Lister farmer Randy Meyer got into the chicken business because a mobile processing unit was available to come from Cranbrook to ready the mature birds for market. Last winter, when that unit was sold, he partnered with Brad McNamar of Kootenay Natural Meats to order another unit.
“The owner of the original mobile unit in Cranbrook had to get out of the business due to his wife’s health,” Meyer, who co-owns R&S Meyer Farms with his wife, Sheila, said last week. “Brad and I decided to buy another one so we could keep a local chicken industry going locally.”
Meyer is now in his third year of raising chickens for meat. For the first two seasons, a converted motor home rolled up to his farm twice a year. The new processing plant is a converted fifth wheel trailer that can be hauled to other sites if needed.
Regulations implemented in recent years make selling uninspected chickens against the law. The use of approved mobile processing plants allows small producers to continue — an inspector is on-site at all times when the chickens are killed, plucked, gutted, cleaned, weighed and packaged.
“The chicken marketing board has increased the annual maximum number for small producers to 2,000 with no weight limits,” Meyer said.
While that total is more than Meyer plans to raise, it meant he didn’t have to worry when his birds continued to grow while there was a delay in the delivery of the custom unit. The birds weighed in at a pound more than usual. The delay did cause one problem.
“Our chicks for a summer harvest arrived before our mature birds could be processed, so I had to build more pens,” he said.
Although the increase in the maximum number of chickens a producer can sell makes it easier for local farmers to continue in the business, another challenge is looming on the horizon. Producers have been told they may have to pay some or all of the costs of having an inspector on-site.
“That would add to the cost of our product,” Meyer admitted.
In only three years, the Meyer farm-raised birds have found an enthusiastic local market. He calls his customers and takes their orders, then notifies them when the chickens are ready.
“We only had six chickens left in the freezer by the end of last evening,” he said.
As well as processing their own birds, Meyer and McNamar arranged to handle chickens for others, too.
“Last Saturday, four different clients arrived, dropped off their birds in trailers and came back when they were ready,” he said. “It’s a good system and it provides work for five or six people when the processing unit is working.”
For his part, McNamar said the mobile plant allows his family farm to expand the products they sell under the Kootenay Natural Meats label.
“Hopefully others in the Creston Valley will get on board and raise chickens, too,” he said. “We’re only breaking even on what we are charging.”
McNamar foresees the day when chickens can be produced year-round locally. Right now, the restriction lies in the availability of chicks.
“Eventually we could pull the processing trailer into an indoor garage in the winter time and keep supplying the market all through the year — if we can get a chick supply.”
He agrees the local market will only continue to grow for locally produced chickens, as it has for other food. While not everyone is willing or able to pay a premium for food grown and raised locally, an increasing number are.
“Creston is probably ten years behind Nelson as far as demanding local food,” he said. “But we are probably about 10 years ahead of Cranbrook, so there is good opportunity for local producers. Our product is more expensive than Wal-Mart — it has to be. But there is still a market.”