Outreach, training, and education for small-scale poultry producers using MPPUs in Massachusetts
Demand for local, sustainably produced poultry is increasing. Access to affordable, legally-sanctioned poultry processing will enable new and existing producers to profitably diversify their farm enterprises and provide healthful, safe products to consumers. Producers are poised to meet this demand but need training to navigate the regulatory and food safety requirements to use MPPUs for on-farm slaughter and processing.
MPPUs offer a cost-effective means to address this need and a MA pilot project involving 3
farms in 2008 generated over $51,500 in direct poultry sales in one year. Permitting requires
stringent producer training in safe food handling, sanitation operating procedures; wastewater and solid waste management processing; humane slaughter; flock health and disease management; equipment operations, maintenance, and repair; and marketing. Working with state regulators we will define content and develop five instructional guides and a self-certification DVD covering regulations, operations, and replication to be shared throughout the Northeast. We will convene four regional producer groups in Massachusetts and provide workshops emphasizing practical skills training to 75+ producers as part of the permitting eligibility process.
Producer information will be augmented by a regional Poultry Producers Listserv and an
informational website housing all training materials. Participants will develop plans to construct and/or share use of additional MPPUs. Business plans for small-scale poultry production and shared use of a MPPU will be developed to assess profitability at different levels of production, attracting new producers to strengthen, expand, or diversify their operations.
Of the 125 small-scale poultry producers who initially enroll in this project, 75 will complete regulatory and practical skills training and implement new production, processing, and food safety practices on their farms; at least 45 will increase market access, profits, and complete the legal requirements to process poultry using a licensed Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPPU) within two years.
At a May 29, 2009 workshop, 25 current and potential poultry producers completed the regulatory and practical skills training needed to operate an MPPU. This included detailed overviews of the relevant licensing and regulatory approval processes, proper food safety and waste disposal procedures, and hands-on processing skills training. One farmer who attended the training followed up and received local board of health and state Department of Public Health approval to participate in the 2009 pilot program. Additional farmers contacted organizers of the training about use of the unit during the 2009 season, and were instructed to pursue individual farm licensure and approval by following guidance of the online “Handbook for Small-Scale Poultry Producer Processors” available on the New Entry website. In July, the Department of Public Health determined that the 2009 pilot was “closed” and they would not be issuing additional licenses for the season, which limited additional producers from access to the MPPU.
Despite limitations in licensing new users in 2009, four farm businesses operated the MPPU a total of 16 times during the 2009 season, processing approximately 2,400 broiler chickens for sale at an estimated conservative value of at least $48,000 (based on an average dressed weight of 4lb/bird and a sales price of $5/lb; some producers sold birds for $5.75-$6.75/lb). Producers also used the unit to process turkeys and laying hens and many producers sold edible giblets (necks, livers, hearts, gizzards, feet, heads) to add value to the product.
The producers who operated the MPPU during this regulatory pilot year gained invaluable education beyond the mandatory training and over the course of the season adjusted their production and processing practices in response to the regulatory, financial, and practical challenges that they encountered. With continual inspection present by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health inspectors, additional training and feedback to users of the MPPU was provided during each use. Inspector reports and feedback to project organizers regarding field conditions and lessons learned during 2009 will be incorporated into future training modules.
All of these producers completed the state, local, and federal legal requirements needed to operate the MPPU and sell the processed birds. Having learned how to address the legal requirements, the producers will do so more easily in the upcoming season and can share their knowledge with other producers. Two of the returning producers from the 2008 pilot program offered mentoring and coaching to the other two users in 2009 and we expect that will continue into 2010.
Additional progress made in 2009 included development of a MPPU Business Plan and Management Model. The project team enlisted the assistance of the Brandeis University Heller School’s MBA program and worked with a MBA student to develop a MPPU business plan. This planning process involved 2 focus group meetings with current and potential MPPU users to discuss costs and rental agreements, membership fees, and other insurance and maintenance provisions. Feedback from the focus groups helped shape a MPPU user survey that was developed and administered electronically between October and December 2009. Over 100 farmers interested in participating in the MPPU project completed the survey and provided valuable feedback and demand analysis for MPPU pricing, rental agreements, and management structures. Next steps include development of MPPU rental information and outreach materials to continue to educate producers on the financial aspects of MPPU operations.
