Law opens access to a tastier bird
By HOLLY JENNINGS | June 19,2007
JON OLENDER / RUTLAND HERALD
Jennifer Megyesi shows off the easy-plucking feathers of a silkie chicken on Monday at Fat Rooster Farm in Royalton as her son, Brad, looks on.
Small Vermont poultry farmers have a lot to feel plucky about these days.
On May 21, Gov. Douglas signed an agricultural bill — H.522 — allowing farmers to sell 1,000 or fewer uninspected birds to Vermont restaurants and at Vermont farmers markets. The bill is a solution in part to help the state's farmers gain access to more markets and to give consumers more access to fresh, local products.
The passage of the bill may encourage more Vermonters to navigate local farms to learn about the agricultural products they consume.
This is what I set out to do when I visited Fat Rooster Farm in Royalton. It's easy to miss the turn off Route 14 — MapQuest isn't the end-all for backcountry roads. When heading north, the turn onto the dirt road is just before the bridge, not after. On a recent visit, Jennifer Megyesi, co-owner of the farm with her husband, Kyle Jones, was hanging clothes on the line.
Fat Rooster Farm is a small, diversified, certified organic farm. It isn't postcard pristine. It's a working farm. Tyvek covers the back of the farm house while it waits for repairs and the barn could use repainting.
Megyesi and her husband quit full-time federal jobs as biologists to start farming, which Megyesi refers to as a way of life rather than just a business. Both now work part-time jobs — Jones as an ecologist and Megyesi as a veterinary technician — to make the farm work financially.
A walking tour of the farm includes the large barn that is home during the winter and early spring to laying hens, sheep, chicks for meat and laying chickens, cows, peacocks, a rooster, two geese, a horse and a barn cat, creating a cacophony of farmyard sounds. During warmer months the cow, sheep and chickens roam in rotated sequence on pasture fields.
Heading up a set of stairs to a second level in the barn is a small nest with eggs located in a little alcove.
"Oh," Megyesi said, "isn't that sweet? We have to remember to gather eggs from that nest and few others that the hens have created around the barn." This truly is an organic farm in the sense of something evolving naturally according to its own imperatives.
On a visit to Fat Rooster Farm the middle of last month, the governor had not yet signed H.522. Megyesi was excited about its potential passage and said she would definitely increase her flock to 1,000 if she has the ability to sell into new markets. To date, she typically raises and sells about 300 chickens, 50 Guinea hens and 50 turkeys direct to customers on her farm.
The bill goes into effect once poultry producers meet the necessary labeling and notification requirements. Previous to its passage, Vermont farmers were only permitted to sell poultry directly to individuals on their farms.
Megyesi said there is definitely demand for organic pasture-raised chickens and she sees a potential market not only at restaurants and farmers markets, but also at food co-operatives and natural food stores.
"The bill will be a huge help," she said. "I've had several opportunities to sell chicken that would be sustainable for us, but we have had to turn them away. There hasn't been an affordable and practical way for me to get poultry processed that would allow me to sell it off the farm here in Vermont and no way to sell it out of state."
Since July 2006, Cavendish Game Birds in Springfield has had a state-inspected processing facility open to poultry farmers on certain days of the month. Up until 2004, Misty Knoll Farms had processed other farmers' birds in its federally-inspected facility. Birds processed under state inspection may be sold into any venue in the state. Federally-inspected birds may be sold anywhere in the United States.
Rob Litch, co-owner of Misty Knoll Farms, said they stopped offering a processing service for reasons of biosecurity. He said the chance of actually having a problem was a long shot, but they decided the risk outweighed the benefit of the extra processing work. Their birds — about 21,000 turkeys and about 75,000 chickens — all live on one farm and do not receive antibiotics. If a disease entered the flock from another farm it would spread quickly and be devastating.
Adams Turkey Farm in Westford filled the gap in processing between 2004 and 2006 with its state-inspected facility. Yet the facility's location, tucked up in the northwestern section of the state, made it a limited solution. As of this year, owners Judy and Dave Adams have stopped offering custom processing service to focus on their growing commercial operation.
Many poultry farmers began to feel there was no good way, logistically and financially, to process poultry and sell it away from their farms. The obstacles to getting their product to market generated a lot of frustration among poultry farmers as well as the impetus for the bill that recently passed.
