that your customer is not the one who demands to know why he should pay $3.50 per pound for your chicken, when it is available for 79 cents a pound at the supermarket. Your customer is the one who recognizes that these two choices are not the same product at all—not in terms of flavor, nutrition, quality, or safety.

Beth Spaugh said she started out selling her broilers at $2.50 per pound, and some of her more savvy customers urged her to increase her price. They had the good sense to recognize that this inexperienced grower couldn’t sustain her operation if she were selling herself short, and to urge the higher (more reasonable) price to ensure their continued access to the best chicken around. Beth points out that, if you are making $1 per bird, and you increase your price per pound to average an additional $1 per bird, you can earn the same return at half the number of birds, with greatly reduced labor. As she sums up, “Don’t go hogwild on volume if you can do better with small volume.”

Naturally, you may encounter resistance to a price raise. Dean Mullis increased his price from $3.00 per pound last year to $3.50 this year. His largest customer, who had been buying 50-75 broilers a year, felt he had to drop out at that price. However, Dean had a waiting list for his birds, and made up the gap in sales without breaking stride.

The point is often made that the higher prices of local and organic foods put consumers of restricted means at a disadvantage. But food that is unsafe or that does not support health is not a bargain at any price, however restricted one’s budget. Your challenge is to help your customer understand that. Challenge any comparison between your broiler’s price and the 79 cents per pound for supermarket chicken—since the two products are in no way comparable, neither should be their prices. A better comparison is between your price and that for organically produced chicken in a top-end natural foods store. When that comparison is made, your price looks attractive indeed.

However, your sense of mission may inspire you to find ways to give the less affluent customer a break on price. For instance, Summer Steenbarger reports, “Some folks cannot pay as high a price, and we very much want to serve them as well, so we offer discounted prices on any ‘imperfect’ birds (broken wing, etc). We want everyone to have access to good, clean, local, healthy food!”

Remember factors in pricing that might not at first be obvious. You can sell at a lower price if you offer your birds only for pickup at the farm, saving you the time and expense of transporting them to a market. Cutting and packaging require a lot more time and materials. You can either provide those services at a higher price, or give a price break to customers who bring their own containers, ice, and wrappers for whole broilers from a chill tank. Remember that processing a smaller bird takes as much time as a larger one. Beth Spaugh likes to market large birds, with a higher per-pound return. For those customers who prefer a smaller bird, she sets a minimum per-bird price, even if it happens to be higher than a per-pound price for the smaller broiler.

Without exception, the small producers I interviewed stressed in the strongest terms the grower’s responsibility not to sell at too low a price. In the past, you’ve been something of a “hobbyist” grower; and you might be tempted to accept a low price for your broilers if you’re not putting a lot of time into the increased production, and you are enjoying expanding your hobby a bit. Do not ever charge a “hobbyist” price, urge my correspondents—doing so is a tremendous disservice to other growers in the area who are dependent on their sales for their livelihood. Once you enter the market, you become responsible for reversing the crippling expectation that food be unreasonably cheap, and the attendant deleterious effects on public health and small-farm livelihoods. Nobody wants to be a chiseler, but the renewal of local food and the viability of the diversified family farm is serious business. Play your part.

Production Models

POLYFACE-broiler-pen

Polyface Broiler Pen

POLYFACE-moving-pen

Moving the Pen

Whatever differences they had in other phases of their operations, all the small producers I interviewed agreed that they want to grow broilers on pasture. Broadly speaking, the basic choice they make is between the classic Salatin style mobile floorless pens (moved daily or even twice a day)—or a free ranging model on a larger area centered on a “range house,” usually protected by electric net fencing. My impression is that more small producers these days are moving to the latter. However, many continue to use the self-contained mobile pens. Dave Chirico, who produces 750 broilers a year in western Pennsylvania, is happy with his results from 9x10 hoop cattle panel shelters with 50-60 birds each, moved every day. Summer Steenbarger incorporates her broiler pens with the rotation of her beef cattle on pasture, as in the classic Salatin model.

