It wasn’t the perfect weather for construction.
But the big, wet snowflakes falling from the sky didn’t deter a small group of men working to raise the walls last week on what will become the state’s first poultry processing facility open to the public.
The facility is a collaboration between two Bitterroot Valley farms with a vision to bring locally raised poultry to grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets this summer.
It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of more than 80 people from the local community stepping up earlier this year to donate more than $22,000 in an Internet fundraising effort.
The facility is being constructed on the Homestead Organics Farms just south of Hamilton. Laura Garber and Henry Wuensche’s farm has been selling organically raised poultry directly to customers for about six years.
The couple has known for years that the demand for locally raised poultry was far outstripping their supply, but without a state-licensed poultry processing facility it wasn’t possible for them to expand.
“It’s been an uphill struggle for Henry and I, but we knew if someone didn’t do it, it would never happen,” Garber said.
Everything changed when the couple met a pair of enterprising young men who were working on creating their own pasture-raised chicken farm east of Stevensville.
Beau McLean and Christopher Green of Living River Farms had found the same bottleneck in their plans to eventually raise thousands of chickens on farm land in the Burnt Fork area.
The men completed market research in 2013 that indicated there was a huge demand for local pasture-raised chickens, but the biggest barrier was there was no place to process the birds.
Julie Foster of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority helped bring the two operations together.
“We were working parallel to each other all this time,” McLean said. “Once we met each other, things began to happen.”
After three presentations, Montana Department of Agriculture officials charged with doling out grants from the state’s Growth Through Agriculture program came through last month with money needed by both operations to take the next step.
Living River Farms received a $23,000 grant to help the operation complete some the remaining infrastructure it will need before bringing in the first of hundreds of birds this spring.
“We were very excited about that,” McLean said. “We were denied twice. It was all hinging on getting this processing facility constructed.”
Homestead Organic Farms received a $34,000 Growth Through Agriculture grant and a second grant in the amount of $30,000 from the Lake County Community Development program.
Garber said none of that would have been possible without the matching money provided earlier this year by the community through the Internet fundraising effort.
When construction is completed, the facility will be owned by Homestead Organic Farms. The Montana Poultry Growers Cooperative will manage the facility and own the state inspection license.
McLean and Green will be the onsite managers.
“It’s a super unique setup,” Garber said. “It will be the first cooperative to run a poultry processing facility in the country.”
Anyone can join the cooperative for a $15 membership fee and have their poultry processed at the facility. Once processed, that poultry would be legal to sell in retail outlets in the state.
“The cooperative has about 20 members so far,” Garber said. “We expect that it will grow exponentially as soon as the facility is opened.”
The two farms are still working out the costs for processing poultry.
At first, plans call for opening the processing facility a couple of days every two weeks, but the hope is that it will be used far more often than that.
“We are hoping to encourage a lot of smaller farmers to use the facility,” Garber said. “People who in the past have raised 50 birds for their family and friends might want to buy 100 chicks this spring.”
Others across the state are watching the facility’s progress.
Garber said she is already receiving calls from people in other parts of the state who are interested about the potential of opening their own processing facility.
“This is something that’s needed,” she said. “Ours could serve as a demonstration project that others could learn from. Hopefully, this will be the first of many.”
While doing their market research, Green said people told them there was a pent-up demand for pasture-raised chickens.
McLean and Green will raise their birds in large mobile enclosures that allow the chickens to forage for a more natural diet of bugs and plants. They will supplement with antibiotic-free grains.
“People today are really nervous about factory farming,” McLean said. “They want to know where their food is coming from and who is raising it.”
McLean and Green have already been contacted by a pair of large buyers in Missoula and Bozeman as well as many local people excited about the potential of purchasing fresh, locally raised poultry.
When the processing facility is running, it will be able to process up to 600 chickens a day. McLean said they will probably begin about a third of that number.
“We don’t have a cap on how many we will process,” McLean said. “The facility could easily accommodate 5,000 to 10,000 birds. At this point, we don’t know how soon that would happen.”
“We’re just really thankful that we have partners like Laura and Henry,” he added. “That’s what has made this work so well. We have a common interest and it’s not just in personal gain. It’s about more than just ourselves.”
McLean was raised on a large cattle ranch in Willow Creek. He knows what it’s like for many young people forced to go outside the state to look for work.
“There’s a lack of jobs here,” he said. “We are thinking that maybe we can have an impact on that. This is where our heart is. We want to be able to employ. That’s a big part of our mission.”
All four of the farming entrepreneurs have been excited to see the support the local community has offered to help them pay for this endeavor.
“We have seen a lot of great support from people interested in helping a small business get on its feet,” McLean said. “It’s more than people just wanting locally raised chickens. They want to help support our local economy. That’s really exciting.”