As owner of Robariah Farms, we propose building on recently completed research (conducted with funding from a 2015 SARE Farmer Grant) to address this issue. Leveraging a local, state-certified poultry processing facility and integrating required elements of kosher processing (ritual slaughterer (shochet) to kill and supervise; dry plucking without scalding; soaking and salting), we will pilot a higher capacity model of kosher poultry processing that can be economically viable.
Our technical advisor is the experienced owner of a local, state-certified poultry processing facility. He will manage the processing. We will use low-volume dry pluckers and a high volume industrial dry-plucker integrated into the facility. We will collect data at several points to analyze production efficiency and cost effectiveness. We will compare results against 1) a non-local, industrial kosher facility; 2) a local, non-kosher facility; and 3) local, kosher processing previously piloted.
In New England, the absence of local kosher poultry processors is a significant problem with market demand rising for sustainably raised, locally produced kosher meat. The problem is compounded by the current issue of cost effectiveness and production efficiency that small-scale commercial producers face in accessing local kosher processing. The following market research supports this problem:
- “Limited access to slaughter and processing facilities, especially those with Federal or State inspection, continues to be challenging for farmers seeking to satisfy consumer demand for local meat and poultry products….Farmers may have to drive several hours or longer to the closest inspected processor or one with the desired certifications, skills, or services.”
- There is “significant demand for slaughter and processing services, and potential supply of inputs for slaughter/processing services. 59% of the farmers who responded said they would more than double their herds with additional processing capacity….Location is the major factor for farmers deciding where to bring their animals for slaughter.”
- 44% of the kosher market is Jewish consumers. In Massachusetts and New England, 4-5% of the population is Jewish—almost double the national percentage. While 15% of those who purchase kosher products do so for religious reasons, most who seek out kosher products buy the items for food quality (62%), healthfulness (51%), and food safety (34%). 19% of the kosher market is Muslim who consume food certified as Halal.
While local, commercial growers may choose to transport their poultry to a non-local kosher processor, the consequences have negative impacts:
- Increased health/safety risk and higher stress levels among chickens
- Increased carbon emissions and environmental pollutants from long transport
- Diversion of financial resources from local rural communities
- Substantial operational planning resources to access a large-scale facility
Massachusetts poultry stakeholders have been convening over the past several years to address the high demand for, but low supply of, locally raised, sustainable meat. Large institutions such as the University of Massachusetts dining facilities, along with numerous growers and local food organizations, recognize that there is great opportunity for the local sale of locally raised meat. However, the lack of local processing facilities undermines this opportunity. The demand across New England for local kosher meat is part of this larger demand and opportunity. By developing a commercially viable model for local processing of kosher poultry we will be able to demonstrate how other stakeholders can achieve success.
Our proposed solution builds on many efforts to address the problem of providing a local source of sustainably raised, kosher meat. Efforts have been made in three key areas: 1) piloting local kosher processing using a mobile poultry processing unit with research funding from a previous SARE Farmer Grant FNE15-827; 2) commercial enterprises now providing “sustainable” kosher meat; and
3) the demonstrated need for more local processors in our region.
Key Area #1. In 2015, we adapted state-certified local poultry processing facilities to integrate traditional kosher slaughtering practices and equipment. We conducted a total of seven separate processing days. We processed about 50 birds on the first two days, about 100 birds on the third and fourth days, and 150 on the fifth and sixth days, totaling about 600 chickens total. In addition, we processed 28 turkeys on a seventh processing day. For each processing day, we hired the same independent kosher certification agency, which included a shochet (ritual slaughter) to oversee processing and ensure that strict kosher techniques were applied.
Due to the prohibition of scalding the meat during processing, a total of four different commercial-scale dry plucking machines were piloted to explore the production efficiency, cost, and plucking quality each provided.
Each of the following machines still required some hand-plucking to remove the final 5-20% of feathers (especially on the wings).
1) a heavy-duty machine where replaceable discs rotated quickly to strip feathers. This machine proved costly and ineffective in its plucking.
2) Two Fowl Plucker machines proved safe, cost-effective , and reliable, though plucking took about 4 minutes per bird.
3) standard rotating tub with water sprayer and interior rubber fingers. This proved convenient but required pre-soaking in cold water. The result was a 50-75% plucked chicken.
4) Ashley Manual Plucker Model #15 (21 inch) proved most effective (about 95% of feathers in 4 min per bird), relatively safe and affordable. However, given that one person can pluck one chicken at a time, the overall economic viability of this machine is not sufficient.
We determined that kosher processing currently requires about twice as much time and increased human labor when using local small-scale poultry processing facilities. The key bottleneck in this limited production efficiency model is the plucking. This is compounded by additional environmental challenges that can come with open-air processing. From hot sunny days or colder rainy days, it is important to have a condition-controlled indoor facility for processing.