STEENBARGER-pens

Steenbarger Mobile Pens

STEENBARGER-brooding-in-pen

Brooding in Pen

Julia Cronin raises 350-500 broilers a year for both restaurants and direct consumer marketing in southeastern Connecticut. In a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) sponsored study comparing the “daily move coops” and the range house systems, she found the former more labor intensive, requiring slightly more daily service time which over the course of the season made a significant difference. She also had problems of escapes from the mobile pens when moving them over uneven ground. As for the dressed broilers: “I definitely noticed that the range house birds (all of them) had much better carcass quality—as measured by the number of scars, cuts, bruises, and broken wings.” The short term environmental impact on the sod under the mobile pens was greater, especially in the drier parts of the season, when the accumulated manure resisted breakdown in the absence of rain. The sod eventually recovered, but Julia preferred the more even application of manure over a wider area in the day ranging model. She was also thrilled to turn the heavy poop deposits into an asset in the range houses: She parked them on fallow garden beds and added deep litter, yielding a tremendous boost in fertility for next year’s garden.

Dean Mullis illustrates the typical evolution: “We started out with the standard 8x12 Salatin pen, switched to 8x12 pens made from hog panels, tried painted PVC pens for a year (they sucked), and switched to 8x8 hog panel pens.

“I got really bothered by the fact that the chickens had limited grazing area and were sleeping on a carpet of poop in the pens, and switched to a range system a few years ago where the broilers have access to a week’s worth of pasture at a time. I find the range system much more enjoyable.”

Of course, one’s system is always evolving. Dean continues, “Our current plan for 2008 is to build a mobile unit for broilers, similar to the rolling houses for our laying hens and turkeys, built on the frames of hay wagons and moved weekly. I want to be able to grow 200 chicks at a time in the same mobile unit they were brooded in.”

SPAUGH-dayrange-shelter

Spaugh Dayrange Shelter

SPAUGH-shelter-open

Open Top

If you don’t have a lot of pasture space, you may not have to compromise on the issues of green forage, access to live animal foods, and exercise in the fresh air and sunshine for your flock. Beth Spaugh started her original pastured broiler operation on a ¾-acre house lot, rotating the birds throughout the yard. This strategem allowed successful pastured poultry production for several years, at a level of 300-400 birds a year.

Pasturing your birds imposes a seasonality on broiler production that consumers may require some getting used to. I know of no small producers who switch to a confinement model and continue production after the end of the green season—they’re not willing to lower their standards. Encourage the same appreciation of seasonal broilers as for other local foods like tomatoes and strawberries: Revel in them when they’re in season, switch to alternatives in the off season, and learn to enjoy the anticipation of the next turning of the great wheel. Micro-market broiler producers most often have a layer flock operation as well, so offering customers cull hens in the off season makes sense. Any resistance to buying old birds will likely vanish if you teach them how to make chicken broth the old fashioned way.

Accepting the dictates of your climate is another aspect of seasonality. Dean Mullis says that he raises 200 broilers in the early summer and another 200 in the fall—he finds the heat and humidity of his North Carolina summers just too stressful on the fast-growing meat hybrids, so wisely chooses not to “fight” the climate and forgoes production in the hotter weather. This strategy fits nicely with the need for concentrating on his market garden in the more intense part of the gardening season.

Small producers typically have two or three batches of broilers growing simultaneously. The schedule can get pretty tight—if the most mature group, for example, must be slaughtered to make way for the next “wave” in the production schedule. You will have to find the rhythm that works best for you.

Choice of Breeds

Most pastured poultry producers are still raising Cornish Cross as the foundation of their broiler operations. None are especially happy with this fast-growing hybrid bred for the poultry industry’s high-confinement, high-input production model—Cornish Cross are quite “fragile,” succumbing easily to environmental stresses, and prefer to hang around the feed trough rather than foraging more natural feeds on their own.

Freedom-rangers-2

Freedom Rangers

Some growers are turning to alternatives to the Cornish Cross. Julia Cronin, in her SARE study, also compared Cornish Cross with “Freedom Rangers,” a meat hybrid bred for pastured rather than confinement systems. She found that the Freedom Ranger has a slower (which is to say, more normal) growth curve. Also, “The Freedom Ranger has a very different conformation from the Cornish Cross, noticeably longer body, less breast meat, and more dark meat. Fortunately, their flavor is amazing.” The enhanced flavor brings good market acceptance of her Freedom Rangers, despite the fact she charges more to compensate for the longer grow-out ($4.00 per pound, as opposed to $3.50 for her Cornish Cross).

