The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse

Building Community

by Heidi Sistare

On a rainy friday morning Jefferson Munroe, owner of The GOOD Farm and former chicken processing crew chief for Island Grown Initiative (IGI), stood in his greenhouse overlooking a field of chicken tractors. “I have a farm today only because of IGI’s mobile poultry processing unit,” he said. Jefferson added that it is “when new niche markets become available that new farms get off the ground.” In a few days, Jefferson will slaughter 120 chickens, chickens that created local jobs, have added fertility to the soil, and will be purchased and cooked on the Island.
In Ali Berlow’s first book, The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse: Building a Humane Chicken Processing Unit to Strengthen Your Local Food System (Storey Publishing, June 2013), she describes how the Island community fused technology with values grounded in people and place. The community not only got the mobile poultry slaughterhouse off the ground but took flight towards lofty goals of local food production.
A mobile poultry processing trailer (MPPT) is designed to address a simple problem. The cost and inconvenience that slaughter creates for small farmers stops the local, pasture-raised chicken from getting to the plate. Berlow’s book guides us through the creation of a safe and humane mobile slaughterhouse for Martha’s Vineyard. She includes step-by-step instructions for everything from meeting board of health expectations to running a community poultry day workshop, spices the story with her signature essays on the joys of food and community, and always brings the writing back to values.
Buckminster Fuller, author and inventor of the geodesic dome, said, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” We can argue the aesthetics of chicken slaughter, but it is hard not to admire the beauty that arose from searching for the right tools and processes to bring good food to the community. Richard Andre, owner of Cleveland Farm in West Tisbury and President of Vineyard Power, lists some of the many benefits that have come from the MPPT: “No one could buy a local pasture-raised chicken before. New jobs were created, more young people are getting involved in farming, and we do this work with family and friends, building community.”
Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science famous for her livestock facility designs, notes in the foreword that Berlow’s “emphasis on getting a community of producers working together is key to success.” It is also the emphasis on a community that pulls the readers along even if they never plan to slaughter a chicken.
Berlow places the illustrated steps to evisceration (step one: “sever the knee joint”) in the same chapter as her poetic musings on a South Dakota landscape: “Plains merged possibilities of beauty with the realities of dirt, sun, rain, fertility, and the smell of clover, trodden grasses, and a herd of cows, heavy with life.” The beautiful and the mundane share space unselfconsciously in this book, reminiscent of farmers’ almanacs or an old-timer’s storytelling teachings.
At home, Berlow, “a different kind of superstitious,” saves whole wishbones, perhaps believing that there’s some way for the luck to be shared rather than “won” by holding the larger piece when the bone snaps in half. And while it’s more hard work than luck that introduced the MPPT to Martha’s Vineyard, I imagine Berlow’s book will feel like both a lucky charm and an instruction manual for communities embarking on their own local food projects. Here on Martha’s Vineyard, The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse serves as both a history book and lesson plan because, like a good farmer, our work never stops. There are more problems to solve, and a humane and cost-effective solution to the slaughter of four-legged animals is one of them. As Richard Andre said, we “still have to be diligent and advocate for food rights and farmer rights.”