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Poultry growers set sights on mobile processing ‘facility’

Kitsap Poultry Growers Cooperative president Stuart Boyle collects eggs. (Photo courtesy Michele M Gilles)Like many small farmers in Kitsap County, Jerry Darnall can’t make a full-time living off his farm, so he has to keep a “day job.”

“Farming for us is a lifestyle choice,” says Darnall, who owns JJJ Farm in Kingston with his wife.

The main product for JJJ Farm is pork, but Darnall also raises chickens and turkeys. He would love to produce more poultry meat to sell, were it not for a major limitation — he can only sell on-site, either live or whole birds within 48 hours of slaughtering.

“I can’t sell to restaurants or farmers markets. All my sales have to be presales, with customers showing up on slaughter day,” he said.

The way to get around this restriction is by using a commercially certified processing facility. The closest one was in Tacoma, but it closed last year. And transporting chickens long distances is not only cost-prohibitive for small farmers, it creates stress in the birds.

“Most Kitsap farmers are trying to create a superb product, and the stress you put on the animals affects the quality of the meat,” Darnall said. “You want to do it as quickly and as humanely as possible.”

Stuart Boyle feeds the chickens he and his wife raise on their Creekside Family Farms in Silverdale. (Photo courtesy Michele M Gilles)Local farmers like Darnall and supporters are hoping to solve this dilemma. He is a charter member of the Kitsap Poultry Growers Cooperative, which has more than 100 members in Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam counties. The co-op was formed in 2010 and its major focus currently is on acquiring a mobile poultry-processing unit. The unit — which is essentially a commercial, USDA-certified kitchen on wheels — would allow local producers to process poultry and sell it to restaurants and grocery stores and at farmers markets.

Co-op president Stuart Boyle said the trailer is a doable goal for 2013 but ambitious because of needed fundraising. Originally, he estimated the cost to design and build the mobile unit at $24,000, but more research found that models that have worked well for other groups are in the $75,000 range.

“It can happen if we make the right connections,” said Boyle, a computer programmer who is raising 75 layers with his wife on their Creekside Family Farms in Silverdale.

Already, the group has made one major connection that will help their project move along. Last year, the Kitsap Poultry Growers Co-Op and the Northwest Cooperative Development Center received a $21,200 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Rural Business Enterprise Program. The grant is paying for business, operational and marketing plans for the proposed mobile processing unit and the co-op.

In its three years since inception, the co-op also has helped local producers to improve productivity. The group rents portable processing equipment to members, along with providing access to other resources. For a small farmer, even that portable equipment is not feasible because it would take years to pay for itself.

“The equipment is a godsend,” Darnall said. As one example, he said plucking a bird used to take him as long as 30 minutes, a process he can now do in under a minute by using the rented equipment.

Boyle said the co-op has been gaining momentum not only among poultry producers. In fact, only about 20 of the members are producers — the rest are local chefs, small business owners and the general public. Membership has grown every year, as has demand for the equipment. Last year, members processed 2,000 birds using the rentals.

He notes that Kitsap used to be a major producer of eggs and had a co-op in the 1900s. “That infrastructure has been lost,” he said, adding that one of the group’s goals is to educate the public as well as the producers on food safety and other topics.

The co-op is self-supporting, with memberships and rental fees paying for equipment maintenance and other needs. The mobile unit, however, will likely require a mix of public and private funds.

Darnall thinks the mobile unit will help many local producers increase their operations, and said there’s definitely a demand from restaurants and resellers.

“Every small farmer that’s raising meat chickens is in the same boat — they’d love to increase production but have this marketing roadblock,” he said. “Chicken is one of the best and cheapest proteins to raise and to buy. They’re efficient to raise, I just can’t market it fully.”

For more information about the Kitsap Poultry Growers Cooperative, go to www.kitsappoultry.com.

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