From backyard growers to full-fledged farmers, Island residents seem to have caught chicken fever.
The Island Grown Initiative hosted an all-day Vineyard workshop on the bird Saturday, which covered the ground from egg to plate.
The morning began early with an introductory seminar on the life cycle of the chicken and continued until 5 p.m. when Island chefs completed their cooking demonstrations and passed around samples of organic, free range and local poultry. Although the chicken was the main focus of the day, a workshop on heritage breed turkeys snuck in as well.
“A chicken buzz?” asked Ali Berlow, executive director of the initiative. “Yeah, it’s out there.”
More than 150 people trickled in and out of the agricultural hall in West Tisbury Saturday to attend one of seven workshops. All were free and included speakers from on and off the Island.
Oscar Thompson, 13, of Thompson Family Farm kicked off the day with Richard Andre of Cleveland Farm. The two spoke on chicken life cycles and feed. Workshops on poultry housing and predation, processing and marketing followed with guest speakers from as near as Aquinnah and as far away as New York.
Veteran farmers attended, as did a few novices interested in buying their first birds. “I think people are really interested now in being able to produce more of their own food,” said Noli Taylor, volunteer coordinator for the initiative. “Poultry is a great first step to producing more of your own family’s needs. Chickens are not too hard to grow, are not too expensive and don’t take up too much space.”
The Island Grown Initiative formed in 2005 in an effort to encourage and strengthen agricultural activity on the Vineyard. The initiative works to support Island farmers and growers as well as raise consumer awareness of locally grown food.
Soon after its formation, the group hosted a dinner for Vineyard farmers and heard firsthand the struggles of growing produce and raising animals on Island. Farmers who once raised many animals had let their flocks and herds dwindle as prices to transport birds, pigs and cattle off the Island for slaughter rose.
“You have to factor in time away from the farm, the boat ticket, gas and then you can’t put a price tag on the stress on the animal,” Mrs. Berlow said.
The consensus was clear. If there was more support on Island, the farmers would grow more, raise more and more local food would wind up in Vineyard markets and on Vineyard plates.
The initiative took action and, last spring, brought to the Island a Mobile Poultry Processing Unit, a piece of equipment that can be brought to a farm to process poultry on-site. The unit is fast and clean. It is run by trained professionals who, for an $80 farm-call fee, will come to the farm and kill and clean the chickens at a price competitive with those charged by off-Island slaughterhouses. A ferry trip is avoided, both animals and farmer undergo less stress, and waste is left on the farm for compost, making the whole process environmentally friendly and beneficial for the farmland.
The group started with small trial runs. Soon, farmers began hiring the unit to slaughter birds for what Mrs. Berlow describes as friends, family and freezer. In other words, these birds were not for sale.
Finally, Morning Glory Farm and the Allen Sheep Farm hired the team. Both sell their own chicken from stands on the farm. By the end of the season, seven farmers and backyard growers had hired the unit to process about 550 birds.
Before the processing unit was available, many farmers, such as Mitchell Posin of the Allen Sheep Farm, typically left the Island and brought their birds to slaughterhouses in New Bedford.
Speaking about the unit this weekend, Mr. Posin said, “We were very pleased with it. Our meat tasted better than when we traveled with them and the convenience of not going anywhere with them was great.”
While the availability of the unit encouraged some farmers to harvest their chickens on Island, it prompted others, like Doug Brush of Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury, to buy and raise their first chickens.
“I simply would not be raising birds if that equipment was not here,” Mr. Brush said.
Before his venture last spring, Mr. Brush had never raised a plant or animal. When he heard the unit was coming, he bought two batches of 50 birds. Pleased with the results, he is hoping to more than double his flock this year.
The seven farmers who used the unit last year have signed on again and three more have put their names on the list, Mrs. Taylor said. “The momentum is growing,” she said. In response to the demand, the initiative hopes to expand their services.
“A lot of people have asked us if we can process turkeys,” Mrs. Berlow said. The group has submitted a grant to update their equipment so they can slaughter turkeys as well as chickens. Within the next year, they hope to find a way for small, backyard chicken keepers to join together and hire the unit as a group. The crew would also like to extend their season by using empty greenhouses to stage the operation.
“This is a foundation for how, as a community, we can go forth,” Mrs. Berlow said. “The lessons that we’re learning in poultry with this particular equipment will help us learn how to go forward.”
She and her cohorts dream that one day Vineyard farmers will be able to stay on the Vineyard to process their four-legged animals as well. “The [processing unit] is just the first piece of the puzzle,” Mr. Brush said.