USDA-Inspected Poultry Processing in Scio, OR
Scio Poultry Processing, in Scio, Oregon, will begin operating as a USDA inspected plant in early October. They will process chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys under inspection two days a week. Scio Poultry is the first USDA-inspected poultry processor in Oregon to focus exclusively on serving independent producers who market their own poultry, whether at farmers’ markets, to restaurants, or wholesale to retailers. Scio’s transition to USDA vastly expands processing – and marketing – options for our region’s poultry producers.
Karen and Joe Schueller, owner-operators of Scio Poultry, say it was an easy decision to go USDA but a complicated path to get there: navigating all the county, state, and USDA regulations was a huge challenge, and finding help was often difficult. “We sent in our application to the USDA last October and it took almost a whole year to get the paperwork completed and approved,” says Karen. “There were also numerous physical changes that needed to be
made to the plant to accommodate the inspectors who will oversee the daily operation.” “Many of the people that were in a position to help thought it was a folly,” says Joe. “Like Seward buying Alaska.”
Looking back, Joe says he would have raised more capital at the beginning. Many people who favored the project weren’t willing to help finance it, primarily through pre-paid contracts, and the Schuellers did it almost all out-of-pocket. Three investors did step up, including Dan and Susie Wilson of SuDan Farms and Andy Westland of Harmony J.A.C.K. Farm. Jim Just donated expertise to sort through land-use regulations. Support also came from neighbors who testified in favor of the project at the conditional use hearing without even being asked.
Scio Poultry will process under USDA inspection on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and plans to add more
inspected days as needed. They will also continue to do “custom” processing, under their state license, one day a week for growers not interested in selling their birds as long as there is still enough demand for that service. Right now they can handle 400 to 500 birds per day, but the Schuellers are working on adding more employees to increase production. Prices will be higher for USDA processing than for custom processing, due to the extra procedures and paperwork. Chickens are $5.50, ducks and geese $7.50, and turkeys are $0.75/lb (dressed weight).
The Schuellers already raise and market bison, poultry, rabbits, and eggs – all antibiotic- and hormone-free – as Rainshadow El Rancho. Frustrated by the lack of processing options in Oregon, they decided to build their own state-licensed, custom-exempt facility. But producers who brought their birds to Scio could not sell them. That requires USDA inspection – or building your own state-licensed, custom-exempt facility. Some intrepid Oregon poultry producers have built their own facilities and operate under USDA’s producer-grower 20,000 bird (per year) exemption. Kookoolan Farm in Yamhill, Afton Field Farm in Corvallis, and Norton Creek Farm near Blodgett are three great examples of this: these farmers raise and market enough poultry to justify the expense of building such a facility.
But many smaller poultry producers, or those uninterested in doing the processing themselves, have been stymied. Unlike most other states, Oregon does not recognize the 1000 bird exemption, which typically allows on-farm, open-air processing for direct, on-farm sales to individual consumers. The state legislature is primed to change this during the 2011 session, though that will not address the needs of producers wanting to sell more than 1000 birds each year to a wider range of customers.
As consumer interest in locally-sourced poultry has grown in recent years, the Schuellers have seen rising demand for USDA-inspected poultry processing. Producers were clamoring loudly for it, and in 2009, Karen and Joe decided to take the plunge. Karen attended a HACCP training at OSU and spent months
writing her required food safety plans, getting plant labels approved, and upgrading the plant to meet strict federal requirements.
Until Scio Poultry, only one USDA-inspected poultry processor in the state – Dayton Meats, in Dayton – would process poultry for independent producers doing their own marketing. The other USDA-inspected processors only handle their own, in-house product. Even Dayton has been limited in how many independent producers it can serve. It is primarily a red meat plant, and its poultry line, added in 2009, primarily produces chicken for soups manufactured by Pacific Foods, the parent company.
Bob Dickson, Dayton’s manager, has anxiously awaited Scio Poultry’s transition to USDA and even provided the Schuellers with technical advice in meeting federal regulations. As the former manager and meat science instructor at OSU’s Clark Meat Center, Dickson was able and willing to help. “We can’t handle all of the demand,” Dickson explains. “I want to send small-batch producers to Scio. And, more importantly, I want to see the resurgence of the small farms and businesses we lost in the last twenty years. Good development provides competition which provides small producers with options who they want to handle their product, which in turn provides the final consumer with more options and better product in the long run.”
Joe and Karen know full well that getting their grant of inspection is just the first step: now they have to establish a good working relationship with their USDA inspector to keep the plant running smoothly. “As someone pointed out to us,” Karen says, “work with the USDA is really just beginning for us now.” But they are energized and ready, buoyed by the demand they have already seen for their services.
“We have heard from many consumers that they are looking forward to purchasing locally grown poultry – there is definitely a movement for folks to want to know who is raising their food and how it is being raised.” But a lack of enough appropriate processing has been a limitation. Scio Poultry aims to fill that essential role in the local poultry supply chain. “Our hope is that this will open local markets to many small growers and increase the quantity and quality of locally grown poultry,” says Karen. “So many farmers have told us they have been waiting for the news of our Grant of Inspection to begin raising birds since they were not able to sell them otherwise. It is our hope that Scio Poultry Processing will help all of us to succeed and prosper in the future.”
The federal poultry processing regulations include some exemptions for small-scale producers, explained here>>. In Oregon, the federal exemption most commonly used is “producer/ grower – 20,000 bird limit,” which allows a poultry producer to process up to 20,000 birds per year in a facility that meets state sanitation requirements, without bird-by-bird inspection. However, that producer cannot process birds for another producer, even if the annual total is still under 20,000.
This article was written by Lauren Gwin of Oregon State University and was first published in the Small Farms Newsletter, Fall 2010. After this article was published, Karen and Joe learned that they cannot continue to process custom, un-inspected poultry, as written in the Poultry Products Inspection Act. As of right now, they will offer only USDA-inspected processing, but are working to change this. If you would like to help the Schuellers by writing a letter or making a phone call, please contact them at email@example.com.