By JB Clark
CEDAR BLUFF – Two Clay County farmers are changing the way people think about livestock farming and in the process, they hope, changing the state’s regulations for the way small farmers sell their meat.
Ali Fratesi, 27, and Dustin Pinion, 28, raise chickens and pigs at Beaverdam Fresh Farms a few miles west of downtown West Point in Cedar Bluff. They also work with other small farmers to create buying clubs, an easy way to bring fresh and locally produced food to people around the region.
This year, agents from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce brought to their attention a regulation that keeps them from selling their poultry in markets which has cut their sales almost in half.
Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s federal poultry standards, farmers can raise and slaughter up to 1,000 birds on their land and sell them in their state without mandatory inspections as long as they follow the safety guidelines.
Similarly, farmers can raise and slaughter up to 20,000 birds on their land and sell them in their state without mandatory inspections if they have a state-certified on-site processing facility.
The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce has an additional regulation requiring an inspector to be present during the slaughter of meat before the meat can be sold in a market (or anywhere that is not the farm the meat was raised and slaughtered on).
The demand for Beaverdam Fresh Farms chicken became so great that the two have had to begin raising money to build a state-approved slaughtering facility on their farm. The farm’s customers raised over $35,000 through Kickstarter to help with the facility, which will cost significantly more.
Now the customers have petitioned the Department of Agriculture and Commerce to rethink its poultry regulations so Pinon and Fratesi can continue to deliver their poultry and expand their buying clubs.
The customers collected more than 2,000 signatures in a week, and with the help of their attorney and the Farm to Consumer Defense Fund, a petition has been placed before the MDAC.
“Our biggest product was meat chickens, but now it’s pork,” Fratesi said. “Our chicken was half of our sales. It’s hurt us pretty bad.”
The farm is now selling about 10 percent of the amount of chicken they would normally sell in a season. The drop is because of their inability to deliver the chicken through their buying clubs.
“We’re 30 minutes from our closest market and two-and-a-half hours from our largest,” Pinion said. “And it’s not easy to get out here to the farm.”
A few customers still drive to the farm for their chicken but the paddocks that used to house meat chickens are now empty. The two are now relying on their eggs and pork to keep the buying club going until they get some resolution from the Department of Agriculture.
The petition has been received by the MDAC and is being considered and researched.
Julie McLemore, the director of the Bureau of Regulatory Services at MDAC, said they take their responsibility of regulating meat seriously and that is why they are consulting other states that have different policies as well as the Center for Disease Control and Mississippi Department of Health.
“In the two-and-a-half years I’ve been here we’ve not had to deal with a food-born illness instance that started at a farmer’s market,” she said. “We are trying to do our due diligence to consider the request.”
Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm to Consumer Defense Fund, said the regulation is hurting small farmers in Mississippi.
“There are plenty of other states that have adopted the 20,000 bird exemption and in most of those states you can sell those birds at a farmer’s market at the minimum while some allow sales in other places,” Kennedy said. “They’re really limiting the markets for small Mississippi poultry farmers.”
Pinion said he thinks the regulations are restrictive because small poultry farms aren’t common in Mississippi.
“We want to work with them and educate them on what we’re doing here,” he said. “We’re going to have them come inspect our facility when it’s built.”
Pinion said he also hopes a change in regulations will encourage young people to begin farming.
How they’re different
Fratesi and Pinion raise their livestock in a unique way and that is one of the reasons demand for their chicken is so great. The other reason is the ease with which they offer it to their customers.
Their chickens live on a grass-fed beef farm, High Hope Farm, and are in a moveable open-air pen. Cattle farmer Johnny Wray moves his cattle into a new pasture every day to provide the grazers with new grass while Pinion and Fratesi move their chickens into the most recently grazed cattle pasture.
“They have a symbiotic relationship,” Fratesi said. “The chickens scratch up the cow patties and allow the soil to metabolize the manure more quickly. They eat the fly larva out of the manure so we don’t have to worm our cows. It makes a healthier ecosystem for the cows and chickens and then the grass grows better because the soil is more fertile.”
The farming duo usually keeps 1,000 meat birds and 400 egg layers on the farm.
On another plot of dense trees and brush, they rotate their growing pig population in a similar manner. The 45 pigs rotate plots to help fertilize previously undesirable earth and cut down dense foliage. As the brush is trampled and digested by the pigs, Pinion and Fratesi get to choose which trees they will keep and nurture. Those trees are usually trees that will later nourish the pigs with the acorns and foliage.
The pigs are processed at an off-site facility but Pinion and Fratesi said one of the reasons they enjoy doing poultry is the manageability of raising and processing the birds on their own farm in a sustainable way.
“I can pick a whole chicken up and process it pretty easily by myself,” Fratesi said.
To make shopping for local and responsibly raised food easier on customers, Beaverdam Fresh Farms has buying clubs. Every two weeks customers are sent a shopping form to select from the farm’s chicken, pigs and eggs as well as other farms, like Native Son in Tupelo or a number of other vegetable and dairy farms.
“You get a week to do your shopping, you can do it in your pajamas while drinking coffee,” Pinion said. “And then we bring your products to your city. We have eggs, chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, aged cheeses, cheesecake – all kinds of dairy – and locally roasted coffee.” Their farm can be checked out at beaverdamfreshfarms.com.
Fratesi said they purchase products directly from other local farmers and run the buying club themselves to help the local economies and farms without adding extra work for other farmers.
Pinion said at this point they are holding out hope the Department of Agriculture and Commerce will see merit in their petition and until then he is encouraging Mississippians to continue to support and get to know their local farmers.