Where’s the Pasture-Raised Poultry in Georgia?
Not too long ago, D and A Farm in Zebulon, GA, was the go-to place to get highly prized, pasture-raised chicken right here in Georgia.
Dave and Amy Bentoski processed about 3,000 birds a year – not a mountain of birds, but enough to satisfy his farmers’ market customers, who paid around $3.50 a pound, and his wholesale customers who paid around $2.70 or $2.80 a pound.
Georgia is the No. 1 producer of conventional chicken broilers in the country, so there’s plenty of chicken producers out there. But, like other meats, the locavore and free-range organic movement has made pasture- raised poultry a very hot commodity.
Many health-conscience consumers want to avoid the growth supplements that allow conventional producers to raise a chick to a slaughter-size chicken in half the time it takes Mother Nature to do it.
Likewise, many taste-conscience chefs want to serve a bird whose meaty muscles were actually used.
For a while, D and A Farm was one of the few games in town that sold such birds.
That’s a great position to be in, especially if you’re a first generation farm that grew from a front yard garden into a 10-acre certified organic operation in a mere three years, while building up one of the state’s largest community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription bases in the state.
“We couldn’t even come close to satisfying the demand that was out there,” Dave Bentoski says. “We can raise, conservatively, demand-wise we could quadruple or even quintuple our annual production to 12,000 to 15,000 birds a year, and I don’t think we’d still come close to satisfying demand.”
But last spring, D and A Farm sold its last batch of pasture chickens. Georgia agriculture policies forced Bentoski to drive to Bowling Green, KY, which is a seven-hour trip one way, for processing.
“So, we made the determination to stop doing chickens, as much as we didn’t want to and as much as our customers didn’t want us to,” said Bentoski. “It’s just not sustainable for us anymore.”
Sources for sustainably raised vegetables and red meat – beef, pork and lamb – are readily available to restaurants and consumers and have fueled the increase in sustainable and organic farms, farmers’ markets and CSA programs.
Poultry raised on pasture is a sustainable means of producing chicken, one that does not lend itself to the large-scale volumes typified by conventional producers.
As an add-on product, for small-scale sustainable and organic farms, pasturing uses relatively little farm labor or infrastructure for a high-value product, thereby increasing farm incomes and improving rural economies.
Just as important, chicken manure is an important and valuable byproduct that increases the farm’s soil fertility and improves vegetable production.
Without it, Bentoski has to make some hard adjustments.
“I no longer have the benefit of their [chicken] droppings, and they were great at pecking up everywhere and helping to breakdown pests,” he says. “I’m definitely having to look at my fertility practices again. It’s something I have to account for now in my planning – how do I replace that manure that the chickens put down?”
The heart of the issue here is what roadblocks exist that make it difficult to raise a product for which there is such high demand?
Consumers have been conditioned to expect cheap chicken, but the relatively low price of conventional chicken is made possible by huge economics of scale; conventional processing facilities, for example, can slaughter 400 birds per minute.
The only legal solution currently available to Georgia’s farmers is to transport their chickens to an out-of-state USDA-inspected processing facility, and bring them back into the state for sale. The closest facilities are located in South Carolina and Kentucky. Most farmers find this distance too far to drive due to the cost of fuel and the stress the long trip causes their livestock.
In fact, there are a number of roadblocks for small-scale farmers who want to raise quality chickens in natural ways, most stemming from raw economics and bizarre bureaucratic policies.
Here’s the main problem: Decades ago, the USDA created rules for the safe handling and processing of poultry processing, one of which required an inspector be on site at the processing plant.
But the USDA rule also allowed for exemptions for smaller farmers, allowing them to slaughter and process on farm up to 20,000 birds a year.
However, when the state of Georgia chose to adopt the USDA rules, it struck the smallfarm exemption.
The odd thing about that move is almost half of the country’s states accept the small farm exemption.
“One of the jobs at the Georgia Department of Agriculture is to guarantee food safety, and I understand that,” Bentoski says. “But that argument falls on deaf ears because there’s 20-something other states where it’s perfectly legal to use that [USDA] exemption and process on farm, up to 20,000 birds a year.”
To address the many challenges that stand in the way of a thriving pasture-poultry industry, the Pastured Poultry Working Group formed in 2008 for producers interested in raising pastured poultry to elevate their collective profile with regulators as they work to create processing solutions for small-scale producers.
“Creating a processing solution that’s economically viable and also fits within regulatory guidelines is the current challenge,” says Suzanne Welander, founder of the Pastured Poultry Working Group.
“In addition to overhauling state policy, we also need small business owners to develop the type of facilities that can fill this void,” says Georgia Organics Executive Director Alice Rolls. “It’s an obvious economic development opportunity for an investor to kick-start an industry for which we know the demand is incredibly high. Imagine what a Georgia-based processor dedicated to local, sustainable pasture poultry producers would do for local economies across the state.”
Plus, the economic development tools that state and local governments use to lure manufacturing, processing and other industries to Georgia, such as tax breaks, tax credits and lease backs, could easily be used to enable the formation of a public-private partnership that would lead to the construction of a processing center.
Not only that, but those same economic development tools could be used to incentive the spread of pasture poultry farms – a critical need since pasture poultry farming has been discouraged by state policies.
For now, the state is stuck in a classic “the chicken or the egg” conundrum.