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 is enabling 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 process poultry on-farm under USDA producer-processor exemptions. State and local 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 are defining content and developing instructional guides and a self-certification DVD covering regulations, operations, and replication to be shared throughout the Northeast. We have convened regional producer groups in Massachusetts and provided multiple workshops emphasizing practical skills training to 75+ producers as part of the permitting eligibility process. Individal technical assistance and consultation is also provided to dozens of producers looking to enter poultry production and processing for direct markets.
Producer information is disseminated by a regional Poultry Producers Listserv and an informational website housing training materials. Participants are developing plans to construct and/or share use of additional MPPUs. Business plans for small-scale poultry production and shared use of a MPPU have been 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.
Over 150 producers have attended trainings related to poultry processing and regulatory requirements. Due to “pilot project”limitations from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and a steep state slaughter licensing fee structure, to date, 9 producers have secured a state slaughter license from MDPH. More are in the process of securing their license for 2011 and we anticipate additional producers will do so in the future as we formalize and end the “pilot project” and fees become more affordable.
At a January 28, 2010 workshop, 45 current and potential poultry producers completed the regulatory and licensing training needed to apply to operate an MPPU. This included detailed overviews of the relevant licensing and regulatory approval processes, proper food safety and waste disposal procedures, and enterprise budgets and a processing cost-calculator toolkit. Producers to moved forward to complete their applications for a state slaughter license were invited to participate in a hands-on processing skills training and a practical MPPU operations training on May 14th, 2010. Four farms businesses attended the practical training. Four farmers who attended the training followed up and received local board of health and state Department of Public Health approval to participate in the 2010 pilot program, three to use the MPPU and one who continued to secure approval for an existing on-farm processing facility. Additional farmers contacted organizers of the training about use of the unit during the 2010 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. Despite subsequent inquiries throughout the growing season by new producers wishing to schedule use of the MPPU, who were referred and offered technical assistance during the licensure process, the Department of Public Health determined that the 2010 pilot project season was “closed” and they would not be issuing additional licenses for the season, which limited additional producers from access to the MPPU. One such producer had already constructed his own MPPU (which he had been operating for several seasons) and due to increasing local regulatory pressure due to visibility about this statewide project, he connect with program coordinators and solicited DPH review of his unit. He was also denied a formal review as the pilot was “closed” for the season.
Despite limitations in licensing new users again in 2010, three farm businesses operated the MPPU a total of 14 times during the 2010 season. Two users were new licensees and one a returning producers. The three farms processed approximately 3,400 broiler chickens for sale at an estimated conservative value of at least $68,000 (based on an average dressed weight of 4lb/bird and a sales price of $5/lb; some producers sold birds for as high as $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 second 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 for the two new users, 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 2010 will continue to 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. One of the returning producers from the 2008 and 2009 pilot program offered mentoring and coaching to the other two users in 2010 and we expect that will continue into 2011.
Another component of this project that continued to evolve in 2010 was the ongoing development and refinement of the MPPU Economic Calculator, an online tool that enables farmers to enter costs of production and processing into an online spreadsheet which then calculates their cost per bird to raise and process on their farms. This tool allows 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. The online tool has been created, modified based on feedback received from producers, and due to some website snafus, it is anticipated the tool will be widely available by February 2011.
Progress continues on both a Poultry Processing “Replication Guide” that will outline options for either constructing a MPPU or an on-farm fixed facility and a training DVD that will aid producers in reviewing food safety and MPPU operations information as part of a continuing education program. The Replication Guide will be formatted as a decision making tool to help guide producers toward an option that works for them – either shared use of a cooperative MPPU, single-owner MPPU and the various design options; and on-farm fixed facility design and costs. Case studies of various existing facilities will be highlighted. The training DVD will illustrate appropriate MPPU use, sanitation practices, and humane poultry processing techniques. Video footage was taped on May 14th and again on June 17th. A rough cut video was compiled and is being edited for additional gaps to be filled in 2011.
