Georgia is the nation's biggest producer of broiler chickens, but small farmers for years have been pushed to the margins of this lucrative industry because they don't have access to local industrial slaughterhouses. Run by big companies, such slaughterhouses process thousands of birds an hour and will not slow down for a small order.
So small-scale poultry producers have been forced to take their livestock out of state for slaughtering. That costs extra time and money that they can barely afford.
Now, a possible solution is being explored that has caught on elsewhere: mobile slaughterhouses — vehicles where livestock can be killed, quartered, packaged and frozen.
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Farmers in at least a dozen states have put slaughterhouse equipment in enclosed trailers that can be taken farm-to-farm, processing anything from rabbits to bison. It's mostly an intermediate step, a way of helping small growers produce more meat until demand increases enough to merit a fixed slaughterhouse.
"It would be more of a teaching tool for these guys to learn, get out and do it properly," said Daniel Dover, the owner of Darby Farms in Good Hope, who now drives 3.5 hours to bring his livestock to a North Carolina slaughterhouse. He once used a home-built mobile trailer to slaughter poultry, and now drives three-and-a-half hours to bring them to a North Carolina slaughterhouse.
Decades ago, farmers could pay slaughterhouses to process livestock under the eyes of government inspectors, making it legal to sell that meat to consumers across state lines. By the 1950s, the U.S. chicken industry was consolidating into large corporate chains that tightly manage their chickens from birth to supermarket shelf. Lacking customers, independent slaughterhouses closed, creating a gap in the market for small producers.
"In Georgia there are no small facilities where they are doing custom poultry slaughter," said Brandon Chonko, owner of GrassRoots Farms in southeast Georgia.
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Chonko, who describes his farm as an "artisanal" producer of pasture-raised poultry, drives about 600 chickens and 200 ducks every two weeks to South Carolina for slaughter. He produces too many chickens for a mobile facility, but might consider using one for duck or turkey.
The mobile slaughterhouse is commonly viewed as an intermediate step, a way of helping small growers produce more meat. If the market grows large enough, building more slaughterhouses becomes feasible.
There are drawbacks to mobile facilities. Farmers must provide much of the labor. While cheaper than a bricks-and-mortar plant, mobile slaughterhouses entail maintenance and transportation costs, according to a 2012 study commissioned by Georgia Organics, a nonprofit group that represents growers and customers.
And wastewater contaminated with blood and tissue would likely need to be collected and treated, resulting in additional costs.