Our September CRAFT tour was held at the picturesque East Fork Farm in Marshall, a beautiful property run by Stephen and Dawn for the last 20 years. Their original 25-acre-plus-farmhouse property purchase has grown over the years to include 14 adjacent acres and two additional living structures. East Fork’s products consist mostly of eggs and a variety of meats, which they sell fresh and frozen at the North Asheville Tailgate Market and through their on-site farm store.
We gathered to discuss the farm’s approach to poultry growing and processing. In addition to an annual 100 ducks and 150 turkeys, they process 50-80 chickens per week from April thru November. This amounts to between three and four thousand birds per year, well within
North Carolina’s 20k poultry limit exemption. This exemption allows a farmer to slaughter and/or process their own farm-raised poultry on the farm premises that can then be distributed within North Carolina without mandatory inspection. Farms that fall under the 20,000 poultry limit exemption are only subject to one random inspection each year. They raise both Cornish Cross (the most common of broiler breeds) and Freedom Rangers (another broiler; see a comparison of the two here). Chicks are purchased and kept in brooders until they are moved to an enclosed outdoor area for the rest of their maturation. They allow their Cornish Cross to grow out for 6-8 weeks before they are harvested, where the Freedom Rangers take closer to 12 weeks to mature.
By butchering their own birds, not only do they avoid the very high processing fees and the nuisance of transportation, but they are also able to use damaged birds (that may otherwise be discarded by a processor) for cuts or sausage.
Dawn estimates that they sell 2-3 birds per week in cuts at the farmers market, which she also believes brings in additional customers that wouldn’t be interested in purchasing and cooking a whole bird. Their choice to butcher weekly allows them to provide a fresh product to market customers; this wouldn’t be financially feasible if they were transporting to a processor. This also makes it possible to do as much whole-animal processing as possible; they process the carcasses into cat/dog food, and save the trimmings and organs for chicken sausage. They retail their meat at North Asheville Tailgate Market year-round. Dawn remarked about how she is constantly asked about wholesale poultry, and believes there is a great market for it in and around Asheville.
Having relatively low processing costs have also allowed East Fork to transition into feeding their birds non-GMO feed as of this year, a leap they’ve been financially assessing each year for feasibility. This has increased their cost of food by 40%, which was hard for the farm to stomach initially, but the support they have had from their customer base has made it possible. They source their feed from Eddie Shelton who runs Borkman Feed in Marshall.
East Fork does have a good amount of infrastructure to support their processing, including a covered processing area, gas-powered scalder kept between 150 to 160 degree water, and plucker (from Featherman Equipment), bought by grants from the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. Dawn suggests a few key elements to chicken processing at any scale: a sharp knife, killing cones (you can fashion one from a standard road cone before making a huge investment), dunking gloves (chemical grade), shrink/zip-lock bags, a chill tank filled with ice, a hot (150-160 degree) dunk tank, plastic apron, a bucket for waste, and dish soap.
The process seemed to move seamlessly between Dawn and her two apprentices. From the slaughter cones, the birds are dunked completely in the scalder to remove the feathers as well as the skin from the feet (which East fork also sells by the pound to customers interested in making broth). They are then put in the plucker, and brought to the table to be eviscerated (see the handout for more extensive instructions on this process.) They are then cleaned and put into the ice vat for rapid cooling. With their system down pat, the East Fork team of 4 can process 80 birds in about two hours.
Although our focus at East Fork was chicken processing, Dawn stressed the importance of diversifying, and not putting all your eggs in one basket. No doubt East Fork’s focus is around animal production (Dawn estimates they make about 40% of their farm income on poultry), but she impressed upon the group the success of the B&B services they offer. They rent out three “cottages” on the property, which remain 90-95% occupied from May thru October. As of this year they decided to close the farm to visitors, and instead works with Asheville Farm to Table Tours to have structured, scheduled tour times.
Dawn describes her duties as a host as being fairly minimal and speaks highly of the return; income generated from these rentals makes up about 50% of the farm’s total revenue. She does make sure to note that sometimes she gets calls at 2 a.m. about the hot tub, television or internet not working, but she wouldn’t give up these three elements of the rental. Each was described as the necessities of a B&B, outlined by Broadwing Farm Cabins when East Fork first started renting the cottages.
Ultimately, Dawn believes that the B&B wouldn’t be as popular without the farm as its setting; she points to a similar rental operation (not farm-based) right down the road that is not nearly as successful.
Dawn cooked up some delicious drumsticks, adding an element of intimacy to the fantastic farm-to-table spread that is standard with the CRAFT potlucks. We’d like to thank East Fork for hosting us for such a thorough tour of all of their farm enterprises, and look forward to visiting again!
WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Sera Deva
Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She was hired at OGS as the Farmer Programs Associate in 2016, and as the Conference Coordinator in 2017. She has served on the board of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) since January 2018. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time working for farmers, homesteading, and river jumping in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.