Transparent and traceable from beginning to end to dinner.

Island Grown Chicken

by Ali Berlow

Island Grown Chicken

Elizabeth Cecil

Around eight weeks of age these Cornish Rock Crosses are ready for market.  

On May 24, 2011, an Island farmer named Jefferson Munroe of The Good Farm in Vineyard Haven drove up to the loading dock of down-Island Cronig’s Market and delivered two dozen of his freshly killed chickens to the butcher, Greg Pachio, to sell at his meat counter. The birds were weighed and Jefferson invoiced the store a wholesale price that he determined. They shook hands, slapped each other on the back, and went their respective ways until the next delivery date, set a week or so out. This delivery of chickens may seem a rather unremarkable series of events, and when you walk up to the Cronig’s meat counter, your heart probably won’t skip a beat, like mine did, when you see Island grown chicken for sale—unless it’s only the price you look at. It’s true—Island grown chicken is more expensive than the usual bird. But the real cost of food makes food more expensive. These chickens are not federally subsidized. They were not raised in a factory farm or to an efficiency model based on profit per protein unit. They lived a chicken-like existence, breathing fresh air, scratching and pecking in the grass and wild sumac for bugs and grubs. Unlike factory farms, which greatly impact the environment, The Good Farm is a small, environmentally responsible enterprise. Mostly likely you’ve driven by it unnoticed. Or walked your dog by on days they are slaughtering. It doesn’t smell, it blends into the landscape. The chicken tractors that Jefferson houses his flocks in are visible from State Road. They look like stop-action, solar-powered soapbox cars making their slow green way down the north-facing slope of the Land Bank’s Tisbury Meadow Preserve.

Those meaty, pink-blushed, plucked and dressed chickens in the grocery store represent a triumph of local meat making it into this local food system despite the numerous and onerous barriers that the country’s industrial food and agricultural system is built upon. It is a deck stacked high against businesses like The Good Farm.

The story behind the freshly killed chicken gracing the shelves of Cronig’s meat counter is one part David v. Goliath, one part The Little Engine That Could, swirled with some of chutzpah gleaned from the renowned farmer-evangelist-philosopher Joel Salatin’s exhortation about growing food outside of the industrial margins: “Show me why I can’t.”

This is a tale of the non-profit, Island Grown Initiative (IGI) who in ’07 built a mini slaughterhouse on wheels, in response to the resounding call by area farmers for access to humane, affordable, safe, clean, permitted slaughter and processing. IGI’s mobile poultry processing unit (MPPU) exists so that local farmers have the option to humanely slaughter and process poultry on their farms to sell at their stands, farmers’ markets, restaurants, and now (by variance) to designated local grocery stores.

When Jim McLaughlin of Cornerstone Farm Ventures in Norwich, New York, trailered the MPPU he custom built for IGI, with his cherry red PT Cruiser onto the ferry to deliver it in July of ‘07, the guys working the dock guessed it made cotton candy. There were only an estimated 200 broilers being raised on the Vineyard. Today, as a direct result of its functionality, there are an estimated 9,000 birds being raised and humanly slaughtered, processed, sold, and eaten on the Island. Those four intervening years took a whole lot of work, money, passion, and vision by IGI, who persisted diligently from the very gritty grassroots up to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and most importantly the Department of Public Health (DPH)—the regulatory agency that licenses slaughter and processing in Massachusetts.

So What Are You Really Paying For?

The Cornish Rock Cross chickens at Cronig’s Market have been bred for largescale poultry operations–factory farms–like those depicted in the Oscar Award nominee documentary, Food, Inc. Raising broilers in large, densely packed warehouses as commodities for profit is the cheapest, most inhumane and exploitive way to raise food. Antibiotics are used in factory farms both to prevent disease (because if a farmer has an outbreak they have to cull the entire flock, which can number in the thousands) and because chickens grow faster when they take antibiotics. But on farms such as The Good Farm, the breed leads a very chicken-like life. “To equate the chickens that I raise compared to the other chickens in the supermarket—it’s just not the same thing.” Explains Jefferson, “The chickens that I raise spend more than half of their lives living on the grass, breathing fresh air. And you can taste that. I do everything that I can to minimize the stresses in their lives. The other birds that you can buy in the supermarket are based off of overall efficiencies. And those efficiencies are based off price point. My efficiency is based on an ethical system.”

This is at the core of the price differential. Cronig’s Island grown whole chicken is $6.99/lb., breast quarters are $8.99/lb., and leg quarters are $7.59/lb. Compare this to other brands at the same store: whole Mountaire chickens at $1.59/lb. are the cheapest, Bell & Evans rings in at $2.89/lb., and Smart Chicken is $4.69/lb. Every chicken tells a different story.

