Agribusiness  August 27, 2010

Chickens and turkeys and ducks, oh my

NUNN – Doug Rice grabs a just-killed turkey off a hook and walks across a bloody floor into the processing room of Rocky Mountain Poultry.

Inside, he drops the big tom into a scalding hot water bath to loosen the bird’s feathers before placing it into a whirling tub with rubber spikes at the bottom. Rice occasionally lifts the lid of the stainless steel container to rearrange the bird, as water and a few feathers fly out.

He then lifts the turkey out of the container and plucks the last few resistant feathers from its otherwise pink and featherless body. The bird is tossed into a cleaning tank, then lifted to helpers who remove its innards, pack it into a freezer bag and into the cooler it goes.

The whole process – minus the killing and bleeding out – takes about five minutes.

All of this happens in a small, nondescript building behind a house a few miles east of Nunn. And if you didn’t know chickens and turkeys were being processed there, you would never guess it.

Standing outside the processing facility, there’s no smell, no feathers, very few flies and little to indicate what’s going on inside.

“A lot of people have this perception of a processing plant with guts and feathers and trucks and screaming chickens,” he said. “That’s not us.”

Rice, a retired law enforcement officer, moved into meat-cutting and holds down a part-time job at Whole Foods’ meat department in Fort Collins. He raised his own chickens for 18 years and could never find a place that would do custom processing.

“I hauled chickens all over looking for a clean, reliable processor but they keep going in and out of business,” he said.

Rice said at the same time he kept hearing his meat customers ask where they could get fresh, locally produced poultry.

That prompted him to take over a defunct processing operation and, in partnership with his son, Aaron, convert it into Rocky Mountain Poultry. Aaron raises all-natural chickens, turkeys, ducks and Cornish hens at Jodar Farms near Fort Collins and processes the birds at his father’s facility.

“It works out well for both of us,´ said Aaron, arriving with a fresh load of birds. “It’s nice, because we’re providing a service you couldn’t find otherwise.”

Unique operation

Rice said his operation is unique in the state in that he provides custom processing of birds brought in by the public. Some cities, like Fort Collins and Boulder, allow residents to have chickens for egg production but don’t allow them to be slaughtered for eating.

Rice was able to get USDA approval for his operation, which involves having a certified USDA inspector onsite at all times.

“The key is having the USDA inspector who inspects each bird,” he said. “That allows us to process the birds and then they can be sold.”

The USDA inspector, who declined to be identified, said Rice’s operation is well-run. “These guys do a really good job,” she said. “It’s nice and sanitary and makes my job easier.”

Rice said word is spreading fast about Rocky Mountain Poultry, which has been in full operation about four months. “We get birds as far away as Durango, all over Wyoming and western Nebraska,” he said. “We cater to the small people out there.”

Marsha Slepicka of Niwot is one of several Boulder-area customers who drive all the way to Nunn to have their chickens processed. Then, she has to drive back up again the next day to pick up her frozen birds.

Slepicka, who lives in unincorporated Boulder County, could process her own chickens but didn’t want to deal with the mess. “We once tried to do it but it took all day to do three,” she said. “They (Rocky Mountain) do a good job. There’s really no smell that I can determine and they take the precautions to keep flies to a minimum and the birds come back clean.”

In the current economic downturn, Slepicka said she believes more and more people are interested in growing and processing their own poultry. “With the economy the way it is right now, we can pay 99 cents for chicks and can sell them for $10 a bird and we can (freeze and) eat them most of the winter.”

Slepicka said she’d like to see Rice’s operation closer, and Rice said he’s hoping to get approval from Larimer County to establish a larger facility near Fort Collins.

But business at the small facility has so far been great, he said. “We just did our 7,500th chicken and 300-some-odd turkeys,” he said. “I’m already booked for 1,500 turkeys for Thanksgiving.

“People don’t like to mess with them, and that’s why I’m here.”

NUNN – Doug Rice grabs a just-killed turkey off a hook and walks across a bloody floor into the processing room of Rocky Mountain Poultry.

Inside, he drops the big tom into a scalding hot water bath to loosen the bird’s feathers before placing it into a whirling tub with rubber spikes at the bottom. Rice occasionally lifts the lid of the stainless steel container to rearrange the bird, as water and a few feathers fly out.

He then lifts the turkey out of the container and plucks the last few resistant feathers from its otherwise pink and featherless…

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