Just as the local foods movement is growing legs in the Midwest, a key piece of infrastructure is struggling.
By Kathleen Masterson.
Many small poultry processing plants have closed, in large part because of challenges finding laborers and making a profit. Without the plants, small farmers say they won't be able to provide meat to local grocery stores and farmers markets.
In Iowa, poultry growers this year got an unexpected, and unwelcome, surprise right during poultry harvest time -- one of Iowa's three state-inspected poultry plants shut down.
LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny in central Iowa heard about the plant shuttering just as she was about to butcher her farm’s Thanksgiving turkeys.
“We had to kind of scramble to find something,” Griffieon said. “You have to have the official status or you can't sell to restaurants or at the farmers market.”
Birds processed at a state-inspected facility get an official seal that means the meat can be sold anywhere within the state's borders.
There are also two federally inspected poultry processing plants in Iowa -- meat processed there can be sold anywhere in the U.S. -- but these plants usually only handle large volumes. They easily process 50,000 birds in a day, which is what a smaller plant might do in a year.
The closing of the Hansen's Poultry plant in Kimballton, Iowa, which some poultry producers had been going to for decades, means there are just two state-inspected plants left, down from four in the 1990s.
And some producers are concerned about the future of the remaining plants.
“It's going to put me out of business if they close them up,” said Ron Bartlet, a poultry producer in Grimes, Iowa.
In addition to being a full-time high school teacher, Bartlet raises chickens, ducks and turkeys. He started with about 200 birds and now raises several thousand.
Now that he has to drive more miles to bring his birds to a poultry plant several hours away, Bartelt said he may have to raise the price of his birds.
It's a small niche, I would say, for us producers it's one of several facets that make up our farming operation,” Bartlet said. “It's the consumer, the customer, that’s going to really miss out, because it won't be available for them.”
Despite demand for these local chickens and ducks, a fair number of processing plants have shuttered their doors over the years. Hansen's Poultry didn’t return repeated calls, but industry experts say the reasons processors close are complicated.
“It’s very tricky because in some ways it's -- no pun intended – a bit of a chicken and an egg thing,” said Arion Thiboumery, a meat processing specialist in Minnesota. In order for a processor to be successful, “that business needs to have a lot more volume than currently exists in the state, but in order for volume to exist in the state there has to be a processor.”
The biggest challenge to keeping small poultry plants in business is the seasonality, according to Thiboumery, who works with Iowa State University's meat lab and a specialty meat company. Most small poultry producers in the Midwest only raise birds in the summer, and process them in the fall.
"A lot of times, if you talk to processors, they say, 'Yeah, I tried poultry, but everybody wanted space at this time of the year, but then that machinery was empty rest of year, and I wasn't making any money off it," explained Iowa State University extension's Nick McCann.
That same seasonality can make it tough to hire staff because the work is only part-time, and most processing plants don't pay as much as other seasonal jobs, like construction. Processors face stringent regulations, too, which means it can be expensive for them to bring their operation up to code.
Still, Freeman Schwartz is trying to make it work. He's the owner of one of the two remaining state-inspected processing businesses in Iowa. He opened Valley View Poulty Processing in the largely Amish town of Bloomfield, Iowa, last year.
It’s quiet now, thanks to the offseason, but Schwartz gets around the labor issue that many other small plants have by hiring local women looking for part-time work.
“Some families simply need a little extra income so a summer job is perfect,” Schwartz said. "Some of them may be schoolteachers, they'll teach school in the winter."
Schwartz expects it may take a while to pay off the building's expenses; with construction and equipment, the set-up cost about $150,000. Still, business is growing. In the plant’s second year the number of birds Schwartz processed doubled to about 20,000 this season.
“It is covering current expenses,” Schwartz said. “That's worth a lot. For every day that we process in here, those expenses are being paid.”
Smaller processing plants like Schwartz’s facility aren't likely to be booming moneymakers, but they provide a vital link in the local foods chain for both poultry growers and consumers who want the local poultry option in their grocery store.
Producers like Bartelt and Griffieon are counting on small, local processors to keep their poultry tradition alive.
"There's been an attrition of these (plants) over the years, and the numbers have dwindled and dwindled,” Griffieon said. “We need them back. Small town Iowa needs them back."
Kathleen Masterson reports for Harvest Public Media, an agriculture-reporting project involving six NPR member stations in the Midwest. For more stories about farm and food, check out harvestpublicmedia.org.