Making Chicken Equitable Again
Common Wealth Poultry Co. Raises the Bar for Meat Processing
The terms “meat-processing plant” and “media darling” don’t typically meet in the same sentence. From Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which outlined the harsh realities of Chicago’s meat-packing industry circa 1900, to today’s pandemic conditions forcing the big poultry-processing players to precariously juggle worker safety and national food shortages, American meat processors have spent much time in the socioeconomic hot seat.
One Maine company, though, is succeeding at making USDA poultry processing equitable again. Like national processors, Common Wealth Poultry Co. in Gardiner operates as an “essential business” as the pandemic continues. Due to several business and procedural tweaks taken to keep its workers safe and its customers satisfied, business is booming.
Founder Ryan Wilson’s ten-year-old business was entirely wholesale before the pandemic. But as COVID-19 hit, Common Wealth’s new online retail sales systems hit the ground running. The crisis brought on the company’s typical busy season early and at full speed. “People were buying up all the chicken there was,” says Wilson. “We had to hire more people.”
Common Wealth now employs a staff of 50; some were born and raised 15 minutes down the road, but most are new Mainers from Africa. “Chad, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya,” and the list goes on, says Wilson. He compensates his employees well.
Before 2010, Wilson was working on a farm, delivering poultry products to Portland restaurants and farmers’ markets. Noticing then that consumer demand for locally sourced poultry outweighed the number of USDA-certified slaughterhouses in Maine, Wilson seized the opportunity.
He started with processing ducks because chefs said they were hard to find locally. “I got six ducklings from the guy down the road. I grew them, I slaughtered them, and thought, OK, I can probably do this.” He still offers ducks, but they are not his main bird now. Chickens are. It’s easier to pluck a chicken than a duck, and the faster process let Wilson scale up quickly. To sustain the business, create a good life for his family and his employees, and charge more affordable prices for high-quality poultry, he needed to go wholesale. And to do that, he required a year-round supply of birds when most producers in New England grow chickens for just six months.
Common Wealth’s chickens come from seven states: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. All are humanely raised, but the bulk of the up to 4,000 birds butchered per day by the company are sourced from independent family farms in Pennsylvania.
Wilson worked with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension to determine the best way to raise these Pennsylvania chickens. They are raised closer to the hatcheries from where they are sourced and nearer to where the grain fed to them is grown, and they mature in a more temperate climate, which limits the energy expended to keep them warm. All of that cuts down on the carbon footprint of raising them to market size. “Given that quality is a primary motivating factor for us… this arrangement is the right balance between what makes sense environmentally and what produces the best-quality bird,” Wilson says.
The slaughter of all Common Wealth’s birds is carefully managed, according to halal standards. Under the Islamic laws pertaining to animal slaughter, all the birds are alive and healthy until killed (by hand) with a quick cut of the jugular vein, carotid artery, and windpipe. All blood is then drained from the carcass. During the process, a Common Wealth employee recites a dedication, known as tasmiya or shahada.
Common Wealth’s products—ranging from whole birds, split breasts, and whole legs to bones, livers, and feet—are treated with an organic mixture of acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide, air-chilled, and shipped fresh to customers or specialty markets like the Sheepscot General Store in Whitefield, Emery's Meat & Produce locations, Riverside Butcher Co. in Damariscotta, Rosemont Market & Bakery locations around Portland, and Maine Meat (MEat) in Kittery.
More than the economies of scale, processing efficiencies, and business strategies he’s learned from growing the company, Wilson is sustained personally by the family of dedicated employees he has accrued. He is inspired daily by the work ethic, generosity of spirit, and boundless energy of his workforce.
In Common Wealth’s well-curated social media feed, there are a few photos of lovely chicken dishes. But more frequently you’ll find inspirational profiles of employees, who all seem to understand that if the business does better, so do the people who work there. “We’re all in it together, and none of it is more important than our relationships with one another,” says Wilson.
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Edible Maine and, formerly, to Edible Boston. She loves to tell the stories of the dedicated and passionate men and women of Maine who produce our food, and about what it takes to get it to our plates.