Dean Mullis plans next year to raise 200 chicks at a time in the same mobile unit in which they were brooded—100 Cornish Cross and 100 of the slower growing Freedom Rangers. This strategy will spread processing over four weeks, evening out the work and achieving a mix of sizes to satisfy customer demands.

Few small producers are willing to revert to the traditional chicken breeds for growing dressed broilers for a market. Though almost universally recognized as having more flavor, there is often resistance to the smaller, more narrow-breasted, and more expensive (because of the longer grow-out) carcass of a traditional breed. However, Summer Steenbarger plans to experiment with half Cornish Cross and half Buff Orpington in her broiler pens next year, to test market acceptance of a smaller, more expensive, but more flavorful broiler.

If you successfully tap into an ethnic or immigrant market, you may find it dictates your choice of breed or hybrid. Some ethnic groups are convinced a black chicken is the only one worth eating, for others it’s a red—while most agree that a white chicken is not worth bothering with.

Don’t forget other poultry types and species as an adjunct to a pastured broiler operation. Most broiler growers find it natural to add a flock of laying hens for high-demand pastured eggs. Raising more cold-hardy turkeys, ducks, and geese can extend market profits beyond the broiler season, providing centerpieces for Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities. Perhaps you can develop top-dollar markets for rarely available items like dressed guinea hen or capons.

Several of those I interviewed noted how profitable raising turkeys has been for them. Indeed, Summer Steenbarger reports that the profits from 65 Thanksgiving tukeys (a first for her this year) completely paid off the debt on her new processing facility (described below).

Feeding

Will you need to change your feeding program to better meet the requirements of an expanded scale? Beth Spaugh recognizes that her level of operation is really too big to continue with bagged feed. However, it’s not big enough to accomodate bulk deliveries from the feed mill. And she doesn’t feel the investment of time to grind her own would pay off. So for now she continues with the bagged feed.

Her rule of thumb for 100 broilers is to start the first week with a 50-lb bag of feed, and increase the number of bags purchased by one bag per week, working up to feeding 8 bags (400 pounds) in the eighth week. (This is just an approximation: She does end up with a few extra bags, but these numbers help her, and her feed store, plan ahead to keep feed on hand.) Once she gets into the full seasonal cycle, growing three batches simultaneously and starting a new batch of 100 chicks every three weeks, she plans on 14 bags per week.

Dean Mullis has chosen to make his own feed, gaining efficiency by using the same basic mix for several feeding needs: “I am fortunate to be able to grind my own feed with a Gehl mixer/grinder that makes 2 tons of feed at a time. I buy local corn from my dad, soybean meal and oyster shells from the local feed mill, and use fish meal and Nutri-Balancer from Fertrell.

“My ration is 50 bushels of corn, 800 lbs of soybean meal, 120 lbs of Nutri-Balancer, 100 lbs of fish meal, and 50 lbs of oyster shells. This gets fed to the 400 broilers, the 130 laying hens (which have access to free-choice oyster shell also), turkeys, and the occasional pig. I do amend the feed with extra fish meal for young turkeys the first 8 weeks.”

Producers at higher levels often contract with a local mill to grind feed to their own recipe (sometimes providing the mill with less typical supplements like kelp meal or Nutri-Balancer), and deliver it in bulk to the farm.

Butchering

One of the most critical questions for your emerging broiler operation is how to process your birds. Some producers are able to sell their birds live for a nice profit, which is obviously the easiest solution—processing chickens is hard work. Some take their birds to a custom slaughter house, paying a fee for processing, and hauling the dressed carcasses away for packaging and sale. Many find, however, that it can be difficult to get a high enough price to adequately reward both themselves and the butcher. Thus most small producers roll up their sleeves and handle this task themselves. Usually, you can count on processing to take up the whole day, once you figure in setup, butchering, cleanup, and some “down time” after a stretch of intense effort.

