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January 12, 2012

Going Once, Going Twice! Mobile Slaughterhouse on the Auction Block

Auction1In the market for a slaughterhouse? You’re not alone: As of Thursday morning, the website Auctions International had logged 152 bids — and counting — for the state of Vermont's mobile poultry-processing unit.

Think “Pimp My Ride” gone poultry: Custom designed and built for the state, the 36-foot trailer comes with kill cones, an eviscerating trough, turkey broiler shackles (whatever those are) and a giblet station, to name just a few features.

The state purchased the unit in 2008 for $93,000, using $85,000 in legislative funding, in addition to private foundation money. On Thursday morning, bidding hovered around $19,100 — but it’s too early to call the auction a fire sale.

“I’m not sure we’ll get up to $90,000, but we definitely won’t let it go for $13,000, either,” said Chelsea Bardot Lewis, the agriculture development coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, on Wednesday morning, before bidding rose to $19K. The state is reserving the right to refuse a winning bid if it comes in too low, but Bardot Lewis said she expects to see the bidding heat up closer to the end of the auction on Friday evening.

At a Wednesday open house, Bardot Lewis and Alison Kosakowski, the marketing and promotions administrator for the agency, were bundled up against the cold in an otherwise deserted state office complex parking lot in Waterbury. A few prospective buyers poked around the trailer. Scald tank? Check. Feather plucker? You’ve got it. "Might it be retrofitted to handle small ruminants?" one potential buyer asked. The answer, from the chief of meat inspection Randy Quenneville: maybe.

Even though the state is selling the unit, Bardot Lewis and Kosakowski said that the likely change of ownership is by no means a sign of failure. The trailer hit the roads for three poultry seasons — from April or May to late November — under the operation of Morrisville's Spring Hill Poultry Processing. Last year, 18,000 birds came through the 36-foot trailer. Running the unit at top capacity, butchers could slaughter as many as 250 birds in one day.

That’s all good news, according to the Agency of Agriculture.

“We were able to create some demand and show how a situation like this could work, which will hopefully be motivation to entice an entrepreneur to take it from here,” said Bardot Lewis.

That’s always been the goal, she added. The state never intended to own the poultry-processing unit indefinitely.

“If I was a little younger, I’d buy it myself,” Quenneville chimed in.

Traffic was light at the Wednesday open house — perhaps, Bardot Lewis suggested, because many potential buyers are poultry producers who have already seen the trailer in action. 

Paul Feenan and Tucker Andrews were scoping it out on behalf of their employer, the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC), which used the mobile slaughter unit last year in the farm program it offers to high school student. VYCC wants to make sure the trailer keeps running.

There are plenty of reasons why a farmer might want to slaughter his or her poultry alone on the farm, but the mobile unit opens up new possibilities. Because it's state inspected, it allows farmers to sell chicken parts (such as breasts or wings) instead of simply the whole chicken. Farmers can also sell more birds than are currently allowed under state regulations for uninspected facilities.

Last year, the VYCC farm program went over that allotted number — plus, it wanted to send some of its chickens to Vermont food shelves. That meant the birds had to be butchered in a state-inspected facility. Enter the chicken mobile.

Auction2“We had kids on the back of a pickup truck loading (chickens) into the unit,” Andrews said. “Some of them were a little grossed out, I would say. Some of them were really fascinated by it … We had one vegetarian on the crew, and he passed a couple of birds in without a problem.”

Back at the open house, Lila Bennett and Dave Robb, with kids Samuel and Willa in tow, stopped by for a look. The family runs Tangletown Farm in Middlesex. With demand for chicken, and especially chicken parts, high among customers, the couple is interested in increasing the number of birds they raise. They lease their farm, meaning they can’t invest in a permanent building for slaughtering. The mobile unit allows them to sell their poultry to retail stores, with the added benefit of a state inspector’s stamp of approval on the final product.

“I think it just says something about your commitment to quality, and that’s something that’s important to us,” Bennett said.

Robb and Bennett said that in general, slaughter facilities — or the lack thereof — are a problem for Vermont farmers. The issue? Butchers are aging, and so are slaughter facilities. Plus, more and more smaller, diversified farms are interested in slaughtering animals, and there isn’t the infrastructure in place to meet that demand. New slaughterhouses are expensive to build and difficult to permit. And, according to Bardot Lewis, the agency has heard, again and again, that meat processors are having a hard time turning a profit.

Still, there’s new interest in the industry. When the Agency of Agriculture put out a call for grant applications for meat-processing projects, applicants poured in asking for more than $200,000 in funding, reflecting more than $2 million in potential total project costs. The state could only dole out $50,000 and will announce the grant recipients soon. If the mobile poultry unit sells, the Agency of Agriculture will reinvest that money into the struggling meat-processing industry.

That’s good news for farmers like Robb and Bennett. Without the mobile unit, they’d have to drive their birds two and a half hours to an inspected slaughterhouse.

“Which isn’t really convenient at all,” said Robb. “It’s not even reasonable.”

Asked how serious they are about buying the unit, Robb and Bennett glanced at each other, and, like any good bidders, played their cards close.

“We’ll see how the bidding goes,” Robb said.

Bidding wraps up on Friday at 6:18 p.m. 

Photos courtesy of Auction International.

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