To create a successful model, we plan to outfit our technical advisor’s processinng facility with the equipment needed to support kosher processing. We will purchase a higher capacity dry plucker (through separate non-SARE funding) that can be fully integrated into an the indoor processing facility. To do this, a small shipping container space will also be purchased and retrofitted to house the dry plucker according to code. The space will have a connecting passage such that plucked poultry can link directly into the existing assembly line.
We will also further pilot kosher processing using currently owned low-volume pluckers at the same local facility. The production efficiency and resulting economic viability will be analyzed and compared.
Key Area #2. Over the past decade a number of commercial enterprises have manifested to respond to the rising demand for sustainable kosher meat.
1) The first group includes large-scale producers that specifically cater to consumers seeking a kosher product. These producers do not employ sustainable growing practices.
2) A second group includes distributors of sustainably grown, kosher meat. These enterprises source their meat from growers that use sustainable farming practices, transport live animals to a kosher processing facility, and ship to customers nationwide.
3) Robariah Farms represents a third type of enterprise. We raise our animals using sustainable grazing practices and sell directly to our local communities. The absence of local kosher processing is our biggest limitation.
Key Area #3. A 2013 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service noted: “In recent decades, consumers have become increasingly interested in local food, including local meat and poultry. To meet this demand, local meat producers need access to appropriately scaled processing facilities….Farmers and others market participants suggest that limited processing infrastructure is a bottleneck restricting the flow of local meat and poultry to market, and they call for more plants to be built.”
Since 2012, my wife and I have operated a local, pastured raised, kosher meat business, specializing in poultry. We sell retail via a CSA model and wholesale to regional co-ops, restaurants, and institutions across New England. Our production volumes doubled each year, until
2017 when we paused operations to address the challenge and need for higher volume kosher processing. In 2017 and 2018, we began to work cooperatively with other families to begin building a cooperative business model in which buyers contribute time, resources, and finances to the enterprise. This model builds community buy-in. We operate on 5-7 acres of land leased from a neighbor. In addition, we also maintain other full-time farm and marketing jobs to supplement our income.
Our technical advisor owns Reed Farm and has managed a state-certified mobile poultry processing unit for the past several years at the New England Small Farm Institute. He is opening his own state-certified poultry processing facility near Robariah Farms to support local poultry growers with access to local processing. He has managed the kosher poultry processing previously conducted locally by Robariah Farms.
Our project goal is to achieve a high enough level of operational efficiency that the production of locally processed, kosher poultry is economically viable for commercial purposes. To accomplish this, in 2019 we conducted a series of processing batches to provide ample data in support of commercial production volumes. We raised poultry in three (3) distinct batches during the 2019 grow season. Batch #1 consisted of 100 chickens; Batch #2 consisted of 100 chickens; and Batch #3 consisted of 35 chickens and 15 turkeys. Each batch was processed in 1 day.
These volumes and number of groupings were identified in consultation with our ritual kosher slaughtere and our technical advisor, based upon his expertise of the potential production volumes and costs associated with non-kosher local poultry processing.
The batches consisted of a heritage-based meat bird, which took about 10 weeks to reach their peak slaughter weight. Data will be collected at multiple points during the processing of each batch. Quantifiable data including production time, volumes, and manual labor involvement are key data areas that we will obtain at multiple points during processing. Contextual data will be identified to support the measured data. For example, if processing configurations are modified between batches to support increased production efficiencies, then this information will be recorded to support data. Or issues concerning equipment (e.g., repairs) or inputs necessary to accommodate kosher processing will be documented for purposes of future uses.
We will also document final costs required for the local, kosher processing. Costs will be analyzed by batch and across batches. Costs will include a division between expenses for general processing and specific to the kosher process. We will conduct processing in a local processing facility owned and operated by our technical advisor.
A critical piece of equipment necessary for production efficiency in kosher processing is a dry plucker. This is required due to the prohibition of scalding the birds during processing, which is commonly done in conventional non-kosher processing prior to wet plucking. We have identified a high capacity, industrial-strength dry plucker that our technical advisor believes will provide for comparable production efficiency as achieved through scalding and wet-plucking. This will be used in the third and fourth batch. The first two batches will use currently owned low-volume dry pluckers.
We will analyze data against two control groups of existing data. Our technical advisor will support analysis of data against the first control group, which is local, non-kosher processing. He will provide data concerning production volumes, processing times, labor involvement, and costs based on his management of non-kosher processing using similar facility conditions.
The second control group to which project data will be compared is kosher, non-local processing. For the past several years Robariah Farms has transported poultry to industrial-scale kosher processors in Pennsylvania and New York State. The production volumes, time efficiency, and associated costs collected from this processor will provide a useful comparative data set to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different small-scale kosher processing models.