Because this is food at its real cost, perhaps the question should be reversed, to truly appreciate the answer. Why is most food so damn cheap? Because it’s subsidized by your tax dollars. Island grown chicken is not federally subsidized in comparison to commodity or factory farmed chicken. Yet this cheap food has serious hidden costs that that aren’t so hidden once you know. Factory farms seriously impact the land and water. The welfare of workers and animals may be compromised as well as the health of eaters and the communities living near such industries.

The paucity of regional slaughterhouses has meant that Island farmers have had to ship their animals off-Island. This is true for poultry as well as cows, sheep, pigs and goats. Live trucking causes animals stress, expends a lot fossil fuel energy, costs boat tickets, and takes precious time away from the farm. One of the many objectives of the MPPU is to minimize animal stress as much as possible. Humane slaughter is not an oxymoron. It is an imperative. It is comprehensive from beginning to end, from the handling of animal, up through its end as its life is taken, this sacrifice as sustenance for another. On-farm humane slaughter is about the animals and the food, as much as it’s about our humanity. And the nutrientrich good stuff—inedible offal like feathers, blood, and wastewater—all return to the land on which the animals were raised, in the farm’s active compost.

The cost of local chicken does not fall out of the sky. Nor is it some sort of outrageous profit. Just ask a farmer. To suggest otherwise, is frankly, offensive. Local farmers are not raising chickens to get rich. There are set costs in poultry farming that cannot be mitigated. The cost of chicks and the feed, for example. The price of grain is related to the cost of energy; so when energy prices increase, grain follows. Just since last year feed prices have increased 30-40%, according to Jefferson. Even a pastured bird will eat $6 to $8 of feed over its 7- to 8-week lifespan. Living on grass gives chickens advantages in life and as dinner (a toothsome meat) but even pastured birds require daily feed and watering.

In order to slaughter and process on farm using the MPPU, a farmer pays IGI a $135 rental fee for the equipment. This income helps IGI maintain and upgrade the equipment as needed. The farmer must also supply five pounds of ice per bird, which averages out to a cost of $1.50 per bird. A typical day of processing is between 75 and 100 birds. In addition, the farmer pays the processors (aka The Chicken Crew) $4.25 per bird. The market has determined that this is a fair wage for this highly skilled, rather undesirable job. To date, IGI has absorbed the cost of job training. The mini-slaughterhouse is a proven mini-stimulus package: the Chicken Crew represents six to eight part-time jobs newly created jobs which did not exist before the MPPU.

Then there are the farmer’s capital investments. Jefferson’s chicken tractors (movable houses which protect the birds from predation while allowing them access to fresh grass), not counting labor, cost him about $200 each. Each one takes about 16 hours to build. His brooder cost another $800. And there are a slew of other costs: water systems, grain storage, field maintenance, coolers and time. Jefferson invests four to five hours per farmers’ market. His pop-up booth at the Scottish Bakehouse, marketing, deliveries to restaurants, and grocer accounts, all add up. A farmer needs to get paid for his time too. In Jefferson’s case, when grain prices were lower and his birds were reaching a weight between 4 and 5 lbs., he could pay himself $12 to $14 per hour, not counting capital costs. Today, it’s more like $10 to $12 per hour.

A Work in Progress

After a couple of days of steady sales over Memorial Day weekend, Cronig’s got a message to Jefferson: “We have a problem. We’ve sold more birds than we’ve Good Farm stickers for. Could you get more to us?”

Island grown chicken is a work in progress, as is farming. In between the farmer and the eater, is a grocer. Cronig’s is the only locally owned, independent grocer in this innovative pilot program, granted by the state. Cleveland Farm, North Tabor Farm and Morning Glory Farm may now also sell their chickens there at a wholesale price of their determination. Yet owner Steve Bernier too has to figure out what the market wants and can bear. But he does it together with the farmer. He has supported IGI since its inception. Selling local chicken in Cronig’s was a dream of Steve’s, one which he has helped support to its fruition. Negotiations are continuous between the regulatory agencies, agents, policy makers, IGI, the farmers, markets, and the eaters. But never has there been such a local and legal chicken.

Traceable, transparent, independent, ethically raised, humane, environmentally responsible, safe, fair-wage food has a cost and it is real. In the end, what a worthwhile, tasty, tasty chicken, it truly is.

Full disclosure: I am the founder and former executive director of Island Grown Initiative (IGI). The Initiative’s custom-built mobile poultry processing unit arrived on-island in July of ’07. Richard Andre of Cleveland Farm, West Tisbury, has been the program coordinator since ’08. I resigned as executive director of IGI in January of ’11.