Taking Control: Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm Builds an Abattoir

Edible Boston. Fall 2014. By Andrea Pyenson. 

The dearth of slaughterhouses in Massachusetts (only two USDA-inspected sites in the state, one of them rebuilding after a fire last year) has many small livestock farmers lamenting the difficulty of slaughtering and processing the animals they raise. But not Kate Stillman. In June, she opened an abattoir across the street from her farm, Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm. For Stillman, building a facility to butcher and package the cattle, pigs, and sheep—and slaughter, butcher, and package the poultry—she raises was, in large part, a move to safeguard her future. “It’s going to add stability and longevity to the business, she says. “It makes us independent. I can raise a pig until I’m blue in the face, but if I can’t get it cut up and packaged, I’m nowhere.”

Stillman, who grew up on her father’s nearby produce farm, bought her farm in 2006. From the beginning, she has been committed to raising animals “conscientiously,” eating what they are naturally inclined to eat, in their traditional environment. Though initially she had no intention of raising turkeys, everybody in the area knew her farm as “the turkey farm,” so she continues to raise them seasonally.

The road from animal farmer to animal farmer-slaughterhouse manager was a long and almost accidental one. About three years ago, Stillman began looking for an alternative to sending her poultry out to be slaughtered. Between daily farm work and considerable time at numerous Boston-area farmers markets, transporting the birds every two to four weeks from her farm in Hardwick to a slaughterhouse in Westminster, Vermont was becoming too much. (Red meat is still killed off-site because federal regulations require that it take place at a USDA-inspected facility with an inspector on the premises.)

A friend suggested that Stillman talk to Jennifer Hashley, of Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds in Concord, about using the mobile processing facility on their farm. But Stillman’s farm processes too many chickens for the mobile unit (about 7,000 per year), so Hashley suggested that Stillman’s best bet was to build a brick-and-mortar facility. Laughing now at her earlier naivete, Stillman recounts, “I said, ‘What does that entail?’”

Turns out, it entailed a lot.

As a starting point, Hashley referred Stillman to Kim Foley at the State Department of Public Health. “Everything I mentioned, [Foley] said, ‘You can do that.’ But there was no good manual on how to do this,” she recalls.

Stillman’s primary challenges were threefold: learning the federal, state, and local regulations regarding animal slaughter and processing; obtaining financing for the building project; and getting through some local red tape. “We went back and forth with the USDA rep, who has been phenomenal. He said, ‘We’re here to get you compliant and get you open.’” Of the various permutations available to small poultry operations, Stillman became licensed as a grower-producer, which allows her to process up to 20,000 birds annually; but only those she raises.

“I think there were times my bank was a disbeliever,” says the farmer, noting that it’s not every day a 33-year-old single woman wants to build a slaughterhouse. “We’ve run out of money. I’ve had to change roles, do things I hadn’t imagined. The toughest part was at every stage, I’d think I couldn’t hit a bigger hurdle.” But she usually did. During the summer of 2013 Stillman’s father, Glenn, who was a tremendous support in many ways—among other things, he helped clear some hurdles in the town—had a medical emergency. Beyond the psychological impact of this event, she had to pitch in and help out with his farm. Having a baby last March—her second child—was the easiest part, she says. And happily, her father has recovered.

On a hot, early summer morning, wearing her smiling, engaging son, Jaide, in a carrier on her belly (her older son, Trace, is six), Stillman begins a tour of the abattoir in the poultry kill room. It looks surprisingly snug. “You want it to be small and tight and efficient,” she explains. At one end of the rectangular room, six metal cones hang from the wall. The birds go into these kill cones head-down. An electric kill knife is used to shock them, rendering them unconscious, then cut their throats.

