By Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times
Ellen Barrosse goes straight to the organic meat section of the store when she wants to buy chicken.
She’s made chicken broth with organic and non-organic chickens and has seen the difference. When you refrigerate broth made with non-organic chicken, the fat floats to the top and hardens, said Barrosse, of Hockessin. With organic chicken the fat floats to the top, but doesn’t harden.
“Imagine what it’s doing inside your veins,” she said of the non-organic fat. She admits she has no science behind what she says, but feels better feeding organic poultry to her family. “I want to have control over my food.”
More and more customers are thinking like Barosse. Sales in the organic food market have grown fairly steadily for the last 10 years, and are expected to top more than $104 billion this year. Of all the organic products, chicken is one of the fastest growing sectors, according to Transparency Market Research.
Perdue Farms Inc., of Salisbury, Md., is leading the way in organic chicken. Its Milford plant, which has processed up to 24,000 cases of organic chicken a week, is the largest organic processing plant in the country, according to the Agricultural Analytics Division of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Green liners in boxes mark that the plant is in organic processing mode when only organic chicken will be handled. While one set of machines debones more than 100 chicken breasts a minute, another does the same to the legs and thighs, while still another line packages whole roasters that shoot off the assembly like clear plastic-wrapped footballs. Organic processing means the birds, the cleaning products, and packaging must all be certified organic and not come in contact with uncertified, non-organic materials or birds at all.
In Milford, the plant is sanitized overnight so organic processing can begin in the morning with no residue from non-organic products. To be ready for organic processing, the crew may only use certified products such as ozonated water and citric acid rather than traditional cleaning products, such as anti-microbial chemicals.
Processing organic birds is more expensive than traditional processing. The birds themselves are more expensive to raise, the natural cleaners are more expensive to use, even the packaging is different — people buying organic poultry prefer boneless cuts of meat, said Dean Walston, director of operations for the Milford plant. It is a premium product, he said.
When the organic run is finished, the plant is shut down for a half-hour as all the organic birds are packaged and moved out, the equipment is cleaned and the liners of the boxes are all changed. Most of the birds will be shipped to Pennsylvania for distribution around the world.
If there were to be one small mixup in cleaning product or a non-organically raised bird were to be mixed in, the whole batch for that day would have to be relabeled and couldn’t be sold as organic.
“The USDA has very strict guidelines,” said Walston.
Those guidelines extend past the processing to the raising and even feed of the birds. With the growing market for organic poultry, there are not enough farmers producing organic feed in the United States to meet demand. Perdue is encouraging local farmers to make the switch to raising organic birds and crops.
“Organic’s not for everyone. There are weeds and challenges,” said Scott Raubenstine, vice president for Agricultural Services for Perdue Agri-business, who added that it can be a profitable market.
His group helps farmers turn their farms around to organic growth by educating them on ways to meet common challenges of weeds, pests and productivity without chemical treatments and fertilizers. They also help farmers find profitable crops, such as rapeseed, to grow in the three years it takes for their farm to be certified organic.
Mark and Kathy Maloney in Harrington are poultry farmers who made the switch. They were the fifth farm, of the 14 in Delaware, to raise organic chickens for Perdue.
Unlike traditional chicken houses, the organic houses have windows and doors on the outside and perches and boxes on the inside. On nice days the doors are open and the birds are allowed to go outside to peck around in the organically planted grass. Outside there are water troughs for drinks and overhangs to provide shade and shelter.
How many shelters, perches and boxes is decided by how many birds Maloney is raising, and is based on a formula explained in the bio-security plan and daily records that Maloney keeps on hand at all times, along with daily records of the birds that he must keep for five years.
Anyone coming on the farm must wear a biohazard suit to protect the birds and even trucks bringing feed could have their wheels sprayed down if biological threats are suspected.
Other non-organic chicken farms are starting to use some of the same methods as the organic farmers, adding windows and light to their formerly dark houses. In some ways, it’s going back to the way chicken farming used to be, said Michael Levengood, vice president, Chief Animal Care Officer & Farm Relationship Advocate for Perdue.
It seems a lot of extra work, but for Maloney, who raised chickens for the last eight years, it’s made the work more fun and interesting.
He came out one evening at dusk to put the chickens back in the house, but said they seemed to be having such a good time outside he decided to give them a few more minutes to run around.
Besides the “fun,” though there is the money side of the operation. While it is a bit more expensive to raise these birds, the pay off is higher as well.
“It’s a premium bird,” said Maloney, who switched over his farm for increased profitability of his five chicken houses. “It’s a way to expand the farm, without expanding the farm.”
“It’s an exciting time,” said Raubenstine.