2010 was determined by DPH to be the final year of the “pilot project” and a meeting held on December 6th with state regulatory agencies outlined next steps for the program beginning in 2011. A draft policy document was shared with project organizers and feedback provided to regulatory agencies. In preparation for the December meeting, in November, project organizers created a 6 question survey (with various follow-up questions) and distributed it widely over the Poultry Listserv and to all the individuals who had attended a regulatory training in 2009 or 2010. Over 57 responses were recorded (to date) providing feedback on level of poultry production (numbers, species), decisions made about marketing outlets, which facilities were in use (current processing capacity), future plans for production or processing, and reasons and comments on why producers may or may not have pursued state licensure. Many producers who opted not to seek licensure provided comments that addressed high costs, regulatory hassle, and insufficient production capacity (for beginners) to justify time and expense to seek licensure.
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, donor events, media stories, and numerous public presentations and farmer conference workshops. The MPPU listserv contains over 450 contacts (all voluntarily included). Over $68,000 in new revenues were generated during 2010, with an additional $82,000 generated on Martha’s Vineyard during their pilot project this year. Over 7 farms operated under the Island Grown Initiative’s state slaughter license and between commercial farmers and backyard growers processed a total of 4,255 birds. Their initiative is operated very differently than the mainland MPPU model, in that their MPT (Mobile Processing Trailer) comes to the farm with a trained processing crew. The mainland MPPU model requires that producers each become licensed and that they travel to pick up, rent, and return the unit (which is geographically disperse) and provide their own labor. In 2010, the mainland unit traveled between 3 farms in Western Mass, Eastern Mass, and the Cape, traveling over 2,400 miles!
Multiple outreach and educational sessions on the MPPU were conducted in 2010, including presentations at the NOFA Winter Conference, the New Entry Poultry Field School (part of our 2010 livestock field school series), the Pilgrim RC&D and Farm Service Agency Annual Meeting, the Massachusetts Poultry Enhancement Council Annual Spring and Fall Meetings, the Massachusetts Food Policy Alliance annual meeting, the Massachusetts Farm Technology Review Commission fall meeting, and at various local food panel presentations involving the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (at the Harvard Food Law Society, Tisch College of Citizenship Food System Class, New Entry’s Friedman Symposium workshop, and more). We were also asked to give presentations to the Connecticut Poultry Producers Association January meeting and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture invited us to give a presentation to their state regulatory agencies following legislation that was passed giving CT DoAg authority to regulate poultry processing in CT. They have been using our model experience in Massachusetts to shape their state poultry processing program. The outreach and education 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) and we provided lessons learned and guidance to new producer groups looking to replicate this work.
We are now in the final stages of constructing a second, enclosed MPPU for Massachusetts, with funding from the USDA Rural Development, Rural Business Enterprise Grant program and numerous private donors to the New Entry project. This was possible due to the confidence in the training program for producers being developed through SARE funding. It is anticipated that a second unit will be delivered to Massachusetts by the end of January 2011.
Several lessons were learned in 2010 that will serve as a foundation for 2011 project activities. Our MPPU training program needs to be multi-faceted and organized into several phases in different learning modalities (classroom, hands-on, and online) and DPH will be requiring a producer training prior to licensure in the future. We will be working on a self-sustaining training curriculum that will be housed in our Mass Department of Agricultural Resources who will oversee the training program in the future. 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, MDPH delayed ending “pilot program” until a 3-year pilot project could gather enough information for them to make recommendations on how the program would work going forward (which was communicated in December 2010). This delay and control over the pilot project effectively limited the number of new users in the program for the duration of 2010 and it stagnated our progress toward our grant objectives. Our user survey conducted in November and December 2010 reveals some important insights as to changes need to continue to encourage poultry producers to become “above the radar” and seek regulatory compliance. The number of interested users is only increasing, and we continue to provide technical assistance and guidance to dozens of producers each month.