From there, the birds are transferred into a scalder, basically a big vat of hot water with a metal shelf. The birds are set on the shelf, which then rotates them through the vat. The hot water loosens their feathers for their next stop, the plucker. This looks like a big tub with rubber “fingers” on the sides. Once the birds are inside, the base spins and the fingers rub the feathers off. The birds are delivered directly onto a table in the next room, which Stillman calls the “clean site,” where they are broken down and eviscerated. Simply put, their heads, necks, feet, and innards are removed. Then they are placed immediately into an ice bath for two to three hours to kill any bacteria. Once chilled, they are either packaged whole, cut into pieces and packaged, “or we cook them,” Stillman says.

Every step in this process is based on a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP, pronounced, HAS-sup) plan that Stillman developed. While working on all the other details to get the facility off the ground, she took a four-week HACCP-certification course at the University of Connecticut and will have to take recertification courses every five to seven years.

Having this facility gives Stillman and her staff the flexibility to process the birds on their own schedule, rather than having to fit into the calendar of an outside slaughterhouse. Before, they had to process birds every two or four weeks, whether the birds were ready or not—and they had to drive two and a half hours each way to do it. Now, they are processing about once a week. But if the birds aren’t big enough, or the weather isn’t right, they can wait a few days. Conversely, if birds are growing more quickly than usual, they can be processed before they get too big. Nobody is tied to a rigid schedule. “We’re calling the shots,” says Stillman.

Every time they start processing birds, the farm has to notify state and local officials and, Stillman says, “There’s several layers of safety built in.” Though it’s not a requirement, everyone on her staff has worked at USDA facilities.

Stillman has always paid as much attention to the slaughterhouses she used as the other details of producing meat. She only works with those whose methods she respects. When planning her own facility, she opted not to build a full kill floor because the necessary equipment is very expensive, and she explains, “You have to be really big to get the money back. We want to stay small.” She continues to send all her non-poultry animals to the USDA facilities she has always used to be killed, but now they are returned to her for the rest of the processing.

Next to the clean site is the meat cutting room. In late June, just as the abattoir began operating, John Steins came on board as head butcher. He has 25 years of experience in a USDA facility, most recently working at one of the facilities that processes Stillman’s animals, so he was already familiar with the way she likes her meats cut. This was important to Stillman, because she had been concerned that her existing clients might be upset if new butchers cut things a little differently. In contrast to a large USDA facility, where speed, by necessity, is of the essence, Stillman says the focus at her abattoir is “precision-work and enjoying yourself.” Also a farmer, Steins understands how to raise animals as well how to prepare them for sale. The rest of the staff is learning butchering. “Everybody is going to have to know how to do a little bit of everything,” Stillman notes, adding that her dream is to one day have a couple of female butchers.

With the farm’s meat CSA and strong presence at farmers markets, Stillman has built up a loyal clientele. She calls her abattoir the next best thing to having a butcher shop on-site at farmers markets. “We can custom-cut every single animal,” she says. “There’s a great symbiosis between being at farmers markets, taking orders, and butchering.”

The abattoir’s largest space is the refrigerated meat room. Here, cattle hang in quarters, pigs in halves (some whole), and sheep mostly whole, before being butchered. There is a small kitchen that is not being fully utilized yet. The smoker has been getting a lot of use, though, starting with the hickory-smoked bacon that has been a big hit. Stillman expects that come fall they will start making stocks and meat pies to be sold at the markets.

“[The abattoir] has completely changed the nature of our product,” she enthuses. Before the farm cut and packaged its own meat, everything had to be kept frozen. Now, they are able to bring meat to market that was butchered the day before. “People come to the table now and they don’t know what we’re going to have. People are loving the fresh product,” she says. Items that don’t sell in a day or two are stored in Stillman’s new, 20- by 40-foot freezer, which is a refurbished cargo container that she calls “a luxury.” New products this season include chicken sausages, the bacon, smoked chicken, ground chicken, and various sausages as the sausage maker gets inspired.

“Our final challenge is learning to become more efficient,” Stillman says. But she believes the increased control she now has over every aspect of the farm will reduce a lot of the stress she used to feel, a benefit she hopes will extend to her crew.

“We can respect each other, lean on each other. I think we can increase family time.” Then she laughs. “I may be crazy there.”