Give careful thought to this aspect of the enterprise. Will killing and dressing your birds be an emotional burden for you? I know more than one small producer who has no problem with evisceration, but shrinks from killing the bird. Some work with a partner, and find that it works well if the partner does the emotional heavy lifting of killing the bird. Such an arrangement could be a problem, of course, in a case where the partner is unpredictably not able to help and the schedule is pressing.

Speaking of partners: Most small producers I know work with at least one other person, often more, to help with slaughtering. Not only is it true that “many hands make light work,” but slaughter day can become social event rather than drudgery when it is shared—as I found when helping on the “disassembly line” at Joel Salatin’s place. The whole family helped—including apprentices, a brother, mother, cousins, nephews, and nieces. The young guys joshed each other with humorous insults, everybody caught up on gossip, and I picked Joel’s brains for take-home lessons. Before I knew it, Joel announced that we’d finished the 450 broilers set aside for the day, and it was time to quit.

I always tell folks considering growing for a market: You either make money or give away that bird, not at the feed trough, but at the slaughter table. Use your experience in slaughtering for your own table to gauge whether you will be efficient enough (or can become so) at processing your birds to earn a decent return on your time.

A question that small producers struggle with is how fully to utilize all available parts of the dressed broiler. Most want to honor the bird by using it as fully as possible for food. On the other hand, processing some of the “spare parts” is time-consuming. As Beth Spaugh puts it, “Another issue I struggle with relates to stewardship and sustainability. We spend as much time cleaning and packing livers, hearts, gizzards, necks, and some feet, as we spend on the bird’s carcass. We make much less income on that time, even though we have good demand for livers at $4/lb. From an economic standpoint, we shouldn’t bother with anything but the carcass, but I hate to waste good food.” Even in this challenging area, though, she is finding a niche market: “There is a local Weston A. Price chapter, so they are becoming a necks and feet market [for broth making].”

The fact that butchering your poultry is such hard work is an argument in favor of diversity and of not expanding the broiler operation too far. As Summer Steenbarger observes, as long as you are butchering once or twice a month, you take the work in stride and it does not become deadening drudgery. Doing it every day would take a heavy toll.

Equipment

As you expand your existing flock to serve a small local market, most accessories—pasture shelters, electric net fencing, etc.—can simply be scaled up. If you’re processing broilers for market, though, it’s probably a good idea to “tool up” for greater efficiency—nobody gets rich plucking by hand. New processing equipment is expensive. You can save a lot of money if you can find good used equipment for sale. If you are handy, there are a number of plans available online and in books for homemade chicken pluckers. Stainless steel work tables are available from auctions and brokers of used restaurant equipment. If you make your own table, look for stainless sink units with drainboard, castoffs from someone’s kitchen renovation—seems there’s one of those in every third garage.

As with any question of scale, it is wise to start small and work up. Dean Mullis started broiler production 16 years ago, initially plucking the birds by hand. The expansion of his production (from 75 broilers a season to 400-500) has gone hand in hand with stepping up to greater plucker capacity, first to a Pickwick Jr. manual picker (which requires holding the bird to rotating rubber “fingers”), and finally to a drum picker (simply put the scalded birds in the picker and turn it on).

STEENBARGER-mobile-processing-unit

Steenbarger Mobile
Processing Unit

Once you are comfortable with your operation and your market, you might make a serious investment in more capable and efficient equipment. That’s what Summer Steenbarger and her husband Scott did this year. “We started on craigslist. We found an inexpensive mobile job shack. After putting in walls, plumbing and electricity [with much labor input from family to keep costs down], bigger pluckers and commercial fridge’s, we finished for about $3500.” The inside of the 20x8-ft trailer is used for eviscerating and packaging—Summer and Scott do all the killing, scalding, and plucking outside under a pavilion canopy. Since the trailer is mobile, there is the possibility of doing custom slaughtering or otherwise sharing this facility with other local growers.

Regulations—and Regulators

There is no area in which your home operation could change more radically than having to deal with regulations—complex, confusing, contradictory, sometimes downright bizarre. By all means read Joel Salatin’s most recent book, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal—it will get your blood boiling but also provide lots of laughs (it’s classic Joel), and that’s about the right mix to get you ready for the trials ahead.