Even the facility at Cavendish, a bright light this year, isn't a solution for everyone. If a farm isn't located near Springfield, transportation costs could be prohibitive, especially if a flock is small. The cost of processing a bird at Cavendish is $5 — a price established to help defray the costs of outfitting a facility that is up to state standards.
Poultry processors who run mobile slaughtering units charge a comparable rate, but it can vary depending on the travel distance and even the number of birds processed.
None of the mobile slaughtering units in the area are equipped for federal or state meat or poultry inspection standards. Carl Cushing, director of Food Safety & Consumer Protection in the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, is working to rectify that situation. He and his colleagues are working with a manufacturer to design and build a mobile unit for poultry processing that will meet state inspection standards. He said, so far, mobile units aren't popular in the federal inspection program.
He hopes the unit will be ready for use in November. The state is planning to lease or sell the unit to a private processor to operate it as a business. The Legislature has appropriated $80,000 for the unit.
Since agriculture bill H.522's passage, Cushing feels the need for a state-inspected mobile processing unit has become even more urgent. For the record, Cushing wanted it known that the inspection and health departments opposed the part of the bill that allows the sale of uninspected poultry to restaurants and at farmers markets.
Cushing said he feels there is a right way and a wrong way to do things and he thinks selling uninspected poultry to the public isn't right. Having dropped out of school at 15 to work in a meat processing plant, Cushing has seen a lot in his days in the meat and poultry business and, from his perspective, he thinks selling uninspected meat or poultry isn't worth the risk.
The Vermont state meat and poultry inspection program was started in 1967, after a problem with contaminated meat or poultry on a national level. Before then, Vermont followed the federal exemption of allowing poultry farmers to slaughter birds without inspection and sell them where they liked in-state.
Cushing believes the state and individual consumers should be doing all they can to support a strong local agricultural economy, but he believes a system of quality checkpoints is important. He said, "Increasingly, people here and across the country want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced. There's no reason why this demand and inspection can't come together to safely expand the market that many Vermonters want."
Before the bill passed, the inspection question was hotly debated by some who opposed the off-farm sale of uninspected chickens. They cited fear of an increased risk to public health and the potential tainting of Vermont's reputation for high-quality food products. Supporters enthusiastically backed the bill as a positive step toward creating a healthy agricultural marketplace.
Neighboring New Hampshire, which since 1978, hasn't had a state meat and poultry inspection program, follows the federal inspection exemption for poultry of 1,000 birds or less. Richard Uncles, director of the Division of Regulatory Services in the N.H. Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, said his department and the Department of Health and Human Services don't know of any instances of someone there getting sick from eating uninspected chicken.
Uncles said, "Whether there is an inspection program in place or not, there are always going to be those who will do things properly. And there are those who, even if licensed, will try to cut corners and do things improperly. It's logical that if there's an inspection program, it's going to do something. But it's not absolute that it's going to lessen the likelihood of a food-borne illness."
An example would be recent national recalls of meat that have traveled through licensed inspected facilities.
For Uncles, the crux of the challenge surrounding the local foods movement is the uncomfortable co-existence of two trends: On the one hand, people are demanding safe food and inspection — a demand that is increased every time there is a new outbreak, such as bad pet food from China; and, on the other hand, there is revivalist trend for small-scale, diversified farming in New England.
"The two trends just butt heads," Uncles said. "Unfortunately, you can't impose the kind of systems — like HACCP plans — that were developed for gigantic large-scale food processing on the size of agriculture that we're envisioning blossoming in New England."
Uncles would like to see an appropriately sized inspection model developed for small New England producers that wouldn't have to match the standards applied to huge producers. "There have been efforts to change agricultural policies in Washington," he said, "but they've never gotten too far because there are forces that prefer the status quo."
Megyesi of Fat Rooster Farm doesn't think public health will be compromised from the sale of uninspected birds from small farms such as hers. She said she feels people are able to police themselves as well as a federally inspected plant because if they don't, they have a lot to lose.
"We're tiny," she said. "If we give someone a bad product we're shut down just like that. We don't have a bunch of people bringing birds to us to slaughter. It's our product with our name on it. Only we are accountable.
"As a nation, we allow the importation of all kinds of meat from outside the United States that doesn't have to follow the same strict guidelines we have to observe and yet consumers can't visit those farms in person. People can come to my farm to see my birds and they can come on slaughtering day to see how they're processed."
