By JIMMY LAWTON
CANTON – New York’s first mobile poultry-processing unit, which received high praise and promises of more than $200,000 in public funding from state officials in 2012, has shut down after operating briefly.
But owner Renee Smith, who operates North Country Pastured, hopes to turn the company around and meet requirements set forth by economic development agencies.
The mobile processor was designed to make raising chickens more economically viable in the North Country. The idea was to allow farmers to sell USDA-certified poultry to large business, organizations, restaurants and consumers without the expense of transporting chickens a long distance for slaughter.
North Country Pastured celebrated its ribbon cutting in July 2013 after it received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but less than a year later, customers who were looking to have chickens slaughtered reported they could not reach anyone at the business.
NCP received a $50,000 grant from the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency and $30,000 from Canton’s Regional Business Enterprise Grant Program. Private investors, including three part-owners, also contributed to the business.
NCP was also slated to receive a $130,000 Empire State Development Grant from the North Country Regional Economic Development Council that may now be in jeopardy due to the shutdown.
Numerous initial attempts by North Country This Week to contact Smith were unsuccessful, but after calls were made to economic development agencies and a partial owner who reported similar communication problems, Smith did respond. She said she had been unavailable due to personal reasons.
Smith said the shutdown stemmed from problems that began with a roughly $140,000 mobile slaughter unit that did not meet New York State inspection standards.
The custom-built trailer was outfitted to slaughter and process chickens with USDA certification. It was designed and manufactured by Brothers Bonding Equipment out of Ohio.
Smith said the company was selected because it had experience building mobile processors. She said only a few units existed in the United States at the time and this was to be New York’s first.
“It seemed like the best choice, but that’s where the problems started,” Smith said.
The unit she ordered was completed more than six months behind schedule, Smith said.
“They said they had a government contract that had to be met and they pushed it back,” she said.
Smith said the six-month delay forced NCP to miss a processing season, which could have provided much needed revenue for the fledgling business.
The delay was bad enough, but larger problems were revealed when she drove down to pick up the unit and found it riddled with what she said were design flaws, including clearance and weight problems with the rear wheel and axle.
She said the scalder unit, which is used to loosen feathers on the chickens, was also malfunctioning.
“The list of problems is too long for me go over,” she said.
Smith said the problems meant the unit could not pass New York State inspection, which rendered it immobile, because it could not be legal transported to host farm sites.
“We invested thousands of dollars trying fix the problems with unit,” Smith said.
Requests for comment to Brothers Bonding Equipment were not returned. However, an employee at the business said he was aware of Smith’s complaint. He said Brothers had manufactured several other mobile processing units and all other customers were satisfied.
Smith said North Country Pastured is pursuing legal options against Brothers Bonding with representation from Attorney Andrew Silver, but said she would not discuss details.
Smith said the slow beginning and inability to move the unit cut them off from potential customers. She said people who had planned to raise chickens and do business with her didn’t because the processing unit wasn’t up and running.
Smith said North Country Pastured received approval from the USDA to butcher chickens. However, NCP was processing as few as 25 to 30 chickens a week and could not justify having a USDA inspector or the three employees the company had hired.
Smith did not provide dates of operation or specify how many employees the company had during its peak operation, but said she plans to turn things around.
“We have been working very had to get back up and running again. We’ve just had a lot of things go wrong,” she said.
Smith said her plan is to recoup losses associated with the mobile slaughter unit and meet the terms of the $130,000 ESD grant.
A spokeswoman for Empire State Development said the state agency is committed to working with the North Country Pastured to create jobs.
She said that if NCP resumes operations and reaches its “milestones in compliance with its agreement with ESD, including job creation and retention of those employees, the company would still be eligible to receive funding.”
ESD refused to provide a time frame of exactly when the business would need to meet the requirements.
Industrial Development Agency CEO Patrick J. Kelly said the IDA is also working with Smith to help get things back on track. He said the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency retains a right to recapture the funds it provided to North Country Pastured, but the goal is to create jobs and provide the community with a mobile processing service.
“Obviously we want to work with them to have the mobile processing unit working and in production,” he said. “That’s always the first option for us.”
Despite the setbacks, Smith said she believes North Country Pastured will achieve that goal.