By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
JOHNSTON — Bad news for chickens. Good news for chicken farmers and locavores. Last week, Rhode Island's only U.S. Department of Agriculture-regulated slaughterhouse for poultry opened for business.
The remodeled facility at Baffoni’s Poultry Farm offers farms and backyard farmers a local option to slaughter chickens and turkeys, and with the new USDA label to sell them to retailers and restaurants and across state lines. Without the federal seal, small farmers are only permitted to sell meats directly to the public from their farm or at famers markets.
“We can help a lot of farms bring their products to market or to the restaurant,” owner Donald Baffoni said. “It just opens the door for a lot of people.”
Baffoni’s has been processing poultry since the farm opened in 1935. It maintained a USDA designation for much of its existence, but stopped the program about 10 years ago, opting to sell its chickens and turkeys through its retail butcher shop.
In recent years, however, farmers markets helped boost the demand for local produce and meats. But without a USDA processing facility, sales to grocery stores and supermarkets are prohibited.
There is huge demand for local meats in the wholesale supply chain, Baffoni said. He already is taking orders from banquet halls and restaurants, and said other Rhode Island poultry farmers expect similar demand. He’s also received inquiries from farmers in Massachusetts and Connecticut to use the facility.
“A lot of people want to raise poultry but they don’t want to get into the slaughterhouse business,” he said.
It took two and a half years to transition the existing facility, built in 1951, to a USDA processor. Baffoni installed about $100,000 in new equipment, such as a new scalder, which heats the carcasses to loosen feathers.
Twelve employees, including a full-time USDA inspector, work on the line during operations. The facility runs for about four hours each workday. There also is more oversight. There is a long checklist of equipment and product standards to follow, such as the USDA inspector checking every bird.
“It really does guarantee that the public is going to get something that’s been processed the right way,” Baffoni said.
He currently expects to process about 2,000 chickens a week, but there's room to extend the hours of operation.
The processing takes place in a room no bigger than a suburban living room. Live poultry arrives in crates through a low tunnel designed to keep flies out. The birds are killed by having their throats cut with a small knife. The carcasses then pass through a hot-water scalder, a laundry machine-like feather plucker, and then move on to the evisceration line for trimming. The meat is chilled in tubs of cold water for at least three hours before it is sold.
At the moment, waterfowl like geese and ducks are excluded from being processed.