Another component of this project that evolved in 2009 was to develop the MPPU Economic Calculator, an online tool that will enable farmers to enter costs of production and processing into an online spreadsheet which will then allow producers to calculate their cost per bird to raise and process poultry on their farms. This tool will allow producers to better determine a price per lb, to fully analyze the regulatory and processing costs into their poultry enterprise plans, and to be aware of the cost-benefit of various processing alternatives. A prototype of the online tool has been created and is in draft form as of mid-December 2009. The tool will be used in consultation with existing MPPU users to provide feedback and refinement of the tool before full-scale rollout to additional producers. It is anticipated the tool will be widely available by February 2010.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Many current and potential poultry producers, local poultry customers, and state and local regulators learned of the MPPU through outreach materials, emails to the MPPU listserv, the New Entry website, and numerous public presentations and farmer conference workshop. The MPPU listserv contains over 300 contacts (all voluntarily included). Additionally, a detailed online survey for potential MPPU users had over 100 respondents, many of whom requested further information on the project.
Multiple outreach and educational sessions on the MPPU were conducted in 2009, including presentations at the NOFA Winter Conference, the New Entry Poultry Field School (part of our 2009 livestock field school series), the West Wareham RC&D and Agricultural Commission Annual Meeting, the Massachusetts Health Officers Association Annual Conference (with over 100 board of health representatives present), the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture Young Farmers Conference, and various local food panel presentations involving the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (at the Museum of Science, Boston, the EcoLogic Panel Presentation, the Concord Climate Action Network Local Foods Panel, Weston Public Library’s adult education panel on local foods, and the Parish of the Epiphany Adult Education center – local foods conference, and more). The outreach events generated public and producer awareness of the lack of slaughter facilities and the importance of supporting scaleable local processing solutions such as the MPPU (important for local town approval of such operations).
We are now in the advanced planning stages of constructing a second, enclosed MPPU for Massachusetts, with funding under consideration by the USDA Rural Development, Rural Business Enterprise Grant program. We have identified an ideal model for MPPU construction as well as several alternates, all of which will be outlined in the replication guide to aid organizations and producers who wish to construct and operate their own MPPUs. The guide will include itemized information on the various components of an MPPU, pricing, and suppliers, as well as floor plans and other construction resources. It will also include a guide to the relevant regulation and food safety and waste disposal practices needed for any new unit to receive regulatory approval.
Several lessons were learned in 2009 that will serve as a foundation for 2010 project activities include the following: (a) Training modifications: our MPPU training program needs to be multi-faceted and be broken down into several phases. Based on our May 29th training experience which included both the regulatory and hands-on training components, we learned that it was too much to try to accomplish both regulatory training, demonstration/practice, and skill building in the same session. Going forward, we will offer a three-part training requirement – first, the regulatory / licensure component for new users; second, the hands-on MPPU use practicum for licensed users; and third, a required mentoring protocol for first time users to mentor on the MPPU with an established/experienced user to learn from experience. A training will also be video taped to develop the training DVD for producers unable to attend in person. (b) Ongoing regulatory requirement monitoring: We also learned that continual negotiations with the regulators involved in the pilot project can continue to create barriers to widespread adoption of MPPU technology. Despite our clear progress toward broad regulatory support of the MPPU project, in July, MDPH announced that the “pilot program” was closed to new users for the remainder of 2009 and they would be “evaluating the future of poultry processing in Massachusetts going forward.” This effectively limited the number of new users in the program for the duration of 2009 and it stagnated our progress toward our training objectives as we had over 25 farmers attend the May training and another 40+ producers on a wait list for a fall training. MDPH cited “lack of adequate resources for inspectors to be present at MPPU events” as the main reason for limiting the number of licensed users. Due to the economic climate, their inspector workforce has been reduced and the MPPU was seen as an additional inspector burden, so they effectively limited new users to better control their limited resources. We had a year-end evaluation meeting in December with MDAR, MDPH, and Rural Development to discuss the “resource” issues for licensing new users in 2010. MDPH is willing to be “creative” in how we address the state inspection requirements through improved user training and competency assessment, so we will continue to build our training curriculum moving forward.
One additional “wrinkle” in our MPPU project worth noting for 2009 included development of a Whole Foods proposal to fund a federally-inspected MPPU for New England. The Whole Foods proposal would involve importing a state-of-the-art Italian-built MPPU to the US and operate it throughout CT, RI, and MA under federal inspection to enable Whole Foods to sell “local” chicken in their supermarkets. Project coordinators attended several meetings related to their proposal and how it would involve producers who had expressed interest in our MPPU project. It remains to be seen whether their project will materialize based on getting USDA FSIS approval of their unit design prior to investment in the project. It appears from initial discussions with regulators, that despite federal inspection, all the same regulatory components of the MPPU process we have developed would still be in effect. Upon further clarification of their production protocols and pricing structure for producers, their proposal does not appear to create competition with producers eager to participate in our MPPU project – there are clearly two different markets and size/scale of producers that can both coexist in the marketplace.