The six-person team gathers its equipment and heads out in heavy boots and tie-dyes, moving in for the kill.
Sharpened knives? Check. Scalder? Check. A "kill cone" to drain blood from upsidedown chickens? Check.
Towed behind a Ford F-250 pickup, Island Grown Initiative's mobile poultry slaughtering unit is on the move in Martha's Vineyard, ready to feed the growing appetite for locally raised products on the Massachusetts island best known as a vacation playground for the Kennedys.
"Without that unit, I would not be able to farm," said Jefferson Munroe, 34, who tends a small flock on the north side of the island that provides fresh chicken to local restaurants.
While fruit and vegetable growers can often handle their own harvesting needs, livestock requires slaughter - a messy business that could be unwelcome in affluent communities, where demand for locally produced food is highest. Enter Island Grown, a non-profit formed by Munroe and others that comes to the farm to slaughter, scald and pluck.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 20 mobile units are in operation around the country. Units from Texas to Alaska butcher birds, cows, pigs and other animals as the market for locally produced food has grown from a beachhead of hippie co-ops and healthfood stores to Whole Foods Market Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co.
"Mobile slaughter is crucial" to building local and regional food systems, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview. "It's still a relatively small piece of agriculture, but what I like about it is it offers local opportunities. You don't have to be a large operator, or a productionsized operator, to get into this business."
The department expects the number of units to grow and has provided financial assistance to at least four in the past half-decade, Vilsack said. Along with $17 million US in aid to the local-meat sector since 2009, the department has given advice on feasibility and technical assistance. Island Grown received $9,300 from the USDA for education and promotion.
The number of farmers engaged in local-foods sales rose 24 per cent to 144,530 in 2012 from a decade earlier, according to an agriculture department census released in May. That growth took place even as the total number of producers fell 0.9 per cent to 2.11 million in the same period.
A consolidation of agriculture has squeezed out smaller slaughterhouses that could profitably serve alternative producers. Bigger facilities, which offer economies of scale and advantages in waste handling, can be out of place in upscale areas such as Martha's Vineyard, 113 kilometres south of Boston, where seasonal visitors include the Obamas, singer James Taylor and moviemaker Spike Lee.
Farmers outside Seattle were early adopters of mobile slaughtering more than a decade ago. Roving units have processed lambs and goats in California, buffalo in Nebraska, elk and boar in Texas and turkeys, pheasants and quail in Kentucky. A unit in Nome, Alaska, slaughters reindeer.
In New York's Hudson Valley, mobile operators who slaughtered cows from 2010-12 are considering ways to restart, said Sara Grady, vice-president of programming for Glynwood, a nonprofit based in Cold Spring, N.Y., dedicated to rural preservation.
The unit stopped production after the farmer who ran it built a brick-and-mortar slaughterhouse - the goal of many mobile operators. The group is now taking proposals to resume operation in co-operation with restaurants and retailers who will cut and wrap the animals they kill, Grady said.
"If we're going to have a proliferation of independent, sustainable agriculture, we also have to have business people who have the skills to bring these products to market," she said.
Local-foods businesses tend to work best near cities, where pricey farmland and affluent consumers create incentives for high value rather than commodity-based farming, said Tom Cosgrove, vice-president for commercial lending with Farm Credit East, a nationwide agricultural lender.
As farms have grown larger and food processing has become more centralized, infrastructure needed to make small operations work has deteriorated, in some cases keeping a market from emerging, he said.
"You had less demand for smaller facilities," said Cosgrove. "You also had more concern with food safety," with larger businesses better able to absorb regulatory costs, he said.
The USDA inspects red meat and poultry sold across state borders. Food produced for consumption in state is typically inspected by that jurisdiction and must meet federal standards. Island Grown is visited by Massachusetts inspectors twice a year.
Vilsack said safety is a priority no matter the size of the operation. "One thing that could damage the potential of this market is any sort of food safety problem," he said.
Island Grown started in 2007 as a way to jump-start a local poultry industry on Martha's Vineyard - overcoming the same barriers alternative food entrepreneurs across the U.S. face in a food system that isn't designed for them.
"We don't fit very well with Tyson and ConAgra, but we have customers who are willing to pay for the meat," said Ali Berlow, a Martha's Vineyard resident who wrote a book on how to operate a mobile poultry slaughterhouse and helped design the local unit.
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