You may imagine that all the regulations you have to comply with have to do with the safety of the food product in question (dressed broilers), but you will quickly learn they are a good deal more byzantine than that. Indeed, some of the regulations have the specific intent, as Joel points out, of “leveling the playing field”—yes, that’s right: between Homestead Hannah and the likes of Tyson and Perdue.

As a broad generalization, most states go with the federal guidelines for poultry production for sale: The grower may process and sell from the farm up to 1000 “bird units” with no inspection or regulation required. (A broiler is one unit, a turkey four—any combination is allowed to bring the total to no more than 1000.) Beyond that, on dealing with regulations, the small producers I’ve talked to agree:

Know the regulations

You should know the existing regulations thoroughly, inside and out. Be aware that often the regulators do not! Numerous sharp-eyed producers have saved their operations from onerous changes by pointing out to the inspector that he has in fact misinterpreted the relevant regulation. Dean Mullis reports, “When we started 16 years ago, I called three seperate state agencies asking if we could process and sell our own chickens off the farm and got three different answers on why we could not. Later, I attended a workshop that featured the assistant director for NC Agricultural Inspections, who told us that we could legally and technically raise and butcher up to 1,000 poultry units without inspection.”

Maintain as low a profile as possible

Dean also suggests: If you don’t have to be inspected or regulated by a given agency, by all means avoid getting on their radar with inquiries—that’s “like poking a hornet’s nest with a stick to see what happens.” Remember that if you choose to “fudge” existing regulations a bit in your favor, a first-offense action by the powers that be is rarely more than a cease-and-desist warning. And remember that the ultimate low-profile approach is to avoid the thicket of regulation entirely by seeking out those ethnic, immigrant, or other can-do customers willing to buy live and slaughter their own.

Be “creative”

Remember that bureaucracies develop over time a momentum of mindlessness, becoming more enslaved to detail and paper work than to common sense. This has its frustrations for sensible people, to be sure, but is a fact of life you will have to live with. Be prepared to use the myopia of bureaucracies to your own advantage. For example, a regulation may limit one’s processing to one’s own birds exclusively—i.e., one may not do custom processing of birds owned by another grower. But if one “buys” the birds from that other grower, one can now legally process them as one’s own. The change of ownership as a paper transaction satisfies the regulatory niceties (even if it has nothing whatever to do with the safety of putting the end product into one’s mouth).

Focus more on the regulator than on the regulations

Most growers agree that cultivating a good working relationship with your particular inspector is more important than slavishly complying with the last letter of the regulations. Do your best to adopt a cooperative and friendly attitude. Growers who do so often find friend rather than fiend in the official they have to work with. Indeed, I’ve heard from more than one grower of helpful inspectors suggesting, “Well, the regulation says x, but you know, you’d be in compliance if you did y [made a painless change that shows up in the paperwork].” Summer Steenbarger was pleasantly surprised when she worked with her state department of agriculture to obtain the “Temporary Slaughter Permit” for her mobile processing unit. After cooperating and seeking their support at every stage of the process, she ended with a facility approved not only for broilers, but for ducks, turkeys, and rabbits as well—and is a licensed commercial kitchen to boot. Who knows what value-added possibilities that could offer her farm in the future?

The Diversified Farm

None of the small producers I interviewed dreams of becoming the next Frank Perdue. Indeed, their goals, motivations, and methods are in complete contrast to those of MegaPoultry, Inc. They are dedicated not merely to making a buck, but to being of service—to neighbors needing good nourishing food, to the rural ecology and economy, to the viability of the family farm. None exhibited a sense of ruthless competition; indeed, several mentioned ways in which they support and cooperate with other growers.

In lieu of a complex, anonymous, inefficient regulatory system, these growers accept their customers as “the ultimate inspector,” inviting them to come and see and be a part of their farms because they have nothing to hide. The food they offer to put on their customers’ tables is exactly what they put on their own—what better assurance they will never take the slightest chance with its safety?

All my producer correspondents who have “hit their stride” with their broiler operation have found it a significant profit generator. None, however, have any desire to specialize in broiler production as a sole source of farm income—all see their poultry operation as fitting into a more integrated and diverse farm enterprise. In lieu of overextending their own production models, they encourage—and even serve as mentors to—aspiring new producers making a start in the expanding pastured broiler market.