Fowl farmers flock together

The coops at Willow-Witt Ranch in Ashland have gone co-op.

Last year a flock of farmers formed the Southern Oregon Poultry Group, LLC as an affordable and convenient way to process their chickens.

Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt, owners of the Southern Cascade Range ranch, helped initiate the cooperative buying of one plucking and one scalding machine, which travel on a trailer to farms from the Applegate Valley to Ashland.

"We all wanted to be raising healthy meat for ourselves and others and there was nowhere to process it," said Willow, the group's chairwoman. "The equipment is well over $2,000, so no one wanted to spend that much."

So nine farmers each pitched in $370 and bought the machinery together in the summer of 2007.

Now, for the same buy-in fee, other farmers may join the co-op and request weeks to use the equipment throughout the year. Ten Southern Oregon farms are part of the group — although Willow-Witt Farms is the only one located in Ashland — and the extra funds are kept in a reserve to replace equipment when it wears out.

Through a lottery system that decides who goes first, each farmer takes turns marking days they would like to use the machinery, until the calendar is full or the farmers have marked all the days they want. The selections are recorded on a group Google calendar and co-op members can swap days if their plans change.

Members are responsible for thoroughly cleaning the machinery when they are done and storing it on their farm until the next person comes to pick it up.

Willow-Witt Ranch used the equipment three times this year, processing about 200 chickens, Willow said as she, Witt and two fulltime ranch employees processed their last batch of chickens.

In 2007, the 440-acre farm used the machinery twice to process about 120 birds, Willow said. Next year Willow and Witt, who are partners, hope to increase their production slightly.

The plucking machine cleans three or four chickens in about 45 seconds, Willow said as she switched on the machine in front of the barn, surrounded by the other processing equipment and a makeshift fence to keep the horses out.

"It's amazingly fast, compared to hand-plucking, which for most people takes about 15 minutes per bird," she said.

The scalding machine keeps the birds at a high temperature to help clean them before they are packaged.

In October, in a tag-team effort, Willow and ranch-hand Tim Kohr used the plucking and scalding machines while Witt and the other ranch employee, Megan O'Melia, finished cleaning the birds and packaged them in freezer bags with ice.

"We learned to do this," said Witt, who works fulltime as a gynecologist in Medford. "We read it in a book."

In the past, Witt and Willow, who is a retired physician assistant, took chickens to a processing facility in White City that has since shut down, but last year was their first doing the work themselves.

They also raise chickens for eggs, pigs for meat, and goats for milk, in addition to growing a variety of organic crops.

About 30 local customers buy chicken from Willow-Witt Ranch, by picking it up fresh from the farm.

However, Willow, Witt and other Southern Oregon Poultry Group members hope to be able to get the machinery inspected by the state soon, to enable them to sell their meat to local restaurants and stores.

Melissa Matthewson, an OSU small farmers extension instructor who is also a member of the co-op, is helping to facilitate the group's growth. She plans to hold a meeting in December at the extension offices in Jacksonville to discuss getting the equipment state-certified.

"We're starting to see this economic trickling down and seeing businesses being created because of people selling the poultry and people choosing to buy locally," she said.

Designed to handle ducks, turkeys or chickens, the processing equipment allows small farmers to increase the diversity on their land and offer another protein to their families or customers, Willow said.

"It's helped the production of our pastures immensely. The chickens rid the pasture of parasites, spread the manure around and we also have few chickens to eat at end of year," she said.

Except on processing days, Witt added.

"We don't have chicken for dinner on these nights," she said.

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