Ray Garcia is a poultry farmer in Littleton, N.H., and the owner and operator of a mobile poultry processing service. The processing business grew from the need to slaughter his own chickens.
Before entering farming, Garcia was a medical technician. He and his wife, who is a nurse, started raising poultry because they didn't want the antibiotics or the feed with animal byproducts that are used in large-scale poultry production. "If you read what the big commercial producers do to make poultry affordable," he said, "you won't want to eat that chicken."
Garcia said that because of logistics and the financial benefit to the farmer, he has mixed feelings about the portion of the agricultural bill that permits sales to restaurants.
In the 11 years Garcia has had his poultry processing business, he has seen only three farms successfully raise and sell the limit of 1,000 uninspected birds as allowed by federal exemption, yet he gets two or three calls a year from people who say they want to raise 1,000 birds and sell them "because that's what the law will allow me." Invariably the people who call are raising as few as 30 birds or none at all.
"I tell them," Garcia said, "why don't you raise 100 birds and see the work behind it and the cost behind the feed. And then times that figure by 10 for your thousand and see if that is something you want to do."
Too often, Garcia said, people don't consider the logistics of storing and transporting poultry to restaurants. Keeping 1,000 birds frozen requires a serious investment in freezers, and keeping birds cold while being transported poses another challenge.
Selling real chickens — birds raised on a wholesome diet and not treated with growth hormones or antibiotics — to restaurants is not always a realistic proposition. Most restaurant chefs and diners are used to paying much less for chicken than small-scale farmers, especially those who pasture-raise their chickens, can afford to charge.
"We sell our chicken for $2.70 or $2.75 a pound, which is more than most restaurants are used to paying for chicken," Garcia said. "Our only saving grace is that we're able to process our own chickens. Otherwise, we would have to charge even more per pound. But I still have my time, labor costs if I have help and the cost of supplies."
Garcia sells most of the 500 to 600 pasture-raised chickens he raises to local families. Some go to local restaurants that are able to pay what he must charge. He said the local chefs who know him and have seen his slaughtering process don't have a problem selling his chicken in their restaurant.
Will Vermont chefs be comfortable serving uninspected chicken to their customers? Todd Murphy, chef and owner of The Farmer's Diner in Quechee, said, in principle, he doesn't have an issue with serving uninspected chicken, but he'd never serve chicken from a farm he hadn't personally visited and observed how they slaughter.
His problem is one of cost. Murphy said, "It is more expensive for us to serve chicken than N.Y. strip steak. The typical diner customer won't pay for a real chicken."
Doug Eisler, chef and owner with his wife, Amber, of Pleasant Street Bistro in Woodstock, and previously an instructor at New England Culinary Institute, would love to serve pasture-raised chicken at his bistro. Having had a farm share at Fat Rooster Farm, he is familiar with the flavor of Megyesi's chickens, which he described as "full and complex."
"Compared to vapid chicken from the grocery store," he said, "it actually has flavor — a sort of mineral, earthy flavor."
From a chef's point of view, taste is everything. And Eisler said he found anything raised or grown on a small organic farm tastes better. From the point of view of a restaurant owner, he said, a truly excellent food product, such as pasture-raised chicken, may not be in the budget or may be beyond the price point of the restaurant's menu.
To serve uninspected chicken, restaurants must clearly state on their menu that the chicken was "processed on the farm and not inspected." Rick Thompson, co-owner with his brother, Bill, of Cavendish Game Birds, thinks the required wording, "Not Inspected," is unfortunate in that it will make a lot of restaurant diners wary. "It will make them think the product is dirty even though it's most likely more wholesome and cleaner than a federally inspected bird from a huge commercial producer," he said.
Would another term work? How about "leap of faith" chicken? I'm sure Cushing would find dark humor in that phrase. Yet, dining on uninspected chicken at home or in a restaurant does not need to be a leap of faith if consumers are willing to make personal visits to farms, and, particularly, on processing days.
Litch, of Misty Knoll Farms, said it would behoove those who plan to eat uninspected birds to pay a personal visit the farm.
If you find uninspected chicken on a menu, ask the chef personally if he or she has been to the farm and seen how the birds are slaughtered.
Have pluck: Look, ask, verify and then enjoy what will probably be some of the best chicken you've ever eaten.