Plant in a Box: A solution for USDA-inspected poultry processing?

David Schafer, owner and founder of Featherman Equipment, spends a lot of time thinking about small-scale poultry processing.

Having raised, butchered and sold pastured poultry since 1994, he knows the benefits and the bottlenecks of a poultry enterprise. While much of the equipment sold by Featherman is geared toward very small-scale operations, Schafer has been working on a solution for USDA-inspected processing for quite some time now. The model is called “Plant in a Box” and aims to be a turnkey answer for those looking to process chickens, turkeys and other poultry under USDA inspection.

Where did he get the idea? “Like everything I’ve done, it was brought to me by my customers,” Schafer says. His customers are increasingly sophisticated and “not afraid of the regulations. They know their market and they know what they need.”

While in the past, most customers were searching for equipment to process birds under the 1,000- and 20,000-bird exemptions, now more and more are looking for USDA-inspected solutions.

The Plant in a Box unit is built into a recycled shipping container: 40 feet long by 8 feet wide and 8–9 feet high (“high cubes” as they are often called). The unit comes ready to connect to water and sewer with all the required equipment. A site pad, water, power, and a plan for managing effluent are not included and must be provided on-site.

Schafer estimates that a crew of three trained people can process about 500 birds per day and offers this math: “Say you process 500 birds per day, 100 days out of the year. That’s 50,000 birds per year. If you charge $3/bird for processing — the Midwest price — you’ll gross $150,000 per year. Even at half that volume, your payback is less than three years.”

The Plant in a Box unit takes a chicken from “crate to chill tank”: no storage is included in the space or throughput estimates. Schafer recommends moving chilled poultry with large totes that can be moved with a forklift and wheeled into a separate packaging and storage area or back into the (cleaned) evisceration room for drying and packaging. A video of the Plant in a Box prototype can be seen here.

Plant in a Box in action – Maple Wind Farm

The first Plant in a Box prototype started operations in 2013 at Maple Wind Farm in Richmond, Vermont. “The ‘plug and play’ aspect was really nice,” says John Smith, poultry manager at Maple Wind Farm. “It was delivered and we were operating under inspection within a week or two.” The farm worked closely with Schafer to fine-tune the unit before arrival, as it was the first one in operation.

In that first year of operations, the facility was state-inspected (Vermont has an “equal to” inspection program). In 2014, Maple Wind Farm started operating under USDA inspection. The farm has increased its throughput and efficiency over the last two years. “One of our best days was 320 birds slaughtered, processed and packaged," Smith said. "We did that with four people.” They haven’t reached Schafer’s optimistic estimate of 500 birds per day with three people, but they are working toward it.

Maple Wind Farm would like to build upon the Plant in a Box infrastructure and expand its operations to have a separate space for cutting up and packaging birds. Right now, the farm slaughters in the morning, cleans the evisceration room at lunch, and then cuts and packages in that same room after lunch. It works but involves hauling a lot of things in and out, which isn’t very efficient.

Maple Wind Farm financed the purchase of its Plant in a Box using a variety of different sources including the sale of development rights for one of the farm properties to the Vermont Land Trust, a no-interest loan from City Market (a local grocer) that it is repaying with product, and a grant from Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Fund.

Labor is one of their biggest costs. As with many meat processing facilities, keeping skilled staff busy year-round is a challenge for Maple Wind Farm. “We’re a three-season facility, but we are trying to move in the direction of keeping people busy year-round so we can keep them on staff,” Smith said.

Key to keeping the facility busy is that Maple Wind Farm is its own largest customer, raising and marketing about 60% of the birds it processes. It fills in the rest of its processing days with birds from other producers, charging processing fees of $5.50/chicken and $1/lb. for turkey. The farm's processing customers vary greatly in size: its largest brought them 3,000 birds in one year for processing and the smallest brought 25 birds/year. The farm slaughters three or four days per week and cuts up (its own birds only, this is not a service they offer) one day a week.

Smith estimates that the farm needs to do at least 20,000–25,000 birds per year to cover operating costs. Maple Wind Farm tries to process as many birds as possible on processing days. “Setup and cleanup accounts for a significant portion of our time, and this takes the same amount of time no matter how many birds we do,” he said. Overall, Smith said, the Plant in a Box unit has been a great move and he would recommend it to others.

Schafer has a strong vision for expanding the Plant in a Box concept across the country. He would like to see multiple units in operation, able to share resources, tips, and tricks, and leverage their collective experience.

For more information on Plant in a Box, watch the archived Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN) webinar here or visit Schafer’s website.

New to NMPAN? NMPAN is a network and info hub for people and organizations who want small meat processors to thrive. We offer tools and information for small processors and the farmers, marketers, and meat buyers who depend on them. Learn more about NMPAN and join our listserv.

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