ATLANTA -- 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.
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.
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.
Given those complications, Georgia Organics has recommended more lenient on-farm slaughter rules and adding on poultry lines at existing red meat processors. It also supports building new, traditional slaughterhouses. Farmers in at least a dozen states use roving slaughterhouses, and Georgia Organics has recently explored the possibility of operating a mobile unit at a farmer's market in central Georgia.
"It would bring a new customer base and value to what they are already offering," said Michael Wall, the organization's director of programs.
Mobile slaughterhouses can meet the standards of traditional facilities, said Steven Skelton, who oversees a mobile slaughterhouse for Kentucky State University. It can process poultry, game birds, turkey, fish, caviar and rabbits.
The 200-foot trailer is parked inside an enclosed building to protect against flies and other pests. Once birds arrive, Skelton verifies that growers meet legal requirements and that their livestock is healthy. Workers place the birds upside down in metal cones, stun them and kill them by slicing their necks. Afterward, the carcasses are scalded to loosen feathers, plucked in a machine and then gutted and refrigerated. Farmers can package and label their products on site.
Skelton said the mobile facilities are cleaner than slaughtering done in the open at farms.
"I've been to some of those places and I don't think I'd want to feed my dog some of that stuff," he said.
Bruce Dunlop, the president of Lopez Island Farm in Washington state, first used a mobile slaughterhouse in 2001. He uses it to slaughter his cows, goat, sheep and pigs and sells models to other farmers. People who might object to having a permanent slaughterhouse in their neighborhood are less likely to object to mobile processing.
"There's very minimal impact for the neighbors next door," Dunlop said. "They're fine with that."