WALLOWA, Ore. — Following a growing national trend, state licensing is making it easier for small farms to bring locally raised chickens to market. As of Sept. 1, Hawkins Sisters Ranch in Wallowa is the only Oregon Department of Agriculture processing facility in Eastern Oregon.
ODA-licensed facilities are exempt from FDA regulations and allow up to 20,000 chickens to be processed a year. Mary Hawkins raises chickens on her family’s farm in Wallowa, a small town in northeastern Oregon.
Hawkins said she and her sisters moved with their mother to Portland when they were in elementary school and spent summers on the farm. She started raising chickens on her own not long after she graduated from Smith College.
“I came straight home after college, had various jobs and raised and sold chickens,” Hawkins said.
After a few years she said she took what she called a “walk about”; she left Eastern Oregon and worked on farms in New York. While raising and preserving food was still the norm back home, it was becoming a movement across the country in the late 2000s.
“My time in New York pushed me into the idea that sustainable, local food is a growing national concern,” Hawkins said.
While on the East Coast, she worked in a chicken slaughterhouse. While Wallowa County is known for its beef, Hawkins decided to continue raising chickens when she returned to Oregon.
“I thought meat processing was something practical that could work here,” Hawkins said.
With microloans from the USDA Hawkins bought chicks, feed, coops, feeders, water troughs and wire cages. She raised around 800 chickens a year, processing them at an ODA facility in Cove, an hour’s drive. But last fall the family who ran the processing plant moved to South Dakota.
She said she purchased their scalder, plucker and vacuum sealer, took out a home equity loan and combined with her savings she bought a pre-fab, 14x40 shell made outside of Baker City. Once delivered she and her partner, Mark Kristiansen, followed the ODA specifications to install washable walls, hand and commercial sinks, proper lighting and ventilation, and insect and rodent-proof.
“I can’t believe how supportive ODA has been throughout,” Hawkins said. “If I had a question about what paint to use I could email them and get quick reply.”
On Sept. 1, with license in hand and two helpers, Hawkins butchered and packaged chickens in her new facility. She said she expects to process about 150 a day two times a week through Thanksgiving and will start getting chicks again in May.
Hawkins said she sells her own chickens directly from the farm and at a local farmers’ market and processes birds for other farmers as well. She said her goal is to process 2,000 of her own and another 4,000 to 6,000 a year for customers.
For Hawkins, raising her chickens holistically is as important as creating a viable business and part-time employment in a rural county. She said she gets her wheat and barley grown and milled from a local farm and can use the effluent from the processing plant on her compost piles or pump it onto her fields. She said Oregon Department of Environmental Quality permitting allows her to use up to 10 tons of effluent a year on her farm, which is mostly water, some bleach and detergent and guts and feathers.
In her second week in business Hawkins said she didn’t expect to be so busy right away.
“The plant solves a problem for the area and its fun to be in there getting it done,” Hawkins said.