The push for more local meat on Martha’s Vineyard

Why should the chicken cross the sea?

Island-grown chickens no longer have to be transported off-Island to large commercial slaughtering factories thanks to the mobile poultry processing unit, which was first put into use three years ago. Since its introduction, the number of chickens raised locally for meat has grown from a few hundred before the local processing was made available to upwards of 9,000 today, according to Richard Andre, poultry and meat coordinator of Island Grown Initiative (IGI). The FARM Institute, which does their own poultry processing, accounts for about 2,000 of those birds.

Now Mr. Andre and others involved in the mission to increase local food production would like to see a similar solution put in place to facilitate the raising of four-legged animals for meat. Mr. Andre estimates that there are about 650 meat-producing animals currently being raised among 30 Island farms.

At the present, farmers have three options for processing cows, sheep, or pigs. They can slaughter the animals themselves or bring them to an off-Island custom manufacturing facility. In either case, the meat cannot be sold, but only used for private consumption. The alternative is to transport the animals to one of two USDA-approved slaughtering facilities in the state, the closest of which is 180 miles away in Athol.

Mr. Andre describes the ordeal he has had to face to have his own pigs processed. Not only is the travel time-consuming and expensive, he has had to wait up to four weeks after dropping off the pigs and make a retrurn trip to collect the meat. “It’s really stressful on the animals,” he says.

The road to self-sufficiency has not proven an easy one. IGI spent years getting regulations passed to obtain licensing for the mobile poultry processing trailer — the first of its kind in the state.

Says Mr. Andre, “One of the things that we learned is that there’s a lack of infrastructure for small community based farming.” However, IGI was recently awarded a $40,000 grant to conduct a feasibility study for the four-legged animal initiative. Mr. Andre is encouraged by the rapid growth in the local poultry industry. “Once you provide that piece of the puzzle, people will raise the animals.” He projects that if all goes well, within three to five years of introducing a local meat processing facility, the meat from about 1,000 animals will be available for local consumers.

The facility necessary for larger livestock would, by necessity, have to be permanent and larger than the mobile unit used for chickens. The poultry processing trailer was funded primarily by a donation from Scott Lively. If the feasibility study determines that local processing would be economically viable, IGI will start a fundraising campaign in the fall.

Cronig’s Market on State Road in Vineyard Haven started carrying local chickens this year. Cronig’s manager and IGI board president Sarah McKay says that four farms got approval for the first time to sell off-premises. “This is a really big step,” she says. “Something we’ve been working on for a really long time.”

Ms. McKay lists the advantages to buying local meat. “You know where your food is coming from. There are no antibiotics, hormones, or additives.The meat is humanely harvested, and you’re supporting local farms and a good way of life.”

And there is a market for the meat. Says Ms. McKay, “Customers are loving the fact that they are available, but we’re battling the price difference between conventional factory-raised poultry and farm-raised.” The local chickens sell for $6.99/lb as opposed to about $2.80/lb for commercial chickens. She adds, “We’re hoping that as more people raise poultry we can make them more affordable.” The local birds are also sold by some individuals at the West Tisbury Farmers Market.

Mr. Andre believes that with the demand for locally grown products on the rise, local meat would also be very popular if it could be kept cost-effective.

“We should be doing this locally,” he says. “We’ll create high-paying jobs, the money would stay on the Island, and the animals won’t be stressed out. It’s a win-win for everybody.”